"Never make friends with the actors" - The worst piece of advice I was ever given

"Never make friends with the actors" - The worst piece of advice I was ever given

This was fairly early in my career. I was dicking about on set. Actually I was directing a TV show but, to the untrained eye, the distinction is nigh on impossible to make. We were between takes and I’d gone on to set to give notes (NEVER yell out acting notes from behind the monitors; no one but the actor in question needs to know your thoughts on a performance) and then one of the actors had told a joke and that had given rise to an anecdote and now people were standing at the edge of the set looking at their watches. This happens a lot (to me) and needs to be ignored (by me) because putting actors at ease leads to much better performances than rushing them through the day (this is my story and I’m sticking to it). Anyway, I went back to the monitor and sat down ready for another take. The producer leaned over to me and said:

“Never make friends with the actors.”

This sounded like the kind of advice that was hard-won by the giver, so I turned it over in my mind. But whichever way I looked at it, it seemed to be utter bullsh*t. It was, in fact, the WORST ADVICE EVER. It was also impossible for me to follow, even if I’d wanted to, because I like actors; I like hanging out with them and I love watching them work. How could I be a director if I didn’t like actors?

One of the most common criticisms of young directors emerging from film school or graduating from music videos or commercials to film and TV drama (yes, I said graduating, because drama is INFINITELY more difficult than adverts and anyone who says different is either lying, stupid or bitter) is that, while they may be technically adept, they don’t know how to talk to actors. I’ve never really understood that barrier between directors and actors, I suspect it might be to do with somehow not seeing actors as people but as something… other. But being able to direct actors is crucial to making drama of any kind. Learning about lenses, lighting, editing etc is easy – it can be picked up fast and improved upon with practice. Being called a “technical” director is no real accolade at all.

Orson Welles had a bee in his bonnet about critics describing a film as “well directed but poorly acted”; a poorly acted film can’t be well directed because it’s the director’s responsibility, through casting and um, directing, to make the performance work.

In the commercial world (not the world of commercials – see disparaging comments above), a director’s livelihood depends on his or her relationship with actors; the ability to attract good names to a project because they want to work with you makes you a desirable commodity. I recently made a radio play, the script for which was so hideously late (I was also the writer) that there was no way we were going to get it out to cast in time for them to read it and agree to do it before the recording dates. Fortunately, having ignored that advice I was given years ago, I was able to assemble a cast of friends-who-act who all agreed to do it without even seeing the script. Not following that advice saved me. Again.

No two actors are the same. Most are actually lovely people but some can be grumpy, temperamental and precious (this is also true of plumbers, estate agents, doctors, tramps, astronauts etc). There is therefore no hard-and-fast rule as to how to direct actors; you just have to figure out what makes them tick; what motivates them, what relaxes them, and adjust your approach accordingly. Once again, being friends with them really helps here; you already know a lot of this stuff about them and you develop a shorthand which, dicking about notwithstanding, saves time. I’ve worked with the brilliant Nicola Walker a number of times and we’ve reached the stage where she can read a slight twitch at the corner of my mouth and respond with “Yeah, that was shit, sorry. I’ll do another one.” It’s these kind of relationships we should be striving for because they make the work better and they make it a Hell of a lot more fun. If you don’t believe me, read THIS PIECE on Joss Whedon’s regular actors and tell me they don’t sound like they have a ton of fun at work.

If you’re a new director, or a director struggling to get gigs, MAKE FRIENDS WITH THE ACTORS; it can only make the work better and everyone, including the audience, benefits from that.

While I’m at it, a few bits of GOOD advice:

NEVER tell an actor to “just throw it away”. No one really knows what that means and it’s a bad note.

ALWAYS address what the character is trying to do or achieve in the scene, rather than focus on specific lines or movements.

NEVER EVER EVER give line readings to actors.

NEVER let anyone rush you when you’re giving notes to actors; the time you supposedly save is lost several times over in multiple takes because the actor didn’t get a chance to understand what you wanted.

ALWAYS know the story better than anyone else so that you can answer questions about dialogue or intention with confidence.

ALWAYS let an actor try something out, even if it sounds like a dreadful idea – sometimes it turns out not to be, or it prompts something even better than you had in mind.

If you’re filming, have your breakfast on the make-up bus. This is where the actors hang out, gossip, bitch, moan and talk about the script. This is where you get to pick up on any anxieties, answer questions and generally put them at ease away from the pressures of the set. It’s also more fun than panicking about the schedule with producers, which is usually the other breakfast option.

When an actor arrives for their first day, even if it’s their only day on the shoot and they’ve got two lines, go and say hello to them when they arrive at unit base. It takes two minutes to say Hi, answer any questions and start to put them at ease. There’s nothing worse for a nervous actor (and on day one they’re ALL nervous) than to walk on to a set full of strangers and even the director hasn’t bothered to welcome them. You’d be amazed how often this one is overlooked.

Lastly, a secret weapon I picked up from a Scorcese interview that really works: the “f***-around” take. When you’ve got a good version of the scene, let the actors know that you’re happy to move on, that they’ve done everything they need to do but, if they fancy doing it one more time with the pressure off and the chance to play around, they can have it. That’s almost always the take you end up using in the edit.

All most actors crave is a relaxed, fun environment where they are comfortable trying things out without being made to feel foolish; an atmosphere, in other words, created by friends working together.