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What makes a good director? What makes a good actor?

08-Dec-05 by Michael Bartlett

What makes a good director? What make a good actor?

There are books on this subject, yet is it really that difficult? After all, Shane Carruth wasn't a trained actor/director and the performances in his film PRIMER were fantastic.

In my experience, I have found a good director has three special abilities:

  1. Vision. You need to have a clear vision and stick to it. Don't just make a film for the sake of it. I did this when I made my ultrashorts The Big I Am and Opportunity Knocks, and the end results were poor. If you feel passionately about something you can make your vision work. As soon as you start compromising, it goes to pot. Make sure every moment in your film is faithful to the vision. Do the camera movements work for or against the vision? What about the colours and lighting? And the sound? And the way the scenes move and grow?
  2. Blocking. Blocking a scene means knowing how to orchestrate and choreograph it. The camera starts in this position, and moves to that angle, just as this actor enters the frame, and that event happens. This is how you make a scene work. You'll get better with experience, and after a while you'll know when the smallest details are causing problems, such as actor's body langauage and movements. I hate static scenes where actors stand around awkwardly like they are on stage in a theatre play.
  3. Timing. When it comes to directing actors you need to be very clear on how things should be said. The accent on certain words, the timing of words and so forth. Actors will bring their own methods and ways of saying things which is fine. But there may be moments where things just don't sound right, and you need to know how to fix this.

And as for actors - I find a lot of professional actors tend to overact. Not all of the time. But occasionally it happens. Just look at Tim Robbins in the latest War Of The Worlds film. He is an academy award winner but in this instance he was awful. This is a shame, as everyone knows how to act. Think about it. Have you ever played a practical joke on someone, where you were, in a sense, acting?

Why is it that in real life, a person tries not to cry whereas an actor tries to cry? Think about this. Imagine you are playing a practical joke on someone when you are in a movie. Try to convince the other actor(s) in the scene you are real and what you are saying is real. Don't just switch on and say the lines in the way you think is acting.

A lot of actors step outside themselves and watch from the outside, which is very distracting. By not living in the moment and being the character, they are heading for failure! When you drive a car you just do it. You don't imagine yourself standing outside the car, watching.

When I finished my first short, Mnemosyne, it was heavily criticized for the acting. I thus spoke to a few directors about ways I could improve the acting in my next film. Based on my discussions, I decided to look at improvisation.

For my next film, The Zombie Diaries, I threw brand new scenes at the actors which they had never seen before and thus didn't have time to think about. I think it worked pretty well. Obviously I didn't do this all the way through the film, but I did focus on doing a lot of rehearsals (Shane Carruth's secret) and encouraging improvisation around the script. We also worked on back stories for the actors. On other scenes, the strategy would be to give differing directions to actors so no one would enter into a scene as expected. Thus they were forced to react honestly, rather than act. It made so much of a difference from the days of Mnemosyne where actors were instructed by me to stick to the script religiously.

I hope this provides food for thought.

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