Most film directors today take an auteur approach to their craft. They are the driving force behind all creative elements of their narrative film – writing, cinematography, acting, sound, etc. This doesn’t mean they do all of the work themselves, but just that they have a heavy influence on each, and are guiding every facet of the production. In the early days of cinema though, a directors one and only job was to direct their actors. And while so much has changed over the years in regards to what directors are responsible for, I still feel that above and beyond all else the primary focus of a director should be to direct their talent. And that’s coming from me – a person that regularly shoots/directs/edits/writes/multitasks like crazy on my own productions and thrives on being in creative control over as much as possible. So in other words, it’s not that I believe other creative components shouldn’t be a high priority for directors, but simply that from a traditional standpoint working with actors is the essence of directing and should be at the top of the hierarchy.
Before I ever directed my first project (a short film about ten years ago now), I already had a lot of experience on film sets as an actor. I started acting at a young age as I was always fascinated by the craft of story telling, and as a kid it was the only way I could actually get on set professionally. It was invaluable for me and taught so much about how things worked. In fact some of the most important lessons I’ve ever learned (creatively and business-wise) came from my background in performance. I understood how to work with a team, how to handle success and rejection, and most importantly the dynamic of working with directors. At the time though I didn’t realize the importance of any of it. It really wasn’t until I decided to pursue directing professionally and actually got out on set that I gained an appreciation for the fact that I had this background.
A still from one of my first acting gigs:
When I first started out as a narrative director I made loads of mistakes on set and off. I learned my lessons through trial and error – sometimes the easy way and sometimes the hard way. But like most other things in life I found that the more I learned about the craft, the more I realized I didn’t know. After completing nearly every early project of mine there would be one component that would bother me, whether it was the sound, cinematography, locations, or something else. But after a while I realized the one thing that I would be happy with was the acting. I felt that my saving grace was my ability to inherently understand the dynamic between myself and the actors, and the only reason I got it was because of my background as an actor. For this reason (and many others that I’ll get into below) I would urge every director that doesn’t have real experience acting to go out and get some, no matter how experienced you may be.
You may be thinking that acting isn’t for you and it very well may not be at all, which is perfectly okay. I’m not suggesting that you start acting full time, but just that you consider taking a deeper interest in it than you may already have to develop a more in depth understanding of the art form. Take an acting class or two, do some improv, learn a monologue, or do anything else that will get your mind thinking like an actor and you’ll start to see the benefits almost immediately. It will literally open your mind and change the way you approach nearly every aspect of what you do. You don’t necessarily need to train with an acting school or an acting coach, but you could. Be careful when doing this though, because the relationship between an acting teacher and an actor is very different from that of a director and an actor and you don’t want to get those lines crossed. The same message goes out to actors. I’ve worked with a couple of actors that didn’t get the most out of themselves because they wanted me to hand hold them through their scenes as if I was a dialogue coach or an acting teacher. They didn’t trust themselves enough and didn’t understand that they were cast for a reason. I wanted to see what they would naturally bring to the table. I trusted them with the lines but they just didn’t trust themselves. Although we eventually got there, the root of the problem was the fact that they did not understand the different relationship an actor has with a director and their acting coach. So the same goes for you as a director. Take acting classes for a new perspective, but don’t let it sway your directing style – remember that acting coaches are not directors and work very differently!
I’m going to break down three main areas that I really feel that having experience acting will benefit you. Each of them covers a stage of the process (pre-production, production, post-production), but they are really only three of many more examples. If you choose to take a step in this direction and brush up on your acting skills, you’ll quickly realize the benefits are bigger than you might imagine. And if you’re skeptical about this, I really suggest thinking about this with an open mind. I can’t count how many directors I know that are exceptionally talented but aren’t seeing their full potential because they don’t have a deep enough appreciation for the craft of acting. I find this almost baffling as just like I mentioned at the top of this article, directing first and foremost is about working with your talent and that’s something that shouldn’t be taken lightly. Directors that don’t have an appreciation and a trust for what their actors are bringing to the table are really missing the mark, and no matter how talented they are in other ways, their work will never be as good as it could be.
When you understand acting on a fundamental level, you will be in a much better starting point when casting. First off, you’ll know what you’re looking for before you even step into the casting room. But more importantly you’ll know what you want when you see it. You might feel that you can spot out great talent already, and you’re likely right. But your instincts will be exponentially better if you understand how actors work. You’ll know when a really talented actor is just having a bad read, and when a less seasoned performer is getting away with using some cheap techniques that won’t actually help your film. It will ultimately mean you’ll choose actors that are not only good, but that will make your film better by bringing something new to the table.
This is where the most obvious benefits will come in – actually working with the actors. You’re going to naturally feel more comfortable communicating with your talent as you’ll be able to speak their language. It doesn’t matter what particular discipline or school your actors have studied under, it just matters that you get the headspace that they are in. It matters that you understand what they need before, during, and after the scene to make sure they give you the performance that you want. You’ll instinctively know when you should give direction and when you shouldn’t. I find that directors with acting experience (myself included) tend to give less direction on set and instead fuss more over the casting process to find the right talent that don’t need to be guided as much. That’s not to suggest that you don’t let your voice be heard, but rather to help you avoid micromanaging your actors and getting them to deliver a less than stellar performance because they’re not comfortable with the delivery of their lines.
Even when it comes to the editing process, your knowledge of acting is going to come into play in full force. So much of acting is timing. This is especially true in certain genres (like comedy or horror), but really applies to every genre. When you learn to act, there is a certain rhythm that comes along with it. You understand where lines should land and when pauses need to come into play. And as long as you have shot enough coverage during production, you’ll have options in post that will allow you to finesse your edits to a point where the rhythm is spot on. In some cases your actors may have nailed takes and there is little adjustment to be made, but in other cases they may need some help. I’ve cut some scenes where the verbal delivery from my actors was spot on, but their timing was completely off, making the take unusable on it’s own. But with some creative editing and careful cutting to ensure the rhythm was in check, everything else fell into place beautifully. Once again, you’re likely already doing a lot of this to one degree or another, but having a stronger knowledge of acting will help your precision will improve dramatically.
We’re always told that a good producer is someone that has done every job on set. It gives them an understanding of how things work from the ground up, and allows them to oversee the process from a grand perspective. The exact same logic applies to directors. The only difference is that directors need more experience in the creative areas – acting included. By familiarizing yourself with acting techniques and getting into the mind of an actor, you will have a massive advantage when directing a film. You’ll choose the right actors, communicate with them more effectively, and understand how to edit their work so it shines. It will also put your primary focus back on the talent, which is the going to improve your film from the core outwards.
You don’t need to spend 40 hours a week acting to get it, just start small. Take an acting class here or there and learn a monologue or two. Understand techniques, visualization, rhythm, improv, and interaction. It will not only make you a better director, but a better filmmaker in general. Acting can be very therapeutic and who knows, maybe you’ll enjoy it more than you think.
Understanding acting goes hand in hand with understanding story, so if you haven’t already checked it out here is my article on Writing Better Characters Into Your Screenplay.
And for those interested, below is the trailer for my first feature film ‘Footsteps’. It was just released as one of the first feature films through BitTorrent Bundles and can be downloaded here. The film will be available on other online platforms including iTunes in the near future.