Laser-Speak for Directors

Directors and Actors

Sharing a Language

Directors are busy, harassed, stressed-out people. The buck stops here. This is true for all directors, but especially so for screen directors. They may have to get 30 minutes of screen time in the day. Or maybe only a minute and a half, but it involves a helicopter shot and six marching bands. And it’s starting to rain. And the producer’s moaning about the budget. And the other producer wants the whole thing shot differently – and the script re-written. And the light’s going.

Small wonder that they ask for end results: ‘Cry harder’, ‘Be angrier’, ‘Sexier!’

But it helps an actor more to know what is driving them in the role: ‘He’s left you before. You want him so much, now you’ll never get him back’, ‘She’s dropped you in the shit. You’ve had enough and you want her to know that’, ‘Really flirt with him. You want that money. Get it.’ and so on.

Or maybe you can use images: ‘It’s like walking on a tightrope. At any moment you’ll fall into the abyss.’ You’ve opened up a volcano inside you’, ‘Feel like a cat and purr at him.’

Or try physical metaphors: ‘It’s like you’ve been punched in the stomach.’ ‘You can’t breathe. The bile is choking you’, ‘You touch him and it feels like fire.’

Maybe you need to up the stakes by reminding the actor of what went before, or adding to their imaginations. Or by saying simply, ‘On a scale of 1-10, that was a 5 – Like Spinal Tap, I want that dial up to 11!’

It’s not that there are really rules – whatever works, works. But asking for end results is likely to lead to ‘Acting’ with a capital A. Actors will manufacture emotion and ‘show you’ to please you and then you’ll ask them to ‘make it smaller’ but it’ll still be false and the camera will see that.

So asking for the emotion itself, rather than helping the actor to find what is provoking the reaction, tends to be less useful than finding the drive, need or action.

Tell the actor the life they lead rather than emotion you want. So instead of, ‘You feel lonely’, tell them, ‘You wake three times every night and see the empty space in the bed next to you, you draw the curtains so the world can come in, you dial a friend at three in the morning and put the phone down before they answer…’ etc.

Adjectives (sexy, angry, sad) or adverbs (lovingly, miserably, cruelly) tend to be less useful than verbs (tease, console, convince).

If the actor lives through the actions they take (impro, acting out, physical metaphors, imagining, putting pictures in their heads), emotions will emerge unbidden. Then the task is to say to the actor ‘ Now don’t know what will happen next. Don’t know what you will say next, what you will do. Watch, listen, sense.’

Watch for tension: high breathing, lifted shoulders, tension in neck and jaw. Help them. Ask them to move around, or walk into shot, or have a drink of water, or jump up and down. Make them laugh.

Impro the beginning of a scene or what happened just before it (you can edit it out – Robert Altman used this trick a lot). Ask actors who are playing lovers but have never met to hold each other for a few moments before you shoot. Or to hold and then pull apart if you are shooting a break up scene. If you need a high adrenalin moment,  get them to run around, tickle each other, anything to get the work alive. It doesn’t take up time – it saves you time.

When you get a great take, the actor will be so ‘in the moment’ they will feel it has passed them by, as they had no chance to ‘feel’ or be self-referential. It was like life in the flow, taking action, interacting and reacting with the people and the situation. They will most likely ask for another take because they ‘didn’t feel it’. If you have time you will be kind and give it to them but the one you will use will be the one that just ‘happened’…

Directors have to have a clarity of vision that they then offer to the actor. This world must be logical and specific. I worked with a director who did my workshop called ‘Sharing a Language’ –  and he dubbed it ‘laser-speak’ – now I’ve borrowed that great term:) The director needs ‘laser-speak’.

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About Mel Churcher

I am an acting coach, voice coach, actor and director.