This is a director’s nightmare: Everyone’s in position, the cameras are rolling, but something’s not quite right. You’ve been shooting the same scene for what feels like an eternity and no matter what you do, the actors’ performances are just not getting any better.
We’ve all been in a situation like this, and there are any number of reasons why this might happen. The actors might be tired and hungry, there may be tension between crew members that are affecting the cast, heck, even the temperature can affect people’s concentration and ability to perform.
Of course, in the ideal world we would just make sure to avoid all the things that could possibly stifle actors and cause them to lock up or overact. But sadly we don’t live in the ideal world. No matter how hard you try as a director, you can’t control everything. Even on a Hollywood production with hundreds of millions of dollars there are a things that can and will go wrong. I found myself in this kind of situation on a few occasions while shooting Play It Safe, and as the director it’s been my responsibility to get everyone out of it. Here are a few tricks that I’ve found useful in getting performances back on track.
GET A PRINT ON THE BOARD
From my own experience, and from what I’ve read and heard from other directors, one common barrier for actors is pressure. Let’s face it, they have an incredibly tough job. If I had to perform under hot lights in front of a crew of twenty people then I’d probably freeze up too!
The problem here is that actors really want to give a good performance. On the surface that might sound like a good thing, but the more pressure they feel and the more they think about what they’re doing, then the less focused they will be on actually performing. You don’t want your actors to be thinking about what they’re doing, you want them to be in the moment and listening to each other.
One quick way to help ease some of this pressure and self-consciousness is to “print” a shot even if you have no intention of using it. I first heard about this technique from Sidney Lumet’s book “Making Movies” and it’s now one of my favourites. I’ve done this a bunch of times over the last year or so and it’s amazing to see just how quickly the tension and stress can vanish from an actor when they hear this magic word. When you say “print” it lets them know that they don’t suck, that they’re not a fraud, and that all their worst fears aren’t coming true in front of the entire cast and crew. All of a sudden they’re feeling more relaxed, less self-conscious, and the performance starts to get better.
TRY SOMETHING DIFFERENT
This one is a tried and true technique. I can’t remember where I first heard it, but I can attest from my own experience that it can be invaluable.
Here’s the situation: when you’re doing lots of takes it’s easy for the cast and crew to get stuck in a rut. The actors may begin to get fixated on giving a particular performance, and before you know it things are getting worse and worse right in front of your eyes.
An easy thing to do in this circumstance is to just try something completely different. It doesn’t have to be a very well thought out idea, it doesn’t even matter if you think it will work or not. The main thing here is to inject some freshness back into the scene. Getting your actors to try a completely different performance is a great way to do this. You may not get something you’ll want to keep on the first go, but you may see something that intrigues you that you can then develop in future takes.
One thing I’d be wary of with this technique is to make sure you don’t lose the faith of the cast and crew. If you constantly chop and change with your directions you may give people the impression that you don’t know what you’re doing. When I use this technique I’m honest about it. I tell the actors that I just want to play around and try some ideas (that’s what acting really is after all, it’s just playing make believe). Then, once I’ve tried something different, I’m then sure to think carefully about what I’ve seen and be decisive in my next direction. This will let the cast and crew know that while you’re open to trying new things, you are still in complete control.
GET INTO A GOOD RHYTHM
Sometimes the things that can stifle an actor’s performance are completely external. Imagine: you’ve just finished a pretty good take and given the actors their notes, everyone is raring to go, and then just as you start rolling the sound recordist shouts “Plane!” Instantly, all that focus and effort is gone and you’re back to square one.
These kinds of interruptions come in many forms, but most of them are technical. A card or battery might run out in the middle of a take. You might have to pause between takes to refill a room with smoke. Maybe the DP wants to tweak the lights or the sound recordist wants to reposition a mic. Whatever the case, these interruptions can really make it hard for the actors to focus and can kill a performance. At times, even waiting for a new take to be slated can be enough to mess up an actor’s focus.
If things are going wrong on set I make it a priority to remove as many of these distractions and interruptions as possible. Sometimes you’ll be forced to choose between getting the lighting just right or keeping the actors in the zone. I will choose the actor every single time!
Of course, this would be the ideal way to work with actors at any time, but it’s especially important when they are having a hard time. Sometimes I will call for everyone to start rolling again as soon as I have called cut and then whisper notes to the actors while the new take is being slated. That way there is a minimal interruption and the actors can stay in the zone. Another tact could be to tail-slate so that way the actors are free to begin the scene as soon as the cameras are rolling.
But what about planes and other things that you can’t control? As painful as it can be, I’ve found that it can often be better to just keep rolling instead of cutting mid-scene. Parts of the take will still probably be useable and the actors get to maintain their rhythm and stay in the zone. If you can keep the actors in the zone then you are on your way to getting good performances.
TAKE A BREAK & GET THE ACTORS INTO A DIFFERENT HEADSPACE
At the risk of completely contradicting my previous point, sometimes everyone just needs to take a break!
Sometimes you’re doing everything right, technically things are perfect, you have a good shooting rhythm without too many interruptions, you have called “print”, you’ve tried different options, but the performances are still not getting any better.
In this situation there may not be any point in continuing to shoot take after take. Maybe the performances will get better, but more likely they will start to get worse and worse as the actors get more and more tired and stressed.
In this case it can be a very good idea to get the actors out of the room. Changing their physical environment can often help them get into a different headspace. Sometimes just getting them to go over to craft services to get a drink and a snack can be enough. A quiet walk alone might do the trick for other actors.
One thing I’ve found useful is to get the actors to really shake things up, and I mean physically! I’ve gotten actors outside in the fresh air and gotten them to run the scene while moving about the space. I encourage them to run, jump, whatever, while they say their lines. I just want them to follow their impulses without thinking about what they’re doing. It may sound crazy but believe it or not it can be very effective. It gets the actors out of their own heads and into their bodies. Instead of thinking and stressing about their performance, all of a sudden everything becomes physical. They start listening to each other again and sensing each other’s body language. This kind of technique may not work for everyone but I’ve had some great success with it and after only ten minutes the actors have come back on set refreshed and have then been able to give much better performances.
CHANGE THE ATMOSPHERE ON SET
A good actor is likely to be a very sensitive person. I don’t necessarily mean that they’re likely to get emotional, I mean that they will be very good at detecting and feeling the moods of people around them. This means that if there are bad vibes on set, they will probably notice and this may in turn affect their performance. Because of this, it’s important to think about the mood or atmosphere you have on set while shooting. If your actors seem to be struggling, one option is to try changing the atmosphere on set.
If an actor is trying to deliver a particularly intimate scene where they pour out their heart, yet everyone is groaning and complaining between takes, it’s only natural that this is going to affect their performance. For these kinds of scenes, sometimes keeping everyone very quiet and making sure the crew only whisper between takes can be enough to get your actors back in the zone. Classic examples of this kind of scenario would be say a sex scene or a really emotional scene where an actor has to cry. In this situations the actor really has to make themselves vulnerable, and the last thing they need is to feel pressure from the rest of the crew.
On the other hand, I’ve been in situations where things can get too quiet and this can also put pressure on the actors. In these cases I’ve actually encouraged the crew to talk loudly and make jokes between takes to help put the actors at ease.
There’s no golden rule in terms of what kind of set atmosphere will work, the important thing is to remember that the your actors will be affected by the mood on set - probably more so than anyone else - and if things aren’t working, then maybe you need to change the atmosphere around them.
WATCH, LISTEN, & BE FLEXIBLE
So far, everything we’ve discussed has been about the actors and the environment around them. But sometimes the problem can actually be with you, the director!
I can think of a few instances where I’ve felt myself becoming frustrated because I just can’t seem to get a particular performance out of the actors. Maybe it’s something that I saw in a rehearsal and really liked, or maybe it’s something that I’ve been imagining since I started writing the script. To my eye, the performances just don’t seem to be working. But the problem here may be nothing to do with the actors, it may be all about my expectations!
In these cases, once I refocus and start actually watching and listening to the actors properly I might see that they are doing something amazing. It just happens to be something different from what I had in mind! This doesn’t mean that their performance is bad at all, it’s just not what I was expecting.
I’m sure some directors will disagree with my approach, but I am very open to new ideas and options from my actors, and I try to be as flexible as I can on set. At the end of the day what matters to me is the quality of the final product, and getting a believable performance is a big part of that. If something you previously had in mind is not working then maybe you need to watch and listen to the actors to see what else they are bringing to the table. Some of my favourite moments from Play It Safe have come into being this way. If you take a flexible attitude on set then you will allow those happy accidents to occur which can really inject some magic into your film.
Out of all these tips and techniques, perhaps the most important one is the simplest: don’t panic!
I know, I know, easier said than done, right? When things start to go wrong you may begin to feel yourself getting stressed, or anxious, or depressed. You may become irritable and begin snapping at the crew as things spiral out of control right in front of your eyes.
Letting this happen is probably the worst thing you can do in circumstances like these. As the director, the entire cast and crew is looking to you for guidance and confidence. If it looks like you’re freaking out then they very well may begin to freak out too. Trust is so important on a film set, and your cast and crew needs to be able put their trust and faith in you if they’re going to do their job to the best of their ability.
So the thing to do here is to remain calm (or at least try to appear as though you’re calm and in control). No problem is unsolvable. The tips I’ve listed above have been able to get me out of plenty of jams and now when something is not working on set I have the confidence to believe that with a bit of hard work and lateral thinking we will be able to get things back on track again.
I don’t subscribe to the belief that a director must know exactly what she or he wants at all times. That’s ludicrous, and, as I mentioned above, some of the best moments in a film can come from accidents and things that weren’t planned. With that said though, while you may not need to know exactly what you want from every single shot or performance beforehand, you should know your characters and what’s crucial to every scene. If you know these things and you can keep your wits about you, then with a little luck and experience you should be able to get things back on track even when it seems like everything is going wrong.
What kinds of techniques do you use when you’re struggling to get a good performance out of your actors? I’d love to hear your thoughts in the comments.