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Director. The title is synonymous with indispensability in our minds when on the subject of film. Next to actors, directors are the most famous film personalities because it’s widely accepted that a film is 100% their vision from stem to stern.
A film with a certain director’s name attached comes with certain tangible expectations. Think of these names: Scorsese, Tarantino, Villeneuve, Bigelow, Spielberg.
You can find online masterclasses with some A-list directors here Best Masterclasses For Filmmakers and Directors Online.
We immediately think of moods, tones, genres, and styles when someone utters these names. We attach meaning to them because we’ve come to expect a specific quality of film from the men and women behind these names.
But what does a director actually do? And how does one do it well? That’s something most are unsure how to answer.
If you’ve been following my past articles, I’ve walked you through the steps for getting involved in filmmaking all the way through to making your first short film.
As an indie film director, you will undoubtedly wear many hats on
With that in mind, let’s break down what it means to actually be a good director.
Part 1: The Performance
You could argue that the job of a director is divided into working with the actors and working with the rest of the crew. A good director knows how to work with both the actors and the crew and make it all come together. In this first part, we’ll take a closer look at how the director best aids the actors in order to get a great performance on camera.
Work with Actors
At the most basic, core level, the director’s main responsibility, whether big budget or small, whether Hollywood or Bollywood, whether found-footage superhero horror or sci-fi slasher family comedy thriller with political overtones, is to work with actors.
Other departments have their own heads making decisions that they will clear with you when appropriate, but if no one directs the talent, then performances could be all over the spectrum from take to take.
Don’t leave it up to actors to guess what you want, work with them to shape the performance.
Give Clear Direction
When discussing what approach you want your actors to take regarding their characters and performance, try and keep it as clear and concise as possible.
Philosophical discussions involving moral outlook and character biographies should be discussed in pre-production before you get to set. Did Character A betray Character B when they were stuck behind enemy lines ten years ago, resulting in Character B’s nihilistic outlook on life? Discuss it in pre-pro.
Keeping it as clear as possible helps actors narrow their performance to the correct beats you’re looking for. Try to give them one change at a time, one thing to try differently, in the next take. Don’t get carried away in your role.
Giving actors a research paper of direction is overwhelming. How can they possibly take it all into account at once for the next take? They’d have nothing but bullet-points flying through their heads, losing the thread altogether.
This goes hand in hand with step three:
Wants Vs. Feelings
When directing your actors, talk more about what a character wants and less about how they feel. It’s easier to make defined choices when they’re looking for something tangible from another actor rather than to just act an emotion.
For example, picture this scene:
Character A is explaining something important to Character B, who is on the couch playing video games.
You tell Actor A something like, “You want him to understand what you’re saying is important.”
For Actor B, you say, “You don’t get what she’s saying and you want to play your video games.”
This gives each actor a very specific intention involving the other person in a simultaneously descriptive and concise way. It’s something tangible to grab onto while still having the freedom to figure out how to approach this intention creatively.
Now think about the alternative, talking about just feelings.
You tell Actor A, “You’re frustrated.” and Actor B, “You’re confused.”
That’s it. Those are the feelings they should be performing, but with nothing concrete to attach them to. It’s too vague. It leaves the actor with only the script for guidance and their own interpretation of the scene.
Giving actors an intention or motivation will elicit the feelings you’re looking for naturally, connected to the interplay between the two actors in the scene, rather than each of them just playing the generalized feeling of frustrated or confused.
That’s not to say that feeling or emotion is never to be used as directorial tools.
Take the scene above. Say the actors are doing everything exactly how you want it. They understand their intentions and are playing off each other.
The scene is great, but you just want a little more from Actor A. It’s acceptable then in this situation to tell them, “That’s exactly what I’m looking for, just give me a little more frustration.”
You can even tell them the specific line you’re looking for more frustration from, or just have them lay it on thicker across the board.
Intention and motivation are an actor’s base from which to build a performance off of, so this is what you should give them most often to help them make their creative choices.
Feelings and emotions can be used as tools for refinement to tweak a performance to exactly the level you’re looking for, but they should never be used as the foundation of your direction.
Modeling Lines? Don’t, Just Don’t!
This is a biggie. Never, ever model dialogue for your actors. Seriously. It might seem more convenient than using all the directorial tools at your disposal, to just quickly say, “I want you to say the line more like this: Blah blah, blah blah.” but that’s a huge no-no.
It’s insulting to your actors. Actors are artists just like you, and they deserve the respect of being allowed to do their job.
Acting is all about making creative choices and taking creative ownership of the characters the
If you take away the opportunity for those choices to be made, then they aren’t actors anymore, they’re mouthpieces parroting your lines.
So let your actors act, and give them some freedom with the character.
This leads us to the next point…
Be Open To Suggestions
Filmmaking is a collective enterprise and collaboration is the word most thrown around when talking about
Your crew is your collaborators. This means that, while you are, arguably, at the top of the pyramid, everyone comprising all the other levels have ideas too.
Be open to those ideas. Especially regarding actors.
Actors train to embody the characters they play. They give your words and characters life. As a result, they may have some ideas of their own as to what a character may do or whether a line sounds authentic or forced.
They may come to you asking to change things in the script or try something new performance-wise. Don’t shoot them down outright. Listen to what they have to say, and, even if you don’t agree on the surface, let them give it a shot if you have the time to spare. You may be pleasantly surprised.
There are countless YouTube videos documenting ad-libbed lines or acting decisions that weren’t in the script but ended up being loved by the directors and, later on, audiences.
“I’m walkin’ here!”
“Hey Malkovich, think fast!”
“You can’t handle the truth!”
I bet you can name a few of the movies these lines come from. Each line is now a classic and each one was added by the actor.
Hell, even Johnny Depp’s entire comedic characterization of Captain Jack Sparrow from Pirates of the Caribbean wasn’t in the script originally. Depp decided Sparrow would be more memorable with a less serious bent, and he was right.
These are extreme cases. Most of the time, actors will come to you with small things here and there that they want to try out. Maybe these end up being more truthful to the character or add shade to them that you didn’t originally spot.
Just be open to change and don’t be afraid to change the script on the fly. Make room for some experimentation. Many minds see more than one.
Lead with the Positives
Actors and directors are constantly in dialogue about performance. Your job is to communicate what you’re looking for and theirs is to perform it.
With that in mind, you have to recognize that acting is a very difficult job and that putting yourself out there in performance, with all eyes on you, can be trying.
So, when a performance isn’t quite the way you want it to be, recognize that you should approach with sensitivity and don’t hit your poor actors with the negatives right away, or, in fact, at all.
Instead, lead with the positives.
Say something like, “That was great, this time let’s try it this way.” or “I like that, let’s try it more (insert direction here) now.”
This way you avoid hurt feelings and bruised egos, and you still get a changed performance the next take.
Treat your actors as people with feelings. They know they won’t nail it perfectly how you want the first time through, so they’re waiting to be directed.
It’s up to you to use sensitivity and kindness to help nudge them in the direction you’re looking for.
Summing up Part 1
Did you get all that?
That’s the meat and potatoes of directing right there, working with the actors to get the best performance you can jointly deliver.
Is that all? Well, no. It’s definitely the biggest chunk and where the bulk of your time on set will be…ahem, directed, but there’s more.
Check out Famous Filmmakers Who Started Late.
Part 2: The Rest of Production – On Set
This is where the mythos of the director comes in; the idea that every on and offscreen decision branches from their fingertips. While this is true to an extent, your involvement in the minutiae of each department will depend on your experience and comfort with said departments.
You might want to have a say in everything from camera filter to gel color temperature to makeup stock, or you might prefer to leave these choices to your department heads. It all depends how sure-footed you feel in your role.
The more films you direct, the more comfortable you’ll be.
But let’s talk about some things that are absolutely your responsibility from a leadership standpoint on set, no matter your experience level.
Set the Example
As director of an indie film, all of the crew are there at your behest, because you had a film you wanted to make. As a result, it’s your responsibility to ensure that everyone feels welcome and happy to be on set.
Set the example you wish others to follow. Stay upbeat, enthusiastic, and positive; look like you want to be there. This is your story, and your excitement for it will communicate itself to your crew.
If you look pumped to be making this film, they will be pumped to work on it. If you’re slumped, scattered, and unmotivated, then that tone will be set accordingly.
Part of keeping people happy is hearing everybody and addressing concerns if there are any. These could be more than just creative differences.
Crews are comprised of many people, and not everyone will always get along. Disagreements may happen, issues may arise.
This being your set, it’s your job to iron these out and ensure that smoothness and agreeability returns to the set. Be the mediator, show your crew you care about them as much as you do your film, and that will inspire loyalty to the project.
This one could be a subheading of addressing concerns, but part of keeping people happy and positive is treating them like adults. Never yell or belittle anyone publicly or privately.
If there’s a disagreement between you and someone on the crew, or you see someone slacking or not doing their work, don’t call them out then and there. Hash it out in private and always in a respectful manner.
Just because everyone is technically working for you doesn’t give you free reign to terrorize the cast and crew.
Make Sure Everyone Has What They Need
Since you’re running an indie film set and roles will likely be limited, make sure you’re checking that everyone has what they need on set. This isn’t just from an equipment standpoint, but also quality of life.
Check that craft services are fully stocked with snacks and water; check that there’s an area away from the hustle and bustle of the set for people to wind down or take a load off.
Make it known that people can come to you if they have requests or something they want to discuss.
You’re the director, but you’re also the caretaker of your set, and that’s a role to take seriously.
This one might seem strange considering it’s your vision that’s being communicated in all avenues of the film, but micromanaging other departments’ work is a strict negative.
Once you’ve issued your wants and choices to your departments, let them work on realizing them. Unless they ask for clarification or help, don’t presume you can do their jobs better than they can, even if you moonlight as a cinematographer, gaffer, makeup artist, life coach, or set clown on some shoots.
Give your crew the space to breathe and work, and then check in and give comments when they’re ready to show you the result. Don’t be the extra cook in the kitchen while letting your souffle burn to a crisp…or something like that.
Always Check the Monitor
Before going for a take, always check the monitor to get a sense of how the shot looks on camera at this very moment.
This one might seem obvious, but, hey, in the confusion of production hustle and bustle, sometimes you might forget.
Don’t wait for a take and then check it during replay, because it’ll be too late to salvage that take if you notice it needed some minor adjustment after the fact.
Also, if possible, watch the take through the monitor as it unfolds. Your audience will eventually be watching your movie on a screen, so you want to make all your decisions based on how it looks on the monitor, not to your eyes, as this is how you will deliver the final product.
This will help tailor your directing as well, helping actors find their frame-lines and adjust their movement to what’s visible on camera.
If it was a play, that would be a different story, but it’s not. Keep your peepers on the monitor.
And that’s all there is to it. “Yeah, 2500 words later,” you’re thinking.
I know, it can seem overwhelming, like the head manager of a giant operation or the brain of some fluid machine, but if you keep your head about you and stick with the tips in this article, you’ll be directing the hell out of some shorts very soon.
Remember, working with actors is the number one thing you’re expected to do. That’s where you should get comfortable first.
If you have to leave camera, lighting, production design, and other decisions to their respective departments, don’t fret about doing so. Focus on crafting a performance with your actors because there’s no one else to handle that job if you’re busy mixing with other departments.
Once you get the hang of it, then feel free to branch yourself out and become the auteur you were meant to be.
Have you directed independent shorts or features? Do you have any tips to add to this article based on your observations or experiences?
Drop a comment below and enlighten us!
About the author
Nikola Stojković is a writer and filmmaker based out of Chicago. His short films have screened at festivals across the USA. When not shooting, he enjoys writing film reviews and playing his accordion, Fortunata.