Zen Filmmaking Be Positive

Getting an Actor to Act the Way You Want Them to Act

By Scott Shaw
For each of us, I am sure that we have been watching a movie or a TV show and we notice that an actor is not really hitting their mark in terms of their performance. They are there, spitting out the lines, but they are doing so in a manner that we feel is incorrect.
It is the supposed job of Director’s, on the set of a film, to guide the actors in providing the performance that they want. So, when an actor is not hitting his or her mark, whose fault is it: the actor or the director? 
There are some people who believe they possess the ability to judge the performances of actors. Some of these people are professional reviewers while others are simply armchair quarterbacks. Whatever the case, everyone interprets what they see on the screen based upon their own unique set of desires and standards.
As a director, myself, I know what it is actually like on a set. This is something that many of the people who unleash criticism do not truly understand. For me, as a director, I try to work with people who I understand their abilities and their limitations. From this, I can anticipate what style of performance I will get out of them. Thus, if it is ever necessary, I can simply give them a minimal amount of guidance and they will give their best performance; at least in terms of my vision for their character.
But, this is not always possible. Sometimes a director is blindsided by an actor’s ego, distain, negative attitude, or inability to provide the expected performance due to some other reason. I think back to a very funny event that took place when we were filming the Zen Film, Shotgun Blvd., which later evolved into, Armageddon Blvd. The great old-school actor Conrad Brooks was part of the cast. There was a bit of time that we did not need him on the set which was on our stages in the historic Broadway Building on Hollywood and Vine., so he and his protégé walked over to a nearby bar, The Frolic Room, where they a few drinks. When he came back, we were ready to shoot his character’s scenes. The thing was, due to the fact that he had his buzz on, he could not remember any of the lines we feed him. Literally, he could not remember more than a few words at a time.
The problem was, my character was to act with him, as were a couple of other people. Conrad, who was a GREAT guy, had totally checked out. But, we needed to get the scenes shot. Plus, he wanted to do his stuff, but he could not.
We were befuddled for a bit but then we finally had an idea, we had one of our actors, Roger Ellis, (who appeared in several of my films), tell him his lines one sentence at a time. Roger would say the line, Conrad would repeat it with a few different inflections, and we got the scenes shot. Editing that stuff was a pain in the ass but Conrad’s scenes got put on film. His performance was etched in that great old-style of acting that he embraced, based in cinema of times gone past.
Does anyone who sees the film understand the process that it took to create that film? No. At least, not if they weren’t there. Does any critic know the subtle unspoken reality of any actor’s performance they analyze or the reality of what it took to create any film they criticize? Nope. They just see what they see, judge it as they will, but never understand the underlying reality of its process of creation. And, that is sad. It fact it is just wrong.
So, what does this tell us about life? It tells us that there are the subtle elements that take place in the creation and the living of each of our lives. There are the things that we must do to make our life happen. There are things that we must work out—actions that we much figure out to make the scenes of our life take place. And, no one but us knows these things. So, whenever you think you know something about someone, whenever you judge someone, whenever you think that someone is doing something wrong and they should be doing it a different way, rethink that thought and realize you do not truly know anything about that person’s reality and/or what they had to do to do whatever it is they did.

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