GET PIMPED – Lesson no. 1: WORKING WITH ACTORS
In this column I’ve been trying to break away a little bit from the DSLR thing and focus more on filmmaking as a whole. As a director I really believe you can never know too much about all aspects of filmmaking. I admire guys like Fincher and Cameron who are famous for being even more knowledgeable about departments as they’re HODs. You need strong collaborators of course and your ability to communicate with them and explain what you want is as much a part of this difficult job as creating your vision in the first place. Over the next few months I’ll be posting as series of interviews with some of the great people I work with to try and lift the lid a little bit on the broader world of production and to gain an understanding of what the job is like from their point of view. From first ADs to producers, to composers to wardrobe, hair and makeup. It’s easy to assume you can do everything yourself these days but delegating responsibility to really talented specialists means, inevitably, the work will be better. I like to call it ‘getting pimped’ but you can call it whatever you like. This week I talk to Henry Maynard, a brilliant, brilliant actor I’ve worked with on a number of occasions now and who is just a joy to be on set with. Henry is a versatile character actor with a sideline in puppetry and cabaret and was the angry, shouty, maniac in our 48 hour short film. Working with actors is the most overlooked and difficult skill of a drama director and hopefully Henry’s responses will give you a good insight into the actor’s perspective on what we do. Enjoy. I like to call it ‘getting pimped’ but you can call it whatever you like.
Henry in our 48 hour short: Atmospheric
1. Casting is notoriously tricky yet it’s so important for directors to make the right choice here. What do you look for from directors, and how can they help you really show what you’re capable of?
Generally if I can I’ll do some research on the company and specifically the Director of any project that I would like to be a part of, having easily accessible examples of your previous work online is a really good idea. I’ll look for quality of filming, lighting, story, and acting, if the acting is shit it may not be the directors fault, however I’ll assume they were probably involved in the casting process… as a director it is imperative that you know what good acting is (seems obvious but not everyone does) the look is some of the battle but if they are good enough the look will matter a lot less. In the casting don’t be a prick! The power at that point is most definitely on your side but be gracious with it and don’t make unreasonable demands. If you have something specific like ‘I need you to take your top off or cry’ etc make sure we know about it before we get into the room and be prepared for some people to say no. Be respectful and nice, I look for someone that I’m going to get on with, nobody likes working with an idiot. I also appreciate it if the director has done a bit of research on me, you are better off looking at my work before you invite me for an audition, that way you can streamline and invite 5 suitable people instead of 20 people that have the right CV/Headshot, plus it’ll give us something else to talk about. Be enthusiastic. I’ve been on the other side of the table and castings can drag on into infinity but if you want the best out of an actor make them feel comfortable and appreciated, it sounds soft but actors put themselves into pretty vulnerable positions emotionally. Know your topic and jargon, do some research on acting tecniques, know what we mean when we sat things like ‘organic’ ‘forth wall’ and ‘emotion memory’ but don’t be surprised when every actor does it a different way on each project, it’s not a science…
SKID: The first time I met Henry was when he auditioned for a one hour ultra low-budget pilot I was directing for a young production company. We were looking to recast a character and the production company had full and complete control over who came in for castings. Henry walked in and was clearly way too old for the part we were casting. I told him this straight off the bat and he nearly walked away there and then. Fortunately we got him to read for the part anyway and I was completely blown away with how good he was. I instantly cast him for another part we were looking to replace someone for and never looked back. Had we let him walk out the door we’d never have known and I’d never have had the chance to work with him. Now, he’s pretty much the first person I think of when I’m developing projects. It’s so rare to find that and you need to cherish those relationships.
It depends on the project. The problem with filming is that there isn’t enough time to rehearse. If you have weeks of pre-production and can afford it, it’d be great to rehearse scenes again and again as you would a play, that way you can break through the barrier of stilted dialogue and start to become spontaneous again… think Mike Leigh. Often I wont learn the lines completely before the day of the scene, just know the jist and work on character but I happen to be able to memorise lines very quickly and that wont work for everyone. I like to be free and able to improvise a bit but other actors may not be confident with that. If it’s a huge scene from one camera angle I’ll need to know it beforehand and rehearse it a bit more… personally I like to up my game once the camera is rolling and mark through stuff in rehearsal which I can understand is a little worrying for a director that I haven’t worked with before .
3. Film directors often get lost in what the camera’s doing and forget about actors and they shouldn’t. What do you look for from directors in terms of feedback and notes?
Yeah, some directors really aren’t interested in acting at all and just worry about technical stuff which is fine if you have amazing actors with loads of experience but even then you will always get a better performance with the right directon. Try and be positive, if you like something SAY SO! There’s nothing worse than just doing something and wondering if it was good, bad or indifferent, be supportive without being obsequious. Get to know what each actor needs. We all work differently which I guess is why the same actors work again and again with certain directors. If you find someone that you work well with keep em. You can’t bully an actor into doing what you want, you have to coax them, never give a line reading no matter how tempting it seems, when they say it on film it’ll be unnatural and the camera will pick it up. Try thinking metaphorically (say it a bit more brown, imagine you are watching a penny spin…) some actors will like it and some will tell you to stick it up your arse!
4. I always try and treat actors’ performance with the same level of detail and finesse as the other departments apply to lighting, hair, makeup etc. but because it’s not something you can physically manipulate it’s very difficult for new directors to get to grips with. What advice do you have for new filmmakers to help them work with your performance as actors.
Talk to us! Talk about what you want from the scene and our performances individually, the feeling you want to engender – we need context. Discuss the character, age, work, hobbies. These are called ‘Given Circumstances’ [Stanislavsky] and if the actor has trained they’ll know about them. Some will be implicit in the text and some you can invent, if you do them together it will help you both to understand how you see the character. You can do a bit of guiding there and then; for example you may find your actor sees the character as an accountant and you see him as a hot air balloonist if you hadn’t talked about it and gone straight to filming you may have been frustrated by the interpretation. Work together to find common ground but be aware that some actors, like some directors, are pig headed and immoveable (don’t confuse that with passion or instinct though, some things just feel right or wrong and forcing the issue could be detrimental to the performance.)
5. What single piece of advice would you give to any director looking to improve the way they work with actors, how can we give you greater support to do what you do best?
Respect us and what we do, not in a ‘we are amazing way’ but just in a professional sense.
SKID: Like everything else on set, acting responds well to a hands-on approach, bringing performance into the light, shaping it and moulding it the way you see it. As Henry says, I find the best approach is to talk about things, and if you know what you’re after say so. If you don’t then that’s okay too, sometimes actors bring a completely different feeling to lines which is just as valid. If you don’t know, say so. But always say something.
Henry is a working actor and a damn good one. If you’d like to work with him, and, believe me, it’s well worth it, then feel free to contact him through his website: www.henrymaynard.co.uk