Green Screen Cinema Filmmaking for the 21st century

Free Film School: How to Get Along With Actors

Tuesday, February 03 2009 @ 09:45 PM UTC
Contributed by: Jimbo
Views: 1,849
Free Film School

Imagine if Christian Bale said to you on the first day of shooting,"I ain't walking on the set if you're still hired. I'm serious." Well, cinematographer Shane Hurlbut doesn't have to imagine. In fact, each time he gets passed over for a job in the future he gets to wonder if Christian had anything to do with it. And what was Shane's crime? He wandered into Christian's line of sight while Christian was acting.

Actors are like the tent-pole in the big top: they create the space in which the production can exist. But like all sticks they have a pointy end. Here is some advice for not getting poked in the eye while you're on set.

1. Everything's great. If a professional actor sat around on your set waiting for his call, then waited some more as you adjusted lights and scrims, then finally was able to recite his lines on cue, it's frickin' fantabulous. If you're the director you should tell him so after the take. If you're giving off a vibe that his performance was any less legendary than John Barrymore in Hamlet you should probably be locked in a room with Christian Bale and a poorly stocked craft services table.

2. Don't move while the camera is rolling. Believe me, Shane Hurlbut will never make that mistake again.

3. Light before the actor arrives on set. It goes without saying that you should light the set with a stand-in or crew member standing on the actor's mark.

4. Don't chat up the actors between takes. OK, so here's a fun story from my time at Warner Bros. For some moronic reason I decided to talk to an older actor between takes on an episodic. And the guy just started to ramble. And on and on he goes, past first call, past second call. When the 2nd A.D. finally tracked him down I was the bad guy for keeping him from the set. And I hadn't said a thing!

5. Don't take drink orders. This may sound counter-intuitive, since I've basically said you need to throw petals wherever these guys walk. But if an actor asks you for something, don't take the order. Nothing good will come of it. Instead you need to drop what you're doing and find the person that is supposed to fulfill the request. Tell the actor that you are going to find that person. Don't let him think you are actually going to get the thing that he's asking for. When you return with the lackey that is supposed to get things for the actor you will have met your obligation, and the lackey can now suffer the travails of getting a half-calf Mochachino at 2 A.M. in the morning. If you are that lackey all I can say is, I take one lump, not two.

6. Do run lines with them, if they ask. This is one of those cases where your acting is so bad, it will make them feel better.

7. Do answer a direct question, if they ask. Again, they are not monsters. In weak moments they'll want to feel like they are part of the crew. You should feel free to respond to a direct question. Just keep in mind that whatever you tell them will be attributed back to you. Also make sure to watch for that moment when the wall goes back up. They may see another actor, or want to get ready for the take, or simply have come back to their senses: whatever the reason, eventually they will be done with you and at that point you need to stop making eye contact and move on.

8. Focus on the production. Having a private laugh in between takes is a great way to draw the attention of an insecure actor (who thinks you're laughing at him). If you draw his attention you're going to either 1) get yelled at 2) be given a drink order or 3) be asked a direct question that you need to answer. None of these outcomes have anything to do with making a better movie.

9. Never, ever, ever date an actor. Dude, there's plenty of crew members to date. Don't even think about it. Don't even make that kind of eye contact. I want you to have a nice long career and so you should know that 1) it's never going to happen 2) if by some wild chance it did happen you would have to go to work with the person the next morning.

10. Take any material issue you have to the DGA staff. If something material comes up that you don't know how to deal with, you want a director to be involved. A material issue is one that will impact the production of the film. If you don't have a material issue you need to keep the issue to yourself. No one wants to be gossiped about or ratted out. I don't know how specific I can be in a public forum like this, but I hope you get my drift. Actors come with baggage, and they leave with baggage. You are not the baggage inspector.

Hopefully this advice will help you focus on making a great movie. If you find that you've slipped up and Christian Bale is in fact yelling at you in front of all of your peers, just remember that you pay those union dues for a reason. If he actually had the power to fire you he wouldn't be yelling.

More great advice

I received some great advice on working with actors from the USC Cinematic Arts group on LinkedIn that I thought I should share:
    Put yourself in their shoes and what they need to deal - then provide that. A Director needs to guide the actor to understand the character and scene - other crew members need to understand what the actor requires to portray their character - they have little patience for constant "adjustments" or "marks" that the DP may need. The DP then needs to frame their needs in words that the actor not only relates to but will feel good about. For instance, if there is a problem getting the light or framing on a shot - shape your dialogue along the lines of "better highlighting their close-up" or "highlighting the emotion the actor is trying to present."