Actor Martin Donovan has starred in films such as “Trust,” “Amateur,” “The Portrait of a Lady,” “The Opposite of Sex,” “Living Out Loud,” “Insomnia,” “The Sentinel,” “The Haunting in Connecticut” and “Unthinkable,” and TV series such as “Wonderland,” “Weeds” and “Boss.” His first film as a writer-director, the Tribeca Film hostage tragi-comedy “Collaborator,” in which he stars with David Morse, is available now on demand via VOD, iTunes, Amazon and Vudu, and opens theatrically in New York July 6 and in L.A. July 20. (You can follow the film on Facebook or Twitter, @DonovanWord.)
After a few decades of toiling in the trenches as an actor, the Red Sea finally parted and I was given the chance to direct my own film, “Collaborator.” This miraculous event gave me the opportunity to test what I’ve learned about the actor-director relationship. But since the idea of sharing technical or practical advice seems woefully inadequate, I’d instead like to offer more philosophical musings informed by my time in the arena and sharpened by this new endeavor.
Let me start by saying that I have a reverence for actors who show up and offer the director their spleen. In addition, let me categorically state that I believe the arts are as important to our survival as taking our next breath. It follows, then, that directors should take the process, and particularly the actors, seriously.
That doesn’t mean it shouldn’t all be done in the spirit of play, and, yes, that seriousness applies equally to comedy, slapstick and even lowbrow efforts (though this may get you fired). And I’m not willfully ignoring the brutal realities of commerce and our society’s general indifference to the arts. The circumstances that facilitate the kind of work I’m talking about are rare.
My respect for actors survives even in the face of pop culture’s misrepresentation of them, with its cults of celebrity and creation of movie-star Frankensteins (the physics of fame can break the will of even the most serious artist). I still carry a torch for actors even though every day I see dullard imposters on screen giving nothing and expecting everything in return. But our work is made instantaneously disposable if — regardless of the constraints put on us — we don’t effing try.
Here is to the artists that aspire.
I committed myself to acting over 35 years ago. The urge to write and direct seemed to emerge simultaneously with a primal need to be an actor (becoming an actor was an act of survival, not a career choice), so the drive to direct a film has been my companion since childhood. In the last twenty years, much of my work has been in independent film, and I’ve been extremely lucky to work with several world-class filmmakers. Naturally, they each had a different method for working with actors. But whatever morsels of wisdom I picked up from them are secondary in relevance to a more fundamental prerequisite. That doesn’t mean I didn’t learn a lot from Hal Hartley, Jane Campion and Christopher Nolan. It’s just that the things I learned from them would have been useless without somedeveloped point of departure for what I wanted my film to say.
Any dedicated 14-year-old with a couple of friends and a camera can learn the fundamentals of how to shoot a scene in a few days. The difference between this kind of adolescent self-expression and films that resonate can be found in the development of ideas. And so it seems to me that the director and actor must come together to discover what it is they are trying to say.
All of the nuts and bolts, all of the rehearsal and preparation, all of the discussions over dinner, all of the notes given or not given are in the service of saying something honestly and artfully. Obviously, the director is trying to tell a story in pictures, so the content of the narrative has to fold seamlessly into a frame. But usually the bulk of the frame is filled up with Homo sapiens, so the director’s interaction with them is where the rubber meets the road. The script presents some boundaries, but its interpretation is always elastic. Tradition has bestowed upon the director the pretense that he or she is the final arbiter of that interpretation (though this is rarely guaranteed and almost never the case in television). Therefore, it is up to him or her to initiate and guide the proceedings. But the buckets of blood sacrificed by all of the people involved with making the film will be wasted if the interface with the audience is not sufficiently intuitive.
It all comes down to the actors.
Right. So how do you direct actors? I don’t know. I don’t know because there is not one answer. But my experience tells me it runs a lot deeper than giving the actor clear and simple tasks. It has something to do with, for lack of a better term, the art of conversation. This conversation can often be monosyllabic or even non-verbal. It can begin in the audition process (if there is one) or in a more abstract way before the actor and director even meet, when they study (not merely see) each other’s work. But there is really no method to having a fruitful conversation other than two people showing up in the spirit of mutual respect. After that it’s all improvisation.
Directing actors can be a love affair, a knife fight or a combination of the two. All you have are your wits and your ever-shifting point of view. If ninety percent of directing is casting, then the other ten percent is being there. Bring your DNA and your life experience. Bring what you’ve learned from all those years of negotiating with your alcoholic mother. Bring your bullet wounds. Have a picture in your mind of the man or woman who left you. Haul your failures onto set. Bring your pride; you’re in this position because you have already received some amount of affirmation for your work. Trot out your convictions knowing they may be ground to dust. Be a toddler. Be ready to embarrass yourself. Be ready to defend your dignity, fiercely. Assume you will say the wrong thing. Hopefully, at some point you will fall down laughing at yourself. If you’re not nauseous on your first day you’re lying to yourself. Let it be known that you’re scared; they won’t condemn you for it unless you turn and run. Bring your soul. Bring yourself. Bring it.
Why? I’ll tell you why.
Because, assuming you’re not a tyrant or a sadist, your job as far as directing actors goes is to create a safe place where they can, figuratively, strip naked before the world. And the most efficient way of providing this environment is by demonstrating your total immersion in the task at hand. The actor needs to know that, like he, you give a damn, and that if he’s going to get up on that high wire you will, if needed, risk your life to break his fall. The only way you can be ready to save him from certain death is if you are paying attention. There is nothing more demoralizing for an actor than getting the sense that the director is not fully engaged with what he, the actor, is doing. The actor needs to know that you are not only watching, you’re participating.
It’s like this: Work by an actor that is commonly understood to be powerful and enthralling because it is truthful is an act of love. I’m referring to the performance you saw, perhaps when you were young, that set you thinking about your life in a new way, a force that grabbed you by the throat because the actress was so present and the circumstances of script and direction were so precise and fully realized that you were transported into a new frame of reference through which to view your world, yourself and those around you. Your sense of time and place evaporated. You forgot yourself. You were changed.
There are endless ways an audience experiences an actor’s work. But I’d like to suggest three aspects that I think are key to the encounter. If the actor stays out of the way (another discussion), allowing the audience free reign over their experience of the piece, then something elevated occurs. One, the audience is drawn deeply into the story. Two, they see themselves or others they know in the “character” the actor is “playing.” And three, they marvel at what David Mamet refers to as the actor’s “heroism” in having the courage to place himself at the mercy of the moment as the scene happens.
All of these are essential to a gratifying experience for an audience. But certainly an actor being present — hopefully in a piece that is compelling — is always and everywhere a monumental achievement in the eyes of the audience because it exemplifies that to which we all aspire: the letting go of our fears. This is beauty personified.
This kind of work — like all of the arts, when truthfully rendered — is vital to human understanding, because in addition to the spiritual pleasures of beauty for its own sake — and the resultant exaltation of our humanity implicit in that beauty — such artistic achievements can afford us insight. And the world has never needed more insight than it does today.
This is the essential role of the arts. And may I humbly suggest that this level of consciousness is needed if you’re going to have any hope of collaborating with your actors to fashion something of value.