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Exclusive Excerpt: Michael Rabiger’s Nine Basic Tips for Directing Actors

Exclusive Excerpt: Michael Rabiger's Nine Basic Tips for Directing Actors

Michael Rabiger’s (Professor Emeritus, Columbia College in Chicago) directing textbook, now in its fifth edition (co-written with Mick Hurbis-Cherrier of Hunter College) “Directing: Film Techniques and Aesthetics” is now available for purchase from Focal Press.  

Below is an excerpt from the book that covers the do’s and don’t’s of directing actors and also includes a case study from Sarah Polley’s 2011 film “Take this Waltz.”  The book can be bought on Amazon here.


Set limited, positive goals: Say, “See if you can open the door softly this time —not, “This time don’t make such a racket with that closet.”

Direct the actor’s attention to a particular kind of action: Say, “I’d like to see you try to figure out what he meant as you turn away.” Make the suggestion specific, and locate it in a particular moment. Generalized suggestions that could apply anywhere aren’t helpful.

Suggest a different subtext: such as, “Try closing the door on him with finality rather than regret.”

Remind cast members where their character has just come from: Wind them up to each scene with a reminder: “You’ve just come from the stock exchange and seen your father’s savings vanish.” This is vital while directing, because films are shot in small, out-of-order increments, and actors need constant orientation.

Remind actors that nobody is present: Ask actors to ignore the crew’s presence, act as they do when alone in real life, and never to look at the camera. This helps them avoid the temptation to play to an imagined audience.

Never demonstrate how you’d like something played: This implies you are an actor and want a copy of yourself. But you are not an actor, and what you want is unique to that actor. Ask the cast for their solutions.

Never give line readings: A line reading means the director reads the dialogue with the emotional inflection they wish the actor to provide and then tells the actor to “say it like that.” This is insulting for an actor and reveals a director’s lack of imagination.

Never say, “Just be yourself”: This sets actors worrying: “What did he really mean? How does he see me? Which me does he want?” Focus your actor instead on aspects of her character’s experience.

Never ask for something “smaller”: An actor takes this as a barbed criticism. Ask for the same intensity but with more intimacy, or for anything else that sounds like development rather than censure.


Actors often express the fear that a scene will be over-rehearsed. If it means drilling to a master plan, this is a real enough anxiety. You must learn to recognize when the actors have “nailed it,” meaning they are truly inhabiting their characters and each dramatic moment. Often actors tire during rehearsal, so it’s important to refresh them by moving on and returning later.

Never rehearse without plans and objectives in mind, or the cast will sense this and resent their time being wasted. During preparatory work, decide which scenes are pivotal, and use the ensemble’s growing ability to focus on problem areas and discover solutions. For the actors, digging deeply for meaning, developing perceptions that flow back and forth between the characters, and creating links and resonances with other parts of the script are all highly productive. It also habituates them to improvising so that you can ask for changes on the set without fazing them.


Over-directing can mean rehearsing beyond the point of improvement, or trying to micromanage the cast. Often it is the sign of the director who doesn’t trust their instincts and over-intellectualizes. Also, many moments in a film are just simple. Sometimes, getting into a car is just getting into a car, closing a door is just closing a door. Not every moment requires intense sense memory work, digging for subtext, or extended rehearsals. Choosing which scenes require rehearsals and which can be developed during the shoot is a time and energy saving skill a director learns along the way.

A director must also be able to recognize scenes in which the emotional connection is so delicate that to rehearse them extensively might drain spontaneity out of the moment. In these cases, working individually with each actor in the scene during rehearsals and saving the first ensemble performance for when the cameras are rolling can preserve the freshness of the moment. A good example is the café seduction scene in Sarah Polley’s second feature film “Take This Waltz” (2011) which tells the story of Margot (Michelle Williams), a contentedly married woman who becomes sexually attracted to Daniel (Luke Kirby), an artist who lives across the street. In order to produce for the camera the tantalizing risk and electricity of the moment when Margot and Daniel’s harmless flirtation crosses over into outright seduction, Polley decided not to rehearse the scene.

We had an exhaustive rehearsal process before shooting the film, but this was the one scene we actually didn’t rehearse. So Michelle had never heard those words and Luke had never had to say those words in front of Michelle before.

Although this scene was carefully scripted, the result was a moment that had the spontaneity and element of surprise of an improvised encounter where the non-verbal reactions from both actors are even more emotionally revealing than the dialogue.

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Just as every actor has their own way of doing things and their preference of how they like to be directed, each director has their own style and preference of how they do things. As a director, I say- do what works for you. Actors respond differently to each director, even if directors who all have similar directing styles. At the end of the day, if you earn an actor’s trust, that will make the difference. I love to challenge actor and see them push their limits and breakthrough. I rehearse intensely at times and do so to get actors out of the habit of feeling like they’re too rehearsed. How do you keep something fresh and increasing in emotional intensity when you rehearse so much? Get an actor past that and you’ll win everytime.

As an actor I say- embrace every experience and never have just one way of doing things. It’s amazing what you’ll find and tap into just beyond your place of familiarity.


I think respect is the key, and everyone goes about offering that differently – there’s also a book by Frank Hauser and Russell Reich that’s pretty good.


These are fine tips, but obviously you can't judge an entire book on a small excerpt like this. I am a director, producer and film professor and I have this book. I read an early edition of Rabiger’s "Directing" in graduate school many years ago, and it served as an insightful guide as I stumbled through my fledging filmmaking efforts. I’ve recently read the latest edition, which has been energized by the addition of a co-author (Hurbis-Cherrier, who also wrote the outstanding Voice & Vision), and I’ve decided to assign it in my directing courses. Does the above excerpt teach you everything you need to know about directing actors? Of course not. But the book itself will really help you if you take the good advice of another reader who suggests the best way to learn is by making movies. I agree. But it’s really instrumental to have a thoughtful and thorough text to consult along the way, and Rabiger and Hurbis-Cherrier have written that guidebook for you.

I learned a lot from Weston’s book too, but if I had pulled a few pages from that text, no matter how interesting those pages are, they would seem woefully incomplete when compared to the book itself.


I like the way you have posted this article


Thanks for posting this.I like the way you post this article


Any aspiring director who wants to get more advanced information on the subject of directing actors should look at Judith Weston's book "Directing Actors" it gives you practical tools you can use in your interaction with actors and things you can say. Also script analysis, learning beats and it teaches you how to formulate ideas so that you clone to the set with a lot of things to try which will keep you loose and flexible when directing. The most important thing you can do is ask the actor to play a verb rather than an adjective.


My goodness these are trivial points… As a professional director myself, I was disappointed by how basic this article was. Honestly reminds me of film class in HIGH SCHOOL!

Kids, the most important tip is spontaneity… what you read here should not be conscious, these are your natural actions.

Don't over-direct, cast well. Your job is 90% complete after casting. You want a cast that will not only bring a unique flare to their roles, but will also collaborate and contribute their own personal sensibilities. To get real performance you must absolutely hire "real" people. Don't look for performers, look for reactors.. Throw off your actor in the auditions and see how they respond. Do they get disoriented, stumped, etc..? Or do they use your tactic to better their performance?


These basic tips are smart and useful. I’ve never seen a book discuss the issue of over directing before. Great advice. Given some of the comments on this thread, some people seem to think that this is a complete article. It’s a tiny excerpt from a book that, according to Amazon, is over 500 pages. If the rest of the book is as good as this it could be very helpful. I’m checking it out.

Daniel Delago

As an indie filmmaker, these are helpful tips. I'll definitely pick up a copy of this insightful book. By the way, Sarah Polley's romantic drama, 'Take This Waltz' is brilliant. Polley was an indie darling that is now behind the camera. She's a daring filmmaker. You can tell the actors trust her suggestions because their performances (especially Michelle Williams) feel so real and honest.


As an actress, I have been in the position of being over-directed during rehearsals, and it kills everything; in one situation that comes to mind, I finally had to let the director know I needed some space for discovery and that I could not tell him everything that was in my head because it would kill my prep — this killed our relationship; he shut up and never even gave me feedback during the shoot. So, over-direction is NEVER a good thing.

I find the tips in this article both good and insulting, depending on the tip.

Being an educated, experienced actor I found the tips on actors needing constant orientation and reminders to ignore the crew insulting; however, it could depend on the context.

I would say having a 1) clear shoot schedule, 2) one on one conversations with your lead actors about key script points before the table read, and 3) an informative table read with professional actors solves the orientation issue without taking away from the actor the privilege of doing their own work on arcs; any adjustment can be made on the shoot day after seeing the actors work.

And the note of ignoring the crew is purely insulting. I would urge no director to ever give that comment. Instead, it should be more about 1) casting actors who can "go there" with private moments from the get go, 2) have a conversation with the actor beforehand about what are the triggers that are helpful on set such as music, and 3) side coaching the actor if needed during the shoot (but only side coach relating to the imagination or what to pursue in the scene — not a negative coaching about ignoring the staff).


"faster, and more intense"

Seems to me these tips demonstrate a certain amount of empathy. Seems like excellent advice to me.


Wow. A man who has never directed actors telling people how to direct actors. Just like Robert McKee or Syd Field, who have never written a screenplay, telling people how to write a successful screenplay. Every actor is different, every director is different. Some actors need to be guided very closely and demand a lot of attention; others prefer to be let alone doing their own thing. You cannot treat the same way an actor who has stage experience and a guy who has only been doing TV. Some of them like direct, specific comments while others are very weak and need to be treated very delicately. And that can be learned only by DIRECTING ACTORS.


I've never understood why speaking to actors is supposed to be done so delicately. Surely telling them to play something smaller is a reasonable request? You wouldn't tell a lighting tech to "illuminate the scene less intensely", you'd just say make it darker. I know they're going to emotional places, but that's their job and they should be treated as mature adults. But what do I know I guess.

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