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.
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.