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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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