Filmmaking / Directing : Dealing with difficult talent by Kirk W. Murray

Kirk W. Murray

Dealing with difficult talent

in directing actors (especially known actors) have you encountered troubles in directing them? Tips to overcome the ego or lack of confidence in them believing in you? I know the usual advice. 1. Know your material 2. have a plan for each character 3. do your prepro homework I'm talking about when your on the set, and there's a ton to do and your actor isn't agreeing with anything you say. In fact, he or she is trying to tell you how to run your set. Thoughts?

Steven Harris Anzelowitz

Read "Film Directing Fundamentals"- Second Edition by Nicholas T. Proferes. It is helping me. I have my first finished screenplay. I want to go the independent route. So any knowledge I can get I will gladly take. Whether that be from the people, staff & contributors here on Stage 32 or elsewhere. Oh one more thing I remember something RB had commented on in an interview a while back. If someone is disruptive on the set or is just not working out you have to take a stand and get that person out. guess one rotten apple can spoil a bunch. Even in making movies. Unless it's Tom Cruise, Then you will have to succumb to his greatness and grovel. Oh well. Thank you for letting me share.

Doug Nelson

Kirk - I try to weed them out before we get to the shooting. There simply is no room for some PITA person on the set - you can't always and I have been known to shut a project down even after we've begun shooting. Steven - Proferes' book is pretty good for the very basics but a little out dated in the digital age.

Rachel Rath

Hey Kirk, So sorry you are having to deal with this. I'm an actor and have worked opposite some difficult peeps. Really hope I've never been difficult. I can tell you though, that I've had to bite my lip a few times because the set was so poorly managed. 1. Rehearsal Doug is correct. You need to weed out dissension. Preferably in rehearsal a couple of weeks before the shoot. On set you must trust us that we know what we are doing with the character. You work with us in rehearsal so we are not wasting time on set. Ridley Scott hires the best actors and leaves them to their own instincts in the space allowing him to concentrate on technicals. I'm not saying that you are not to "direct" per se just that you trust us that we know what we are doing. Talent is in the choices and in rehearsal you will see if you have made the right choices cast-wize. It's here you re-cast not when you get to set. It is here you will learn a shortcode eg. You will learn our performance range here. You know when we are at level 10. If you need a 4 from us we know what that is. If you can give me rehearsal time and I'm playing a major role I'll at least need a meeting with you to ensure that the arc of the character is defined and I wont be surprised by information on set. Get costume sorted then too so we have more to work with in our prep. 2. Technique Most frustrating for me is directors not being able to communicate with me. I can work with result direction if necessary. I understand time on set is precious and we need the performance in the can and I can work it back through to internalize it but THE LINE READ, if you have to give an actor a line read we are in trouble. It means you cant vociferate what you need and yes again you may have time constraints. We'll do it but its kinda insulting. Most actors respond well to action verb style direction or using questions - check out Judith Weston/Mark W Travis. Obviously most actors dont strop when given bad direction we just deal with it. Every director is different so we go into every project wondering how we can collaborate with you and get you what you want. 3. Chill Space on Set The set must have a space for talent to chill. This is uber important. We are expected to perform after the pandemonium of camera, lights etc have ran about to get ready. Then we are shoved in the light with 30 pairs of eyes waiting for the "talent to perform" last thing we want to hear sometimes is direction. It's can sometimes come across as an attack. If we are cold, tired and hungry expect a tantrum. We are about to bare our souls and need to feel safe. 4. When I'm called to set, let it be because you are ready to shoot not so I have to stand for another hour while you light me. Please have a stand-in. I'm glad to do it but I know my energy level is draining and you could have easily have asked PA#2 to so it. She's about my height and skin color. She's not going to have to perform take after take after take in an hour. Again on low budgets we actors do it. Know that it can expose the director because usually the Dp takes charge then which can undermine the directors power. Also know that some name actors know what light they need to make them look good so you might need a compromise on set. eg Keylights might be written into contracts. 5. Know what you want. Worst thing to happen for actors was digital. This now means that directors can get up to 40 takes if they need to. Please shoot as if its film. If a director shoots the full scene in wide, then mid, then cu and then ecu it kinda says to me that they have no idea what they are doing. Show me your storyboards and shoot them, not what an instruction manual told you. We want innovation and we'll help you achieve that once we know your vision so involve us in that. We really do want to collaborate and explore not "get coverage". On shooting actors - learn you actors "best performance take number." I worked on a film and the actor opposite me was a dope fiend. The director had a bit of a crush on them so would shoot them first. I ended up having to work opposite them for 30+ takes on them before the camera turned around to get me. Pretty soon the director started shooting me first. It was exhausting. If it is "OK let just do one more" and you shoot 3 more. I will kill you. Many times I've had a director call "Action" and they have spoken to every other crew member there but failed to tell me the actor what we were shooting. Make me the most important person on set. When you call cut because something went wrong technically, tell me otherwise I'm wondering if it was my performance. If I say I want to roll again allow me to have another take. If you need a take 3 or 4 and there has been no technical issues know that I will give you a different performance because thats what I believe you want. 6. Directors need to know how to run a set. Know your team. Yes, know your set-ups but watch out for your actor and protect them. Direction should only come from you, the director. I cant count how many times I have been given direction by the writer or the producer, the gaffer once! The director must be the alpha horse and lead the team and they must follow unquestioningly. If I am given direction by anyone else it tells me that you are not trusted by your crew so I'm thinking maybe you don't know what you are doing. Uh oh I'll have to questing everything you do now. I'm stressed and panicked and very defensive. Mark W Travis has amazing advice on running a set. If you are undermined to me you have lessened in my esteem. Its human nature. 7. Food Keep us fed. You dont want to meet me hungry ever. NOTE: Actors are always hungry. We dont get to eat often when we do it its usually good food NOT stuff that comes out of a packet. Have a bit of fruit and veg handy. Hot beverages too. Have special food hidden for the actor who has allergies. 8. Keep me safe. If I am supposed to get naked and you said it was going to be a "closed set" and it's not now - you have lost my trust and am now not comfortable. You said there was going to be a pro-stunt team. I've been set on fire, hung, fought elaborate knife fights and I trusted my teams. I wont do these things if I feel my life is in danger. You make me feel good and safe I'll give you anything you need to get your movie to the Oscars. 9. Make sure your make up artist is from Filmland not orange TVland. Most actors can do their own make-up. If no expert is available best trust the actor do it. We are what goes on camera so look after us. We are delicate flowers. If the actor is well known is their diva behavior because they do actually know more than you do and they might have good advice. If this is the case you make a deal one take for you one take for me. If this is the actors first job tell them to go home. Most actors are wonderful and want to collaborate with you but maybe you ended up with one of those rare actor arseholes.

Doug Nelson

So Rachael – tell me what you really think. Filmmaking is a collaborative event. As a Producer – every person on set is the most valuable player (DOP, Actors, Grips…) and I treat them as such – if any one fails, my film suffers. My role as Director is to make everyone look good. It’s personal – if the Actors don’t look good, my film doesn’t look good. Because I do shorts only, I can’t afford to pay you but I can & will pay festival entry fees and rest assured that you will be well fed on set – my son owns a catering company and a brewery - it’s a hell of a wrap party. (An you’ll never get naked on my set.)

Rachel Rath

Sounds good Doug :D

Rachel Rath

Just see that its the topic of Stage 32 webinar https://www.stage32.com/webinars/Working-with-Difficult-Production-Perso...

Andrew Sobkovich

Prima Donnas in any capacity on a set are a pain. Make them feel important, listen to what they say as there is always a chance they might have a valid point, then nod and take your leave when they don’t have anything. Never invite their opinion. Make sure to praise them publicly, you will not be wrong playing to their ego. If you know they are going to try to monopolize your time, prearrange a signal with different people to interrupt you as you are so very urgently needed elsewhere and shelter yourself with those who wish to make the directors picture. You have to deal with them one-on-one though or risk something between a snit and a blow up on the set which makes our workplace unpleasant and screws your schedule but does make for hilarious youtube exposés. If all of this effort is deemed worthwhile when you watch the picture on screen, then great. If not, learn from the situation, move on and don’t repeat that mistake. Rachel, excluding odd or unpleasant circumstances the making of a movie does not solely revolve around catering to the whims, wants nor desires of any actor. It is the collaborative creative effort of many diverse artists each responsible for their portion of the whole. Perhaps an argument could be made that a picture might revolve around an auteur director, but not an actor nor anyone else. One specific point I will make as a DP, if I adjust the lighting after you walk onto the set, it is specifically because after seeing you on your correct mark, I want to make you look better. The adjustment would be specific to you in order to enhance your image or presence on the screen. This is to your advantage, while making you look better, it adds to the time I am taking and will have to justify later. There are very sound reasons for the methodology we incorporate on set when shooting a picture, gathering specific angles and shots so that there are choices in editing to enhance the story telling. Sorry for the inconvenience.

Nathanial House

I like Rachel's honesty on this. As a director, it's always a good thing to have an insight into what makes your actors tick. I've learned that simply respecting them as people, not just actors, works best. It's as simple as that. It's amazing how much an actor will deliver when respected (and fed).

Doug Nelson

I don’t know how many times I’ve said that filmmaking is a collaborative event. A film is like a very complex, finely tuned machine with many cogs and gears and If any one fails, the entire machine ceases to function. A shooting schedule is very tight, leaving little time to stroke some prima donna’s’s ego. I’ve even run into Actors who fail to show up on a set – Think what that costs in time, money and professional reputations for the rest of the cast and crew. It’s just best to weed out the PITA peeps right up front – and if one gets through the first time, s/he will never be back again (and I do talk with other Producers/Directors.) That's just the unvarnished truth.

Rick Mowat

Actors are extremely fragile and always scared that they're are going to suck. And this is true all the way up to A listers. The best method I've learned to minimize this and make them feel as comfortable as possible is to rehearse as much as possible before the cameras roll. This allows them to be bad, uncomfortable, awkward and not quite prepared. Hardly anyone rehearses before shooting anymore but I believe it's very worth the effort.

Doug Nelson

Rick – I agree that few seem to take the time to rehearse before shooting now-a-days and it’s evident in the quality of films I review – sad. When I produce a film, I won’t even bring the cameras out until we’ve been through walk-troughs and rehearsals including the cast and crew. But what makes you say that Actors are extremely fragile. Directors, DPs, Cinematographers, and Editors – even down to the first time PAs can feel fragile and overwhelmed. But every person on my sets is treated as though they are the most important person there – and when you think about it – it’s true. I demand that each and every member of my cast and crew give me the best that they have – that’s all I can ask. I see no reason to treat Actors differently.

Rick Mowat

Absolutely right. Treat 'em great but actors maybe a pinch more cause usually they're making less!

Doug Nelson

Rick; equal = equal.

Steven Harris Anzelowitz

Kirk- Just one more suggestion that came to mind. I am a big fan of the "Actors Director". A good example of this type is my Hero "Woody Allen" In his 2 part documentary (now on Netflix) he explains that he casts the role and gets out of their way. He says if he was confident enough to pick them in the first place. Then he should be confident enough to let them do it the way that works for them, ad lib, change a line, whatever. My Uncle Hy Anzell(IMDB) did over a dozen movies with him including "Annie Hall" & "Radio Days". So I can speak from personal experience that was shared many times around the Thanksgiving or Passover dinner table of how my Uncle worked with him. Again these are just suggestions. I have no agenda here. No axe to grind. Whatever gets you to post production with as few gray hairs as possible. Best wishes on your upcoming projects.

Steven Harris Anzelowitz

Victor-- What show? They were films not shows. Zowie!!

Steven Harris Anzelowitz

Wolfman- I'm sorry too. I should have been more clear. I really need to give up on screenwriting and go back to Carnegie Hall telemarketing where I belong. After all you are right Wolfman. No books can help. Either you're born with the talent (LIke you) or not(like me). I guess I am just feeling pressure to make it from my Show Business Family. My Father (the Musician) and My Uncle(The Actor) would turn over in their graves if they knew I have spent the last 20 years telemarketing at Carnegie Hall. Who am I kidding? Another Anzelowitz in the Business? Hey, (3) generations are enough. Let my cousin Gary Craig(IMDB) carry the torch. I can't make a living at this. Why am I knocking myself out? "Hope Saves Manhattan"? Please Hope Save Me more like it. I guess I am in a bad mood. Crap. Have a Nice Day, Wolfman

Doug Nelson

We all get down on ourselves (and others) occasionally – sometimes for cause, mostly not. The question is “what to do?” We are all born with imagination and inquisitiveness with inherent talent or we never would have made it past the toddler phase. As you grow older, you nurture that talent or suppress it. My father was the first chair violinist @ Philadelphia & Cleveland. My mother was a pianist. The only instrument I can play is the stereo. But that doesn’t get me down; quite the contrary, it sets the excellence bar quite high, giving me a target. I strive to become the world’s foremost screenwriter, but I’ve got an awful long way to go. I’ve set a very high goal for myself – I’m going to win an Oscar in my lifetime. It’s highly unlikely that is going to happen; but I’m workin’ on it – the journey is far more important than the destination. My advice is to take a couple days off to vegetate and feel sorry for yourself. Then get back in the saddle, raise your banner on high and charge into the fray once again, again and again.

Whitney Wickham

Following because it is nice to hear from the other side! ;) Great question.

Doug Nelson

Whitney, define what you mean by “the other side”. I notice by your bio that you're one of those actor types – does that mean that you feel entitled to something more than a lowly PA on the set? I hope not and personally, I think not. The moment you show me that you are one of those PITA peeps – you're outta here. None of us is all important.

Royce Allen Dudley

Have the producer take the actor aside and offer them the opportunity to have the role recast immediately. If it's economically andd logistically practical at all it's worth it. Director mustn't do it.... has to be the producer. Even then, they can get more difficult days later if you keep them. Mistakes in casting like this are avoidable when it's a known "difficult" actor, if it's a newbie you have cast in a lead and they suffer a personality disorder, you also have the option of pulling the plug on the movie. This happens. Someone with NPD will make it through rehearsal and even well into shooting, knowing that once a budget line has been crossed there is no recasting...then the demon emerges. I have been on 2 well budgeted indie features ruined by NPD actors who hijacked them. Every director needs to learn the warning signs of manipulative, disordered people. You can spot many of them well before you start. It's not just "difficult actors"... it's mental illness.

Nena Eskridge

Rachel your post was more helpful than any of the many books I've read about directing. I'll be directing my second feature soon and thank you for your specific and honest share.

Doug Nelson

Nena, reading about directing and garnering information and incite from others is certainly one of the basic necessities on the path to directorship but I’m sure by now that you understand the importance of on-set trial and error – it’ll be easier the second time. But I’d like to throw in a little aside (I’ve moved from directing to producing now) and that is your most important talent as a Director is to develop the skill-set to recognize the talent in others and be willing to help them further develop their talents and skills. You must be able to freely give of yourself while being tough enough to not suffer the presence of the PITA’s that you will encounter. I think of ‘em as leeches intent on sucking the soul out of others for personal needs – you (I) don’t need ‘em.

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