To listen and to shut up.

Ingmar Bergman on the set of Fanny and Alexander

Ingmar Bergman on the set of Fanny and Alexander (1984)

Director Ingmar Bergman was famous for pulling world class performances from his actors. In one of the many excellent documentaries on the 5-disc set of Fanny & Alexander (“Ingmar Bergman Bids Farewell to Film”), the elder Bergman relates a key piece of advice about working with actors that he was given as a young man:

My old teacher, Torsten Hammarén, whom I met as a young director at the end of the 40’s, taught me everything about the theater. He said a director’s two primary duties are to listen and to shut up.

I didn’t quite understand it then, as I was rather garrulous.

He means he didn’t shut up and listen much in those days. In the documentary Bergman Island, he tells a story about when legendary Swedish silent film director Victor Sjöström had to stage a sort of intervention, walking him around the Swedish Film Institute studio lot for an hour lecturing him on being more collaborative. But back to the interventions of his other mentor, Hammarén:

But then I realized that actors are pretty intuitive people and that I had to develop my own intuition to meet them on an equivalent level.

Actors are not particularly verbal, you know. They often have difficulty expressing what they mean and what they want. There are often things that can’t be easily expressed, but we could meet on an intuitive level.

Much of what we do happens on a subconscious level anyway. There’s no doubt about it. We understand each other and we trust each other. Thus we create a feeling of safety on the job.