Making the Movie

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Tag: acting

What was Volker Schlöndorff’s key advice about directing actors?

Adapt the role to the actor, not vice versa.

In an interview on the Coup de Grâce DVD, German director Volker Schöndorff (Academy Award-winner for Best Foreign Film The Tin Drum) gives his key insight into how to fit performances to actors. Like many directors, he believes casting is key. But he takes the principle even further:

I find that once casting is done and you have all the actors, the actor becomes more important than the role. You have to adapt the role to the actor, and not vice versa, once the casting is done. Because every film is a documentary. Or at least a document about that actor. What the camera sees is not the acting. That’s the performance; that’s the construction. But the camera also sees the man or the woman.

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How is acting like homeopathic medicine?

In all ways, according to writer/director David Mamet.

On a 2007 commentary track for his 1987 film House of Games (Criterion edition), Mamet explains his minimalist philosophy of acting:

Acting is like homeopathic medicine. ‘In what way?’ you may ask.’ And I would answer, ‘In all ways.’ Next question.

No, I’m kidding. The whole idea of homeopathic medicine is that, the smaller the dose, the more effective it is. So what you don’t want actors to do is to narrate what they think the quote character is doing, what they think the quote character is feeling, how they think the story is unfolding.

What you want actors to do is to do is to be as simple as possible […] in achieving the small tasks, scene by scene, that the author has indicated. And, um, it’s not that less is more. Because that means more is better. But less is better.

Mamet, who began as an actor himself, was trained in the Meisner technique, which seeks to have actors manifest emotions simply by reacting ‘in the moment’. I guess acting theorists would categorize this as an “inside out” form of acting, just like The Method, which is another American derivative from Russian theater director Constantin Stanislavski’s principles. Classical acting training is “outside in” — embodied by Shakespeareans like Laurence Olivier, who once, when Dustin Hoffman told him he had stayed up all night before a scene because his character was supposed to be tired, condescendingly replied, “Try acting, dear boy.”

As the commentary for this story of confidence games inside of confidence games continues, Mamet applies his “less is better” method beyond acting to storytelling in general: Continue reading

What did master director Kenji Mizoguchi teach his actors?

Japanese master director Kenji MizoguchiOn the Criterion Blu-ray for Sansho the Bailiff (Sansho dayu) (1954), actress Kyoko Kagawa explains what she learned about acting from Kenji Mizoguchi, the master Japanese director of Ugetsu and The Life of Oharu:

Mizoguchi taught me the fundamentals of acting: the attitude one must take towards preparing for a role, and also not to act from your head. Strip away everything that’s unnecessary and become as purely– In other words, become your character. Understand your character’s feelings and express them precisely. When you think about it, that’s obviously what’s expected of an actress, but it’s also the most difficult thing.

Mizoguchi was an influence on many filmmakers, from Jean-Luc Godard to Andrei Tarkovsky to Akira Kurosawa. What Kagawa describes sounds like nothing so much as The Method, popularized by Lee Strasberg at The Actor’s Studio and actors like Marlon Brando and Robert DeNiro. But the acting in Sansho reminds me of the more extreme acting seen in Stanley Kubrick films.

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What was Ingmar Bergman told were a director’s two primary duties?

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: Continue reading

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