How to direct actors and film crews: detailed tips for independent filmmakers

This post is about how to direct actors, cinematographers and other crew members on your movie.

How to direct actors

1. The key with directing actors is to tell them what is really happening in the scene over and above the dialogue itself. This is known as subtext. Jane tells John that she hates him, but what is she really saying? Does she actually hate him or does she in fact love him? The character’s true intentions will make a difference to how you direct the actor. If Jane actually does hate John, you will direct her one way; conversely, if she loves him despite the fact that she says she hates him, you will direct her another way. Subtext is absolutely vital in movie making, but it is not a complicated concept: subtext is simply what a character really means, which is not always the same as what the character says.

2. Anthony Hopkins is absolutely right in his interview in the DVD of “Hannibal”: if you hire truly competent actors, directing actors often comes down to saying “faster” or “slower.” I have had the privilege of directing some seriously talented actors and I can confirm this is true.

3. Sometimes even with talented actors they are not entirely clear on what the director wants and consequently their performance goes in entirely the wrong direction, making it necessary to do some heavy-duty directing. This is perfectly fine and most actors LOVE to be directed by someone who knows what he’s doing, but there is one important warning you must bear in mind: never correct an actor’s performance loudly in front of other actors and crew members. If all you have to say is “do it again a bit slower,” there is no problem, but if the actor is really getting it wrong and you need to give detailed direction, get close to the actor, do it with a low tone of voice so that no one can overhear, and always be polite and positive. Some actors are sensitive and might feel humiliated if given notes in public, even if you did not mean to be rude. Being hot-tempered with anyone on a film set is NOT cool. Treat everyone in a polite, low-key way and they will go to the ends of the Earth for you. That is real leadership!

Read my detailed guide to directing film actors.

Directing non-professional actors: a reader’s question:

What if I have no other option but to select a group of new actors who are in the other field? Now I am in the above situation. Actors are very much suitable to the character but making them act like professionals is a challenge. Any tips on it and on coordinating them in a small budget movie where money is a big problem.

My answer:

If you want brilliant results, I really don’t recommend you cast amateur actors, but I understand your budget limitations. You can still work with professional actors if you have no money, providing they like you and the project, and providing that the catering is top-notch. That said, if you really must…

1) Warn them that movie making is seriously hard work: a lot of concentration, a lot of waiting around, having to re-shoot takes until the director is happy, 12-hour days in the best cases.

2) Make them passionate about you and the project.

3) Rehearse a lot before the shoot.

4) Make sure they know their lines perfectly — check well before the shoot.

5) Direct your actors using subtext, as described above.

6) Provide plenty of AMAZING food and drink during the shoot (this is crucial — if you can’t afford it, don’t shoot the film until you can).

I hope this helps — very best wishes, and keep me posted!

Directing child actors: casting, motivating them and other tips: a reader’s question

For my latest project I’ve been lucky enough to “borrow” a friends daughter to play a small role, but I don’t think that such an opportunity will come again. If for future projects, one would need children (age 5-17) to play roles, be it in the background or as lesser characters. Where can you find willing parents and how do you ask them? You can’t go through the family and friends all the time.

How do you direct a minor? When is encouragement best given? How do you tell them that they don’t give the results needed (tricky!) or should you just go with it and film? How can you efficiently direct the parents into helping the child for you? Should you bring a board game, puzzle to keep them busy as you set up lightning and camera?

It’s a non speaking role but I still want a specific result. I guess giving reward, like cookies afterwards would motivate them enough.

My answer:

With regard to casting children, I did this once and, like you, I enlisted the help of friends who happened to have a daughter who was the right age, had the right look and was also a pretty good performer.  I agree with you that you can’t always go through friends, but this is really not a problem: just post an ad on which ever website is appropriate in your area, and I can assure you that you will have hundreds of parents who would be absolutely delighted to see their precious child cast in someone”s film.  You will be inundated with replies, so make sure you have a pre-prepared system to manage the head shots and enquiries.

With regard to directing children, in my experience the key is to develop some genuine rapport with the child actor in advance of the shoot.  Hang out with them, rehearse, discuss the part and develop a relationship of mutual trust.  I believe this is much more effective than simply promising cookies if they do what you say, because they are then focused on the material reward and want to get to it as quickly as possible, when in fact it is much better when they really like you and the project and simply want to do their best to please you. As always, directing actors using subtext tends to elicit the best performances.

I read that Stanley Kubrick instructed his right-hand man Leon Vitali to tell the young actor (Danny) to “listen to Stanley.”  Obviously that was a very long shoot and this strategy was appropriate, but Stanley Kubrick clearly was aware of this issue.

In my case, I managed to build rapport with that young actress during a photo shoot in which I took pictures of her that were needed for a scene in which her picture was used.  I shot several rolls of film until I was satisfied I had the photograph I wanted, and in the course of the shoot she grew to like and trust me.  This made things a lot smoother when we subsequently shot the scene on location.

One final remark – you must absolutely insist that at least one of the parents is present at all times on the shoot, even if they say that they will simply drop them off and then pick them up later.  At least one parent must be present at all times, with absolutely no exceptions.  You can never be too careful these days.

I hope this helps!

How to direct the cinematographer

How you direct your cinematographer really depends on how involved you are with camerawork. My camera directions are very detailed. I block the shot with the actors, choose the focal length, decide camera placement and set up any camera movement I want. I then simply tell the cinematographer what I want. I work with a cinematographer who loves my methods – you should find one who feels the same about you. The same caveat mentioned above applies to the cinematographer: if you have to give notes on lighting or anything else, do it in a low-key way, without making a scene.

How to direct the music composer

As a filmmaker, you have the right and duty to direct the music composer on all of the following aspects:

– style

– instrumentation

– speed

– where each music cue starts and stops

– anything else you want.

This may sound very detailed, and it is, but a real music composer EXPECTS the director to express these opinions.

How to direct: general principles

1. Know exactly what you want. This needs a lot of preparation!

2. Be polite and low-key with everyone — it is worth repeating.

3. Know every aspect of the project inside out: camerawork, design, overall tone — absolutely everything.

4. Directors are leaders. Believe it or not, actors and crew members LOVE directors who have a clear vision and communicate it clearly. They want to be directed, so do your homework and direct!

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21 thoughts on “How to direct actors and film crews: detailed tips for independent filmmakers

  1. Vishal Mohandas says:

    Thanks a lot buddy. Going to direct my first movie with friends. As obvious they are all amateur actors but the script isn’t heavy enough to require professional actors. I hope i do good and the movie comes out interesting for the viewers 🙂

  2. Good luck, Vishal! 🙂

  3. I have been a silent reader and learner for a long time now. I just want to thank you for the amazing job that you’re doing. I have learnt alot from this site and hope to continue doing so. You are a great help. Thanks!

  4. Thank you Ed!

  5. hi my name is prince I love your sit thanks for this tips I am new person here, I would have like to attend your school but no money to come over there, I no with this your tips I go far and become a great director. THANKS DIRECTOR.

  6. Ashique Shabeer says:

    Thanks a lot ….. !!!

  7. I am an aspiring screenplay writer and I am afraid that if I do not direct my work, it will be poorly executed and not to my taste. The advice I am looking for is if it is relatively difficult to persuade a film studio to allow me to direct my film, even though I have no directing experience. Thank you for your advice above, it is very helpful.

  8. Braindo Studios says:

    We are setting up a movie Studio. I want to ask you should in detail list the equipments and software that we can purchase and the Number of camera for a start

  9. I love this, really helpful

  10. very useful

  11. Hi, i was looking for tips on how to direct. This is going to be very useful for me 🙂
    The 22 of February I’m doing my first video with professional actors. I got a lot of experience with corporative videos, documentary style. But none with actors.
    Any additional advice you can give me? What’s the “grammar” I need to use, cause I think that as professional actors they are familiar with the directors lingo.
    Thanks in advice!
    Greetings from Mexico

  12. Mark Martino says:

    I’m a screenwriter who is now in the midst of directing a 10 minute comedy short I wrote. I’m not doing this because I want to be a director. In fact, I would much rather have someone who is a director use my screenplay as a starting point and expand on it. I’m not as concerned about preserving the vision I had when I wrote the script as I am about having a good director make a good movie using my script. I really wanted to get someone who knows what they are doing to direct, but it seems that most directors have their own movie concepts they would rather explore. Is it just my perception or is it now the case that directors tend to do their own screenwriting more than they used to?

    • Hi Mark,

      There are plenty of directors who would rather direct than write. I am one myself.

      Your best bet is to post an ad on Craigslist, inviting applications from directors.

      The non-negotiable requirement is the submission of a reel. Watch the reels and choose whichever director you feel is most suited to your script.

      You will receive plenty of applications!

      Good luck,

      -Ed

  13. Hello I just have a question that might seem rather dumb but I have always wondered it. How should first time directors get their first movie connected to a studio, so not an independent film, is there a way where people can somehow choose a script they want to direct? Or does the director sometimes work with the writer, or write the script themselves and then submit it to the studio and ask to direct it? Thanks!

  14. Guys like ii am so in love with film making, i’m a photographer however and II have been watching a lot of videos on how start but ii have not been having much luck with that, ii don’t know but like could you mail me a pdf of what the basics an aspiring film maker needs to follow when compiling a film, from scripts etc

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