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Weston // Directing Actors

Judith Weston’s Directing Actors was assigned for a film directing class I was taking this summer.

I loved it – not only as a primer for directing, working with actors, casting, auditioning, rehearsing, script breakdown / analysis. It was also just an insightful book about human psychology and motivation that will inform my writing, – and my daily interactions with other people.

A few important questions to ask about each scene:

Here are some of my favorite bits…


Using “as if” adjustments:

1537 If you want the actors’ help in evoking a particular mood, you might try instead an imaginative adjustment. An adjustment can be an “as if.” For example, if you wanted a “chilly” atmosphere in a family dinner scene, you might ask the actors to play the scene “as if the first person who makes a mistake in table manners wil be sentenced to a prison term.

Sometimes very experienced actors have worked out sets of prearranged adjustments that they can produce at wil . They have a facility for coming up with a precise mood or some other result on demand. Directors are relieved — the actor has “nailed it.” But such facility can come to substitute for a genuine, moment-by-moment connection to the material and the other actors. Actors cal this “pul ing out the old bag of tricks.” An extreme example of an actor overusing her bag of tricks might be an actor typecast as a stock character old maid in movies of the thirties and forties playing every role pursing her lips as if she is constantly sucking on a lemon. If we want a performance of freshness, surprise, and insight, we want to ask the actors for more than what is facile for them.

and

1965 “Facts” above, an adjustment can be a junior image, a brief metaphor, a quick fix. It often takes the form as if. For example, a love scene: you might ask the actors to play it as if it is a business deal. Or you might ask actors to play a business meeting as if it is a children’s play sword fight. Or you might speak to the actors separately and ask one of them to make an adjustment as if the other character has bad breath. A quick imaginative adjustment of this type can bring spark to a scene that is playing too dead-on.


Use facts (backstory) in favor of adjectives:

Use facts instead of a judgment.

Instead of describing a character as “a bitch,” you might invent a backstory fact, say that “she poured paint on the windshield of her ex-lover’s car.” Instead of saying,

“He’s a likable guy,” you might say, “After he asks a question, he listens to the answer,” or “He looks you right in the eye,” since those are factual statements of behavior that many people find likable. It takes more thought, more imagination, to think up facts that describe a character.

Use facts instead of attitudes.

People see the line “I already told you that,” and they immediately hear in their mind an attitude and tone of exasperation. You shouldn’t jump to that conclusion. What you should get from that line is factual information: there has been a previous conversation between these two characters. Period.


In writing, strong verbs are always preferable to adjectives. Same in directing:

1753 VERBS

Anyone who has taken a writing course has heard the teacher say that writers should whenever possible select verbs over adjectives and adverbs. Why shouldn’t the same be true for directors? Actions speak louder than words. Verbs describe what someone is doing, so they are active rather than static; they describe experience rather than a conclusion about experience.

Not all verbs are helpful in this context. State-of-mind verbs, such as to like, to resent, to fear, are not necessarily any more helpful than adjectives. The helpful verbs I cal “action verbs.” An action verb is a transitive verb, a verb that takes an object, something you do to someone else. Typical y, an action verb has both an emotional and a physical component.

For instance, to believe is a verb, but not an action verb, because what I believe is a description of my state of mind, not something I do to someone else; even “to believe in” someone, although there is an object, is still a state of mind, a condition; believing in someone is not something that I do to him, it’s more how I feel about him. To walk also is a verb, but although it is an activity, in this definition it is not an “action verb,” since it isn’t something you do to someone else; it doesn’t take an object. (I suppose a case could be made that “to walk [someone] through [a new task or exercise]” is an action verb.) The words defensive and angry are not verbs (they are adjectives).

To accuse is an example of an action verb. It takes an object; you accuse someone else of something, of lying, of underhanded behavior, whatever. It has an emotional component in that accusing is an emotional transaction between two people, rather than a physical one. So that “to strike” functions as an action verb in this context only if it is done with the voice and subtext, not if it is done physical y. (Physically striking another person, in a theatrical context, is not an action verb; it is a piece of blocking or “business.” Actually it’s a stunt. Stunts must always be carefully choreographed and staged, whereas an action verb is something that when it works has great spontaneity.)

But the action verb “to accuse” does also have a physical component, in that it is something you do in the other person’s presence. What if, during a conversation with B, A raises the accusation that C has stolen money from him? Although A is accusing C, since C is not present, we stil have work to do to figure out A’s action verb toward B, which wil tel us what is the emotional transaction of the scene. Of course we know from life that sometimes when a person is mad at someone who is not present, he takes out his anger on the person who is present. So the action verb for A toward B might be “to accuse,” but it also might be something else. To convince, to beg, to complain, to punish, to tease, to soothe — al are possible action verbs for this situation.

There are two lists in the Appendix, a Short List of Action Verbs and a list of More Action Verbs. Let’s say you find yourself inclined to describe a character by saying he is “being defensive.” See if you can translate that into a verb by consulting the Short List.

Now you might say that the right verb is not on that list; you might find yourself inclined to say that the appropriate verb translation for “being defensive” is to defend or to protect or to deflect. These are verbs and they do take an object, so they are candidates. They are a little bit intellectualized, however, and not quite as muscular and immediate as the verbs on the Short List.

So I might suggest, in place of the direction to “be defensive,” one of the fol owing: to complain, to belittle, or to warn. You see, I am thinking about the defensive behaviors I have seen in life (including of course the ones I have committed myself).

When people are feeling defensive it is usually because something is coming at them that they don’t like, perhaps information they don’t want to face. So they try to deflect attention from the information that is coming in. There are different ways they might accomplish this: they might complain about being picked on unfairly; they might belittle the source of the information; they might warn the person conveying the information not to persist. That’s how I came up with those ideas, out of my imagination and my life experiences. Of course when we have the script and can make a proper script analysis, we wil be even better positioned to pick suitable candidates.

I certainly don’t claim that the Short List (or even the longer list of More Action Verbs) comprises al of human behavior, but I have found it helpful to ask students, when they are learning to use more verbs, to start with the Short List and at least for a while restrict themselves to it. It’s like a musician sticking to scales when she is first learning a new instrument.

Do you see how these verbs are specific? How in a situation where time is short, they could fix a performance? The great thing about verbs is that they focus the actors’ attentions on their scene partner. This al ows the actors to affect each other and thus to create the emotional events of the scene.

Verbs can be used as a quick fix, but they are also important to the basic understanding of a character. Verbs belong to the constel ation of through-line, need, objective, intention and are a very useful way to structure a characterization as wel as a way to structure a scene. I wil be talking more about structure in later chapters. Here I want to give you a short list of ways that verbs can be alternatives to common result directions.

Use a verb instead of an emotion.

Although we can’t decide how to feel, we can decide what to do. This makes the verb, something that we are doing, a playable choice and a playable direction. The action verbs describe an emotional transaction when people do things to each other, something happens-, hence action verbs create an emotional event. Using action verbs instead of adjectives is a way of approaching the emotional center of a scene in a way that is experiential and playable rather than descriptive and result-oriented.

What we do affects our feelings and can create feeling. In an exercise I use in my Acting for Directors classes I ask the students to practice action verbs from the Short List, using improv and gibberish. When, for instance, I have them play the action to accuse, if they do it honestly, they are often surprised to find themselves feeling something. It could be hurt, anger, self-righteousness — one can’t always predict what the feeling wil be.

The audience is not drawn to a story by what an actor is feeling, but rather by what the character does with the feeling, in other words, what happens next. The audience wants to feel things themselves! That’s what they pay for! It’s not what Jessica Lange is feeling in “Blue Sky” that makes her performance so thrilling; it’s what she is doing. I had an acting teacher who used to exhort us: “You’re actors, damn it — not feelers!”

How about remembering it this way: We can be put in jail for our actions, but not for our feelings, because what we feel is not our fault; we can’t control it, whereas we can control what we do.

Use a verb instead of an attitude.

A critical point: When the actor is playing an attitude, his concentration is on himself; there is a tiny voice running in his mind, a subtext, thus: “Am I being sexy enough?” Or, “Is this enough anger?” When his concentration is on himself, his acting becomes self- conscious and stagy.

Superior actors will not be harmed by your using verbs instead of adjectives, and less experienced actors may very well be helped. An actor who is floundering may find the right track, and a scene come alive, right before your eyes! So instead of asking an actor to “play it sexy” (adjective), you might ask him “to flirt” with her (verb); instead of asking an actor to “be more angry” (adjective), you might suggest that she “accuse” or “punish” him (verbs). This shift in concentration allows and encourages the actors to listen and to engage. It also allows you the director to be more active in the collaboration. When you are active and alive in the process, you will be better able to bring the script to life and guide and shepherd your vision.

Use a verb instead of “take it down” or “give it more energy. ”

Actors actually hear directors saying things like, “Yes, you should be mean to him, but not that mean.” Can you hear how hard it would be to interpret this direction?

Verbs can help. You may notice, though, that it will take more thought on your part to articulate precisely what it is that you want using verbs instead of adjectives.

The extra mental exertion is good for you! Directing is not supposed to be easy.

Now, do you want the actor to punish? to warn? to complain? Each of those verbs would give a different level of intensity to the line; punish might be the most intense, a n d complain the least intense. Again, you can’t be sure until you try it.

It’s not a chemistry formula, where “x” milliliters of hydrochloric acid combined with “x” milliliters of bleach will always turn the litmus paper a certain color.

Asking an actor to coax rather than demand might be another way to getting them to “take it down.” It can sap actors’ energy to be constantly told to “take it down” instead of a more specific direction. It can make them feel that you don’t care if they commit, that you don’t want them to engage.

Sometimes, of course, “take it down” is exactly the right direction when it is given as a permission not to push or force, as in “It’s okay to relax, to let it happen; let it al be there; you don’t need to show us what you are feeling.” And sometimes an actor is

“hovering” over his performance and needs to let it go, in which case “Give it more energy” would be almost the right thing to say. My point is that these two phrases are overused and actors, when they hear them over and over in situations that are not at al alike, may start to feel that the director does not really know what he is talking about.

Use a verb instead of describing “what the character is like” or “how I see the character.”

I had an acting teacher who used to say, “If a man is standing on his head in the middle of the road, nobody asks if he’s the type!” Actually, this statement, which he repeated often, was a riddle to me; I pondered it without understanding for a long time. What I know now years later is that actors and directors waste a lot of energy and time gossiping about the characters, arguing over whether the character

“would do” such and such a thing. If he does it, then he would do it! We are what we do.

Actors sometimes resist this idea. You’ll hear them say: “My character would never manipulate — she’s too nice.” Or, “My character wouldn’t flirt — he’s uptight about his sexuality.”

News flash: Uptight people flirt! Nice people manipulate! Proud people beg! Shy people brag! People are complex. In real life we do lots of things that are inexplicable to others and to ourselves. Actors and directors who get bogged down in “what the character is like” miss entirely what a tangle of opposites humans really are. Indeed, actors and directors who get bogged down in explanations have a terrible time when they want to describe a complex character. They psychologize the character to death, piling convolution upon convolution.

What makes a character complex is that he does different things at different times.

Gene Hackman is a master at this, changing intentions (verbs) in the wink of an eye. He can charm, challenge, whine, demand, seduce — not al at once but in very quick succession. This makes his characters complex and unpredictable.

Don’t waste time wrestling over what the character’s personality is; just do it.

Use a verb instead of a judgment.

Instead of denouncing a character as manipulative, give some thought to the specific behavior of a manipulative person. Perhaps she cajoles, begs, goads, and finally punishes (for example, Bette Davis in — well, in a lot of her movies, but let’s say opposite one of her worthiest adversaries, Claude Rains, in “Deception”).

Use a verb instead of a line reading.

Harold Clurman, in his book On Directing, describes this technique. What I have called giving a line reading, he calls “demonstrating” for the actor, and he disarmingly admits to demonstrating “more than I believe fitting or desirable.” Of course this happens to al directors, and Clurman even treats us to a private conversation he had on this subject with Constantin Stanislavsky himself. But Clurman is careful to point out that when he demonstrates a line to an actor, it’s not because he wants the actor to say the line with the inflection he gave it, but that he wants to communicate to the actor a sense of the intention of the speech.

An intention is another term for what I have cal ed an action verb. Now, coming up on the spot with the appropriate action verb when you are in the thick of rehearsal or shooting is not always possible. There are good directors who are not verbally quick.

Sometimes a line reading is finally the only way you can convey the meaning of the line. Line readings are not actually so very bad as long as you do understand what the line means, i.e., what intention it carries.

Although I believe that adding more verbs and weeding out adjectives from your vocabulary wil help you articulate your ideas, I don’t want you just to get slick at translating adjectives and line readings into verbs. The important thing here is not that you are required to come up with and articulate the correct action verb for every intention that you want the actor to express, but that you can give more specific, more followable direction when you understand that what you are looking for is not really an inflection but the intention of the line.

and

4843 ACTION VERBS

The action verb is what the character is doing to get what she wants. Sometimes the whole scene will work with one action verb. This could mean that she is getting what she wants and has no need to change what she is doing to get it; or it could suggest a rigidity to the character’s personality. Often the verb changes when the “beat” changes.

If you have in your mind a certain look or sound for a certain line, you might want to translate it into a verb. For example, if in your mind you see the character shouting with a raised fist, perhaps the action verb you want on that line is “to threaten,” or it might be “to incite”; it might even be “to beg.”

Some directors and teachers say that for preparation you should find an action verb for each line. For a beginner there is danger that this approach wil keep you stuck in mechanically translating the preconceived ways you hear the line in your head into a verb. Finding the verb for each line is not a substitute for understanding the scene’s central emotional event and the characters’ through-lines.

Even though it’s on my “Short List,” I suggest that you stay away from “to convince.”

“To convince” is tepid; it is often a way of not doing something else. For example, when I ask my students to play the intention “to accuse,” they sometimes take that to mean they must convince the other person to admit that he is wrong. This is what we might do in daily life—it’s the more socially acceptable behavior—but probably not as dramatic. (Although it would be preferable to have the actor convince X to admit he is wrong simply and honestly than to have him “accuse” in an overwrought actorish “movie” manner that becomes an attempt to convince us of the truth of the words.) Actually any of the verbs on the Short List are possible for either Stephen or Angel.

It might be hard to imagine Stephen flirting, coaxing, soothing, or encouraging, but you could be surprised. If an actor played his lines with an intention “to soothe,” it would be called “playing the opposite” or “playing against the lines.” You shouldn’t rule it out without seeing an expert actor try it.


– from Judith Weston’s Directing Actors