Lunt and Fontanne did many plays together. One night, while performing in a comedy, Lunt got a huge laugh when his character asked for a cup of tea. The next night, he said the line more pointedly, and the laugh got even bigger.
The following week, he came offstage feeling thrown because the laugh didn’t happen where he expected. He asked Fontanne what happened, and she said “The scene is you asking for tea.” He said, “I know, but the laugh was there yesterday.”
She responded, “Darling, don’t ask for the laugh. Just ask for the tea.”
You’re working correctly where instead of wanting laughs from the audience (stems from our desire to please and get approval), you’re actually annoyed by the laughter. You’re “in it”, so focused on getting what you want from the other person that the laughs kinda get in the way. They’re an obstacle now, impeding your progress. You might feel insulted and think to yourself, “Are you laughing at me?”
“If the actors are going to hold nothing back in front of the camera, I can hold nothing back in front of them. They have to be able to trust me, to know that I “feel” them and what they’re doing. This mutual trust is the most important element between the actor and me.” -Sidney Lumet, Making Movies
For the director…
In a collaborative medium like film or theatre, your top priority must be to establish trust with all your fellow artists. To create a safe space where they feel comfortable to risk.
Some of the ways you DO that include…
…being incredibly prepared.
…having a clear vision and communicating it to them (this is where a concept statement is your best friend).
…remaining open to all possibilities.
…having tons of energy and enthusiasm.
…always being honest, yet encouraging.
Some of the ways you DON’T build trust include…
…asking them to do something you wouldn’t do yourself.
…choking off their creativity.
…leading with ego.
…disrespecting or making them feel less than, especially when they’re out on that ledge, being vulnerable, risking themselves. They’ll shut down and you’ll lose them forever. Game over.
Most good actors have their best take early. Usually, by the fourth time you’ve done it (Take 4), they’ve poured out the best in themselves. This is particularly true of big, emotional scenes. Movies, however, are a technical medium. Things go wrong despite preparations. A door slams off the set, the microphone gets in the shot, the camera operator goofs, the dolly pusher misses his cue. When this happens, the actor has an awful time. Having “emptied out” once, he now has to fill up again. The only way around the problem is to shoot take after take, because the “refill” can come at any time after Take 8 or Take 10 or Take 12. I try to supply the actor with something new each time to stimulate his feelings, but after a time my imagination runs out.
One story sums up all the painful problems I’ve been talking about in this chapter. It was on The Fugitive Kind. In a scene with Anna Magnani, Brando had a long speech that contained some of Tennessee Williams’s best writing. Using beautiful imagery, he compares himself to a bird that’s never able to find itself at home anywhere on earth. Condemned to soar aimlessly over the world, it never alights until it dies. Boris Kaufman had arranged some complex lighting changes. The light on the back walls slowly faded away until only Marlon was left lit, in a kind of limbo. A complicated camera move was also part of the shot.
Marlon started Take 1. About two-thirds of the way through the speech, he stopped. He’d forgotten his lines. We started Take 2. The lights didn’t fade properly. Take 3: Marlon forgot his lines at the exact same spot. Take 4: Marlon stopped again at the same line. Until then, I had never gone more than four takes with Marlon on anything. Take 5: The camera move was wrong. Take 6. Take 7. Take 8. Marlon’s memory was failing at the same line. By now it was 5:30. We were on overtime. Marlon had told me about some personal problems he was having at the time. I suddenly realized there was a direct connection between his troubles and the line he couldn’t remember. We tried again. He stopped. I went up to him and said that if he wanted, we could break until tomorrow, but I didn’t want this block to build up overnight. I thought we should bull through it no matter how long it took. Marlon agreed. Take 12. Take 18. It was getting embarrassing. Magnani, the crew, all of us were in agony for him. Take 22. No good for camera. It was almost a relief when something was not Marlon’s fault. I debated whether to say anything about what I thought was bothering him. I decided it would be too great a personal violation of a confidence. Take 27, 28. I told Marlon that since I’d be cutting to Anna anyway, we could do a pickup. A pickup is where you begin a new take at the point where the old take was interrupted. Marlon said no. He wanted to get it all in one take. The ending of the speech would be stronger that way.
Finally, on Take 34, two and a half hours after we started, he did it all. And beautifully. I almost wept with relief. We walked back to his dressing room together. Once we were inside, I told him that I might have been able to help him but felt it wasn’t my right. He looked at me and smiled as only Brando can smile, so that you think daybreak has come. “I’m glad you didn’t,” he said. We hugged and went home.
Everything about actors and movie acting is in that story. The use of self at whatever cost, the self-knowledge, the confidence that a director and actor have to develop in each other, the devotion to a text (Marlon never questioned the words), the dedication to the work, the craft.
It’s experiences like that that make me love actors.
Trust. Trust. Trust. It’s everything.
P.S. – Speaking of trust and vulnerability, this scene. R.I.P. Adrienne Shelley.
“The most important element in an actor’s performance is confidence.” -Howard Hawks
When faced with a difficult task, you can be confident you can accomplish said task for one of two reasons:
Direct experience. You’ve done this exact thing before. You can do it again.
Indirect experience. You haven’t done this before. But you’ve done plenty of hard things in your life. You can do it again. You can look someone square in the eye and say, “I’ve never done this before. But I know I can figure it out. I got you.”
“Thinking in bets starts with recognizing that there are exactly two things that determine how our lives turn out: the quality of our decisions and luck. Learning to recognize the difference between the two is what thinking in bets is all about.” -Annie Duke
“Failure is an opportunity. If you blame someone else, there is no end to the blame. Therefore the Master fulfills her own obligations and corrects her own mistakes. She does what she needs to do and demands nothing of others.” –Tao Te Ching by Lao-Tzu (Stephen Mitchell Translation)
“In the archer there is a resemblance to the mature person. When he misses the mark, he turns and seeks the reason for his failure in himself.” -Confucius
Just like life as in poker…
You can’t control the hand you’re dealt.
You can only only control how you play the hand. The decisions you make from there determine the quality of your outcomes.
Wondering “why did this happen to me?” is only helpful as a learning exercise.
Did your habits let you down? Okay, correct them for the future.
Or was it dumb luck? Often that’s the case and the right play is to fold. Move on. Next hand.
P.S. – “Don’t you worry son. It will all be over soon.” This scene.
The passion project you’re about to embark on will be harder than you ever could’ve imagined.
It will cost more and take longer than you think.
All kinds of things will go wrong that you never could have planned for.
You will be pushed to your absolute limit. And beyond.
Still want to proceed?
Because if you do, you’ll remember it for the rest of your life.
P.S. – Supposedly the explorer Ernest Shackleton took out the advertisement pictured above seeking crew for his infamous Antarctic expedition. He was flooded with responses. Over 5,000 answered his call.
One of the awesome things about being a writer or producer (sometimes you’re both) in a collaborative medium like theatre or film or television is you get to set the table for other talented artists to do amazing work. Your passion and persistence provides a platform for other artists. It’s an amazing gift for them and the audience who gets to see this passion in action.
In his memoir “Making Movies” (I highly recommend), the director Sidney Lumet recounts a conversation he had with Arthur Miller…
Arthur Miller’s first and, I think, only novel, “Focus”, was, in my opinion, every bit as good as his first produced play, “All My Sons.” I once asked him why, if he was equally talented in both forms, he chose to write plays. Why would he give up the total control of the creative process that a novel provides to write instead for communal control, where a play would first go into the hands of a director and then pass into the hands of a cast, set designer, producer, and so forth? His answer was touching. He said that he loved seeing what his work evoked in others. The result could contain revelations, feelings, and ideas that he never knew existed when he wrote the play. It’s what we all hope for.
“We know only too well that what we are doing is nothing more than a drop in the ocean. But if the drop were not there, the ocean would be missing something.” -Mother Teresa
“First do what is necessary. Then do what is possible. And before you know it you are doing the impossible.” – Saint Francis Of Assisi
“And…and you know what, maybe I’m crazy. But when I walk through a forest that I saved, when I hear the sound of wind rustling in young trees, trees that I planted myself, I realize that I have my own little bit of control over the climate. And if after thousands of years one person is happier because of it, well then…I can’t tell you the feeling I get when I plant a birch tree and I see it grow up and sprout leaves, I…I mean, I fill up with pride, I…” -Astrov in Uncle Vanya by Anton Chekhov (Anne Baker adaptation)
Yep, it’s true. That act of kindness, that helpful gesture, that small change you make isn’t a big deal. It’s just a drop in the ocean.
But what if your drop is the one that inspires others, especially our leaders? What if it’s the drop that breaks the dam open and leads to widespread, systemic change? The kind of change that makes the impossible, possible.
Do it. We need your drop. We need everyone’s drop.
“At around twenty-eight, twenty-nine, or thirty years old, after my kids were born, I figured I’d hit some plateau that was adulthood—where I believed things would just stay level for about forty years while I would do great work and have interesting experiences—then rather uneventfully I would begin to decay and die. But this was just not the case. I was not on a plateau. I was descending, tripping, stumbling, and burning. My whole being, or personality or self or whatever is supposed to be the seat of me, or the soul behind my eyes, was being boiled away in a giant iron cauldron like the flavor leaving a carrot.” –A Bright Ray Of Darkness, novel by Ethan Hawke
For the actor…
There’s a huge gulf between trying to get on top of it and being on top of it.
How much time is spent on the summit of a mountain versus the climbing up and down? Let alone the preparing for the climb.
“Trying to” involves struggle and obstacles. Internal and external. Real and imagined. It’s the struggle that’s fun to play and riveting for the audience. We wanna watch you go through some shit.
Resist the natural human impulse to want it to be easy. To be on top of it.
Get down in the muck. Litter the text with obstacles. Give yourself behavior that’s difficult to do.
The harder you can make it on your character to accomplish the objective, the more memorable your character will be.
P.S. – The pic above is from the original production of the play “K2” by Patrick Meyers at The Arena Stage in 1982. Legendary production designer Ming Cho Lee built an incredible set.