“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.
The director Sidney Lumet tells a great story in his book Making Movies (great book!) about working with Brando on the film The Fugitive Kind (great film!)…
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.