A lot of what I end up seeing at a festival feels very programmed. Sessions are closely managed. Keynotes are in massive theaters. Actually, I think the geography of the space has a lot to do with it. So it was kind of refreshing going to this panel today, which featured four filmmakers (David Zellner, Kat Candler, Todd Rohal, and Andrew Bujalski) who have all worked together before just having an informal chat about their experiences working with both non-professional and professional actors.
Each of the four directors comes from a deeply independent background, but have recently made movies that include big-name professional actors; Candler, for example, had Hellion starring Aaron Paul of Breaking Bad fame at SXSW last year. The narrative that emerged from the panel was almost a melancholy one. Each director was highly grateful for the opportunity to work with talented professional actors, but though no one said it in so many words, there also seemed to be a sense of loss in the here and working today, gone to the next project tomorrow realities of stars’ schedules. Compare that to the process of casting and working with non-actors. Candler talked about searching for months for the five boys for Hellion, and there was an emphasis from all four on relationships. Because acting can sometimes be a very foreign thing, Zellner talked about “creating an environment [on set] for them to run free. And give them treats.” Rohal echoed the sentiment, keying on the vast difference in communication needed to get a non-pro actor comfortable on set.
Through the entire panel, the idea of trust was key, and I think this is where the bit of melancholy came from. Naturally, it’s easier to trust someone you’ve been around for a while. But even pro actors have insecurities, and Bujalski said that’s actually a good starting point. “Insecurity is part of the [actor’s] job,” he said. “That’s the beginning of your working relationship.” He wasn’t the only one who likened a director to a therapist.
Near the end of the panel, talk turned more to practical, on set tips. Here are just a couple of my favorites:
- When working with amateur actors, Candler said she likes to walk them through how I’m going to get the performance out of them.” Whereas pros are trained with how to access an emotion or a character, people who haven’t acted for need help and reassurance.
- When asked about how to spice up a scene that’s feeling stale, Candler also offered this tidbit: “Give one actor a secret.” She told a story about a scene in Hellion she’d run several times, so the actors in the scene kind of knew what reactions to expect from one another. But she told Juliette Lewis to ratchet the intensity up by about 200%, and the whole scene changed. The other actors weren’t expecting the change, and it resulted in a more authentic performance.
- Also talking about how to save a troubled scene, Bujolski said he frequently will just ask an actor what they feel is missing. In one instance he related from one of his early features, it was just that the scene was missing a line of pleasantries. The characters hadn’t been able to fully enter into a space together, and it was throwing the performances off.
The panel related a lot to a couple others I saw yesterday, particularly the communal or team emphasis from Mark Duplass’s keynote, as well as Michael Showalter’s assertion that he (who has acted before in addition to directing) was a “sketch actor” and a fundamentally different type of actor than Sally Field. I wished I had a chance to ask the panel about both things, but unfortunately it ran a bit long and there was no time for a Q&A.