Energy and Directing

I’m always amazed at that phenomena that happens when an actor in a theater goes on stage in front of a few hundred people and acts: how there’s a dynamic that happens that focuses the attention of the audience which creates an energy on the stage. Somehow the attention, the energy, of the audience feeds the actor, who uses that energy to create that excitement in their performance. When it works, it’s something you don’t even notice, but it’s this sense of excitement that gives live theater its life.

The other day, I was listening to the commentary track on Superman: The Movie and Richard Donner was talking about how a director’s job is maintain a high level of energy and spirit on a film. So I started thinking about how that energy has to be created on camera – in front of a crew of not that many, who have their attention set on their own jobs, not on the actors – so that it is there when the film is projected in front of 200 people in a cinema.

Then I started thinking that budgets must influence this stuff. After all, when a film costs a hundred million dollars, that kind of money gets people excited. It’s not just that the director has all these means at his disposal, it’s also that an actor is getting 10 million plus, so he has to live up to that salary. That’s a lot of pressure and stress for everyone. I mean, even telephone companies get excited when contracts for 100 million dollars are signed.

But most of us don’t have those kind of budgets, and while even a ten million dollar budget is huge, it clearly doesn’t always provide that excitement. Otherwise, we’d have a lot more exciting films.

Then there’s the video camera, which just records and records. With film, as soon as “roll camera” is shouted, the clock is ticking. There is a real feeling of urgency to get everything into that shot, with speed and perfection. That’s what shooting a film is all about: getting the shot, no matter what. If you don’t have that mindset, your film isn’t going to have it either.

Directors that I’ve met aren’t always high-energy people, but talk to them in preproduction and you won’t be able to keep up. The excitement starts building, the energy starts ramping up. Shooting a film is incredibly exciting, but it’s also draining, and there’s nothing worse than working on a film where the director is a hack, or some key is cynical. You can feel the energy just getting sucked out of the soundstage.

So how do you maintain that sense of energy that the actors would have on a stage when shooting a cozy little scene in a living room. I would guess that different directors have different ideas about this, so I would say that there are two things that need to be done. Both of them have to do with imagination.

An actor connects to his character with imagination. He or she comes to the set prepared. They walk on the set and if they see, for example, that the sets have been decked out imaginatively, they will match that energy. There’s a feeling on a crew when things are going well, when everybody is thinking creatively, everyone’s imagination takes off. Actors want to be a part of that, and they will do their best to match it. Do your best, and they will too.

The other idea I had was just the simple idea of remembering, or imagining, the film in front of 200 people. It’s a simple idea, but most of the time, when I see that living room scene, I’m not seeing it. It’s just a dull living room scene. There is a reality of two people sitting in a living room and talking, but is that really all you want out of your scene? Come on, man, put a little effort into that. Use your imagination. That scene could have been great.

Anyway, just what I was thinking about when I was on my run. I probably didn’t articulate it very well, but I’ve got to get back to work.

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