WRITTEN BY: Christian Jean
Brad Barnes On Directing: Everything You Always Wanted to Know about Directing Actors* (*But Were Afraid to Ask)
This article was originally written for the Film Independent blog.
Have you ever been captivated by a performance and wondered how many takes the actors needed or what the director did in rehearsals to help nurture them along the way? If so, you’re not alone. As many film school graduates will likely attest, directing actors is something of a blind spot. One that can fill first-time filmmakers (and probably more than a few veterans) with self-doubt and dread. Because although directing actors ranks among cinema’s prime crafts, it somehow also manages to receive only casual attention in many film school programs. Master teacher Brad Barnes has spent years working on this paradox, and he’s here to help.
Barnes is a working director and Sundance Film Festival alum who teaches a directing method called The Tools in workshop settings around Los Angeles. It’s a practical method for directing actors developed by Adrienne Weiss, who currently teaches it in New York, London and elsewhere. Her basic premise? Just like doctors have tools to help diagnose health problems, there should be a practical set of tools to help directors diagnose scene problems. 10 tools, to be precise. And chances are, The Tools covers everything you wanted to learn about directing actors in film school, but probably didn’t.
For example, The Tools offers a fresh approach to the familiar concept of “Objective.” Traditionally, Objective simply means what actors want in a scene. But putting too much emphasis on what they want risks keeping actors focused on themselves instead of their scene partner, which is where the magic happens. So, The Tools uses a new formulation: what can I get my scene partner to say or do so that I can get what I want? “Emotional Action” is a related tool: how can I make my scene partner feel to get them to say or do something? Any given objective (get him to hug me) can have a menu of emotional actions (make him feel loved or guilty, etc.) that help actors fight for what they want by making scene partners feel different ways. This combination of tools is an innovation whose evolution Weiss traces to her days studying Chekov with famed acting teacher Earle Gister at Yale University. And it’s a concept Barnes insists is central to The Tools.
I recently sat down with Barnes in Hollywood to get a crash course. When you meet him, it’s obvious you’re in the presence of an artist who loves working with actors, one who defies the ridiculous stereotype of the director as somebody up a ladder with a megaphone who hurls down criticisms. Unsurprisingly, Barnes hails from a strong theatrical family where, he admits with a laugh, “I was embarrassingly old before I realized that not all adults were actors.”
After high school, Barnes studied performance and art in London, completed graduate film school at NYU and taught directing all over New York, including 10 years at Columbia University, before re-locating to Los Angeles. He’s had multiple short films play Sundance. And his debut feature, The Locksmith, won the Festival’s Best of Next Award. But all along the way, something was nagging at him. Something missing in the way film schools, which understandably focus on gear, typically approach the director-actor relationship. Barnes explains, “nobody was really addressing the nuts and bolts of connecting to an actor and helping them through a performance with the kind of specificity I was looking for.”
Let’s face it, film school coursework tends to be overwhelmingly technical. You learn lighting and how to hold a boom. Lenses, apertures, frame rates, digital workflows, the 180-degree rule. You’re immersed in major trade crafts like screenwriting, cinematography, editing and sound. If you’re lucky, you leave understanding what a producer does and how to write a business plan. Your software fluency includes Final Draft, Avid, Creative Suite and maybe things like Maya. But how many times did you work with a professional actor? And supposing you did, how often did you practice technique?
In addition to an often-lopsided emphasis on technology and gear, Barnes identifies as problematic the widespread film school practice of using one’s fellow directors as actors. “You don’t actually learn or develop a practical vocabulary with which to adjust performance, because you’re not coming into contact with a level of actor who has experience and training and is approaching their art with craft. Because often your fellow directors have very little experience in terms of approaching a scene problem from the actor’s point of view.” Or put more bluntly: if students are learning filmmaking with real cameras and lights, then why not with real actors?
Enter Adrienne Weiss and The Tools.
Weiss began directing theatre in high school, continued at Yale and became a working director after graduation. Her first feature film, Love, Ludlow, premiered at Sundance in 2005. The Tools evolved through trial and error, with Weiss picking up pieces of technique here and there – from Gister, for example – and taking note of things she did instinctively with actors that produced consistent results. She also noticed another pattern – accomplished actors relating stories about difficult experiences with directors. Like directors hiding in monitors, yelling and lots of “talk” without much scene-based information actors could actually use. Over time, this trial and error process, combined with candid actor testimony, led to a “eureka” moment for Weiss when she realized she might be able to help directors get better performances and release their natural talent by sharing the method that was forming in her mind. Weiss began teaching, and she eventually evolved the method now known as The Tools.
Barnes met Weiss in New York while at NYU and was drawn to her method as if by gravitational force. He began studying with Weiss and using The Tools until it became a kind of second language, delivering those elusive nuts and bolts for directing actors he’d long felt were missing from film school curriculums, while filling the “blind spot” by pairing filmmakers with real working actors. At Weiss’ invitation, Barnes began teaching The Tools, which is probably best described as a professional scene study class for directors.
There’s a prime directive driving The Tools, and it’s drawn from the deceptively obvious notion that actors, as opposed to cameras, microphones or lights, are living beings that do homework, make decisions and seek collaboration. They don’t function by power button or settings menu. Barnes elaborates, “every single actor I’ve encountered, with any degree of actual experience, can share horror stories with you about when their contribution was not honored or — worst case — abused.” He’s talking about everything from actors being ignored by directors who consider them props in the shadow of camera and visual effects teams, to directors who criticize, shame or make vague result demands like “be bigger,” “get angry” or “cry.” He sums up, “So, I think there’s a protective mechanism that goes up if an actor feels like a) the director isn’t listening, isn’t processing their contribution or b) is not able to deliver to them playable, do-able direction.”
The cardinal sin of directing? Yelling at or shaming actors who can’t “just do it” or “read your mind.” Barnes warns, “your communication with the actor is central, and trying to win that back after you terrorize them is hard. Create trust by asking questions.” Another thing that’s stressed in The Tools is [asking] a second question. “Put aside this idea that a director has to have all the answers, and instead ask questions. The actor is the one in the scene! Ask him or her what they are experiencing. What else might they want? What else might they want from their scene partner? And let them talk before you feel that you need to kind of deliver notes.” In a word, he’s talking about collaboration.
Homework is also a key concept. Barnes describes the director’s homework as reading every scene from each actor’s point of view and making a series of choices as if you were playing those roles. He explains, “they [directors] need to break the scene to understand the turning points, exactly what kind of structure is under there, what is the subtext, what’s the essential conflict, why are these characters in conflict, where are they coming from specifically, why are they in this fight, and what happens if they don’t win. That kind of scene breakdown is a first-order of business for any director.”
And Barnes warns against getting too attached to storyboards. “This idea that you have an image of the perfect scene – of how it’s supposed to look and even how it’s supposed to sound – and trying to muscle an actor into your storyboard, I think is a big mistake.” Or, as Orson Welles put it to Peter Bogdanovich in This Is Orson Welles, “I make the damnedest, most elaborately detailed plans you ever saw, and then I throw them all away. The plans aren’t made in order to be realized, they’re made in order to prepare me for improvisation. That way, an awful lot of thinking is behind me, and I’m ready for what the actors have to surprise me with. The camera has to serve the actors, not the actors the camera.”
Another bit of foundational thinking in The Tools is to avoid “result directing.” Barnes gives it a clear definition: “when somebody says ‘avoid result direction,’ they’re saying don’t put an actor in a position to pretend. They don’t want to have to illustrate or indicate something – they want to have an experience.” In other words, you’ve got to help them find the truth in a scene. “A good actor knows how to behave truthfully under imaginary circumstances. But the truth is the important part. And so, when you start asking them to behave untruthfully, that’s often when you’re gonna get push-back.”
Push-back can also arise when actors suspect that directors aren’t being their first, best audience. Actors want to work with directors who process their contribution; who are generous and have a capacity for praise; who create environments where actors can take risks and pursue choices that might create great storytelling but also might fail. Invariably, so much of this comes down to fear. Barnes elaborates, “everybody in the creative process fears failure. And worse than that, they fear that someone may be prepared only to criticize or criticize quickly. This business, from the actor’s point of view, is endless criticism.” And so, Barnes hopes directors can cultivate trust when approaching their work with actors, both in rehearsals and on set.
In fact, trust is so fundamental to The Tools, that it is the first tool. A kind of prime tool. And Barnes has a Golden Rule for establishing it: “ask that actor how they like to work best.” It’s a simple question directors should ask right away, before charging into anything else. And it’s an opportunity for the actor to express what works for them and what doesn’t. Maybe they don’t like working with personalization or affective memory. Or they’re up to their eyeballs in result direction and don’t want you telling them how they should feel. Maybe they have no preference at all and just want you to lead the way. Regardless of what they say, you’ve built a bridge by asking, and that respect can make all the difference – especially for a young or first-time filmmaker who may be working with “name” talent. Barnes explains, “that thing that was worrying them [the actor] about working with this young director is now not worrying them because they got to say it [how they like to work]. And you get to carry that into the scene work. And that will pay dividends all through the process.”
Another key tool is “Compelling Given Circumstances.” Does the actor understand the facts that create the relationship that they’re in? Do they understand their age, their occupation, where they’re coming from? It’s the director’s job to make sure that they do. Similarly, there’s “Moment Before” – did the actor really come from somewhere emotionally or physically? Did they just come from a fight or run up a flight of stairs? And what do they expect walking into the scene? If the script calls for a lovers’ quarrel, and your actors come into the scene primed for a fight, the scene might play flat. So “Contrary Expectations” is another tool – can you give your actors something to expect that isn’t on the page but allows them to have a fresh opening beat before they engage in the central conflict? In the lovers’ quarrel example, perhaps the husband expects a kiss from his wife. But when he gets confronted about his cheating instead – wham, drama!
But, returning to a concept mentioned earlier, perhaps the most powerful tool of all is “Objective” – also known as intention, motivation, want or super-objective. In The Tools, it’s designed to keep actors involved moment-to-moment with their scene partners instead of watching themselves. Barnes elaborates, “what do you want your scene partner to say or do? And in that tiny encapsulation really is the backbone of any scene. Because it’s putting your intention on your scene partner. Am I closer or farther away from getting this person, this living being here in the scene, to do or say the thing I’m trying to get them to do or say? And if not, I better try something else.” Or, as master acting teacher Milton Katselas neatly summarized it, “the scene is in your partner.”
Another way to approach Objective is to ask actors what they’re pursuing in a scene. Barnes explains, “what I’m looking for, and what Adrienne’s method helps to provide, is strong contact between performers. So, a first principle is putting your attention, credibly, on your scene partner. If you’re on your scene partner and your intention is true, and you’re pursuing an objective or you’re trying to get something from your scene partner, you can’t lose. If you abandon your partner and you start to put your attention on your performance, in the same way as a pitcher on the mound will throw into the dirt if he starts to check-in with himself, or if you’re at the free throw line and you watch yourself go through the motion, it’s never gonna go in. But if you put your attention on your scene partner, and the moment-to-moment work is on trying to change their behavior or their point of view, if you’re there you can dance all night.”
And dancing is an apt metaphor for directing actors using The Tools, in the sense that there’s a progressive way one tool plugs into the next like movement during dance. Barnes explains, “and that allows a director who’s comfortable with the tools to quickly cycle through and diagnose a scene problem. Do I need a new moment before? Does this person know what they want from their scene partner moment-to-moment? Are they trying, clearly, to get their scene partner to say or do something? Are they making their scene partner feel a way to get them to say or do something? And ultimately, do they know why they’re in the fight? Which is this nebulous notion of “Stakes” — ‘so that what?’ I want my scene partner to do or say this thing so that what? Why is it that I want them to say or do it? Why am I in the fight? Why I’m struggling to get them to say or do this thing is what lifts the scene, what really gives you that rising tension.”
But Barnes is quick to point out a danger with the dancing metaphor – namely, approaching The Tools as if it were a checklist in some formal routine. He warns, “in no way should you think about The Tools as, ‘oh, I need to do these 10 things in rehearsal, one after another.’ Because often many things are already functioning. So, in no way are you throwing all the tools at a scene – you’re using them to ask yourself questions about what the scene needs. And the reason there are 10 is so that you can come at it many different ways. And that not only helps you help each individual actor around their own individual blocks, but it allows you to keep it fresh through many set-ups and many takes. Because you’re coming at a scene problem in different ways.”
And all of the tools are designed to work equally well in rehearsal or on set. Barnes explains, “my hope is that you will be afforded some rehearsal, and The Tools will help you to run that rehearsal, to get underneath the scene and really get it on its feet. But we all know that that’s not always the case. But my hope, in an ideal world, is that you use The Tools to diagnose scene problems, you then remind yourself — I write it down — what you need to bring to set. And then on set, you try to help the actors get back to where you were in rehearsal and go further. So that you can make very quick adjustments on set in a whisper or just walking to the corner of a set that will immediately produce a change in the scene.”
When mastered and used properly, The Tools can help foster a collaborative relationship with actors, so that they feel trusted, so that they feel that they trust the director, and so that they feel their choices have been honored and listened to and tried. Trust that the director has some ability to diagnose a scene problem and help actors out of a blind alley, or when they know it’s flat but don’t know why – so that they can look to the director and hear something that’s playable, something that they can do. Barnes summarizes, “I think that’s a big leap for many directors when they can quickly identify a scene problem. What’s flat, what’s unfocused, what needs attention? And when a director can quickly identify that, I think that actors respond very positively because they love to do the next thing, they love to play. Even when actors say they like to discuss, they’d really rather do the scene.”
Another bonus to using The Tools is that it works with actors of any experience level, because every actor’s needs are going to be different, and that’s part of the process. Barnes paints the picture, “What I love about directing actors is it’s an act of translation. On my left I might have a Royal Shakespeare trained actor. And on my right, I might have the guy who happens to own the bodega and is just doing a one-day walk-on part. And I still have to give them each playable direction. Some actors come to the table so unbelievably prepared and so confident in their own technique and their own approach that they might require very little. If you listen to their ideas, you might be able to build on them and create something wonderful without a whole lot of conversation.”
It’s a strategy, in the end, that really does sound a lot like dancing. A dance you can set in motion with actors of any skill level, in any situation. Which brings Barnes full-circle to his faith in The Tools. “She [Weiss] combined fresh tools of her own design with re-framed tools from existing techniques and boiled everything down to a definition that could be released in a whisper, a really succinct way of phrasing what any given tool is designed to do. And that phrasing, in my view, is just as effective with a nine-year-old with no training as it is with a 39-year-old who’s done 30 movies.”
If you’re interested in directing, especially the elusive craft of directing actors, Barnes is the kind of person whose passion for the subject can captivate you for hours. But in the end, after all the foundational concepts are laid down and The Tools explored in detail, Barnes insists directing all comes down to one thing: “it teaches us about being human. I mean, that’s the whole point of any scene is to plug-into and experience something that humans experience. And for me, what I love about directing is, I never know, no matter how much homework I do, I never know what’s gonna happen when I get into that scene with two talented actors. There’s something that will be created in that moment that I could not possibly have dreamt of, and that will teach me something about what it means to be alive and a human being.”
He pauses for a moment before adding: “And the fact that I can do that any day of the week is a gift.”
If you’d like to explore The Tools with Brad Barnes in Los Angeles, you can learn more at www.directingactors.com.
Now, get out there and make some magic.
Christian Jean is a freelance director, producer and writer. He is the founder of Bon Accord Picture Company in Los Angeles.