I recently had the great fortune of meeting Francis Ford Coppola. Obviously, he is one of the all-time greatest film directors – so I was extremely excited to talk to him about film, directing, and what motivates him. We met after he gave a lecture at the Oklahoma City Community College about his experiences. He gave out many fantastic pieces of advice, which I learned a lot from. I am sharing his tips so that hopefully they can help you as well, or at least, give you more of an insight into the process of film directing.
1.) Watch the actors on set instead of staring at the monitor. If you’re watching the entire scene on a monitor, you might become more distracted by other things – lighting, composition, etc. Those things are important BEFORE and AFTER the scene; during the scene, your focus should be on your actors. So don’t put a video monitor between you and them – put it to the side and directly watch the actors as if you were watching a play. You may notice certain things that you would have not picked up on a video monitor.
2.) Remember – actors are often frightened. All of those stories about actors showing up late, showing up drunk, refusing to cooperate, etc.? It comes from an area of the actor that is scared. This type of behavior indicates that they are uncomfortable in some way. Do your best as a director to let them know that you have their back, that they can try different options and test things out. You may think they’re doing their job for the camera, but when it comes down to it, they’re doing it for you.
3.) Actors love props – use this to your advantage. Francis told a great story about the first time he did a screen test with Marlon Brando as the Godfather. He arrived at Marlon’s house and Marlon had long blonde hair, hardly resembling the character we saw on screen. Marlon put his hair up, smeared black shoe polish on it and put tissue in his cheeks to puff them up. To help push him further into the direction of this character, Francis came prepared with plates of cheeses, sliced meats, and even cigars. Marlon immediately gravitated towards these and played with them as he completed his screen test. Obviously, Marlon ended up getting the role.
Props can not only give a character some flavor, but they help get actors out of their own heads. Now they have something more concrete to do, something physical to take their minds off of the reality of the situation – that they are acting in front of a camera. Even if you don’t need to use props on set, they can really help your actors get in touch with their characters while rehearsing. It may be important to chat with the actor about what they think the character would use around the house, in the car, at work, etc.
4.) Acting exercises during rehearsal can really help build a good foundation. Francis loves rehearsing, but not in the way that many directors rehearse. Whereas other people focus on memorizing the lines and getting the inflections in every word pitch perfect, Francis likes to only do 1 or 2 readings of the script. This is in part due to Francis wanting the lines to feel somewhat fresh on the day of shooting. However, this is also due to him wanting to spend most of that rehearsal time with acting exercises.
One example he mentioned was a scene with a couple who has been married for 30 years. The actors in this scene may instantly jump in and start saying the lines – but a couple who has been married for that amount of time will have a long history with each other. Memories help make up a person – this should be the same with your characters. As an exercise, Francis will have the actors improvise different scenes from their history of being together – such as the first time they met, the first time they were angry with each other, the first time they got jealous, etc. After those exercises, the actors will approach the scene with a bit more of a history than they may have before.
A more recent example was Francis telling his cast to come to a costume party dressed in a costume that their character would have picked out. They also had to wear masks. When they came to the party, they improvised as their characters, with everyone trying to guess who they were speaking with merely based on their words and actions. Essentially – get creative here with how you rehearse!
5.) The magical “as-if”. This one is a more famous technique but Francis elaborated on it a bit in relation to the editing room. Acting coaches always talk about actors thinking of an “as-if” scenario to help them tap into the wants and needs of the character in the scene. You can use this technique like crazy to get different takes – even if they don’t “make sense”. Do it as if you’re very happy, even if it’s a sad scene. Do it as if the other actor killed your mother that morning. Do it as if you did a hit of ecstasy.
If you play around with this, you will end up with wildly different takes of a given scene when you start the editing process. Instead of watching 10 takes of the exact same line reading (and simply trying to figure out which take is the best), you will have options to toy with. Perhaps the take where the actor is angry (in an otherwise happy scene) makes it far more interesting. Better yet – this can give you fresh ideas about your characters and their stories.
An example Francis gave was with a mom sending her son off to college. Many actors/directors would choose to play it as a bittersweet scene; Mom is a little teary-eyed that her boy is all grown up but happy that he’s taking the next step to becoming a man. Instead, what if Mom played it as if the son was going off to a war zone? As if the son was an astronaut venturing off into space, never to return? The scene would have a completely different flavor and give you more to work with later on.
6.) Do a take with no dialogue. Often, the actors may be so animated or back-and-forth with their dialogue that, when you go to the editing room, it’s hard to pick out reaction shots. Not to mention, film is very much a “show, don’t tell” medium. Francis’ solution? Do a take where the actors THINK the dialogue in their heads but do not say any of it out loud. They may even react to each other as if the dialogue has been said, but instead, keep it all internal. This will force your actors to concentrate more on the feelings/emotions instead of fumbling with the words coming out. And when you go to the editing room? You now have another great option to use.
Hopefully these tips are helpful, or at the very least, entertaining for you! I had a great time listening to this legendary filmmaker talk about his life and his movies – he really is a very down to earth man, with a very sharp wit to boot. I will end this post with a pic of Francis and I having a chat:
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