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  • Writer's pictureGiles Gough

Dask Films Production Tips: How to keep actors happy

Updated: May 17, 2021

When asked by a young Henry Cavill, “What’s it like to be an actor?” Russell Crowe apparently said; “they pay you pretty well but they treat you like s***”. That’s fine, but how do you get people to show up to make a film and keep showing up when you’ve got no money to throw around? The phrase “it’ll be good for your showreel” will only get you so far! You’ve got to cultivate an environment where people want to work with you. Over the years, I’ve amassed a steady troupe of people who keep coming back because they enjoy themselves making films, and they’re proud of the end result. But there are some who don’t come back. Sometimes, it’s them, and on more occasions than I’d like to admit, it’s been me. This is a list of suggestions to make sure your actors feel understood and respected whilst on set. I’ve left out some things like basic courtesy and respect, because those are things you need for all walks of life, and “how to keep the crew happy” will be the topic of another article. Here are some pointers that a younger me would have found useful.

Make sure everyone is shooting the same film as you.

A script will tell you what is going on yes, but it won’t necessarily tell you the tone, mood or pace of a film. The people who have the most control over those elements are the actors. When critics talk about an actor looking like they were ‘parachuted in from another film’, it’s because it’s not been made clear to them what the feel of this film is. A good way to get around this is to have full discussions with your cast ahead of time, and use references to other films to establish what you’re going for. Is your time travel story more 12 Monkeys or Bill & Ted’s Excellent Adventure? If you can get everyone on the same page, it will really help.

Rehearsals are key

You don’t want your actors turning up on set and not knowing where to stand, how to move, how to deliver lines. It makes them look uninformed, it makes you look bad and it makes the crew impatient. Instead, arrange to rehearse with your cast well ahead of time. Let them offer suggestions, listen to ideas and experiment with different interpretations until you’ve found something you’re all comfortable with. Hitchcock used to plan his films in such excruciating detail that actually shooting the films got kind of boring for him.

Shoot the shoe leather scenes first

The actor Peter Mullen once said that he prefers to shoot the walking through doors scenes first. This makes a lot of sense, as every film set is different; you have people coming and going so often that you rarely have exactly the same cast and crew working on two projects. Shoe leather scenes (named so because they show characters walking in and out of places, thus wearing out the shoe leather) give people a chance to get into a rhythm before doing the complex or emotional scenes.

Have snacks ready

It might seem obvious, but having easily accessible food and drink (placed safely away from an active set) can help to keep everyone happy. Tensions can rise and tempers can get frayed whilst shooting. But have you ever seen someone be angry whilst chewing on a handful of Haribo? Of course not, because that is a scientific impossibility.

Have a dressing room

It sounds pretentious, but sometimes actors need space to prepare, chill out and go over their lines. Yes, everyone’s job is an important job, but you don’t need to go to any dark places emotionally to set up the lights (and if you do, then you’re doing it wrong). A good performance requires concentration, privacy to be vulnerable to make mistakes and just a little bit of space. I recently had to perform as Macduff in the scene where he finds out that all his family have been murdered. That was difficult to do whilst people at the other end of the theatre started loudly performing the Birdy song. Any room you can find that is warm, dry and clean should do the job.

Do they build up or burn out?

All actors have different rhythms. In some cases, a performer will give their best reading of a line on the first go, and after that, the quality might start to fall as the more they say it, the less authentic it feels. However, there are others who start off a little uncertain, and gradually build up to a point where they deliver their best performance. Work out which one you’re dealing with and adjust accordingly. A quick rehearsal of the scene before actually shooting can also help to iron out the kinks and save time in the edit.

Say “in your own time” instead of action

Stick with ‘action’ for everything else, but for tricky or emotional scenes, it might just make it easier for a performer if they feel like they are more in control of the scene, which should hopefully lead to better results.

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