Directing Actors: Creating Memorable Performances For Film And Television 25th Anniversary Edition by Judith Weston (book review).

April 19, 2021 | By | Reply More

I did ask if there was going to be much different with the ‘25th Anniversary Edition’ re-release of Judith Weston’s ‘Directing Actors: Creating Memorable Performances For Film And Television’ book and told there was. Sixty extra pages for a start. In her intro, Weston points out that her original book is now used as the standard text to refer to by directors in motivating and understanding actors needs and ‘The Matrix’ is going to be used here as a demonstration piece.

I don’t know how many of you read introductions to your books but this is an important one as Weston points out the problems directors have with communicating what they want from their actors. If you have problems like that then seeing her hit on the problems will make you think.

As I think I said with the original book, there is a lot to learn for prose writers here in how to develop characters and certainly emotional responses so don’t think this book is exclusively to film and TV productions. You can see this from the second chapter where an actor expects to give an honest performance, a lot of it is believing in what you are doing. When I play parts in writing my first person stories, I live within the criteria of character requirement and be honest to the belief the character has, hence I can get away with monologues. It’s a form of method acting although dependent on information criteria. However, a lot of the time its also a look at how different is it from the normal me.

Although this book is targeted at directors to understand and communicate with actors, I suspect it will also help actors understand other actors as well. The aspect of listening is an important third chapter. Equally, the fourth chapter of the director using verbs to tell the actors what he wants even more so. Maybe its just me never visiting a studio, I do have to wonder at certain aspects of the ‘note’ giving. I wish Weston had given some more detail of signs to be careful of. Sensitive actors to a new production are far more nervous and think their performance is being criticised or they are facing being fired than actually having useful pointers as to what is needed in the scene.

It would have been useful to spot the warning signs so as to put them at their ease more. Looking at what I wrote here, I do have to wonder if ‘notes’ is a good choice of word even though it’s a common word for production and cast.

For those wondering if Weston looks in on other genres, she does. There’s references to Harry Potter, ‘The Matrix’ and even ‘Alien’ with some quotes from Ridley Scott. I’m less sure about the reason about Brett wearing a Hawaiian shirt as being something he bought in an intergalactic gift shop though on page 119. Considering much of the standard outfits are white, maybe it was to have a bit more colour and individualism and explains Lambert wearing boots rather than plimsols.

Don’t expect to do a read rush through this book. Some chapters will take digesting, especially the fifth dealing with emotional content and making each scene count. For those who think any story, be it on paper or screen, needs to have every last detail shown should read and digest this chapter. Weston’s observations, along with director Mike Nichols views, will make you pause and take note as to what is really happening in a scene, especially its subtext. A reader/viewer might not consciously pick up on it but this is often what gives a scene its punch and emotional cues. Nichols questioning whether the scene is about a fight, a seduction or a negotiation will set you pondering. Rather interestingly, Weston’s analysis of Ripley’s rise in command and does things her own way is common to both the ‘Alien’ films makes sense once she’s let loose.

The ‘Script Analysis’ chapter has a depthy look at a small scene from ‘The Matrix’ when Neo first returns, showing how much work in subtext is done and the need for directors to pay attention to actors’ ideas when prepping a scene. I doubt if the viewer will spot all the nuances noted here but it would be interesting to see what would have happened with a different sub-text. Oddly, the end line from Cypher, taken out in the final scene, makes more sense if you think Trinity fell for the other four potentials Neos in the past than for him, which shows, I think, that I got it.

Again, this chapter is useful for all sorts of professions. Fiction writers do tend to write things and assume the reader doesn’t need to understand the subtext but knowing a few tricks that can be applied means you can prepare them for some revelation later and they can pick up on a second read.

Give yourself at least an hour to read the long ‘Rehearsal’ chapter straight through, although I suspect it will end up being constantly re-read as it shows how to communicate with other people. I know it has an influence on me from her original edition even if I already had a command of seeing other people’s points of view. This chapter gives the actors at work and how much management you need to give and not to micromanage but understand subtext. Learning new skills is for everyone and if you can give it understanding and listening, it’s always an advantage.

There are also chapters on how to get performances out of non-actors, children and making comedy work that should overcome problems you might have. If this book is an asset for the pros, then those of you who are experimenting with amateur film-making are going to learn a lot on how to get on with people while making them.

There are a lot of things I’ve learnt over this book as you can see. I did wonder why at auditions, why weren’t performances weren’t recorded and you’re not supposed to because you might steal or use something you learnt. Saying that, I do have to wonder when some actors send in a taped audition, especially under lockdown conditions, how they get around that problem?

My immediate reaction from finishing this book is I wanted to direct a film so its quite understandable why this book is favoured by directors. For actors, understanding the director’s point of view can also allow them to meet them half-way as well. For us writers in any medium, it should help create more engaging scenes and certainly help some of you develop a subtext that you can underlay to the reader.

I suspect this latest edition will also sell out so be sure to get your copy.

GF Willmetts

April 2021

(pub: Michael Wiese Productions, 2021. 390 page indexed enlarged paperback. Price: $29.95 (US), £21.74 (UK). ISBN: 978-1-61593-321-1)

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About the Author ()

Geoff Willmetts has been editor at SFCrowsnest for some 21 plus years now, showing a versatility and knowledge in not only Science Fiction, but also the sciences and arts, all of which has been displayed here through editorials, reviews, articles and stories. With the latter, he has been running a short story series under the title of ‘Psi-Kicks’ If you want to contribute to SFCrowsnest, read the guidelines and show him what you can do. If it isn’t usable, he spends as much time telling you what the problems is as he would with material he accepts. This is largely how he got called an Uncle, as in Dutch Uncle. He’s not actually Dutch but hails from the west country in the UK.

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