On a recent shoot for a small feature I'm working on, the lead actress, one mega-talented Stephanie Bari Kobliska, is crammed in a smelly pickup truck with myself (writer/DP) and Chris (producer/director.) Trying to make some conversation to distract us from the smell of pig shit (see my post two weeks ago) she asks: "what is it you guys hate the most about actors?"
A good question. She's a working actress but she's always pushing, always trying to learn, and here she has two guys who might actually give her a straight answer.
My problems with actors stem directly from the two positions I occupy on the film, writer and DP. Part one is an actor thinking that the line of dialogue which suddenly sprang into their head in the heat of the moment is somehow better than the one I spent days if not weeks obsessing over. There are only a few actors in the world good enough to be allowed to improvise. Sure, lines can change, but the changes need to be aired, discussed, mulled over and, most of the time, discarded because on a film set, no one is in their right mind. An idea which seems fab on set can easily turn out to be shit. The reason is simple. When writing a script, you have all the time in the world to mull dialogue tweaks.
On set, everyone is in a class-A major fucking hurry and there isn't enough time to really work out any major changes. (In fact, when circumstances beyond our control forced a rewrite of a major scene, I pulled out my laptop, set it up on a rock in the woods and spent twenty minutes making the changes. Then we had everyone read it aloud off the screen, made a few more tweaks, and shot it. So far it seems to have worked.)
This all comes out of a larger problem, which is actors not being very good at their job. By this I don't mean to demean their ability to emote, I am speaking specifically about the technical skills that acting for film requires. Acting for film is harder than acting for the stage. When watching a stage performance, the audience is, at best 15 feet away observing the actor from head to toe. A little move of the head, a little bobbing and weaving is not going to bother anyone.
Actors also need to have a sense of light. In many set ups, you have a situation where an out of place actor can either put herself into shadow, or throw a shadow onto her fellow thespian. Actors need to be able to sense where their light is and also make sure they're not blocking someone else's light. This might mean an actor can't get as close to another actor as his instinct is telling him, or may have to come in from an angle. But there it is. Art collides with technical reality.
As an example, there's a moment in War of the Roses. Michael Douglas has just gotten into a bedtime argument with his wife, Kathleen Turner. As he lays down, he smacks the pillow, supposedly out of anger and frustration. But listen to the director's commentary and Danny DeVito reveal that he was really beating down the pillow because it was blocking his key light and throwing his face into shadow. As DeVito says "what a pro."
Hitting marks is important. Miss the mark and you'll find yourself blocking the other actor in the shot. Learning lines. My God, I don't even know why I have to say it, but why any actor would not show up on set without the lines memorized is beyond me. Learning the lines is job one. Time wasted on a low-budget shoot because and actor doesn't know his lines is beyond maddening.
Actors should not deliver lines in a barely audible whisper only to break into a full throated scream without any warning to the sound crew. Because even though it might have been the most amazing line delivery in history, it's going to be toast, because the sound mixer has cranked his levels all the way up to catch the whispering so when the scream comes, it's hopelessly overmodulated. Unusable. Trash.
Worse, you'll blow the sound-mixer's ears out. On a low-budget movie I did featuring actor Richard Lynch, he pulled this particular bit of actor idiocy so many times that our sound guy finally threw off his headphones, dropped the mixer bag and walked off set. It took us a half hour plus a heartfelt apology from Lynch, as well a promise not to do it again, to get him back.
What this all adds up to is that acting for film is as much a technical challenge as it is an artistic one. Michael Caine is a master of technical film acting and even taught classes on the topic. Adrian Brody knows lenses so well that he can look at a camera set up, ask what focal-length lens is on, and know exactly how much of him is being seen in the frame. (Thus he won't decide to pick up a pen and knock it on the desk in frustration in an extreme close-up because he knows that no one is going to fucking see it.)
An actor who wants to work in film needs to be wise to invest as much time and energy in learning how to act for the big screen as he or she does in channeling emotion. And you might want to learn how to get by without soy milk as well.