SXSW: Indie Filmmakers Share Their Secrets For Working With Actors

March 23, 2015 | by Debbie Cerda

The directors of “Results,” “Uncle Kent 2,” “Hellion” and “Kumiko: The Treasure Hunter” discuss working with actors in this SXSW panel.

Independent Directors on Working With Actors SXSW Panel

Several Austin-based filmmakers shared their insights on working with actors for the “Independent Directors on Working with Actors” panel at last week’s SXSW Film Festival. The panelists included Andrew Bujalski, whose latest film “Results,” starring Guy Pearce and Cobie Smulders, premiered at Sundance and also screened at SXSW; “Hellion” writer-director Kat Candler; Todd Rohal, whose film “Uncle Kent 2” premiered at SXSW this week and David Zellner, whose film “Kumiko: The Treasure Hunter,” was released theatrically last week. The panel was moderated by Caroline O’Connor, Director of Communications for the Screen Actors Guild Foundation.

The panelists discussed casting and working with both professional and non-professional actors, as well as how their own acting has influenced their directing and how to get the performances they want from their actors. Here are some of the highlights from the discussion.

Directors should learn to act.

Zellner spoke of taking an acting class that he described as “a great experience and absolutely terrifying. It helped me so much in being a better director.” Rohal divulged that he opened for stand-up comedian Carrot Top in college in front of an audience of 1200 people. “No one liked my performance,” he conceded. Candler had a more traditional experience in high school as a “theater kid” performing in plays and musicals. However, her experience in college was difficult and so she quit and went home to focus on writing. Candler credited her time at school with learning much “in terms of communicating and working with actors.” Acting in friends’ movies also helped Candler to appreciate being “on the other side of the camera, waiting around and staying in character.”

Bujalski added that he attended theater camp at the age of 14, which he said helped him to understand that he “was not really a theater kid.” Like Candler, he credited acting in friends’ films over the years as being “a wonderful education just to experience the misery and insecurity of it.”

Actors can be insecure and vulnerable. Directors can take advantage of that.

Andrew Bujalski's 'Results'

Andrew Bujalski’s ‘Results’







When asked whether insecurity and vulnerability were the norm, Bujalski said, “This was my epiphany,” on his latest film, “Results.” Because he had done his previous four movies primarily with non-professional actors, he expected that he would find “no insecurity from these guys” — meaning his professional cast, which included Guy Pearce and Kevin Corrigan. Instead, he found that “insecurity is not something you get over. It’s part of what an actor does, to show up and grapple with that.”

“An actor comes to you and says, ‘These are my problems, what I’m freaked out about,'” he added, “and that’s the beginning of your working relationship.” Bujalski shared that one of the most difficult moments of directing “Results” was “having an actor who is brilliant, and on the surface seems quite secure…that’s the language that you direct them with.”

Candler echoed that experience with professionals. “You think they know everything,” she said, “and they are trusting you to make them look good…they are still figuring things out and you are establishing trust.”

“It’s good to tailor towards individual needs,” Zellner added. “If you cast right, that’s a huge amount of your work done.”

Learn how to direct kids.


Sundance Selects “Hellion” 

Zellner shared the importance of “doing all the work up front, hang out with them and making them feel comfortable with you.” For his earlier feature “Kid-Thing,” in which the main character is a tomboy, Zellner said that he had to “find some way [the actor] could relate emotionally to the character or situations” and emphasized the need for “relatability” rather than “just memorizing things.”

Candler, who has worked extensively with children in both the short and feature length version of “Hellion,” said that directors needed to devote time to communicating their specific needs from their young performers. “Figure out the chemistry and build the trust,” she said. “Talk to them like adults, treat them with intelligence and respect and talking them through the process of how we are going to approach the scene.”

For more difficult scenes, Candler said she walks her young actors through how she expects to get the performance, allowing room for improvisation. She added that she sometimes secretly shares character motives with only one of her performers, “to throw everyone else off and get genuine reactions.”

Don’t always go for the obvious choices.

Zellner said that for “Kumiko, the Treasure Hunter,” the casting was “all over the map,” though he only used professional actors for the scenes shot in Tokyo — even though he didn’t understand them during the audition process due the language barrier. But Zellner credited an assistant director who helped guide the process. For the casting process in America, the Zellners relied on a mix of professional and non-professional actors — both David and his brother Nathan act in the movies, and they also hired random non-professionals, whom they “direct differently based on their needs.”

The Zellner also cast their own 92-year-old grandfather in the film. “I directed him about the same way we directed the rabbit in the movie,” David Zellner said, “which is that you don’t let them learn lines, and just create an environment for them to run free — and give them treats.”

Make peace with your limitations.

Bujalski said that he found the casting of non-professional actors to be “the most thrilling part of the process, when you find someone you are interested in.” He always asks himself: “Do they make sense in my head for this role?” and “What happens if I point a camera at them?”

All the panelists agreed that the casting of Hollywood actors can be significantly more difficult as “financing depends on it, and you’re already limited by that,” according to Bujalski. “You start with the politics, and agents and managers…it’s a whole other ball of wax,” but it’s “self-selecting in a way, the great big Hollywood egos are probably not going to show up for these films. Instead, you have people who want to be there, and are committed collaborators.”

Zellner also noted that whether working with professional or non-professional actors, that he will often modify “roles towards their strengths, instead of forcing them into a certain box. Use their limitations to make the character more interesting, and build around it.”