The trick to getting good performances is to get actors to do anything BUT “act”.
Acting is hard work. It takes practice, training, and a weird type of talent to be able to come across as a real person when you have cameras, lights, dollies, and boom mics all around you and directors telling you exactly how to tilt your head for the close up.
Therefore, the whole area of acting becomes a real problem for small filmmakers, because they can’t exactly go out and hire professional actors to fill all the roles in their film. This was definitely the case with Dialtone where we only had a couple actors who had any real experience.
When faced with this type of conundrum we have learned that the key is to create an environment where the actors (as untrained in the dramatic arts as they may be) DON’T have to act.
My wife Natalie is playing Abby in Dialtone, and she is a wonderful natural actress. She’s so honest, innocent, and attentive to people that she comes across as believable and likeable even with zero acting experience.
In the crash scene that we were filming she had to look terrified as if a truck was about to hit her when the car wasn’t even moving. (This is after enduring a long night of filming already.) So to help her out I just drove a jeep at her as fast as I could and slammed the brakes just before getting to her car.
We did a lot of takes of that shot, but that first one was by far the best because she wasn’t expecting it and actually WAS terrified of being hit by a car.
She didn’t have to act. She actually thought for a brief second that I wouldn’t stop in time and was able to simply be terrified of being hit.
The trick is to create a real moment like that for every shot you need to get, which isn’t easy. One of our actors had a tough time flicking a light switch on believably because the first time I walked him through the scene I talked about it without mentioning the light switch.
“You look ahead and see the… blah blah blah… and then absentmindedly flick the switch.” It just didn’t look right because he kept trying to “act absentmindedly” and do this and that, while flicking a switch. It would have been much better to just say “walk up to the switch slowly, look at it and the turn it on like you would your bathroom light in the morning.” See the difference? If you allow actors to simply focus on a task, they don’t have to act. The natural interactions, facial expressions, inflection of the lines will come out automatically.
Our DP directed a scene that focused on a crowd of people’s shoes as they walked angrily out of an office. He could have said, “walk out angry”... but instead he brilliantly said “take long, fast strides as you walk out”. They didn’t have to act… they just had to do, to be.
Those are just a few examples. Another thing that helped was to actually write the script with specific actors in mind for the characters. We had the luxury of knowing who a few of our potential actors would be for this project, so we wrote characters and lines for them. This allowed them to simply be themselves. It made their acting much more natural after they heard that the part was written for them because it took off that pressure to “act like someone else.”