My Golden Rule (For Directors): Wallace Shawn

Although I think of myself primarily as a writer, and I’ve written films, I’ve never directed a film.

Most of my experience in film comes from being an actor, so, as an actor, I’m going to tell you my one golden rule about how to direct. If you follow my rule, you will get the best possible performance out of me and other actors like me, although of course it’s possible that there are a few actors—very few—who are constructed differently from me and who would not give a better performance of you follow my rule. Regrettably, my rule is not a rule that can be easily followed simply because you may be convinced by what I tell you. But I believe that what I’m saying is true, so if you are planning to direct a film and you feel it will be difficult for you to follow the rule, you will have to figure out whatever it is you need to do to enable yourself to follow the rule, and then you must do that. So.

RULE NUMBER ONE: Be happy. In your daily life, off the set, when we, the actors, are not around, you may be a depressive person, you may be sad, even miserable, but you have to understand that because of some physiological process which science cannot yet explain, once we, the actors, know that you are the director, our brain waves and our soul waves become mysteriously connected to yours, and a powerful force quite out of our conscious control makes us desperate to please you. You may be lively, or you may be quiet, but if we feel that you are someone who can’t be pleased, we will sink very low, and the spark of inspiration and joy in us will die out. If we feel we can please you, we will follow you anywhere. And the amazing fact is that even if we ourselves are narcissistic egomaniacs, what we actually enjoy more than anything is a director who is pleased not only by us but by all the people working on the set. The fact that the director understands, appreciates, and loves the beautiful smooth turn executed by the person pushing the dolly makes us feel that we’re acting in a magical space full of extraordinary creatures, which in fact we are.

Please remember that making a film can have an artistic purpose, and it can have a commercial purpose, and it of course has the purpose of creating something that will be meaningful to people in an audience one day when the film is completed, but it is also an important experience in the life of the people making the film. It’s very much up to you whether that experience is wonderful and revivifying or awful and discouraging. And of course you may be frustrated or even tormented by the possibly terrible circumstances in which you find yourself making the film, but all the same we are there each morning eager to do our best for you. Take pleasure in that. And please remember that if you are directing a film, you are a very lucky person. You could be working on an assembly line in a hellish factory making parts for computers.

I’m not asking you to be falsely cheerful. Unfortunately for you, actors are connoisseurs of truthfulness—our whole job is about knowing the difference between what is real and what is fake—so you can’t fool us. You actually have to be happy. MM

Wallace Shawn adapted and stars in Jonathan Demme’s upcoming film A Master Builder. A Master Builder opens in limited theaters July 23, 2014, and a wider release through August, courtesy of Abramorama.

Photograph by Declan Quinn / Courtesy of The Ibsen Project, LLC.

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