Working With Actors as a Director: Preparing your Shooting Script

Manu had an idea for a script that's what we call an abstract, loosely based on an acting exercise where the actors use nonsense dialogue or the same dialogue, and play around with different actions.

For this script, we wanted the actors to say directors notes from a script. What you might find in a detailed shooting script. Just to be clear, normally a script from the writer has very little shooting notes. It's usually just the dialogue and the action. Whatever director's attached to a project will decide how he or she will want to shoot that script.

Now, in a shooting script, you can add that kind of information, but the main difference between the two is a shooting script has the much needed and important nomenclature called scene numbers.

What I like to add in a shooting script are details about the actions and certain things I'm looking for in a scene. The thing that is important to keep in mind is if you think about a play versus a film. In a play, actors act. The only mechanics that are going on are where they are, their blocking on stage, what they're wearing, and the lighting. Right? And maybe some special effects. But otherwise, the actors are doing their thing.

In film, we have how we film the actors. The type of shot. Wide, tight, if we pan, zoom, and what not. And we also have editing, as well, montage.

But regardless, we still have to get the performance on camera. It's really important and, especially on independent films and small projects, easy to miss when we get caught up in all the technicalities of filmmaking.

We knew to go into this that part of this exercise meant we were locked into certain shots and a specific edit. That is, the actors were stating on-camera what the shot was.

This meant we didn't have the breathing room to cut around and use the power of editing when needed, or modify, or create something different. We were locked in. That was an experiment for us that forced us to work at getting the performance on camera.

One of the things that I do on my shooting scripts is I mark up what I'm looking for in the different shots.

In the opening, I gave James as Brad a scene need “to gain worth as a man.” Now the viewer doesn't know that. They don't hear it in the dialogue. It's all displayed in his acting, and in the actions that he's giving. His actions were to brag and to boast to his friend on the phone.

Courtney, as Jennifer, her scene need was to hold on to self-worth as a woman. Right off the bat, with those two different scene needs, you can see a little bit of conflict. He's trying to gain while she's trying to hold on. This can also make them co-dependent.

The idea of scene needs and actions for actors may be a new concept for you but no worries, I'm working on a directing actors video segment that will go into a lot more detail.

I was trained in this method in New York City by the amazing Lenore DeKoven. She originally trained as an actor in the 50’s and was directing in the 60’s and 70’s when very few women were. In her career, she’s worked out wonderful ways to work with actors.

Because here's the thing. Actors aren't marionette puppets. We're not controlling everything they're doing. They're like any other talent on set. I don't tell a cinematographer how to light. I tell them the mood I'm looking for. It's the same thing with an actor. I communicate certain things to them, which is "Well, here's the point of this script, for me. Here's my perception of it, and the point that I want to make."

Then I work with them. I look at what they do as the character, and then I have a language to use with them, which are these scene needs that drive them, and actions. Actors are making constant choices. That's what actors do when they're in that mode, they're making choices moment, to moment, to moment. That's where I work with them.

Now, one example is when, the low shot of Courtney, she's actually saying "Cut to a low shot for dominance." So her action was "to dominate."

But I realized it wasn't working. It wasn't giving me what I needed at this point. That's when I realized her action should be, "to resist." Brad is kneeling and his action is to charm. So hers is "to resist," and you then we get this back and forth. Now the shot worked.

This is not to control what an actor does, because you want them to be the character and surprise you, to bring something to the performance. It's a way to tweak it and adjust it a little bit. Instead of saying you want an actor to be angrier, think of an actor who was steaming compared to one boiling or enraged.

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James Aaron Oh as Brad

Courtney Shaffer as Jennifer

Jess Centorbi As Other Woman


Michael Oh


Acting/Directing Teacher Lenore DeKoven


“Right Place, Right Time”

by Silent Partner from YouTube Audio Library

“Comparsa - Latinesque” by Kevin MacLeod

licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution license (