Ivan Passer on Directing

A Still from Intimate Lighting

Last weekend I was lucky enough to see Czech director Ivan Passer speak about his film Intimate Lighting at the Silent Movie Theatre. It’s an awesome movie, one filled with moments of humor, emotion, and wisdom; all of which feel understated and real. Written in 1965 while Czechoslovakia was under communist control, it’s a truly beautiful, incisive look at small-town life—independent, sly, and even slightly subversive.

After the show Passer answered questions from the audience. I was fascinated to learn that all but one of the actors were non-professionals; many were found on the streets of Prague. It shows, the acting feels natural and unrehearsed.

Passer did mention he had difficulties with one actress, the grandma. He had found her outside a “film club” in Prague. She was a widow who agreed to come with Passer to the country even before she knew he was shooting a movie.

When this actress came on set, her choices were hokey and Passer thought he would have to replace her. In fact, on that first day of shooting, he took the film out of the camera because he knew that all of the scenes with her in it were ruined. He sent out assistants to scour the village for an older woman who could play the grandma. At lunch, they came back empty-handed. Passer was nervous. This was his first movie—his first day—as a director. He couldn’t report back to his producers that he had nothing.

He took the older woman aside after lunch and told her, “You know, I want you to know that you have very pretty eyes. You don’t need to do much more than show your beautiful eyes” (I’m paraphrasing here). After that, the actress calmed down. They redid some of the scenes from the morning and from then on, almost magically, she became one of the stand-outs of the film.

I think as a director you have to let your actors know that they have pretty eyes. You have to give them the confidence to go on stage or on camera. Because let’s face it, actors are some of the most nervous, miserable, needy people in the world. A director’s duty is to make the actors feel comfortable, in charge and dynamic. It can be as simple as telling an actress that she has pretty eyes, or even laughing after a take.

Whenever I direct (which isn’t often these days) my first job is to make my actors comfortable and happy. The worst films I have done the actors did not know each other, didn’t care about the material, and didn’t want to. And it shows on the final take or performance. The most fun plays I have done, like Roland, a lot of the rehearsing took place off the stage when we were getting to know each other. It’s hard work, but that bond of mutual respect and admiration, among the actors, crew, and director, makes the final performance that much nicer.

So my question this week is: who do you think are the best directors and why? What do you think makes a good director?

5 responses to “Ivan Passer on Directing

  1. Ooo, so I am completely ill-equipped to answer your question, but I wanted to say that I LOVE the anecdote you related about the grandmother actress. What a great story! I’m glad the film turned out so well too. 🙂

    As for your question… I do think James Cameron has shown that his direction leads to impressive films. To me, that’s good. I also like Tarantino. And I’ve enjoyed Nancy Meyers’s work. And Ang Lee!

    But that’s just based on movies I’ve enjoyed, not anything I know about how they work…

  2. Hmm…I know that Cameron’s kind of a dictator on set. But he doesn’t use actors the same way that most directors do.

    Would like to know how Tarantino works. I heard from an Eli Roth interview that he is very supportive on set, which is what I expected. I’m sure actors are just so grateful to work with him they’d be willing to do anything.

  3. I think, as a writer, I need a director – someone to make me feel happy and secure so I can just get on with it already!

    I read the Drew Barrymore did a great job on the set of Whip It in making everyone feel chummy and good. The movie was cute too so it must have worked!

  4. @ Rebecca–Yes, would like a director as well. A writing director. Not a life director–that’s going too far.

  5. Nice post! I really like your posting.
    i will come back to read more of your posts.
    specially about Ivan Passer on Directing


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