On Directing: An Elia Kazan’s Masterclass

Elia Kazan directing Brando

If you are wondering who Elia Kazan is, we are in trouble.

He created some of the best drama for screen and stage ever:  On the Waterfront, Death of a Salesman, A Streetcar named Desire, East of Eden… He placed Brando and Dean where they belonged. He was a controversial figure too, as during the McArthy era he named names. But still, his film career is first class and his wisdom on how to make films deserves to be shared.

Jeff Young knew Kazan personally, admired his work deeply and wrote in the 90s a fantastic book called “Kazan. The Master Director Discusses his films”, If you are into writing, directing or acting, you should read it. I hope that at the end of this piece you’ll be fully convinced.

Lets us glimpse at  Kazan’s erudition.

Kazan on psychological depth:

“In the theater I’d been doing all these heavy, serious, great plays that needed very meticulous psychological handling. Streetcar, Death of a Salesman, etc. I decided that since Panic in the Streets wasn’t deep psychologically, not to pretend that it was. It was a big lesson to me. That’s a terrible kind of lie. That’s what hamminess is, pretending that here is more in something that it really is. There’s no harm in saying, “This isn’t very deep. It has other virtues. It has lightness of foot, it has surprise, it has suspense, it’s engaging”. So I decided to depsychologize it.”

On mis-en-scène:

“The best close-ups are pictorial records of a change from one attitude to another. They show a transition from one emotion to another. You see a man feeling or doing or about to do something. Instead, he changes his mind and starts to do something else. Or you see a man not notice something and suddenly he notices it.  You see a man about to run away with fear, and instead he decides to move in and face what’s scaring him. Those transitions are what close-ups are at their best. (…) You can’t photograph nothing. You photograph the moments you create.”

“Usually, emotion is a result of action. You want something. You’re balked, you can’t get it and emotion arises.”

On casting:

“Unless the character is somewhere in the actor himself you shouldn’t cast him. The person has got to have the essential qualities (…) I think it’s crucial to cast people who inside all the fronts and manners and agreeabilities and adaptabilities are like the characters you are casting.”

On acting in films:

“Listening is awfully important in the theater, but it’s even more important in films. More often that not you are photographing a person listening. (…) Listening is more than just hearing the words: it’s a total process. You not only listen with your ears but you take in the person’s intention. You listen in the deepest sense of the word.”

“ You should never feed them (the actors) more than they can eat and digest. You should never talk about the significance of the movie. That is the result of all the other factors being right and  has nothing to do with their performances. The significance is a result of their performance. Drawing charts is a dangerous thing. It becomes a lesson in logic, everything must fit into that. It can make a performance very mechanical. But you (the director) sure as hell better know where you’re going.”

On talking to actors:

“I saw a lot of brilliant guys in the theater when I was stage manager making great speeches. They should have published the speeches instead of putting the show on. Directors show off a lot, it’s a terrible thing. If you could direct a whole movie without a word of direction, you’d be better off because then the actors would be doing it spontaneously. Sometimes (…) I didn’t do anything. I read once, but then that scene is so good, the personal intentions in it are so clear, and the actors so gifted, that I did nothing. The actors knew it all. It’s so human and so basic.”

“Yes, I would tell them (the actors) quite a bit, but you don’t have to tell them too much because when you say the right things, they are very stimulating to a god actor. When you start talking too much, it’s usually because your are floundering around and don’t know yourself.”

“When I had very experienced actors (…), I gave them the basic overall objective and then each day reaffirmed it in relation to the scene that was played that day.”

“A director doesn’t have to do much, but you have to do things that go to the core of the actor’s problem. (…) A director should never feel that he has to win an argument. Not everything you say is going to be right. But hopefully everything you say is going to be stimulating. And if one thing doesn’t work, go right back two minutes later with something else. You don’t have to win. You don’t have to be the boss man.”

On objects:

“(..) There’s one part of Stanislavsky method that is underrated, but it was very central to his system and is central to all instinctively good actors, i.e. the use of objects. It’s very important to think about objects that are redolent of the script or the meaning of the action – symbols yes; the object as a symbol.”

On playfulness:

“(..) Our puritanical business-oriented civilization has defined adulthood and manliness as the absence of playfulness. But playfulness exists despite that. It is a sign of life in a  person. It’s creativity. Playing is a product of your imagination.”

On flashbacks:

“There’s a rule in using flashbacks. When you go back in time, what occurs in the past should affect the next thing that happens to the present. If you do that, the flashback is organic and necessary. If you don’t, it just seems like you’re dragging in additional information.”

On unsatisfying conclusions:

“(…) It means that something was very wrong earlier in the story”

On the laws of directing:

” What will really help is to understand that there aren’t any rigid laws. (..) When you are on your feet directing, you sometimes get crazy ideas. The only way to find out if they’ll work is to try them.”

“Directing is a craft. But you must always remember you are dealing with human beings in a human situation. There is no single way to do it. (…) Your job as a director is to try and get the audience to experience the scene the way you did. A director is a human propagandist, who says ‘This is the way I see life’.”

“The important thing is to not become rigid, to always allow yourself chances to change and to grow. Directing is a human craft. Your tools are human beings; you’re working with human values in the service of other human beings. You develop your own methodology each time out. And if you really are any good, each time out you feel as if you are learning  the craft all over again”.

Now enjoy the book!

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