There are a lot of ways to identify an inexperienced director, no matter how careful you are. But the most egregious mistake a director can make has to be a tactic called “line readings.” Basically, it’s a director saying a line to an actor and requiring they repeat it on screen or stage exactly as prompted, no further interpretation needed.
I will also wager a guess that there are a lot more line readings being tossed around in the web series world because directors are also usually the writers, and many web series writers come from writing disciplines, not film. Writers not only imagine the cadence and delivery of different lines as they write, but they have to be those characters as they develop and write and rewrite the story. And if that same writer is also directing the piece, it can be frustrating to get actors to speak the way you envisioned, especially if the writer/director in question is new to the directing side of things.
At first, this concept was just going to be an example of a common directing mistake in a larger post about directing, but the more I asked around, the more I realized how many feelings both actors and directors had about this topic. So below are the four reasons line readings are the worst trick in a director’s book, and five things you could do differently.
Reason #1: Line readings dilute the collaborative relationship between actor and director
If you’ve read my past articles for Stareable, you know that my favorite sentence is “filmmaking in inherently collaborative.” The relationship between an actor and a director is arguably even more important than a director and their crew, because acting is an incredibly vulnerable experience and being able to trust the person in charge is vital.
Jamie McKeller @redshirtjamie , creator and director of the web series I Am Tim Helsing, elaborates: “If I'm not happy with a performance from one of the cast it's my job to collaborate and discuss until everything clicks,” he says. “If a director gets to a point where they're acting it out, they've failed.”
Actor Julian Hermano (The Uncanny Upshurs and 12th Grade Or Whatever) agrees, and continues by saying “for a director to remove the collaborative process is removing the human element of acting.”
Reason #2: Line readings reveal or imply a lack of trust in the actor
Collaboration is important, yes, but even more important is trust. Sometimes, as McKeller points out, “actors bring interpretation of text to the project, have (hopefully) spent time creating character and with that, a tone.” They won’t feel comfortable bringing new, fresh interpretations to the table if they don’t trust they’ll be heard or taken seriously, though.
Actress Kelly O'Neal confides that line readings “tell the actor you don't trust her or need her creative input. This undermines her confidence and-worse- robs you of being surprised and surprising your audience.” McKeller agrees, adding “you lose confidence, you question choices, your performance falters.”
Reason #3: Actors aren’t just warm bodies
Hermano explains. “As an actor, I can think of few things more draining than watching someone do the acting for you, line after line, and trying to copy it, removing the freedom of interpretation or your own choices.”
At a certain point, the director isn’t directing: they’re acting. Think of it this way: no one would let a director redo the gaffer’s lighting, the DP’s shot, and the sound person’s boom positioning at every turn, so why is acting for the actors allowed? If you just want a group of PAs to assemble things and leave the rest to you, fine, hire a group of PAs. Yes, a director is ultimately responsible for set, but there’s a reason they hired all these other people to be there, and there’s no way the film going to look as good as it would if you had other opinions in the mix.
As Hermano puts it, after a line reading “you're not the director's mouthpiece, you are the director's echo, an imitation with less strength and voice.”
Andrew Williams @Andrewdwilliams1989, director of both seasons of Brains and DP of Relativity, goes even further. “Your actors won’t be focusing on the character - what they want and how they are trying to get it from their scene partners - if they're using brain power trying to replicate the director’s performance.”
Reason #4: It exposes your insecurity as a director
As a director, the most important trait to have is confidence. Confidence that you can get the product you want, confidence in your language and communication, and confidence in the way you carry yourself. People need to trust that you have what it takes and that you know what you’re doing, and the more line readings you give out, the more you’re undercutting yourself.
Line readings are amateur, and they reflect badly upon you as a director, no matter what level you’re at. They show a lack of confidence in your cast, yes, but they also show a lack of confidence in yourself to give good acting notes. Yes, line readings are easier than nudging an actor towards the performance you want, but that’s why they’re so dangerous to you and your position on set. Confident people don’t need the easy way out that requires no outside input.
As Andrew puts it, “It can be easy to get hung up on a specific line or moment, but never forget that you're directing something much larger. Focus on making the scene work as a whole. Is it engaging? Does it tell the story? Does it fit into the larger narrative? Don’t be so precious about a specific directing choice that you lose perspective on what you're actually trying to do.”
So what should you do instead?
Before I say anything else, as always, my top tip for anyone in any film position is to COMMUNICATE. Communicate your vision for the film and for the individual scenes and characters to your actors, and listen to what they have to say. Better still: communicate WHY your vision is what it is, and be flexible and willing to tweak that vision if someone has a better idea. The more prepared everyone is, and closer everyone is to the same page, the better the process is going to be for everyone, and the less coaching the actors will need.
That said, here are some tips for alternate directing strategies to line readings:
Rehearse. I know that can get tricky to schedule, because for most web series, if everyone is available by some grace of God, you shouldn’t be rehearsing, you should be shooting. However, with good planning, one or two rehearsal days just reading the lines in someone’s apartment can be the difference between a good scene and a great one.
Encourage different choices. I learned a lot from watching my show’s director Andrew Williams work, but the best thing by far is this piece of advice: “make a different choice.” Be clear about when a new choice is needed, for a particular line or moment. The point is to tell the actor where a potential problem is in the scene without prescribing a particular solution, thereby letting them find it themselves. If the new choice comes from the actor, it will be integrated into their larger performance, and not a sore thumb.
Ask questions. If a particular line or moment isn’t working for you, ask the actor why they’re delivering it the way they are. More often than not, they’ve come to a different conclusion about the scene or the character, and might need guidance to get back on track. And sometimes, their conclusion is better than yours, so lean into that. Remember: there’s a reason you hired them.
Try something new. Andrew explains, “If I feel a scene is falling flat, I’ll sometimes give one of the actors a secret objective or a surprise action. If the other performers stay in the scene, this can make a stale scene fresh again. Because let’s face it, it’s hard to play something the same way over and over again and maintain the immediacy and urgency. Even changing something small can have ripple effects throughout the whole scene.” An example of this: we were once filming a scene where my character was supposed to be interrupted by a knock at the door. We weren’t actually having anyone knock, worried about sound, but one take, Andrew instructed one of the crew members to actually make a loud knocking sound without letting me know, and it added a whole new energy and surprise to the scene.
Give them the final take. If you notice an actor getting frustrated that they’ve only acted your interpretation of the scene rather than theirs, throw them a bone. Once you’ve gotten the take you want, do one more, instructing the cast to throw away all your notes and just go with what they feel. They’ll usually incorporate more of your notes than they expected to, and while usually this isn’t a take you’ll ultimately use, sometimes it’ll reveal something amazing, and your actors will always appreciate the opportunity to flex.
Bottom line: never forget that filmmaking is collaborative, and no matter how much power you have on a project, the best directing style is one that allows for flexibility, teamwork, and discovery.