W.C. Fields is reported to have said, “Never work with children or animals.” Good advice. But we all know that children can give some of the most riveting performances and they can possibly elevate a movie from good to great. Just look at the performances last year in Beasts of the Southern Wild and Looper. What would these films be without the performances of Quvenzhané Wallis and Pierce Gagnon?
Before we can really discuss the down and dirty of directing children, we must first look at three essential steps: The Character, Pre-Casting, and Casting.
You have a script and there’s a child (or children) character in it. As you review the script, begin by asking yourself these three important questions:
(1) How well conceived and delineated is the character?
(2) Are the behaviors, attitudes and sensibilities of the character age appropriate?
(3) And, perhaps most importantly, do you have enough information and experience with a child this age to really know?
Let’s assume, for the sake of discussion, that one of the characters in your film is a rather extraordinary seven-year-old boy. Do you, the director, really understand what it is like to be a seven-year-old boy? When is the last time you spent any time with seven-year-olds? And, remember something else: seven-year-olds are not the same today as they were 10, 25 or 50 years ago.
Likewise, seven-year-olds who are raised in New York are not the same as those raised in Nebraska. Then there are ethnic and cultural environments to consider. To make things more complicated, you must also think about the family environment, whether it is functional or dysfunctional, supportive or abusive, stable or fractured.
The point is this: all these elements help form the child.
Of course, you’re thinking, “I know that already.” But also remember, a child actor, as opposed to the trained and experienced adult actor, will have a hard time shedding his own life experience and then taking on the one as defined in the script. It is you, the director, who has taken on the responsibility of guiding the selected seven-year-old into and through this very specific world. Good luck!
Before you even begin to consider the casting process, you need to take one major and crucial step: immerse
yourself in the world of children. Or, more specifically, into the world of the child in your script. For those of you who’ve worked with me in the past, you know one of my favorite pieces of advice to give directors about working with actors is “get into the sandbox with them”. Don’t assume you know everything and certainly don’t assume that the script, no matter how brilliant, is giving you all the information you need. Remember, the script is merely the “result”. It will only reflect what the child character says and does and where he says and does it. It will not reveal the inner workings of that child character and that’s what you need to know and understand more than anything else. Here is where we as directors need to open ourselves to receive. Just like children, we must be naïve, innocent, open and available.
As you find or create as many opportunities as you can to be around children, especially children of the same age, background, ethnicity, etc. as the character in your script, remember you are not yet looking for the child in your film. These experiences are not casting sessions. They are not intended to be the search for the perfect child. Your goal is to let the children teach you about the child in your story. Don’t assume you know yet what you are looking for – you don’t. Allow yourself the rare and wonderful opportunity of discovering what is possible and what is real in the world of children. Open yourself up to the world of the unexpected.
Once you have immersed yourself in the world of children for a sufficient amount of time (you will know when that time is), you are ready to take the next step: Casting.
As you begin your search, ask yourself this question: Are you looking for a child who can play the part or are you looking for a child who is the part?
The child who can play the part is an actor who takes on a personality that is different from himself. There is a level of disconnection between the actor and the character.
But, a child who is the part will embody the character immediately. He will always be “in character” because he is the character. There will be little disconnection between the actor and the character. This can either be a plus or a minus. A plus because the child is always the character; a minus because the child is most likely unable to distinguish between himself and the character, and this lack of disconnection could cause problems in many unexpected ways.
I suggest you go for the child actor who can play the part. You want to be able to separate the child actor from the character so you have more control over choices and performances.
One other thing to remember about casting: this is where you begin to explore how each child actor will respond to you and your style of directing. This is where the relationship with that child actor will begin.
In order to keep the separation between child and actor clear and clean, be very specific about when you are addressing the child and when you are addressing the character. Using the name of the child or the name of the character is the quickest way to establish a clear delineation between actor and character, especially for the child. And, as you shift from actor to character and back again, you will quickly perceive each actor’s ability (and willingness) to make clear distinctions between actor and character.
This is where you have to start when directing children. Not only with the child himself, but also with the character that the child’s imagination can create so brilliantly. And, if the child embraces the character totally, then 80% of your work is done. Congratulations.
In next month’s newsletter, you will receive Directing Children, Part II: 5 Critical Tips and Guidelines to Directing the Child Actor.