Directing Children, Part I: Through the Eyes of a Child

Quvenzhane Wallis; Beasts of the Southern Wild

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.

The Character

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!

Pre-Casting

Before you even begin to consider the casting process, you need to take one major and crucial step: immerse

Pierce Gagnon; Looper

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.

Casting

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.

13 responses to “Directing Children, Part I: Through the Eyes of a Child”

  1. Patti

    Hi, Mark,
    I enjoyed your article, Part One. I never made that distinction of the child being the character or the child acting the character. I can see now that there would be a difference in the child/director relationship and must be considered. Looking forward to Part Two…

  2. David O'Hara

    If the child is the character, rather than plays the character, then maybe you should follow the child’s lead rather than impose the director’s artificial choices. The child may lead to totally unexpected, but more ‘real’ places than the writer could have conceived.

    Robert Duval, when asked how does he know when it’s right: “If I am the character, I can’t do it ‘wrong’.

    Great actor’s directors are the stewards of a living, breathing film, not the puppet masters.

  3. melanie chartoff

    Wonderful piece, Mark, about a little known aspect of working
    safely with child actors. They can go to some dark place and
    come back unscathed, if they can play pretend healthfully.

  4. Yannis Zafeiriou

    I wrote, produced,directed and edited a music video starring 23 kids aged 3.5 to 10 for EMI Music – Greece.

    http://www.yanniszafeiriou.com/as_long.html

    We only had 10hours to shoot it on the day, and the only trouble I had was the kids getting somewhat tired from all the waiting around.

    Other than that, it was a pleasure and a joy to work with all of them, and a tremendous privilege to witness their talent and dedication. I feel child actors can be better actors, “purer” actors than adults, because they have not yet “left” that “make believe” stage we all go through and they find it very easy to jump into character, as long as they see it as a fun experience.

    That doesn’t mean they’re not professional. They’re VERY professional, BUT they trust and depend totally on you to not exploit their time, energy and presence.

    I am happy to say that their parents (who were all present during the shoot and saw the final result), have told me how much fun their children had and what a beautiful souvenir of their childhood this video makes.

    Oh. And most of them wanted more screen time. That especially pertains to my nephew and twin nieces who also appear in it, and who have never stopped complaining to me about the extent of their final screen time 🙂

    Yannis

    1. Kris

      Yannis-
      Great video! Thank you for the link to it. It was great to read your comment first, then watch it, and then read what you had on your website about it being like a long dress-up party.

      Mark–
      Thank you so much for compiling these great tips; I’m about to read part II. I have a lot of experience working with young kids (from 5-25, because yes, you never really grow up until after college 😉 ) but casting and directing them is a whole new game. I’m feeling more confident after reading your advice, thank you!

      -Kris

  5. Landon Steele

    Hi Mark.
    I really appreciate this article!
    You may cover this in part 2, but I’m curious about working with 1 year old child actors.
    I’m in the beginning stages of a script for a movie about two children surviving the Rwanda Genocide in 1994 (I know the older one personally. He is 25 years old now). He was 5 at the time and his little sister was 1.

    Would it be better to cast a slightly older girl for the role who is, perhaps, 3 years old, so she is able to communicate better and know more of what we need without complications?

    1. Mark

      Landon,
      For some reason I just received this response to my blog now. Over two years later. But I do want to respond.

      I don’t have a lot of experience working with one-year old actors. It would be an enormous challenge, I can imagine, and would be come more of a documentary shoot, catching and capturing what you can. also, it would be the interactions with the adult actors that would most likely be the most effective, the one-year old not really understanding that there is a ‘director’ and being so young that there is literally no distinction between self and character.

      Yes, casting an older child could help. But since your letter was left two years ago I can only imagine that you have completed this project by now. I would love to hear how it turned out.

      All the best, Mark

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