Several years ago I wrote and was directing a half-hour episode of a TV series for children. The script was about a sixth-grader named Sam whose parents had split up. I had written the climactic scene describing Sam with tears as he admits a deception, which had been caused by his father. When it came time to shot the scene, the young actor playing Sam came up to me, very concerned. After talking to him, I realized he was afraid of two things: one, of being able to cry on cue and two, of crying. He was a boy and he really didn't want to cry in front of everyone.
In that moment, I realized that I didn't want him to cry on cue. Or cry at all, if that was how he TRULY felt. I wanted him to be real--and whatever real was, would have to be the right thing.
"But it says Sam's supposed to cry in the script. And you wrote it," he said.
It didn't matter. I wrote the script to be a good read, to allow the cast, crew and most importantly, the producers to be able to see the film in their mind's eye. But now we were actually bringing the script to life. And life isn't fake, why should acting be fake?
I told him to think about what had happened up to that point in the story and to focus on how that makes him feel, but only to worry about what he wanted to do in the scene, which was to defend his father from being blamed for what had happened. (In the story, remember, it was his father's fault.)
He was thunderstruck. I could practically see a light bulb come on over his head. What I asked him to do was really simple. He understood exactly what I meant and it was like a great weight of worry lifted off his young shoulders.
Then I add that IF he did cry as a result, he'd feel like a million bucks. Like he dunked ten baskets in a row. He was an actor and it wasn't him crying, it was Sam crying THROUGH him. He looked at me carefully, thinking hard. Then he nodded his head and went off to run the scene with the actor playing his teacher while the crew lit the set.
As soon as he left, panic punched a hole in my gut. What had I done? This was the most crucial scene in the film! It WAS important for Sam to cry. Yet, I'd told him he didn't have to? Was I crazy? What kind of director did that make me? Who was in charge? (Actually, it's the actor who's in charge, but don't tell directors that.)
I ran to set and told the crew that we couldn't "f*@k this up." (Great language for the set of a kids' film, but luckily none were in the room at the time--and remember, I was panicking.)
"We're not going to get lots of chances at this, so focus on the actors and stay sharp. Please." To their credit, they appeared to listen, then went back to work.
Just before we started shooting the scene, the terrific actor playing the teacher, Ivan Smith from Montreal, murmured to me, "It's going to be good."
The scene involved a little tricky camera move on a dolly and the first couple of takes we stopped before we got to the crucial moment as a result of some technical problems. On the third take, nothing bad happened, and as the camera moved in on Sam's face, his little lower lip started quivering and despite trying NOT to cry, a tear emerged from his eye and coursed down his cheek. His eyes filled up, he kept saying his lines throughout, a quaver in his voice. It was incredibly moving.
At the end of the take, I didn't call cut. I just walked over to him and put my arm around him and said, "see what I mean?"
He looked up at me, his eyes shining, his cheeks covered in tears--with a HUGE grin on his face.
The female first Assistant Director was sniffling when she called "cut." And the crew burst into applause.
I looked at the young actor and said, "I've been in this business for fifteen years and nobody ever clapped for me. You've been doing this three days and you got an ovation." He couldn't stop smiling.
That's why we act. Simple, but not easy.