Cut Cut Cut the Harsh Criticism

April 11, 2012

The image of an egocentric, demanding, never-satisfied Hollywood Director is so omnipresent and ingrained in our collective consciousness, it is considered a cliché. But anyone who’s worked in the business for any length of time will tell you this is no cliché; it is a living, breathing reality. A famous example of this syndrome is David O. Russell’s self-immolation on the set of I Heart Huckabbees while berating Lily Tomlin in an epic meltdown. But David isn’t the first to jump the couch–and he certainly won’t be the last. Stanley Kubrick was known to be inconsiderate and rude to the people he worked with. Legend has it he made Shelley Duvall do 127 takes of a single shot while making The Shining. Indeed, it is rumored he bullied her incessantly–a tactic many cineaste’s have credited for her harried, and unhinged performance. Cecile B. DeMille was such a tyrant he joked that he would use live bullets in a battle scene as a way to cut down on the cost of extras. And John Ford, an avowed curmudgeon, was said to have made the great icon of manhood, John Wayne, weep. These are not necessarily people you’d want to invite to your garden party. But what can we learn from these intimidating Titans? And what can you do, humble actor, if you find yourself in the maw of one of these monsters?

First, it’s important to keep the big picture in mind. These people have a high-pressure job to do. They have an enormous responsibility: to deliver a great project. And often there’s a ton of money on the line. They are feeling that pressure every step of the way, from concept to completion. You, on the other hand, are there for the duration of the shoot. This is not to minimize an actor’s contribution, but if a director is giving you a hard time, it is wise to have a little perspective. He or she may be getting heat from the suits, and in turn giving you some degree of heat.

Secondly, remember you were hired to do a job. You’re expected to come through regardless of unpleasant personalities or boorish behavior. Keep your cool, and keep your eyes on the prize. Even if you get angry, be a pro about it and try not to become defensive. You can review in your own mind or with your family members or friends why the director is making an inaccurate judgement about you or your work. Make sure not to attack anyone personally or lash out in violent ways. This can be tricky when you feel someone’s being unfair or undermining your performance and career. But keep in mind, they picked you for a reason, and carry that confidence with you. Michael Douglas told Vanity Fair Oliver Stone approached him on the set of Wall Street and told him, “You look like you never acted before in your life.” Douglas was furious, but channeled his anger into the character of a ruthless Gordon Gecko. The rest is history. Some might argue this was Oliver Stone’s intention from the start.

And lastly, rely on your compassion and discernment. When someone is acting out in immature and unnerving ways, let’s face it, they’re suffering with personal issues. A director who calls an actor worthless may be worried about his or her self-worth; a director’s temper may blow if he or she believes an actor is threatening to cause harm to the project; perhaps the director is feeling jealous of the actor; or the director may simply be having a bad day. Many times, the more aggressive and emotionally charged the message is, the less it has to do with you, and the more it has to do with the director’s emotional shortcomings. Try not to get sucked in. Although it can be challenging in the heat of the moment, a little understanding can go a long way. And then try to decipher whether the critical comment actually contains a nugget of constructive advice or if it’s merely an emotional outburst coming from a person who is loaded with negative emotions in general. Then, only allow helpful advice to penetrate you, and collect your self-confidence to overrule any harsh criticism that’s intended to make you feel bad.

Some say Dennis Hopper had a nervous breakdown on the set of the western, From Hell To Texas. The Director, Henry Hathaway, decided to break the wild bronco Dennis by forcing him to do the script line for line, and to eschew any improvising. This was anathema for the budding Method actor and free spirit. After 86 takes and fifteen hours, Hopper finally broke and complied with the director’s wishes. “It was devastating,” Hopper later said. “It had a huge effect on my life. I learned that the director is the director, and you can’t really fight him very far. You just can’t.” If that’s not straight from the horse’s mouth, I don’t what is.