“In my films I always wanted to make people see deeply. I don’t want to show things, but to give people the desire to see.” — Agnès Varda

It’s the birthday of Belgian filmmaker Agnès Varda, a pioneering force in the development of the French New Wave – she was French New Wave before it was even named “French New Wave.” When she died at the age of 90, you could feel the waves of loss and tribute breaking over the landscape. My first disoriented thought when I heard the news was, “But what am I supposed to do now?”

Here’s an anecdote about Varda as a director, an anecdote that has always stayed with me. Maybe it stayed with me because of my actor background: I love examples of directors who know how to give good direction.

Here is the great Sandrine Bonnaire giving her unforgettable performance in Agnès Varda’s Vagabond.

Like all great directors, Varda knew when to give direction/guidance, and when to stay silent. When Varda DID give direction, it was specific and action-oriented. Bad directors talk about abstractions and themes, none of which an actor can really play.

Bad director: “Remember, your character represents innocence in a fallen world.”
Actor: “….. Okay. Got it.” [Inner monologue: WTF.]
Scene begins. Actor tries to represent innocence in a fallen world.
Bad director: “Cut! Okay, so maybe this next take think of a really happy circumstance in your childhood that you now look back on and feel sad about.”
Actor: “So … I wasn’t really getting across innocence in a fallen world, is that what you’re saying?”
Bad director: “No, it was great, what you were doing was great, I just want you to maybe think about something personal.”
Actor: “So … a happy childhood memory that makes me sad now?”
Bad director: “Yes. Let’s try it.”
Actor: “Should I keep trying to be innocence in a fallen world?”
Bad director: “Let’s forget about that for now.”

This is not an exaggeration of what it is like to work with a bad director who
1. does not know what he/she wants
2. does not understand the actor’s process

Good directors always give actors something to DO. If you’re a bad director, and you don’t know how to do that, then just say NOTHING to the actor, let the actor work, stay out of their way. (Unfortunately, of course, bad directors don’t know they’re bad. That’s why they’re bad.) Good directors know how to say one tiny thing, one tiny suggestive thing, that sets the actor’s imagination on fire, or makes the actor know, “Got it. I know just what you want.”

Varda didn’t “help” Bonanaire give the great performance she did in Vagabond. That’s a misunderstanding of the relationship between director and actress. Bonnaire is, quite literally, brilliant – all on her own. It’s what she brings to the table. But every actor needs guidance, or at least information from the director that helps contextualize what the director wants, what the movie is, what the director envisions. So Varda made one comment, one very pointed comment early on, and this was THE thing that gave Bonnaire her “way in” to the character.

In the early development stages, Varda said to Bonnaire, “Your character never says ‘Thank you.’ To anyone.”

Something in this simple statement sparked something in Bonnaire. She was curious about it, she hadn’t thought about it in those terms, she wondered what that would look/feel like. Also, on a practical level, it was something she could DO. Specificity is ALWAYS preferable to generalities. No exceptions. Even in highly stylized work.

Bonnaire began experimenting in her own life with not saying “Thank you,” just to get a feel for it, just to see what it might provide her in understanding the character she was going to play. She said she was surprised at how difficult it was. It felt wrong. It made her confront all kinds of things in herself, how you internalize society’s rules until they are automatic, how we all use good manners to get by the best we can in this world. This is not a bad thing. But what happens if you opt out of it? The “why” isn’t even as important as the “what.” Choosing not to say “Thank you” in the preparation phase of the film made Bonnaire realize how often she said “Thank you.” A cashier hands you change. A guy holds a door open for you. You trip off a stair and someone reaches out to help you. A waitress clears your table. You say “Thank you” for the help in every single circumstance. Or you should.

But not if you’re playing the lead character in Vagabond.

Bonnaire got into the groove of what it was like to accept help and never say “Thank you.” It was a whole other world and it opened up all of the possibilities of the character for her.

And it all came from a six-word sentence of direction. PLAY-able direction.

It set Bonnaire – already enormously gifted – free. Keeping those words in mind, she literally could do no wrong in her performance. It showed her how to be, where to go, what to do, what not to do.

Young directors, take note: THAT’S how you give direction.

Thank you so much for stopping by. If you like what I do, and if you feel inclined to support my work, here’s a link to my Venmo account. And I’ve launched a Substack, Sheila Variations 2.0, if you’d like to subscribe.

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