Elia Kazan is considered one of the most honored and influential directors both on Broadway and in Hollywood.
In his 42 years as a filmmaker, Kazan directed a number of critically acclaimed masterpieces including Gentleman’s Agreement (1947), A Streetcar Named Desire (1951), and East of Eden (1955).
Kazan received numerous accolades including two Academy Awards, the Tony Award, and Golden Globe Award.
Aside from being an honored director, Kazan also helped actors deliver their best performances with 24 of his actors nominated for an Academy Award.
If you’re looking for a masterclass on how direct actors then check out these words of wisdom from the legendary director below.
Elia Kazan Quotes on Filmmaking
There is only one way of looking at this trade: The filmmaker is responsible for everything. To rephrase that thought: Everything is your fault, and only rarely will you be praised for anything. But face it, if something goes wrong with your work, you the filmmaker (director), who fought for total control, as we all do, should not have allowed it to happen. If you’re going to work in films then you must straight off accept total responsibility. That’s why you need to know something about all aspects of the process.
The thing with films is that you have to make something that will get people out of their houses, away from the TV set. You must touch people, say something. Otherwise, they’ll stay at home.
The camera is more than a recorder, it’s a microscope. It penetrates, it goes into people and you see their most private and concealed thoughts.
Every picture that is successful has one little miracle in it.
When I started On the Waterfront, I was what they call unbankable. Nobody would put up money for me because I had had a series of box office failures…. One of my happiest moments was when I got the Academy Award for On the Waterfront.
Elia Kazan on Directing the Movie
The director does it because he has to. Who else will? Who else loves the film that much?
A director commits himself to a project twice. The first time is from spontaneous enthusiasm. The second is after asking questions and overcoming doubts. Don’t talk yourself into it, question yourself. And write down your answers. If you abandon the project, you will know why. If you decide to go with it, your written answers will help you later, in times of difficulty and stress.
The fact is that a director from the moment a phone call gets him out of bed in the morning (“Rain today. What scene do you want to shoot?”) until he escapes into the dark at the end of shooting to face, alone, the next day’s problems, is called upon to answer an unrelenting string of questions, to make decision after decision in one after another of the fields I’ve listed. That’s what a director is… the man with the answers.
The director must accept blame for everything. If the script stinks, he should have worked harder with the writers or himself before shooting. If the actor fails, the director failed him! Or made a mistake in choosing him. If the camera work is uninspired, whose idea was it to engage that cameraman? Or choose those setups? Even a costume after all — the director passed on it. The settings. The music, even the goddamn ads, why didn’t he yell louder if he didn’t like them? The director was there, wasn’t he? Yes, he was there! He’s always there…
That’s why he gets all that money, to stand there, on that mound, unprotected, letting everybody shoot at him and deflecting the mortal fire from all the others who work with him. The other people who work on a film can hide. They have the director to hide behind.
The first problem of the director then is to determine what his direction is to be. And as this direction is to give organic unity to the whole production, his first job is to find a ‘center’ or ‘core’ for the work and for production. Once it is established the base decision has been made. All else devolves from this.
The director has to restate succinctly the play, its meaning and form, in his own terms; he has to reconceive it as if he had created it. What does it mean to him? What does it arouse in him? how does the manuscript affect his soul? In short, what is his relationship as an artist to this document, this manuscript?
It is not necessary that the director’s reaction match the author’s intention. Different periods have different values and meanings. And a director might want to produce a work for reasons other than the writer’s. Examples abound; the clearest is Shakespearean productions from Shakespeare’s time to ours.
Therefore, the director’s first question in approaching the script is not what the author intended, but what is his own response as an independent artist.
What a theatre or film director is essentially doing is conveying an emotion he has, arousing an emotion he feels in a group of other people. You must from the beginning recognize what audience you are addressing and how you propose to move them. What precisely you want to make them feel. Once this is done, take care not to tell them plainly what they should believe about what they’re being shown. Leave an element of doubt and mystery. Wonder is better than information. Let them come to their own conclusions. But know yourself what you’re reaching for in their feelings. This means isolating the theme. What its all about. What it should say in the end. But “say” is a dangerous word. “Convey” is better.
A film director has to get a shot, no matter what he does. We’re desperate people.
A good director’s not sure when he gets on the set what he’s going to do.
The more ambivalent you are and the more uncertain you are, then you can get something that you cannot anticipate.
I like directors who come on the set and create something that’s a little dangerous, difficult or unusual.
One final thing a director needs: The ability to say ‘I am wrong’ or ‘I was wrong.’ Not as easy as it sounds. But in many situations, these 3 words, honestly spoken, will save the day.
I’m going to make a film where not one word is really important. I’m going to make it all action.
I don’t remember anything anybody said in any Jack Ford picture. Nothing happens except action.
Some directors, like Stevens [George Stevens], shoot full circle, 360 degrees, and that’s what’s right for them. I generally shoot at about a seven to one ratio. But part of that is because I’ve worked on every screenplay, so I’m further along in the visual concept.
The subject a film director must know most about, know best of all, see in the greatest detail and in the most pitiless light with the greatest appreciation of the ambivalences at play is – what? Right. Himself. There is something of himself, after all, in every character he properly creates. He understands people truly through understanding himself truly.
The film director knows that beneath the surface of his screenplay there is a subtext, an undercurrent of intentions and feelings and inner events, What appears to be happening on the surface, he soon learns, is rarely the true substance of the action. This subtext is one of the film director’s most valuable tools. It is what he directs. You rarely see a veteran director holding a script as he works – or even looking at it. Beginners, yes.
Storytelling and the Script
If you can’t find the you in the story, then it has no personal meaning for you. That’s an important discovery, because then you should immediately walk away from it. Don’t be lured into sticking with it by inertia or the sad faces of disappointed friends. They’ll find someone else.
The motion pictures I have made and the plays I have chosen to direct represent my convictions.
The writer, when he is also an artist, is someone who admits what others don’t dare reveal.
The ideal job of the storyteller is to involve the audience emotionally with something right off the bat, then get the chain of inevitable cause and effect rolling so that before the audience knows it, they are going through exactly what the character is going through. They feel with!! They are involved. They suffer and sigh with relief. They are actively and emotionally interested.
Sentimentality is the enemy of drama. It waters down the conflict. It is the sister of self-pity. Last five minutes of East of Eden. Now you know that the old man would have died without a kind word for Dean – and that the kid would have to spend a long time climbing back. Toughness fills an audience with the greatest of all theatre emotions – awe!
The best rule of screen and play writing was given to me by John Howard Lawson, a one time friend. Its simple: unity from climax. Everything should build to the climax. But all I know about script preparation urges me to make no rules, although there are some hints, tools of the trade, that have been useful for me. One of these is “Have your central character in every scene.” This is a way of ensuring unity to the work and keeping the focus sharp. Another is: “Look for the contradictions in every character, especially in your heroes and villains. No one should be what they first seem to be. Surprise the audience.
A film script is more architecture than literature. This will get my friends who are writers mad, but its the truth: The director tells the movie story more than the man who writes the dialogue. The director is the final author, which is the reason so many writers now want to become directors. Its all one piece. Many of the best films ever made can be seen without dialogue and be perfectly understood. The director tells the essential story with pictures.
A screenplays worth has to be measured less by its language than by its architecture and by how that dramatizes the theme. A screenplay, we directors soon enough learn, is not a piece of writing so much as it is a construction. We learn to feel for the skeleton under the skin of words.
Working with Actors
In general, actors or actresses must have the art in the accumulation of their past. Their life’s experience is the director’s material. They can have all the training, all the techniques their teachers have taught them – private moments, improvisations, substitutions,associative memories, and so on – but if the precious material is not within them, the director cannot get it out. That is why it’s so important for the director to have an intimate acquaintance with the people he casts in his plays. If it’s “there,” he has a chance of putting it on the screen or on the stage. If not, not.
The thing about Brando was that I’d make these directions, and he’d walk away. He’d heard enough… to get the machine going.
Stylized acting and direction is to realistic acting and direction as poetry is to prose.
The physical life of the scene is determined by whether the set squeezes people together or whether the set has an escape place in it.
I was able to capture on film things the actors didn’t even know they were doing.
They say I’m an acting director, which I don’t take as a compliment. I don’t really agree, but I do deal with actors a lot. I love actors. I was an actor for eight years, so I do appreciate their job.
One of the most important things in an acting scene, especially a short acting scene, is not to talk about the scene that precedes but to play out the scene that precedes. You play out where the actors have come from psychologically so their ride into a scene is a correct one…Once you’ve done that, you divide the scene – or I tend to – into sections, into movements. Stanislavsky called them “beats.” The point is that there are sections in life. Sometimes even a short scene has a three-act structure. You lay bare the actor, you make him understand and appreciate the structure beneath the lines. That’s what’s called the subtext, and dealing with the subtext is one of the critical elements in directing actors. In other words, not what is said, but what happens.
You can’t just sit there and do the lines. You have to do something revealing or unusual.
You have to remind people of their own struggles. It’s a responsibility.
I didn’t have the problem of finding myself at 45 on the wrong course – I always wanted to be a film director.
With kids you can take a chance but casting a guy at 45 is different. You don’t discover somebody that age. If an actor hasn’t made it by that time he probably has no talent.
You have no idea how fragile an actor’s self-worth is.
When you know what an actor has, you can reach in and arouse it. If you don’t know what he has, you don’t know what the hell is going on.
I will say nothing to an actor that cannot be translated into action.
If you’re going to play a cowboy, show up with the horse at the audition.
Are actors creative artists? ‘Yes, when they are creative.’ Positively not at other times. As a director, I know that my biggest job is casting them correctly. Then you give them a hint or two and wait. Like a cook with a cake, you mustn’t open the oven door until the cake is done – if you do, the cake is spoiled.
Making an actor read the lines of apart has no value for me and can even be misleading. The best line readers, I’ve learned, are not the best actors for my films, which is why I take actors for a walk or for dinner and probe into their lives. That is especially easy to do with actresses. Women are easily led to reveal to anyone who seems to be a friend the secrets of their intimate lives; it is their most essential drama.
It’s difficult, if not impossible, to get away with anything false before the camera. That instrument penetrates the husk of the actor; it reveals what’s truly happening – if anything, if nothing. A close-up demands absolute truth. It’s a severe and awesome truth
More Kazan Quotes
I’ve come to believe that everything worth achieving is beyond one’s capacity – or seems so at first. The thing is to persist, not back off, fight your fight, pay your dues, and carry on. Effort is all; continue and you may get there despite everything.
You’ve got to keep fighting; you’ve got to risk your life every six months to stay alive.
I know many of the critics and I don’t think of them as God-like figures. What can they do to hurt me? Sure, I might be slightly embarrassed for a day, but then you just go your own way.
TV has made us get down to the nub and new films will begin to live up to what the medium can be.
I’ve never stopped trying to educate myself and to improve myself.
Recommended Elia Kazan Books
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Elia Kazan Quotes Final Words
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