FOR over a century actors have received critical praise for their ability to produce realistic and captivating performances on screen. The term “performance”, however, can at times appear a little vague. In his 1979 seminal film studies text STARS, scholar Richard Dyer describes performance as “how the action/function is done, how the lines are said”. If this is so, performance becomes a malleable concept that can be influenced by outside parties, such as the director, as they are often considered the most prominent in altering how something is shown on screen. Thus the question arises, just how much influence does a director have on an actor’s performance? Does a director influence a performance enough for us to take away the full credit from an actor? Or can the director only enhance what an actor already produces? Daniel Day-Lewis’s performance of Daniel Plainview in THERE WILL BE BLOOD is often stated critically to be one of the strongest performances of the 21st century and is a particularly complicated case study when consider alongside the directorial power of Paul Thomas Anderson, a director who is renowned for his creative control.
A film is, at its heart, the creative vision of a director. They create the narrative, characters and story arcs with the scriptwriter, and then physically adapt this on set with extensive control over the multitude of attributes that go into making a film. In TOTAL DIRECTING: INTEGRATING CAMERA AND PERFORMANCE IN FILM AND TELEVISION, Tom Kingdon describes directors as “opera conductors” in that “they work with performers to realize a work”, constantly informing them of their creative vision. In THE FILM HANDBOOK, Mark De Valk writes that “the strength and intensity of performance will develop as you work with actors in discovering various methods to excavate their character”. In other words, the director draws out what they desire from an actor to build a performance. The actor becomes a supple component that a director can change at will.
Casting is a crucial part of the process. Kingdon observes two main types of casting: either a large number of actors audition in quick succession - referred to in the industry as “trawling” - or the director already has a strong idea of which actor they believe can star in a role and the character is written for them. The director then freely selects an actor that they believe can fit the role, physically and mentally. The latter is the process Anderson opted for. As both the director and the writer adapting Upton Sinclair’s source novel, he wrote the script with the clear thought that it would be Day-Lewis playing the protagonist.
Going from pre-production to the set, the director apparently maintains full control of the performance. When a scene is being acted out, Sidney Lumet - director of 12 ANGRY MEN (1957), DOG DAY AFTERNOON (1975) and NETWORK (1976) - has explained his perception of a director’s role at that point: “I focus my concentration on what the actors are doing”, Lumet has commented. “From the moment the actors start working, I play the scene along with them. I play the scene inside my head, I sense their movement and feel their emotions. I'm putting myself through the scenes as if I were them”. This is in keeping with the words of Soviet filmmaker Sergei Eisenstein, that “a director is also, to some extent, an actor”. This is true in the sense that the director feels each character's emotion, understands their narrative, and ultimately understands each character's motives, actions and reasoning. They completely understand these things because they themselves created and developed them, they are living, breathing creations in themselves.
Regarding the director’s relationship with the camera, performance is still very much at the centre of the director’s vision. Playwright, screenwriter and director David Mamet asserts in his book ON DIRECTING FILM that “the perfect movie doesn't have any dialogue”. Space is a tool used by both actor and director to create meaning. A way of creating that space is by placing the camera in a position that can emphasise an area and create a platform for that performance to take place. In the simplest way, shot types are used to inform the narrative. To show emotion a close-up is used; to show the vastness of a landscape in comparison to a character, a wide angle is used. The director therefore directly gives the actor the space for the performance to take place.
Undeniably the actor is of great importance to performance. As stated in the CAMBRIDGE ENGLISH DICTIONARY, performance in its simplest format is the display of “entertaining other people by acting”, thus demonstrating that for a performance to be a performance, only actor and audience are required. Actors must rely on performance signs such as their actions, mannerisms and facial expressions. Actors have used these tools since the beginning of cinema itself, and in theatre before that. As John Harrop writes in his 1992 book ACTING, “good dramatic texts, by definition, have spaces and silences within their written structure which, when filled by the actor on stage, will have different dynamics according to the creativity of the actor”. This is just as applicable to film. “Spaces and silences” continue to be written into the scripts, relying on an actor’s creativity and technique to build narrative and inform the audience. Body movement becomes a tool that further conveys the emotion and ultimately creates the physical character within a performance.
SPACES AND SILENCES RELY ON AN ACTOR'S CREATIVITY AND TECHNIQUE.
This is on full display in the opening 20 minutes of THERE WILL BE BLOOD, a frightfully intense assembly of scenes in which there is no dialogue. Day-Lewis must rely solely on body language and facial expressions to open the narrative. His performance is subdued and relatively still throughout the introductory scenes, emphasising the wonder of oilman Daniel Plainview’s discovery. When he does move it is with great pace and excitement. This combination of slow- and fast-paced movement provides excellent narrative information for the audience, allowing them to clearly see his excitement while he maintains absolute focus.
In a scene following Plainview’s fall into an oil well, Day-Lewis drags his back across the floor, using only his arms. His posture is rigid, signalling his character’s pain from a broken leg. His back is arched under the strain of pulling his lower body, his elbows fully locked with his arms shaking;.Plainview’s struggle with the lack of his own strength is clearly outlined. Day-Lewis drags his legs, as if limp and lifeless. From the first 20 minutes, Plainview's most crucial characteristics are displayed wonderfully, without the use of dialogue. His determination, wonder, greed and intellect are all on show.
Cinema heavily relies on facial expressions in order to demonstrate emotion and inform the narrative. A film camera is able to bring the performance up close for an audience and the development of high definition technology allows audiences to pick up on every subtle facial movement. In SECRETS OF SCREEN ACTING, acting teacher Patrick Tucker explains that a strong screen performance “demands more reactions from [the actor] (but with less volume)”. This emphasises how subtle an actor must be with their performance, certainly when acting in a realist or naturalist format, in order to produce a crucial level of believability in a performance.
This is clearly demonstrated in THERE WILL BE BLOOD in a scene that takes place in a church. Day-Lewis is shot in extreme close-up as Daniel Plainview is branded a sinner by pastor Eli Sunday (Paul Dano). This is the first scene where Plainview is not the most commanding authority and this loss of power is exhibited vividly on Day-Lewis’s face. The two emotions that are battling for prominence are discomfort and frustration. The discomfort is shown through rapid eye movements, as he never once focuses or makes eye contact with anyone in the room and often looks down at the floor. Frustration is demonstrated by tightly-clenched lips, almost as if he is forcing his mouth shut in order to not retaliate at the pastor’s words. Day-Lewis pushes his tongue into his lower gums, his brow is furrowed and he looks at his most formidable when he looks to the ground. When he looks up, he reveals a less intimidating face, his brow is less furrowed, his eyes almost smiling, as if he is putting on an act when addressing God. Each of these subtle facial movements are totally realistic, yet overtly theatrical, and all combine to help the actor build performance.
THE ACTOR GIVES LIFE TO THE CHARACTER.
Day-Lewis’s character is inconceivably intense and formidable, to a level that few other actors could achieve due to his meticulous preparation. This is in keeping with his previous roles. The role explores a persistent tussle with morality, in what film critic Lynn Hirschberg described as “Citizen Kane-esque” in a 2007 Telegraph interview with the actor. “I was deeply unsettled by the script”, Day-Lewis revealed. “For me, that is a sure sign. If you remain unsettled by a piece of writing, it means you are not watching the story from the outside; you've already taken a step towards it. When I'm drawn to something, I take a resolute step backwards and I ask myself if I can really serve this story as well as it needs to be served. If I don't think I can do that, no matter how appealing, I will decline. What finally takes over, what took over with this movie, is an illusion of inevitability”. It is an approach that Day-Lewis has explored in previous works such as GANGS OF NEW YORK (Martin Scorsese 2002) and MY BEAUTIFUL LAUNDRETTE (Stephen Frears 1985).
Although the character is usually created before the actor joins the project, the actor gives life to the character. In a 2008 interview with Josh Modell for The AV Club, Anderson spoke of how much of the performance was developed by himself. “As far as I'm concerned, I didn't need to give [Day-Lewis] anything more than he wanted to know. I was just there to answer any questions he might have. It was certainly not my job to start babbling away”. Further in the interview, the question of who created the “unmistakable voice” of Plainview is asked. Anderson recalled “little Dictap
more in depth by stating that, when first listening to the tapes, his reaction was “this is insane!”. In 2018 Anderson recounted Day-Lewis’s refusal to follow the director’s instructions on the film in an interview on The Adam Buxton Podcast. Anderson revealed a moment where his instruction to deliver the final, crucial line in a smaller, more subtle fashion resulted in the actor bellowing it out. Both examples demonstrate that even when the director does not fully back or understand an actor’s reasoning, the actor is still in complete control of how to structure their own performance; it is their creation. An actor's personality and their own creative ideas therefore heavily shape performance.
In her 2007 article “Acting Choices/Filmic Choices: Rethinking Montage and Performance”, film and theatre scholar Cynthia Baron notes “performance elements are not simply inert matter given meaning by directors, cinematographers and editors. Instead... individual images carry distinct tonal qualities - which are often shaped by the quality of the actors' gestures and expressions”. Anderson may have selected the actor to play the character that they also wrote and shaped but, once the actor is appointed, the role becomes theirs; all the director can do is give information and pointers. The actor is the primary source of emotional provocation and narrative information.