Interview: Director Norman Buckley on Being Present and the Real Job of an Actor

"I want an actor with a skill set, who is trained to do it and really understands the process of acting." - Director Norman Buckley

Norman Buckley

Bite-Size 6 with Norman Buckley
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Norman Buckley multi-talented and acclaimed director of hit shows such as Pretty Little Liars, Rizzoli and Isles, The OC and Gossip Girl, breaks down the collaborative process between a director and actor, the real job of an actor and being present.

Norman gives us ‘the bite’ on your 6 hot questions.

You were a successful editor before you made the transition to directing. What inspired that transition and attracts you to a production ?

Norman Buckley: It was a natural growth of the work I was doing. I was working as an editor on pictures for many years and I started editing pilots for television. I think the job of an editor on a television series is quite difficult. You are bringing a lot to the process. I personally think that an editor on a TV series has a lot more impact than a visiting director does. So it was a natural growth. If I was to continue working in television, I wanted to try my hand at directing and I had great success at it. I think editing is a great training for directing, but I don’t think all editors can deal with the vagaries of the set. But for me the road unfolded naturally in front of me.

I am grateful that I have built a career working on some of these teen dramas. I do adult shows as well, but most of my work has been on teen dramas. I edited the pilot of the OC and then directed the OC and various other shows came to me through that. But it’s more a situation that these are the shows that pursue me and my services and I am grateful. I don’t think it’s a question of me being attracted to a particular kind of show as much as I take the bird in the hand. That being said, I enjoy working on teen dramas as everyone can relate to them. Whether you are 15 or 35 or 55. Whereas some more adult shows are not as available emotionally to a younger audience. It keeps me young.

How involved are you in the casting process of the shows you direct?

Norman Buckley: It really varies from show to show and it depends on what the part is. If it’s a part that is specific to my particular episode, then yes I am very involved. If it’s a more recurring role, then maybe I am less involved or not even involved at all. It depends on the show and what the preference of the showrunner is. I certainly enjoy working with the people who involve me in the casting process because I think the primary experience is going to be between the actor and the director. And it’s good for the director to participate in the casting of any part because I think there are a lot of subtle things that a director will pick up on that a writer may not.

Beyond an actors look, a director can quickly ascertain in an in-person reading what an actor’s skill set is. There’s a huge movement in casting off self-tapes, it’s more and more a matter of convenience, but I think there’s a lot to gain from being in the room with a person. You get a sense of the person not just how they read the particular part.

How would you describe your process of selecting an actor for a role?

Norman Buckley: Well I always like to have an actor to have a sense of what they are reading. I look for a clear point of view and I’m always much more interested in an actor who has their own ideas of what they want to play. Even if it’s not in line with me. I’m curious about what their take is. I am curious if they have a point of view. I don’t want somebody to come in and say ‘Is it this or that?’. I prefer them to show me something and then we’ll discuss because I trust the collaborative process.

I think that the process of a director and actor should be one of discovery. It’s the director’s job to keep the whole in mind and it’s the actors job to be present to the moment. I also think acting is an instinctual process. You’ve done whatever preparation before you’ve walked into the room. Now let that go and let’s just play. Let it come naturally. Let it come free as if you were a child playing. If you can get back to that you’ll be ok. You want to be as present as possible. I want to see what the internal experience that particular actor has to show me. I just want to see what you do and then we’ll discuss. If I feel that I have questions or we should talk, then there is space for discussion after that. I would much rather that than an actor who is timid about making a choice.

I don’t think there is a wrong. It’s just a different point of view. That being said I also want an actor who is willing to take a note and is willing to adjust. Who is willing to trust me to try something different. It’s about doing your preparation and then dropping your preparation and being aware and awake to the moment.

Do you feel it is important to cast new unknown talent?

Norman Buckley: I like to be open to anybody. I do enjoy working with actors the second time and I often will bring in people if I feel there is a part that is appropriate. I like working with people over and over again because you do develop a shorthand. And you start to understand how certain people work. I don’t like the idea of actors to be cast of a certain look as opposed to the specificity of detail to what the character may need. I am always interested in finding the right person for the part. Wherever that may come from. A good casting director will bring in people that will really surprise you that would take you some place interesting.

I want an actor with a skill set, who is trained to do it and really understands the process of acting.

Can you describe the ‘X Factor’ quality that you are looking for in an actor who comes in to audition?

Norman Buckley: I don’t think I can. What you are describing is ineffable. I don’t think one necessarily knows until they are actually on set. There have been people I have cast in the room and they seemed like they would be really good and they just didn’t pop on screen. I don’t know what causes that. I do think that some people ‘reflect the light’ a lot more than others. Some people have something that works really well on a television screen and then you see them on the big screen and it doesn’t work. Some people are great theatre actors and it doesn’t translate on film. It has nothing to do with the skill set at that point. It really is ineffable.

If you feel an actor is right for the part but the producers don’t, how do you resolve it?

Norman Buckley: My approach would be to present my case as to why my choice is correct. Although I don’t have the final say, I can be overruled by the producers, if I felt very strongly about it, I would present it a second time. Then after that if I’m overruled then I’m overruled. So I don’t push it beyond a couple of tries. I’m usually right though (laughter). I mean look it’s always very subjective why somebody is cast as opposed to somebody else. I’m looking for a lot of small little subtle cues that will tell me whether the person will be good at the part and whether or not they’ll be easy to work with. I frequently will decide against somebody because I feel their resistance in the room. Or if I give a note and they can’t take the adjustment or if I look at things like they can’t hit a mark. It’s a skill set working on film. It’s about hitting marks. It’s about finding your light and being completely unselfconscious in the midst of that.

If an actor was to contact you in a clever way to self promote (so no emails, no phone calls, no weird stuff), would you welcome it?

Norman Buckley: I tend to think that the best thing to do is to work that angle on casting directors. There are certain times when I would say to a casting director. This person and that person is interesting. Can we try that but for the most part I delegate that choice of the initial calling of candidates to casting directors. I’m always keen that people pursue the casting director route first. All the casting directors of every show are listed weekly on daily variety. So the job is to get to those people and there’s certainly many different ways to do it.

I have a website and there is a link to my blog ‘For What It’s Worth, My Advice’. I always say that I don’t think that social media is an appropriate venue in which to pursue jobs. When somebody writes to me on Twitter and says ‘Please cast me in something’, I always think that’s ludicrous. It doesn’t work that way. With such direct questions there’s really nothing I can do. And I am always a big proponent of going through the official channels. Casting directors are great people who love actors and are always looking for talent.

That being said, I am more open to people who are just like ‘ This is important to me I am sharing with you what I work on’. When somebody occasionally catches me at the right time and says I made this little short film on YouTube, I sometimes look at them and sometimes I don’t. But there’s nothing wrong with sharing what you do. Open yourself up, be present and the opportunities will present themselves.

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