Elia Kazan: Giving and Sharing

All of us, all the time, are seeking inspiration and answers. To find these things, we search for teachers, directors, guides, gurus. When we are at our least intelligent, we seek these things in liquids and powders and pills. There may come a time when we will no longer need a guide; when we can rest on a solid foundation built of experience and error. In the meantime, ask questions of good teachers.

Tennessee Williams


Elia Kazan

Elia Kazan on Teaching and Directing

From Conversations Conducted in 1993/1994

There is so much foolishness surrounding the teaching of actors--of all artists. This is unfortunate, because there is a need--a great need, as it happens--for good teaching, for guidance, for providing to all artists the necessary safe place where they can work and study and stretch and fail and flounder.

I worry that we may soon have no places left where an artist can make massive mistakes, because it is from these mistakes that the good work comes. You have to say to anyone who is striving to become an artist, in any medium, 'That was good. Now go here,' and I wonder where they will be able to do that consistently.

Of course there are bad teachers, unnecessary people crowding around the spigot of art, desperate for a drink. We can do nothing for those people who cannot recognize a fraud: both the gift of talent and the gift of perception are often denied to people. You keep your eyes and your heart and your brain open. You'll find your teacher.

A good teacher never lies, and a good teacher never tells you what you should be or do. A good teacher tells you what you've done, what worked, and leads you toward the full realization of a character written and waiting for full expansion. The gifts do not come from a teacher or a prayer or a regime: the gifts are within you. Always have been, always will be. The hazardous and tricky process is teasing them out, finding comfort in having them exposed, keeping them ready for use. There is a magnificence in every artist. I believe this. I do not say this to flatter, and I do not say to this to many people, but when you find an artist--and there are many and of many degrees--you husband the artist and the talent within. You walk with them. You lead them to a place they can  furnish with their gifts. A good teacher does not supply these gifts, but he can and should walk the artist toward the place where they are wanted, needed, and can be used.

Fewer things are more gratifying than the deliverance of an artist to a consummation his gifts deserve.

Eva Marie Saint and Marlon Brando in On the Waterfront (1954).

A good director is, of course, a good teacher. I'm not talking so much about the images and the sounds that are a part of the making of a film--I am the student to great men and women who have mastered the art and the craft of photography, editing, music and design: I am talking about the actors. Every good actor comes to a part with some confidence that he can fulfill a role, but not too much confidence, and with no small amount of fear. You never want the fear to completely disappear--a little fear and a lack of confidence often leads you to stretch and to fail, and that is where the greatness, the brilliance, the quick, cold clarity of truth appears, and you want to be there to grab it, hold it, cosset it, see it through.

A good director cannot overprotect an actor: I made mistakes many times by reassuring too many times and this makes an actor feel remedial, special, watched. You have to learn, with each actor, just how much attention to pay, how much time to spend in the corner, how much coaxing within the arena. 

Marlon Brando was a great actor, one of the greatest we will ever see. I'm asked all the time to describe him, in words both printed and spoken, and they always fail to gauge the man. There was, for lack of anything else I can say, a series of thin membranes within him that separated male from female, brute from angel, victim from vigilante: a series of contradictions, and all of them true and all of them almost immediately available for study, use, sharing. It was astounding to be around. I became a good director and teacher, if you must know, during the time I was exposed to two utterly true artists--Tennessee Williams and Marlon Brando.

What also made Marlon so inordinately great was his generosity--his gentle generosity. Watch his scenes with Eva Marie Saint in [On the] Waterfront: Here are two actors intimately and vividly engaged in intercourse--of ideas, of fears, of hopes. I do not think I will betray anything or anyone when I say that Eva was a good actress with good intentions, but very little valid experience and nothing like the instincts and gifts of Marlon. Marlon knew this; I knew this; Eva knew this. The birds of Hoboken knew this. It is wrong to view this as a judgment or a tragedy. It is a gift. Marlon stepped in and took control of her as a man like Terry would, and he coaxed and goaded both Eva and her character forward--toward him and toward fullness. I only had to say one thing to Marlon--be gentle with the actress as well as the character she plays. That was all. Watch Marlon sweetly play with her glove and her heart. I didn't do that, but I walked Marlon to a place within his heart where it became evident to him. Eva looked at him as a beautiful, battered, ruined angel, and that gave Marlon a confidence in his appearance and appeal that made that character so much richer. I wouldn't touch anything either of them did, and I only walked them down the aisle. The celebration is theirs.

Rod Steiger and Marlon Brando in On the Waterfront (1954).

Rod Steiger presented a different problem: male competition. The scenes between Rod and Marlon were between two talented male actors, but one was a genius and one was extraordinarily talented. This knowledge was apparent to them, and it presented, briefly, problems. There is a gift, a challenge in every problem, however, and Rod and Marlon had distinct gifts they could give each other: Marlon could underplay in such a way as to tame Rod's floridity, and Rod's intense sensitivity and thin skin brought forth Marlon's maternal tenderness. Their scenes are seductions of a different sort, a calming, a mother placing a loving palm on a fevered brow. I never told them what the problem was, but I told them which unique gifts I would require of them.

Always ask an artist to be giving and sharing. You have to get the gifts out, get them working, have them studied. Work more than you talk or think. Think on your own time. Work together when everyone is in the room, and listen to everything. You'll soon find out who offers nothing. Get them out of the room.

Vivien Leigh and Kim Hunter being directed by Kazan for A Streetcar Named Desire (1951).

It is a stupid teacher or director who dreads problems or aggravations: This is where the rewards are. Challenge is the pearl of great price. Some challenges will defeat us, and there are stages and inches of film all over the world that can testify to my defeats. A particularly rich challenge was Vivien Leigh in Streetcar. There was no challenge in regard to Viven's talent or her grasp of the character of Blanche: She was richly talented and skilled--notice my separation of the two--and she had read and re-read the play far more times than perhaps I had. Vivien had also been forcefully coached in the role by both Laurence Olivier and John Gielgud, and they are both sensitive and gifted men. Vivien, therefore, arrived at Warner Bros. fully equipped and primed to work. There was the challenge: she had no intention of flailing about, stretching herself, going into a corner that was dark or unknown to her. I had to take her there. I had to walk her there.

I gave nothing to Vivien but a sense of confidence in her talent, her beauty, her command of the character. Not one single lie was necessary. Vivien was, however, so rigid in her commitment to the right and proper and finalized version of Blanche that she offered nothing of herself to her cast mates, or to me: She would arrive on the set and seem to say 'Get the camera rolling; I'm ready.' Well, we weren't ready, and the truth of the matter is that she wasn't either. One day of rushes revealed to her that she was calcified and Kim [Hunter] and Marlon were frighteningly alive and malleable and real. Those beautiful eyes looked at me, and I said, again, one thing: 'You can do this. Come with me.'

And she did it. I walked her there. I escorted her to the field and she did the battle. That, to answer your question, is a good director.

Of course you must love the literature of theatre, as well as the commission of it. I think you must love all art and its many applications. I think you have to go out and see what everyone with the same passions and the same dreams is doing, and it terrifies me that this is no longer possible: Who can afford to go and see everyone in everything? This is why we must repair, over and over, to the safe places where we can work with people we love and admire and trust and see those things of which we are capable.

You must also, I strongly believe, be capable of a vast and violent love of people. We are majestic and beautiful and capable of almost anything, but we are also scared and mean and weak. Embrace all that is within us and love it in every person--in the flesh and on the page and on the canvas.

Every asshole keeps asking why things got so small, why there is no more bigness in our art or our people. Well, we got small, we went inside, we got scared and cared for too few things for a handful of people with a handful of desires.

We're no longer a multitude, each of us. We're a handful. Jesus, that's horrifying.  




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