Peter Andrikidis on Directing Actors

Peter Andrikidis Peter Andrikidis

Australian director Peter Andrikidis has a reputation as being a great "actor's director", getting excellent performances from actors and bringing exciting visual flair to each production he undertakes.


You graduated from AFTRS in 1981 and seem to have been working constantly ever since. Did you always know you wanted to be a director?

Yes. I wanted to be a pilot first, actually, but I had to wear glasses at 15 so I ended up in direction; my mum was a cashier at the cinema so I saw a lot of films, and that was where direction came in. I was lucky - I made a film in high school in my last year and it won the state award; that film actually got me into AFTRS in 1979. That was the beginning of that. From 1982 I’ve been directing full time.

It was a lucky era where a lot of directors were moving into film, so there was a big hole in television. Also at that time, television was like the second tier; there were a lot of people wanting to get into features, but there was a real lack of graduating students wanting to get into television. Which has changed quite a bit, where we are now.


Speaking of your television direction, you’ve worked on a lot of illustrious Australian TV shows: do you have a favourite project? 

I worked in commercial television for a while, but it was when I got to the ABC that I worked on a show called Wildside which was the key moment that really changed my perception of film acting. That series went for 60 episodes, and I won a few awards for that, which kind of validated what I was doing. I was working with dramaturge Nico Lathouris and a group of actors - Tony Martin, Rachel Blake, Alex Dimitriades - and their style of improvisation on screen; that was a really great time. We haven’t seen a lot of that since, that improvisational style. We were left alone to make that too. We could do what we wanted. That show was great, and it’s influenced everything I’ve done since then.

It was very much a situation where you’ve got your script, and you’re working with that and improvising with that in mind, and you’re recording those improvisations, and then talking with the writer again before going back the actors again. The writers embraced it; it was a really creative time. It was just having that freedom, where the rehearsal process became very important to the script writing process. I mean, you’re doing a police show: it’s all about characters and therefore about the performance of your actors. 

This was all at a time when we were trying to break away from the soap format. There was a lot of overlapping dialogue and confusion in storytelling and chaos. I learned how to direct chaos from that show.

How do you direct chaos? 

You’re kind of the ringmaster: you let it all happen. Because actors come with what they want to do, and they’ll give you great stuff, and the Director of Photography will give you great stuff… All this stuff is coming in, and what you don’t want to do is shut it all down. To say, “I see it this way” and have it become a cartoon. It’s how I used to direct when I first started: I had it all planned and all mapped out, the scene is this way or that way. But if you do your homework and then let all of that planning go, and let all these other parties come in and do there thing, it works.

The best actors actually come from theatre, but that’s a completely different technique to acting on film. It’s all about voice control - even just bringing their voice down to a normal, conversational level is enough to make the scene feel more real. They’ve come to set, they’ve read the script, they know what their intent in the scene is; you can’t start shooting if that process is wrong. But if that process has happened, it then becomes about massaging their performance, which is much easier. It’s all about keeping it real - reassuring the actor that they’re doing something. They can feel like they’re not doing anything in a scene, but when the camera is right up close, it’s picking up every little nuance.

Once you’ve let the actors do their thing, what do you do as the director? 

What you do is you filter all the best parts from that process. I supposed for me it took 15 years of working the other way to understand how that works. If I’d started out doing that I would have been a huge failure! But you can do it: you get all the information, you block the scene, and then the actors are fine - they’ll naturally do their thing. The camera movements come from what they’re performing.

The performance is central to the directing or the cinematography, not the other way around. There are some scenes where it’s about that but most are about performance, and you have to get that because if you don’t get a good performance nobody’s going to come and see your film. And that’s part of what I’m trying to communicate to directors: you are responsible for the performance of those actors. If they give a bad performance it’s not them, it’s you: you directed them badly. You’ve got to take that responsibility.

You also learn to make decisions, fast. With Wildside we were shooting an hour of television over five days. We had the luxury of speed. At film school you get 15 days for ten minutes or something. You’ve got to fail. You’ve got to do things wrong to learn anything from it.

When David Fincher directed The Social Network, it took 92 takes to get the opening scene, to break the actors out of their acting mode. My thing is you’ve got to speed it up. If you’ve only got three takes, you’ll get there, because you have to get there.


In your Directing Actors Masterclass, how do you teach someone the art of chaotic directing? 

There’s a shorthand. It’s giving them the tricks, the things to try and get an actor not to look like they’re acting. It’s the thing I learnt from Wildside - it may have been highly scripted, but it still had to look like improvisation. The tricks are things like speeding up the dialogue, overlapping dialogue, using two cameras so that actors don’t have to worry about continuity and don’t have to worry about where the spoon is when they said what line and all that stuff.

It’s all those little tricks, the shorthand. The course is designed to give you what I’ve been trying to do for 30 years - getting the best performance possible out of an actor. Not fearing actors, take responsibility, be honest. Actors need to trust you for the relationship to work.


What are you working on now?

I’m doing a period show now, about IVF clinics in the 60s. Something I think about is, “Does that line sound written?” There are a lot of period things where you feel like the characters are speaking from 2015 about the past. With the IVF clinics, nowadays we think they’re great, but in the 60s people thought they were the worst thing out, that they were a big insult to the church and to society as a whole. You want it to sound real, to sound believable.


What’s your one-sentence piece of directing advice?

Taking responsibility for the actor’s performance in everything you direct, and working to get the best out of your actors. They always want to bring their best, but you have to help them. And that casting is 80% of directing! You can’t teach an actor to act, but you can help bring out the best in them.


If you want to hear more from Peter Andrikidis check out Directing Actors with Peter Andrikidis Masterclass


The Australian Film Television and Radio School would like to acknowledge the Traditional Owners, the Bidjigal people and Gadigal people of the Eora Nation, on whose land we meet, work, study and teach. We pay our respects to Elders past and present, and extend our respect to Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people from all nations of this land.