The take on takes

Helmers create vision through rehearsal while others prefer spontaneity

Like seasoned dance partners, it’s no coincidence that a handful of actors continually work with the same director.

DeNiro and Scorsese. Hanks and Zemeckis. Streep and Nichols.

Like friends or couples that have their own shorthand, directors casting for actors naturally go back to those with whom they have a good rapport and whose skills they are comfortable with.

Val Kilmer played Jim Morrison in Oliver Stone’s “The Doors” in 1991, and 13 years later the two have reunited for “Alexander.” Even though many say Stone can be extremely tough on his actors, Kilmer was more than willing to take on the role of King Philip in the Warner Bros. pic under Stone’s command.

“Oliver comes with a desperate need to get questions answered,” Kilmer explains. “He’s almost painfully intimate. He tells you whatever problem is crucial in his life and why. He’s worthy of calling an artist.”

It can be debated whether Stone is more difficult than other directors in dealing with his actors but the results aren’t up for discussion.

Those who’ve worked with him and are Oscar nominated include Tom Cruise (“Born on the Fourth of July”), Tommy Lee Jones (“JFK”), James Woods (“Salvador”), Willem Dafoe and Tom Berenger (“Platoon”), and Joan Allen and Anthony Hopkins (“Nixon”). Michael Douglas won for “Wall Street” and “Platoon” captured best pic.

Kilmer, who has also worked with Tony Scott twice, notes that many actors get in trouble with a director when they want to shape a character in a way the helmer doesn’t envision. And since all directors work differently — some take suggestions well while others are more set in their ways — an actor going from one style of director to another can easily fall into a trap of what one director is looking for may not be what the other wants.

“It’s a director’s medium completely,” Kilmer says. “I thought actors could change the vibe of a character but the overall sentiment on a set is that it’s the director’s call.”

Both Kilmer and Mark Ruffalo have starred in Michael Mann films. Kilmer on “Heat” and Ruffalo on Mann’s most recent film, “Collateral.”

Mann with a plan

Both say Mann is not one who is spontaneous on the set. He’s a meticulous advance man, storyboarding shots months in before filming begins.

And even with all that planning, Mann will go through a scene countless times — sometimes as rehearsal and other times on film (or high-def video in the case of “Collateral.”)

“Michael has a thoughtfulness that’s just off the charts,” Kilmer says. “It’s very rare that he wouldn’t have an immediate response to a question.

Adds Ruffalo: “There were a few scenes where he did a lot of takes. He has a model in his head. And we had a camera that didn’t have to be reloaded,” he says, laughing.

A ton of rehearsal, however, isn’t necessarily a good thing and it can throw off the actor’s sense of spontaneity.

Radha Mitchell, who played Johnny Depp’s wife in Marc Forster’s “Finding Neverland,” says too much rehearsal might’ve compromised the film, making it look almost too polished.

“If you feel comfortable with the story, it’s nice to have that surprise (on the set),” says Mitchell. “If you overly rehearse, you lose that. Plus, Johnny has such a lovely and easy demeanor that you just want to see how that plays out.”

Sometimes rehearsals depend on the complexity of the character. Ruffalo’s Det. Molloy from Jane Campion’s “In the Cut” was quite multilayered. He has an affair with Meg Ryan while trying to investigate a murder in which she’s an eyewitness.

“We did a lot of rehearsals and kept talking about the character,” Ruffalo recalls. “It was the most intense character stuff as far as my work goes.”

Ruffalo’s had a busy year. He co-starred in four films — “Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind,” “13 Going on 30,” “We Don’t Live Here Anymore,” “Collateral” — and each couldn’t be more diverse than the other.

Those differences made an impact on Ruffalo, who continually made mental notes on the mechanics of each director and how that style came across on screen. He’s using all the info if he decides to get into directing later on.

“I’ve been gleaning a lot of stuff and gotten a crash course. It’s something I’ve been working toward,” he says. “As soon as they throw me out of Hollywood as an actor.”

Ruffalo might want to have a conversation with Liev Schreiber about making the transition from actor to director.

Schreiber, who co-starred in Jonathan Demme’s remake of “The Manchurian Candidate” this summer, is in post-production on his first directorial effort, “Everything Is Illuminated.” The Warner Independent pic revolves around a young Jewish American (Elijah Wood) who tries to find the woman who saved his grandfather in World War II.

The transition from on screen to behind the camera is tough for Schreiber. He wrote the screenplay and feels so close to the material that he had a hard time transferring that passion to his actors.

“It’s very difficult to direct your own work,” Schreiber says. “The feelings are so personal. When someone reads the words, it’s only taken at face value.

“I have to trust my ear (as a director) and their ear. I try to listen to the sound of people not acting. I was interested in using many non-actors because I like the way they look.”

Or don’t look.

No preconceived notions from an audience, no bringing baggage from another film.

And maybe no box office. But that’s not the director’s concern. All they need to worry about is getting their vision across — often with a little help from their friends.

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