When Great Directors Resorted To Tricks To Elicit Performance From Kids

Abhishek Srivastava - 61 weeks ago

Making children act in front of camera, could just be a nightmare for most directors. While Steven Spielberg earned distinction marks for making his kid actors act in ET and Poltergeist, Roman Polanski failed miserably in Oliver Twist. Few successfully read their behavior and psych, and thus treated them accordingly, while others simply failed to comprehend the subject of child psychology behavior. TFHY picks five iconic children films to see what was the director’s ploy behind making children act for their films.

(Majidi Majidi explaining a scene to Amir Farrokh Hashemian during the shooting of Children of Heaven)

CHILDREN OF HEAVEN (Director - Majid Majidi) (1997)

Children of Heaven directed by Majid Majidi is is one of the best feel good movies to have come out in the past three decades. The moving story of an innocent boy who decides to participate in a race to win a brand new pair of sneakers for his sister was Iran’s submission for Best Foreign Language Film category. In an interview Majid Majidi had revealed that the team had deployed hidden cameras to capture real life emotions. “There were some loose-ends, that is, things that happened that were like mistakes, but they enhanced the realistic performance. It actually made filming more difficult and involved, hiding the camera and crew, but the results were much more relaxed performances,” he had revealed in an interview to Ross Anthony.

(Steven Spielberg with Drew Barrymore on the set of E.T. The Extra Terrestrial)

E.T. THE EXTRA TERRESTRIAL (Director - Steven Spielberg) (1982)

Before Steven Spielberg called the shots on the sets of E.T., he had directed a very young boy already in Closed Encounters of the Third Kind. Spielberg had to play a lot of trick to ensure they reacted on hearing ‘action’. The tricks included opening presents on the sets. To ensure coherence on the set, he shot the whole film in continuity. This gave the kids, who were part of the film, an opportunity to experience a story in order. By the time the shoot of the film ended, they were actually saying goodbye to E.T. Spielberg believed shooting the film in continuity saved time which he would, otherwise,spend explaining specific details of the film to the kids. During the shoot, Spielberg once even told Drew Barrymore that the puppets on the sets were living aliens - through this he could manage sobbing shots of Drew Barrymore for the film.

(A candid from the set of Home Alone featuring Chris Columbus and Macaulay Culkin)

HOME ALONE (director - Chris Columbus) (1990)

After its release, Home Alone turned Macaulay Culkin into the biggest kid stars of all time. In an interview to The Guardian, director Chris Columbus had mentioned that when you agree to work with a kid actor, you are also agreeing to work with his or her family. He had revealed that he was signing a kid for his film who had a troubled family life. This was later reflected when Culkin’s parents got embroiled in a nasty battle over his earning from the film. More than Chris, it was Joe Pesci who managed to extract a superlative performance from Culkin. Joe avoided Culkin on the set to ensure that he would indeed be scared of him.

(Chloe Grace Moretz, Asa Butterfield and Martin Scorsese during the shooting of Hugo)

HUGO (Director - Martin Scorsese) (2011)

Hugo is a complete departure from Martin Scorsese’s repertoire. Through Hugo, he was entering a territory that was completely unfamiliar to him. It was a film far removed from the world of cops and gangsters. Asa Butterfield was only 14 years when he acted in Hugo. In an interview to BBC, Butterfield had revealed that Scorsese did not control him and gave them freedom to come up with ideas. The only thing which made Asa tired was the fact that the director gathered close to 135 hours of footage for a two-hour film. It was only once the shoot was over that the kids realised that it was actually Scorsese's ploy to incorporate their own quirks into the characters.

(Behind the scene image of Jackie Coogan and Charlie Chaplin on the set of The Kid)

THE KID (Director - Charlie Chaplin) (1921)

The Kid is considered to be Charlie Chaplin’s most personal work. The film was made at a time when his wife, Mildred, gave birth to a boy who died after three days. A week after this devastating incident, Chaplin was auditioning kids for his film. Similar to Martin Scorsese, he, too, believed in giving complete freedom to his kid actors. After the film finished its shooting, Chaplin had shot fifty times the original length of the film. Jackie Coogan became an instant star after the film hit theatres but at the age of 13, turned senile and due to his parents’ mismanagement of his earnings, eventually became penniless.


Children of Heaven / Hugo / ET The Extra Terrestrial / The Kid / Home Alone / Steven Spielberg / Chris Columbus / Majid Majidi / Charlie Chaplin / Martin Scorsese / Jackie Coogan / Macaulay Culkin / Asa Butterfield

The views expressed here are those of the author and do not necessarily represent or reflect the views of The Film Hashery.

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