People make the mistake of imagining a director’s role in a film being to demonstrate in a physical way what he or she would like to see from the actors, i.e., acting for them. Not only is this a false impression but it is a poor directorial style for those who do choose to adopt it. Furthermore, much more goes into directing a film than telling (or showing) actors what to do. The film does not consist of performances alone, and performance itself is more complex than this characterization implies.
It may be helpful for directors to understand how actors experience and carry out acting, but they don’t need to be good actors themselves. Different actors approach the work in a variety of different ways, and skilled directors are able to work with them in whatever way will be the most effective for drawing out the desired performance. This will seldom involve needing the director to jump into the set to provide a model to mimic. In fact, doing so will often interfere with the actor’s preferred methods and can prevent the actor from forming a spontaneous or internally driven connection to the character and the dialogue. Moreover, if the demonstration was not specifically requested by the actor, it can be insulting.
Better directorial techniques, in contrast, are those in which directors convey the vision they would like the film to encapsulate and provide context to the actors, who can then better understand their characters the way the director feels they fit into the larger picture.
The more secure the director is in that vision, the better he will be able to describe it to the actors, and having that solid vision is essential. Once these ideas are advanced, actors can put them into physical and spoken form. No two actors will interpret the same role identically, even with the same direction. An actor’s ability to interpret a character from the information available to her is often part of what will invest the role with depth.
Concrete ways to do this can include advance preparation with the actors, discussing the back stories for the characters and the narrative. Input from the actors about how they understand the roles can be valuable here, as it keeps everyone on the same track. Rehearsing scenes before they are shot can help establish a common understanding about how each scene is supposed to feel as well as what it looks like, while enriching the director and cast’s sense of the story on the whole.
Directors have much to do that isn’t directly related to instructing actors, and these responsibilities can impact their contact with actors as well. The overarching concept of the film will be the director’s, and this concept ties all the cast and crew to the project and to the desired product, with an ultimate balance between what the director instructs and the work the crew perform to bring the ideas to fruition. Quite a bit of the director’s work is management: everyone from cinematographers to set designers, editors to costume and makeup, gets his or her orientation from the director, though from there they may have a greater or lesser degree of creativity to inject into their areas.
Choosing or creating a set that establishes a sense of place, costuming the cast as befits the conceptualization, can help give actors something to work with that operates on a deeper and possibly more effective level than overt mimicry. Whether a director uses a light hand or a heavy hand is a matter of style, but even a heavy-handed director should know where to draw the line.