A lot of film directors have a rather unfortunate reputation among the actors they work with. The job of the motion picture director is a very complicated one, and there are always people vying for the director’s attention. Sometimes, whether the director is consumed with technical matters or perhaps concerned with logistical production details, the director may fail to communicate with the actors. Hopefully, when you have terrific actors and have consulted with them about your analysis and dramatic concept beforehand, when this circumstance arises and is somehow unavoidable the results will be well within the spectrum of what you expected to receive had you been more engaged in dialogue about the performance.
Still, there are other directors however, who fall into the trap of never communicating with their actors. Perhaps part of the problem emerges in film schools where communication with actors is sometimes rarely taught, and even more rarely taught by a director who has had the privilege of working professionally in the industry and directing actors regularly. Whatever the case, a class of directors does exist who work repeatedly, and in their work sometimes rarely give serious thought to altering the performance of actors through direction or communication.
Of course, with every extreme, there is certainly the opposite. Over-directing is probably a worse crime the under-directing, in a lot of ways, and can certainly cause a great deal more problems for your actors then under-directing. There are many reasons why directors fall into this trap. Some may be paranoid about appearing like they know their craft, and in fact stop watching the performance and start thinking about their next brilliant piece of direction, other directors may be so perfectionist or controlling that they kill the spontaneity and truthfulness of the performance by giving micro-directions about each “note” of an actor’s movement or intonation. Either extreme can be very dangerous.
Still though, there are important benefits to consider “non-communication” as method in and of itself. What do I mean by this? Well, simply put, sometimes the best direction is no direction. This can be true, even when an actor is struggling. I know that this is against conventional wisdom, and I know that this is almost never the conclusion I reach when on the set and faced with a problem in performance of an actor, but it is still very important to realize that a valid and potentially vital tool in every director’s tool kit is giving no explicit direction.
The situations when non-communication could be the best possible option are infinite, but I will provide a few examples to hopefully clarify the underlying point I am trying to make.
Scenario One. You’ve cast a brilliant actor in a difficult role. He is confronting a monologue, and for some reason the first and the second piece of direction you have given have not been affective in getting a truthful performance. It is time to take the performance again. A few moments pause are taken. No direction is given. The actor is left to his own choices. Perhaps there was a way of performing the monologue that he had not explicitly voiced his desire to try and has now given it an attempt. Perhaps the insecurity of your absence evoked the proper sense of insecurity that gave the monologue sincerity. Perhaps, simply by taking a take to observe the actor’s more natural state of performance you have given yourself time to properly identify the solution to the problem and have picked a more specific directorial tool or method for the next take.
Scenario Two. You have just moved from one scene that engaged the actor in an emotionally charged way. You gave direction, the performance was sincere and powerful, and now it is time to enter into the next scene. The actor appears to be carrying the emotional weight of the previous scene. Your previous emotional work is not directly or specifically applicable to the scene, but you suspect the emotional sincerity is still present in the actor’s current state. Does it make sense to engage the actor in a specific piece of direction, designed to bring him into an emotional state that he may already be experiencing? Sometimes, it is easy to forget that the process of acting can be the most fluid and engaging emotional experience an actor could have, far more affecting then any piece of direction. Other then the specific notes on blocking, context, and eye line, in this scenario it may again make the most sense to (at least at first) rely on non-communication as a method.
Some of these examples and notes may appear obvious or simplified, but too many times have I seen directors fail to treat their non-communication as a tool. The absence of your direction is not necessarily abdication of your craft. There is a right time not to speak, just as there is a right time to speak. The absence of direction can sometimes be the right solution to a dramatic problem, but like any tool, it should be carefully considered for the task at hand and should always be used in moderation.