We had a discussion in-between Christmas and New Years about directing actors: a casting director, a couple of shorts directors, a feature film director and myself all met for coffee in a run-down part of Vancouver currently undergoing gentrification. To be clear, I have not directed a feature yet and only shorts. For privacy reasons, I am not able to provide names. We were all of Asian decent and had different experiences with working with actors. A couple of us came from a more technical background (cinematography, editing), while one is an actor.
How do you direct actors? My response was through objectives and motivational words. You create an environment that empowers actors to act. Rehearsal time is involved and actors have to do the work to find meaning in what they do.
The casting director agreed. Rehearsal is important. The feature film director remained quiet. I think he was absorbing it all in. The other two shorts directors believed technical excellence is important. What does this mean? The projects they worked on were back in China. They had a star system established where actors didn't auditioned. It was simply who you know that allowed you to be cast into a film. The impression I received was once you are in you "act" the way you think the character should be. Directing is more about supervising all the other technical departments on set, making sure all the parts fit in the puzzle. To an extent you want to mitigate problems in the pipeline. but by focusing on these aspects we remove attention on the performance.
In order to have a good film, we need to have good performances. Audiences can be forgiving when you cross an axis or something technical falls short. Good performances along with a good story will salvage a film with technical issues. Auditions are an important part in this process, rehearsals are necessary, and acting is a collaborative effort. What happens behind the camera is as important as what is going on in front of it so knowing how to direct actors is vital. Relying on their ability is great, but unless a director is dealing with a veteran, he/she should know how to push them. Directors should understand an actor's range, engage them in a way that motivates them to work with you. This starts in the audition process and never ends until you are sitting with them watching the film.