Independent Film — Pre-Production: Casting
Moving into the world of serious filmmaking means hiring professional actors—actors who will bring your story to life and give you the opportunity to have your work taken seriously. Auditioning these actors is a complex process that allows you and the prospective cast members to determine who is the right fit for your project. Below I’ve outlined six phases of the audition process for you to consider as you begin to assemble your cast.
- Audition Space
- Actor Search/Casting Call
- Scheduling Auditions
- Preparing for Auditions
- During the Audition
- Decision Time
Let’s assume, for the purposes of this article, that you’re not using a casting agency. If you could afford one, you probably wouldn’t be running around trying to find an audition space yourself.
Choosing a location for your auditions is more important than you may think. Why? Let’s break it down:
First, let’s think about the proximity of your audition space to the pool of actors you’ll be targeting for auditions. Choosing a location in or near the city can make a huge difference for the following reasons:
- When you’re in the city, actors can reach you by car, by public transportation, or by foot. When you’re in a suburb, or even further away, actors have to drive out to your location. This can make it more difficult for students and city residents to get to you.
- The closer you are to the city, the higher the population is. This means you’ll be able to find more actors who are close to your audition space. Some actors will drive for hours to get to an audition, but others have to contend with work, school, and family schedules, which means they can’t necessarily afford to take half a day off for an audition.
- People are much more comfortable driving to a place they know. Especially for young women, auditioning in the city—at a theatre, for instance—is a much safer prospect than driving out to a secluded area they’ve never been before.
Second, let’s think about the type of location you’ll want to use. Here are some things to consider:
- Don’t ever, ever hold auditions in a hotel room. I don’t care if your parents own the hotel. It’s creepy and inappropriate. While we’re on the subject, don’t hold auditions at your home, either.
- You’ll want to find a place that has a separate audition space and waiting area. This may seem obvious, but you’d be surprised how many times novice filmmakers find themselves with a group of actors who have nowhere to sit. Not only is this poor planning, it’s disrespectful to the actors. Can you imagine wanting to work for someone who couldn’t think far enough ahead to bring chairs?
- If possible, try to find a location that has even a loose affiliation with the arts—a small auditorium; a theatre; an acting school; a dance studio. You’ll probably find your actors more relaxed in this type of environment than they would be at a law office or some other unrelated business.
Third, let’s think about the actual room where you’ll be conducting your auditions:
- Make sure the room isn’t too cramped. You’ll want some distance between yourself and the actors who are reading for you. This way you won’t be focused just on their faces; you’ll get a better feel for their body language and their overall skill and comfort as actors.
- You’ll no doubt want to take notes during the audition process, so make sure to have a table or desk in the room.
- Test out the sound in your audition space. If the actors in the waiting room can hear the auditions taking place, they’ll be preoccupied with the thought of other actors listening in on their auditions, so they won’t be at their best when they read for you.
Actor Search/Casting Call:
There are two reliable ways to find actors: first, you can go out and search for them, and second, you can ask them to come to you. My suggestion is to use both of these approaches.
Let’s first tackle the prospect of actively searching for actors. Unless you want to roam the streets aimlessly, asking strangers if they can act, you’ve probably got three options:
- Go to local screenings and performances to scout talent.
- Get recommendations from other filmmakers and industry professionals.
- Search film- and theater-related websites for local actors.
Now let’s tackle the prospect of getting actors to come to you. How do you do this? You send out a casting call. When you sit down to write it, make sure to include the following information:
- The name of your production company
- The type of project you’re shooting (feature/short; drama/comedy/horror)
- The shooting format (35 mm/16 mm/HD/DV): the more specific you are, the more organized you appear. Simply being organized and efficient can go a long way toward winning people over. Moreover, if you happen to be shooting on film, you’ll certainly want to advertise this fact. Most actors will go to great lengths for the the opportunity to be in a film, as opposed to “just another DV movie.”
- Who are you looking for? (gender; age group; specific appearance; accents and other special skills): when it comes to things such as age and ethnic appearance, make sure to ask yourself if these factors are actually relevant to the character. If they’re not relevant, exclude this information from your casting call. Otherwise, you’ll be limiting your pool of actors for no good reason.
- Is this a union or non-union shoot? If you don’t include this information, you’ll probably get fifty e-mails asking this very question. Save yourself the headache.
- Is this a paying job? If it’s not, just say so. Tricking people doesn’t win you any points.
- When will the film be shooting? Even if you don’t have your production dates set in stone, it’s good to include a ballpark time frame. Believe me, it’s disheartening to discover a fantastic actor, only to find out afterward that he/she will be away for the month you’ll be shooting.
- Where will the film be shooting? If you’re not shooting in the area, and there will be travel involved, you should be up front about that.
- Is there any nudity required? If so, always tell the actors in advance, either in your casting call or when you contact them to schedule their auditions. Note: in my opinion, it’s inappropriate to ask any actor to do a nude scene if he/she is working for no pay.
- Your contact information: I’d include an e-mail address (where the actors can send their head shots and résumés) but not a phone number. If you include a phone number, you could easily end up with a hundred voicemail messages from people you’re not even interested in auditioning.
Next, let’s think about the format of your casting call. When writing it up, you should always remember a few things:
- Write professionally, and use proper English (assuming you’re targeting an English-speaking audience): I don’t care if you’re bad with grammar and spelling. Have someone else look it over, and use the spellcheck function in your word processor. If you write like an amateur, you won’t be taken seriously, and you shouldn’t be.
- Write in third person. “7 Fluid Oz. Productions LLP is seeking actors for its upcoming film” is simply more professional than “I’m looking for actors for my film.”
- Don’t embellish. This won’t help you. I don’t care if you think this is “the best script ever.” You don’t put that in a casting call. I don’t care if you’re absolutely sure that the film is going to get “tons of exposure.” Have you actually signed a distribution agreement? Have you already been invited to screen your film at prestigious festivals? No, I didn’t think so. So please, don’t waste anyone’s time with outrageous statements. If you’ve had success with your previous films, then go ahead and put that information in the casting call. If your films have won awards or been released on DVD, that says something about your work.
Here’s an example of a professionally written casting call:
Unnamed Productions is seeking actors for its upcoming feature-length dramatic thriller. The film will be shot on 16 mm, in the Boston area, over a period of 3 weeks in either June or July.
Needed: Males (18-50); Females (18-40)—martial arts training preferred, but not required.
This is a non-union shoot with some upfront pay for leads, but mostly deferred.
If interested, please send your head shot and résumé to firstname.lastname@example.org.
Unnamed Productions’ previous work has been released on DVD and screened at six film festivals, including the Newport International and the Tribeca Underground. For more information about Unnamed Productions, please visit www.unnamedprodco.com.
So, it’s time to send out your casting call. Where should you send it? Here’s a list of Boston-area sites that have been successful for me:
- boston.craigslist.org: there’s a “tv/film/video” category for paid jobs and a “talent” category for no/low/deferred pay gigs. Posting in the “tv/film/video” category costs money, so unless you have a significant budget, I’d skip this one. You’ll get plenty of responses from the “talent” category.
- nefilm.com: good exposure, but it’s worth noting that casting calls can take up to a week to get posted on the site.
- netheater411.com: mostly for theater actors (as the site’s name would suggest) but still a valuable place to advertise.
It’s time to think about scheduling your auditions. Here are some factors to consider as you get ready to set a date and contact the actors you’ve targeted:
First, you’ll need to choose a day and time:
- If possible, hold auditions over the course of at least two days. This will give actors with scheduling conflicts a better chance of attending your auditions. Also, this will give you the opportunity to consider your own work during the first day of auditions, and then alter your technique if you feel it’s necessary.
- In my experience, Friday/Saturday or Saturday/Sunday auditions tend to work the best. Not only do most people have the day off from work and school on weekends, it’s often a little easier to find an audition space then. Now, you may ask yourself, “Don’t people like to go out and relax on the weekends?” Well, that’s true. In most cases, though, an actor will skip out on an afternoon with friends in order to audition for a film—and if they’d rather go to a bar than an audition, they’re probably not the kind of people you want on your set.
- Don’t schedule your auditions on a holiday or a holiday weekend (this also applies to spring break). Not only do people go away for certain holidays, it’s a little presumptuous to ask someone to skip Easter Mass or a Passover Seder to come audition for your production.
- If you hold auditions on a weekday, don’t start until the afternoon (most people work for a living).
Second, you’ll need to schedule times for your actors. Simply telling them that auditions are between ten and five is a bad idea. While actors are rarely treated as such, they are, in fact, human beings. Being forced to sit around indefinitely is frustrating and exhausting. On top of that, people do better work when they feel respected. Showing regard for the actors’ time is an important first step in building a solid working relationship.
Here are some ideas to consider when building your schedule:
- Call your actors. Don’t e-mail them. Why? First, talking to someone can give you a better feel for his/her demeanor than exchanging e-mails. Casting means more than simply finding good actors. It means choosing actors with whom you’ll work well. Second, most actors will have questions for you—questions about the production; questions about your experience; questions about the characters in the screenplay. It’s easier to answer these over the phone than it is to answer them by e-mail, especially if your answers bring more questions.
- Make sure that any actor under the age of 18 is accompanied by a parent or legal guardian. As a matter of fact, you should speak to the parent before you even schedule his/her child for an audition. The last thing you need is an angry parent making your life miserable.
- Try to schedule specific times. In my experience, four actors per hour is a good pace. Each director works differently, but I find that fifteen minutes gives you ample time to see what an actor can do.
- Send your actors directions to the audition space. This makes their lives easier; it shows them you value their time, and it reduces the chance of people showing up late, which can throw off your schedule.
- Send your actors sides from the script. Not having to go in for a cold read helps an actor’s audition tremendously. Despite this fact, sending out pages scares a lot of directors, and for the life of me, I can’t figure out why. If you’re that terrified about someone stealing your material, just register your script through either the Writers Guild of America or the U.S. Copyright Office.
- Many actors will ask if they should prepare a monologue. It’s entirely up to you, of course, but I’ve never found this particularly helpful. Chances are, the actor is going to show up with a monologue that plays to his/her strengths. What’s important, though, is how capable the actor is of tackling the material in your script. Assuming you’re sending the actor pages from your script ahead of time, a prepared monologue shouldn’t be necessary.
- If the actor is under the age of 18, make sure you send the script to the parent. This way the parent can look through the script for adult material before handing it off to his/her child. If there is adult material, try to find a way for the child to audition that will satisfy any concerns the parent may have. For instance, if there’s adult material in the script, but none of it is in a scene with the child, you can make sure that the child only sees pages from his/her scene. Moreover, you can make sure the child is never on set while the more adult scenes are being filmed.
- Give the actors a cell number they can call if they’re running late or have to cancel their audition. This will make your life a lot easier.
- If it’s going to be a long day, make sure to schedule time for lunch and/or dinner. This may sound obvious, but in the excitement of scheduling actors, you might be surprised how easy this is to forget.
Third, many directors like to hold callbacks so they can have a second look at their best prospects. While this isn’t always necessary, it can certainly be a lot of help. Once you’ve picked your cast, you’re stuck with them. It’s best to be sure you’ve made the right choices.
Preparing for Auditions:
All phases of filmmaking require thorough preparation, and audition day is no exception:
- Print out extra copies of your script. Obviously you’ll need scripts for yourself and everyone working with you during the audition process, but it’s always good to have extras. As a matter of fact, you might want to have a few copies sitting in the waiting area, in case an actor has trouble printing out a copy before leaving for the audition. It’s also a good idea to keep extra copies in the audition room because actors can unintentionally leave with one of your copies.
- Have scripts available with highlighted dialogue cues. This will make the actors’ lives easier. Now, many directors don’t like to do anything that feels like “babying” an actor. There’s a big difference, though, between babying someone and simply making his/her job easier. The cast’s job is hard enough, and the goal is to get the best performance out of them you possibly can. Anything you can do to facilitate this is worth your consideration. Besides, if you want to see what an actor can do under pressure, you can always have them read a few pages cold, and also improvise a little during the audition.
- Print up an audition form for the actors to fill out while they’re waiting to read for you. Audition forms are a fantastic way to collect information without having to waste valuable audition time. Here’s a list of information worth collecting on the form:
- Mailing address
- Home phone number
- Cell phone number
- E-mail address
- Emergency contact information
- Food/fabric/other allergies (this could affect craft services, wardrobe, etc.)
- Availability during the expected shoot dates/rehearsal times/callback dates
- Is he/she under 18? If so, is a parent/guardian here? (If not, don’t let the actor audition.)
- Is there any material in the script that makes him/her uncomfortable?
- Any other questions/concerns?
- Bring water and cups for the actors. Actors’ throats can dry out while they’re auditioning (especially if they’re nervous). Having water for them is practical, and it once again shows that you’re attentive to the needs of people working for you.
- Print up signs to hang in noticeable areas so the actors know they’re in the right place. Don’t make your actors wander around the building, wondering if they’re lost.
- Have a video camera available so you can tape the auditions. Not only is it helpful to review the auditions when making your decisions, it’s important to see how actors look and come across on camera. It’s often very different from how they appear in person.
- Establish your casting team. While the director almost always has the final say when it comes to casting (at least on an independent film) it’s important to have a team with you during the audition process. You’ll want other people (usually the producers and/or a casting director) there to help you evaluate the actors’ performances. Sometimes they’ll pick up on things you don’t notice. In addition, you’ll want someone there (a casting director/assistant, most likely) to read with the actors so you don’t have to do it. Having someone with previous performance experience can be a big help.
- Try to have both men and women on the casting team. Ask any actress, and I bet she’ll have a story about showing up for an audition, only to find a couple of sleazy guys leering at her during the whole audition. Having a woman present can certainly help put her mind at ease.
- Define your team’s roles ahead of time. In some cases, only the director will work with the actors, while the other members of the team will observe silently. Some directors, on the other hand, like the producers and casting director to be actively involved. Whatever you decide, make sure everyone is on the same page before your first actor comes in to read.
During the Audition:
It’s audition time, so what should you keep in mind as actors are reading for you?
It’s important to know how actors respond to different kinds of pressures. For this reason, I suggest including the following elements during the audition:
- Begin with the material you sent them. Your actors are most likely going to be nervous going into the audition, so why not try to make them comfortable? Give them a chance to work with material they already know so you can see what they’re capable of when they have the opportunity to prepare for a role.
- Throw in a quick scene the actors have never read so you can see how they respond to a cold read. While casting a film based on cold reads can be dangerous, there’s definitely merit in the cold read. Chances are, you’re going to end up changing dialogue and altering some of your scenes during the shoot. A cold read will help you see how quickly actors can absorb new material.
- Try some improvisation. This is a great way to see if an actor can think on his/her feet. Moreover, watching the actor improvise gives you the opportunity to see how he/she has interpreted his/her character from the script. This can be useful both in casting and in determining how your script is coming across to other people.
Whether the actors are good or bad, make sure to give them direction so you can see how they respond. Sometimes an actor will butcher an initial reading, but then improve greatly with direction. On the other hand, an actor can at first appear very good, but with a little direction, it becomes obvious that he/she has no range at all.
Taking notes about the actors can be helpful, but don’t spend too much time looking down at your notebook. You may miss some of the subtleties of an actor’s performance. On top of that, an actor’s performance may be pleasing to the ear, but that doesn’t mean the physical performance is any good.
There’s no way for me to tell you whom to cast (and why would you want me to?) but I do think you should keep a couple of things in mind as you make your final decisions:
- Sometimes it’s obvious whom you’re going to cast in a given role, but if it’s not, don’t necessarily cast the actor who came the closest to your vision of the character. If you’re having a hard time deciding between two actors, you may want to cast the actor who responded to direction better, even if he/she didn’t nail the audition. You and the actors will have plenty of time to rehearse both off and on set, so your actors don’t have to be perfect during the audition. What they need to be is capable and able to take direction.
- Personality is extremely important. When you’re shooting an independent film, you don’t have the time, energy, or resources to deal with a cast member who’s going to be egocentric or otherwise problematic. On an independent film, it’s important to surround yourself with team players who won’t desert you when the going gets tough, and who won’t monopolize your time with trivial matters. After all, you’re all there to work hard and make the best film you can possibly make.
I hope this article will be helpful as you prepare for your next film production. As always, I look forward to your comments and welcome your feedback.