Casting independent feature films: valuable advice from veteran casting directors

Here are my notes on “Casting the Net”, the third and final seminar I attended at the Palm Springs International Festival of Short Films. The panel was composed by three Casting Directors, including the incredibly on-the-ball Deanna Brigidi-Stewart, and focused on the role that Casting Directors can play in packaging an independent feature film.

1. Casting Directors know enormous numbers of actors, and know them well. This also means that they know these actors’ agents, and can therefore give you access to valuable talent if they believe in your project. Casting Directors can reduce their fees and make any number of other arrangements if they like you and the film you are working on.

2. Casting Directors tend to know actors very well. They audition the same actors many times for many different projects, and therefore know them better than any director out there. This is partly why Casting Directors bring so much value to the filmmaking process: if they have good taste – which is perhaps the foremost requirement for a Casting Director – their recommendations are pure gold. A first-time director would be well advised to collaborate with a talented Casting Director and give his or her suggestions serious consideration, especially if you are looking for talented but unknown actors (more about this important issue below).

Casting directors get to know actors from when they first enter the business to when they start to get work, which of course can take many years. By the time they go from one end of the “pipeline” to the other — as they put it — they are exceedingly familiar with what the actor can really do. In essence the casting director has been auditioning that actor for many years – a much longer and hence more data-rich process than the 30-minute audition for your movie.

3. When casting the leads of an independent feature film, assuming you have some money to spend and have a compelling project, you have two options: hire a familiar face / name actor in the hope of giving the film some prestige, or hire an unknown actor who is at least as talented, if not more. All three Casting Directors on the panel agreed that casting a talented, hungry actor in the lead will produce far better results than casting a familiar face. The reason is simple: the name actor will show up with handlers, personal assistants and a whole range of demands. He or she will work on the days you agreed upon and will then vanish. If you need some flexibility during shooting, or if you somehow need to ask them back after you wrap, it is almost impossible to get hold of them again.

Conversely, an equally talented but no-name actor will be absolutely thrilled to be cast in your movie and will perform above and beyond the call of duty. These eager actors will fall over themselves to give you what you want, and if you need them to perform extra work such as ADR after principal photography, they will generally be delighted to help. When you cast a no-name actor as the lead in a feature film, it’s literally a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity.

4. A member of the audience asked the following question: he had two actors available and interested in playing the lead in his independent feature film. Actor A is a great person to work with and is 99% perfect for the role. Actor B is very difficult, but is 100% perfect for the role. Which should he choose?

Again, the Casting Directors were unanimous: it’s a no-brainer, you really should go for the great person who is “only” 99% perfect for the role. They said that actors who are difficult to work with are simply not worth the trouble. Furthermore, they all emphasized that rumors about difficult actors are almost always true, and in fact in reality they tend to be even worse than the rumors make them out to be. So always go for the person who is great to work with, even if slightly less “perfect” than the more difficult alternative. It’s not just about the director’s quality of life during the shoot – the film itself will turn out better!

5. Attaching a name actor to a project brings considerable value, for the simple reason that it will make it easier to pre-sell the movie abroad. However, it is never obvious which actors have box-office potential abroad – it is often counterintuitive, and in any case it changes almost on a monthly basis. For example, they said that Mena Suvari carries enormous box-office benefits in territories outside the United States — more so than more famous actors. They mentioned another actress who consistently brings in box-office money abroad, but only in action films; her commercial value does not transfer to other genres, such as romantic comedies. Hence the subject of which actors bring the most commercial value to a movie abroad is a complicated one – it’s something you have to research properly rather than guess. They suggested BoxOfficeMojo – a website that you can use to identify the latest trends on which American actors are more bankable in foreign territories. Again, remember that any information more than a few months old is out of date and might no longer be applicable.

6. When talking to the agent of an actor you wish to attach to a project, never bluff, especially when it comes to stating how much money you have raised so far, and where it’s coming from: agencies are incredibly good at investigating your film-finance claims and will uncover any lies you tell them in a matter of hours. This burns bridges and makes you look incredibly bad. Don’t do it.

7. Managers are generally more approachable than agents. They have fewer clients and are more interested in attaching their clients to low-budget, risky but potentially beneficial projects. They are simply not as sales-oriented as agents.

8. Casting Directors bring tremendous value to film projects and accordingly are paid very well. If you really cannot afford the fees of a Casting Director and are unable to secure a lenient deal with one, you should strongly consider contacting their associates. The associate will be absolutely delighted that, for once, the person calling wants to talk to her rather than her boss. Remember that this is a young person who dreams of working as a fully-fledged Casting Director. If you come across well and have an interesting project, there is a good chance that they will be delighted to cast the movie for you. This will give them the chance to earn their first full Casting Director credit.

The Casting Director’s associate will do you this favor in her free time or during weekends. This is inevitable, because during regular working hours her job is to assist her boss. That said, it still helps a lot if the Casting Director’s associate has the support of her boss. This will result in greater access to resources and maybe even the direct collaboration of the Casting Director herself.

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3 thoughts on “Casting independent feature films: valuable advice from veteran casting directors

  1. For someone starting out with only a few short films under his belt mostly with friends (like myself)…where do you find people? I’m not on the level of having contact with agents and what not but I KNOW I’m capable of making a killer project…everyday I use my camera and read about new things and my mini short films get slightly better but I don’t have a serious reel. I’m willing to eat ramen noodle everyday for a long time but everyone seams to be to them selfs these days…no one wants to collaborate…

    For example I have myself acting as the Writer/Director/DP, a friend acting as a my Prop artist/writer and possibly one other person…people regard me as dedicated and smart but its as if no one has any interest in doing anything other than say drama at their high school or community college..

    • Hi Nate,

      Post on sites like Craigslist — you will receive many responses, and if you present yourself well and your project has merit, amazing things will happen.

      Add this project to your reel and next time you will attract better talent, adding an even better new project to your reel, leading to even higher credibility, and so on.

      Keep me posted!

      -Ed

  2. How important are chemistry tests between? Does is differ between directors and producers? Does it depend if the project is a low-key indie or a potential blockbuster?

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