July 99 Feature - Tips For Independent Casting Directors

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By Johnny McNair

"How the hell did that actor get this part?" How many times have you watched a movie or TV show and asked yourself the very same question? Sometimes an actor is given a role that he or she is not capable of portraying to its full range. This is a result of something that was not carefully monitored during pre-production: Casting. Good casting is the most important thing in a movie next to a solid script. One does not work without the other. Assembled here are some helpful hints to get a New York based independent filmmaker started on the right path.

Freebies: giving roles to friends
Giving away parts to friends and relatives can actually work for minor roles, but for those independent filmmakers who want their movies to stand out, it would be wise to spend more time casting the lead roles. These are the actors who will sell your film to the audience and make them relate to the characters. Your cousin who wants to be the next Angela Bassett, but acts like Liv Tyler, may not be able to pull this off.

Hear ye, Hear ye: finding talent
After you are 100% sure about your script and you have enough funding to get started, you need to let actors know that you're looking for them. This can be done in several ways. If you recently saw a great performance by an actor in someone else's student film or low-budget indie, get in contact with the director to find that actor. Then you can ask them to read for your film.

You can also run an ad in one of the local trades. BackStage, New York Casting, New York Independent Film Monitor, the Village Voice, and Loot are some of the New York trades that you can place a notice in. Some, like Loot, are free while others will charge you a small fee (usually about $35-$40 bucks, depending on the number of words). Your ad should identify the type of actor/actress you are interested in, as well as a simple synopsis or genre pitch for your project. I recommend that you never list your home address in the ad for actors to send their pictures. Some actors are very determined and may show up at your house with their picture to audition on the spot. Invest a few bucks in a P.O. Box for the month you are casting.

In this technological age, there are also several web sites for casting that you may want to check out. These sites will allow you to specify the type of actor you are looking for (i.e. black actress, early twenties, petite, etc.) and display a list of pictures, resumes and contact information at the tap of a button. Some of the web sites you may want to check out are:

To Union Or Not To Union:
One question that may pop into your head is whether you should use SAG (Screen Actors Guild) or non-SAG actors. You may think that your budget is too small to deal with union talent and don’t want to waste time going through the bureaucratic hassle. But while there are many talented actors who aren’t in the union yet who you could call in for an audition, the Screen Actors Guild does work with smaller low-budget productions as well. If you’re making a student film, for instance, SAG has made an arrangement with schools for students to use SAG actors in their projects. For those of you making a short, or a film with a budget under $1 million, I recommend you contact the SAG office in your area to see what kind of arrangement they can make for you.

A Kodak Moment: headshots
After receiving a mile-high stack of photos, you’ll probably spend a week figuring out who you want to call in for an audition and who you can't use. I suggest that if you can't use a particular actor, you should pass their photos along to another person who is about to go into pre-production. Photos are expensive and I'm sure that a lot of struggling actors would appreciate the favor.

A Room With A View: audition space
Next, you will have to set up a space to hold auditions. Never use your own apartment. I suggest you rent out a space, unless, of course, you know someone who can get you a space for free. It doesn't have to be fancy; just a room with an outside space for actors to wait while others are auditioning. Spaces to rent can be found in most trades publications, particularly Backstage, where you can find space for rent for about $15-$20 dollars an hour.

On the day you have your auditions it is recommended that you schedule each actor ten to fifteen minutes apart. This will help prevent too many actors from showing up at the same time and having to sit around and wait. I also suggest that you try to get them the lines (or "sides") you want them to read in advance by faxing it to them, or letting them study them before they have to read on the day of the auditions. Also bring in another person to read with the actors you are auditioning. This person doesn’t have to be an actor themselves, just a person the actors can run lines with.

Bring a video camera to the auditions and tape all the actors who read. This helps in two ways. First, it gives you a visual record of each actor that you can study later for your convenience. Remembering how each actor read by just using notes might be a bit confusing. There will be too many to keep track of, so why make things difficult for yourself. Second, and most importantly, taping each actor gives you a sample of how they will look on screen. Most actors look great in person, but on camera something may be lost. Or the opposite, an actor who didn’t thrill you in person, may look perfect on camera.

In the audition room, there should be only a few people: you (the director/producer), a reader and one person to operate the video camera. Don’t have your friends or anyone else who is not involved with the process hanging out in the audition space. Keep it professional and your talent will act professionally.

If you liked the way an actor read and you want them to try it again differently, direct them. See what kind of performance you can get out of them. Let them improvise even. Ask them if they have any questions about the character or about you and the production itself. Also mention the time frame in which you plan to shoot your project to see if it conflicts with their schedule. If it is someone you really like, maybe you can both work something out.

Play It Again Sam: callbacks
After the auditions, take your tape home and watch all of the actors again. This time you can have others watch the tape with you to get their opinions. Once you’ve narrowed down some potential actors, it’s time for the next phase of the Audition process–callbacks.

For the callbacks, try something different. Ask the actors to come in dressed like the character they may be portraying. (unless you’re doing a period piece or sci-fi project). Also bring props for them to use if necessary. Go for the full routine. Have them read a different set of lines this time and give them more direction.. It is very important to see how they follow instructions.

You Got the Part… I think
Even if you’re positive that a certain actor is right for the part, don’t offer them the job right on the spot. Go home and watch the callback videotape until you are absolutely sure who you want. Ask yourself these three questions:

  1. Did the actor portray the character just as I envisioned it, if not better?
  2. Did the actor follow direction well?
  3. Can I see myself working with this actor?

If you answered a definite "yes" to all three of these questions, your work is almost done. Just be sure you avoid these serious don’ts:

  • Don’t cast someone based on their looks if you know they can’t play the character.
  • Don’t make big promises to an actor that you know you can’t keep.
  • Don’t turn your auditions into a dating service. You’re looking for talent, not dates.

That’s it! After a few congratulatory phone calls, your cast will be in place and you’ll be ready to begin rehearsals. If you chose wisely, the performances you receive will ensure you a top-notch film. Good luck.

Johnny McNair is a screenwriter/director currently based in New York City. Recently his film, "TROUBLESHOOTER," screened at the New York Underground Film Festival and was picked up for distributed by KJM3 Entertainment. He is currently working on a new feature, which should be completed by mid 1999.


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