How to do casting
Everything begins with casting. All the magic methods for directing actors—objectives, action verbs, images, adjustments or other tools—won’t mean anything without the right cast of performers.
Directing is all about making the right choices within the limitations of your timeline and budget. The director makes most of the decisions while making a film, but a wise director will consult regularly and sincerely with many other talented people involved in the production of the film. Keeping in contact and working closely with the director of photography, the production designer, the VFX supervisor and the actors helps the director create a successful piece of art. In the upper levels of independent filmmaking or in the studio film business, the executives of the film studio or the film’s investors must approve many of the director’s decisions. But when it comes to casting, the director should be able to make an independent decision; otherwise he will lose creative control over his film. There is a difference between listening to the different parties involved in making the film and letting them take over the whole process. This can be a bit of a balancing act, but try your best to keep casting under your control.
Often, in independent filmmaking projects, attaching some movie stars to the script will attract investors and distributors. There are established stars who will consider being a part of the project for less than their regular fee if they like the script. If you have a great script, the first step is to try to find some way of getting the script directly into the hands of certain actors rather than going through their agents. Then, interested actors can issue a letter of intent showing their interest in being a part of the film. The second step is talking to investors. Note that from the investors’ and distributor’s perspectives, the attachment of movie stars to your project is more interesting than simply having a “great” script. That is why talent is very important, not only for making a film successful, but also for attracting the investors who will make it possible for you to make this “great script” into a movie or play. Attaching celebrities to a script or project may help first time filmmakers to break into the business.
Casting stars and casting non-star actors are different processes. Typically, you do not need to hold an audition to cast an A-list Hollywood actor. As the director, you can make a decision about them by watching their previous work in other movies. In order to cast non-star actors you will need to have auditions and callbacks.
The success of your film or play will mostly depend on the level of acting. Here we’ll explore how to avoid the pitfalls of casting and to find ways to cast the best possible actor for each role.
Casting is the most important and most time-consuming part of the director’s work. Many teachers and directors assert that casting is the core, heart, and engine of the whole directing process. Good casting may lead to easy and successful work with actors and eventually to fabulous acting in your film or play. Poor casting can destroy all of your efforts in making a film. Mike Nichols, a great stage and film director, said that casting is 85 percent of directing actors.
Depending on your budget, you can either hire a casting director or do the casting by yourself. A casting director can help you significantly, especially if you have a multi-million dollar project and a big cast. I think Nichols is close to the truth, but I tend to believe that good casting is more like 90 percent of directing actors. If you have well-trained actors who fit the roles, your job in directing these actors is almost done. When it comes to casting, your ultimate goal is to find exceptionally talented actors to work on your film or theater play. Of course, this depends to some degree upon luck, budget limitations, and the producers’ demands, as well as a few other unpredictable factors. Generally, casting is much of what directing actors is about, and it is definitely one of the first tasks that you, as a director, will undertake.
Please allow me to repeat this one more time: a director’s goal is getting the most talented actors possible. Do you know what the biggest problem with low-grade films is? Do you want to know why these movies are so bad? The overall look and sound of the scenes falls to such a low level mostly because of meager characters and poor acting. This makes an audience feel unattached.
Auditioning and performing are different skill sets. There are actors who perform well, but who cannot do auditions. Plenty of actors can do both. An audition is not a performance.
Emerging directors often have the picture of an ideal actor in their heads—usually borrowed from the best Hollywood films—and they search for actors who match their ideal. This is a mistake. Every actor is one of a kind, in spite of the fact that they can be categorized by type, age and other traits. When a director has an iconic picture from a legendary film in his mind, he makes a mistake by applying an actor from his dreams approach to casting. Sometimes, the director believes that this type of person exists in the real world and searches for the actor who matches this ideal. This is not a good thing, because it is not original, creative, or inventive and it’s not based on an artistic choice. If directors followed this instinct, their work would look like weak copies of other peoples’ films.
Many think that actors have phenomenal memories and they can memorize lines very fast. That is not true; an actor’s job is acting, and they have the same ability to memorize as anybody else. Many successful actors only have an average ability to memorize. Do not consider this a necessary acting skill during casting.
Imagine, the director or casting director gives the actor the following directions in the audition room: “be funnier” or “be more free spirited.” Obviously, such directions are not playable because they are vague and general, and because they call for a Result. Actors cannot play attitudes, adjectives and general directions. Result-Oriented Directing is not appropriate for auditions.
Some directors have a demanding attitude, and say things like, “show me what you can do.” This kind of approach, in auditions as well as in rehearsals, is unproductive. Actors do not respect it. An audition is not a competition between actors.
A director who is able to make independent decisions in casting has a better chance of creating a brilliant film or theater play. In the long and exciting process of making your film or play, only you, the director, can bring the performance level from average to magnificent by making intelligent casting choices. Take your time to cast slowly, thoroughly and methodically. As a director, you must be ready to make painful decisions. You probably have a lot of nice friends or relatives who are actors. Your acquaintances may want to be in your movie, but be independent and make you own decisions. Don’t choose your friends or collaborators for roles in your project. At the end of the day, you will save your friendship and direct a better play or film.
Many directors make casting decisions only after watching video recordings of the auditions. You will never remember all of the nuances of a performance without visual and audio references. Record high quality videos of your auditions with every actor. Use different shots (close up, medium, master and so on), as well as costumes and props if possible. There is the big contrast between a live performance and the way it will look on a variety of different sized screens. When setting up your auditions, consider that different angles, framing and lighting may deliver various emotions and feelings. Make your lighting as close as possible to what it will be in the scene you are auditioning for. You may be impressed by a live performance, but when you review the video you will see a totally different performance and it may change your decision. Make your casting choices based on videos of auditions rather than on live performances.
Put your actor at ease before proceeding with the audition. Usually, all this takes is a few moments of small talk or a question and answer session with the actor about the script, story, or characters. This will break the ice and help you get a truer performance from the audition.
Treat the actors with the respect, courtesy and professionalism they deserve. You will be surprised by how small the film business is. The way you treat actors will directly affect your ability to get a good cast for current and future projects. Believe me, word spreads quickly in the filmmaking and theater worlds if you exhibit even a hint of disrespect or questionable behavior.
Give the lines to your actors as early as possible. Many online casting web sites (www.lacasting.com, www.backstage.com) allow you to upload the lines from the actual script for actors to download and print. I think that a cold reading is too simplistic a test for actors, and it cannot reveal enough about the way the actor works. Even if you are short on time, email the lines out at least one or two days before the audition.
In the digital era, there are so many online resources available for casting. Nowadays, advertisements, as well as other preparations for casting, happen on the Internet. Digital and online tools are constantly changing and developing; don’t overlook any of the possibilities.
Your plan for working on casting may be extended to include these three steps:
First, you should create a website for your project that includes a synopsis, a short description of your film or theater project, and information about the people who will be involved.
Second, open a fan page on major social networking websites and start to advertise your project. If you doing a film, you need this to be known among filmmakers.
Third, put ads about the auditions on well-established casting web resources (such as www.backstage.com, www.actorsaccess.com, www.breakdownexpress.com, www.lacasting.com, and www.mandy.com).
There are often legal issues that come up when making a film, so having one or more lawyers on the board for each project is absolutely imperative. For example, various issues about copyright, trademarks, confidentiality and union agreements may appear. If you do a SAG-AFTRA (The Screen Actors Guild‐American Federation of Television and Radio Artists) project, you will need to have contracts written up through SAG-AFTRA according its rules.
TRAINING OF THE ACTORS
Many aspiring directors do not take actors seriously. They think that acting is not as important as VFX, editing, and cinematography in terms of how they spend their time. Many of them believe that acting is one of the laziest careers. Acting is perceived to be a very simple performing art. But in reality, it’s not. Answer this simple question: who will be on screen after the job is done? The actors. And if they give an exceptional performance, a film will be shown forever on the cinema screens, attracting new generations of viewers. The director, cinematographer and other crewmembers are always behind the scenes.
An actor’s job requires training, natural ability, and an extensive amount of skills—and not just physical skills, but mental and emotional skills as well. According to many sources and my own experience, one of the key parts of an actor’s profession is good training. One reason for this is that they need to know the specific language spoken between the director and the actor. You can read more about training in the introduction to this book (page 7).
An actor’s preparation can be academic or individual. If you have actors who are well trained in the Sanford Meisner, Michael Chekhov, Stella Adler or Stanislavski methods it will be easier to find a common ground upon which you will be able to communicate effectively with them. You will not able to direct actors who have no idea about character building, objectives, images, substitution or action verbs. A director cannot be an acting coach during production time, and the actors will not respect this approach anyway.
DESCRIPTION OF THE CHARACTER
Having character descriptions is a very important step before you begin auditioning for the roles. You can create your own portrait of the character as you see it, and it does not necessarily need to come from the script. These are your artistic choices and vision. Start with a detailed picture of the main character (protagonist), creating a clear idea of what you are looking for. This is the first step of the casting process.
Then, advertise your audition in multiple trade papers or online. Most actors live in the Los Angeles or New York areas. However, you can find actors in any big city.
There are also plenty of agents and casting directors. Agents can send the right type of actor to you to fill your project’s needs. All of them use categories and types of actors.
All actors are divided into the following age categories:
Children—age 7 to 16
Young leading man—age 16 to 25
Young leading woman—age 16 to 25
Leading man—age 25 to 50
Leading woman—age 25 to 50
Character man—age 50 and up
Character woman—age 50 and up
Again, the audition is not a performance and there is no competition among the actors. Many directors try to look for a good performance in the audition room. This is mistake, because even famous actors can fail in an audition.
You are probably wondering what you should actually do during an audition. There are some objective criteria you might use in casting. But before you make choices about who will play the roles in your film or theater play, you have to understand what kind of actors you need.
Often, directors of multi-million dollar productions will have a casting director to help with this crucial process. Whether you do casting yourself or with the assistance of a casting director you should have a physical checklist of you want from the actors.
During your audition, look for three things:
(1) Talent and skills.
This includes talent, special skills, the ability to listen, voice, artistic intuition, training and physical abilities. Despite the fact that everybody can tell the difference between bad acting and good acting, it is extremely hard to define precisely what talent is.
When Clint Eastwood was asked in an interview what the most important thing an actor should have is, the screen legend answered immediately, “the ability to listen.” Acting is all about listening and reacting. A more accurate term to describe an actor would be a reactor because we are the species who moves and reacts constantly.
When an actor is fully engaged with the other actors in a scene, listening to them with all her senses, she is far more interesting on screen. Generally, editors cut away from the person speaking to the other actors in a scene to show their reaction to what is being said. A look, sound or gesture can add detail to your story and character far more quickly and effectively than mere words. After all, the words themselves aren’t so important. It’s what we mean when we say them that matters and makes a performance engaging.
An actor’s most important skill is the ability to listen to another actor. It is necessary to look at how your actors connect to each other. Evaluate whether they able to listen to other actors. During auditions you can test the actor’s ability to play simple objectives or action verbs, by asking them to play an objective that’s the opposite of the obvious one from script. Additionally, there are many other requirements that the actor will need to meet, including age, ethnicity, category and additional special skills, like the ability to ride a motorcycle or horse, if the script calls for it.
(2) Being right for the part.
There are many important questions when you evaluate if an actor is right for a part: Can the actor connect to the character? Can the actor understand and acquire character’s objectives as his own? Can he handle the emotional events in your film or play? Can this actor take different directions? Does he feel comfortable living in the given circumstances of the character? If the actor can’t connect with the character it will be difficult for him to give a realistic performance—and as you know an audience wants the honesty. There is no truth in a performance when an actor is just taking directions without fully accepting the character’s background as her own. The actor might be uncomfortable with the whole back-story or the objectives of the character. During auditions, it is your job to find this out. Discuss the story and its characters in detail with the actors during auditions.
(3) Ability to work together.
The relationship between an actor and director is very important in film and theater. First at all, you need to cast actors who are able to work with you and take directions from you. Film or theater productions are extremely difficult processes. Look for actors who are passionate and who also have the ability and the willingness to work personally with you. The ability to work together is a very important factor in the process of making the right casting decisions.
Auditions are a good place to start building relationships with your actors. When a director casts somebody over and over, it is because they have built a great ensemble or creative collaboration in the past and they can work well together. A director learns how to deal with particular actors. That is why Akira Kurosawa, Woody Allen, and Federico Fellini, for example, work with the same actors over and over again.
RESOURCES FOR CASTING
Within the limitations of timing and budget, a director makes almost every decision that can be made in a film or theater production. Casting for student films and for multimillion budget films may look different, however the goal is similar: to find the best actors that your budget will allow. Sometimes even an ultra low budget or student film will require you to hire a casting director to line up the actors who might be right for the roles.
There a plenty of ways to accomplish this. Nowadays, most casting happens over the Internet, as I mentioned before. Here is the list of casting websites that may help you:
(1) Backstage (www.backstage.com) This site includes plenty of casting ads; it is more convenient for actors than for directors, but it’s still a good resource for casting.
(2) Lacasting (www.lacasting.com) This site is specifically designed for auditions being held in Los Angeles. In my own experience this is best resource for finding actors.
(3) Sfcasting (www.sfcasting.com) This site is the same as www.lacasting.com, but for the San Francisco area.
(4) Nycasting (www.nycasting.com) This site is thesame as the previous two, but for the New York area.
(5) Cazt (www.cazt.com) A good resource for actors, directors and casting directors during the audition and casting process.
(6) Breakdown express (www.breakdownexpress.com) One of the best online tool that allows to access to actors who are represented by agents.
For the aspiring director, one of the most challenging parts of casting is learning how to reject an actor gracefully. Actors face rejection very often. Directors should treat actors, as well as everybody else with respect. Actors must learn how to deal with rejection too. Most often the reasons for rejection have nothing to do with the acting skills or talents of the actor. Actors can be too tall, too dark, too short, or too skinny, and a multitude of other things that might make them wrong for the part.
Do not tell an actor, “I will call you,” or “I will let you know as soon as possible,” if you definitely know you don’t want them in your project. You’re just postponing admitting that you have already made the decision as to whether or not the actor will fit the role. It’s okay if you really want to make your decision over a longer period of time. Just email your actors, tell them how many days or weeks you need to make the decision, or inform them of the timeline at the audition. Please appreciate the actors’ time and energy; it is as important as yours. Remember that this is how many actors make a living so there may be a lot at stake: often the actor’s rent or their next meal.
Under no circumstances should you leave your actors wondering about your decisions for long periods of time without contacting them. Not only because the actors will not respect you, but also because it’s not right. After all, you wouldn’t want to be left in the dark as to whether you get to direct a certain project or not, so don’t do it to the actors who have applied and auditioned for a part. Treat them as you want to be treated. Be kind and honest.
Here is the sample rejection letter for you to use:
“Thank you for coming to the audition for “XYZ” movie. It was a good performance. Unfortunately, we cannot offer you
anything at the moment. However, we will keep you in mind for future projects.
Sincerely yours, Your First-name Last-name”
IN THE AUDITION ROOM
No matter how small your budget is, it is very important to have someone other than yourself present to read with the actors. You are not able to concentrate on the quality of the audition when you are participating in it yourself and are forced to look at a script rather than at the actor. Moreover, please supply the auditioning actor with another professional actor to work with during the audition, because it is important to see how an actor reacts and responds to other actors. One option is to choose a scene for two characters and schedule the actors to work in pairs. This works well because they can read with each other.
After you have done the first round of auditions you will need to narrow the list of possible candidates for the roles. This means you will have a CALLBACK, a subsequent audition that includes selected readings of scenes from script. At this point you can consider matching actors. If you’re looking for an actor for the role of a wife, you might bring a candidate for the role of her husband in to see them read together.
Unfortunately, it can be hard to make the right decision after one audition. Frequently, many acting problems only reveal themselves later on in rehearsal. However, to avoid this, you can test the actors “in battle” by choosing a few groups in for the roles you are trying to fill. For example, for the roles of a wife and husband you can choose to bring back three actresses and three actors and have them play out the actual scene from your script. This CALLBACK will help you determine if you can work with each actor. Look for actors who are passionate as well, because no matter how talented they are, their ability and willingness to take direction from you is a very important part of making the right decision.