Casting Your Independent Film
TFC commissioned this guest blog post by casting director Matthew Lessall, CSA because casting decisions have a big influence on distribution… and that we have never covered the subject before…
Matthew Lessall, CSA is a freelance casting director with credits that include the 2015 Cannes award winning film for best screenplay, “Chronic” (starring Time Roth) and the 2016 film “Miss Stevens” (starring SXSW best actress winner, Lily Rabe). Matthew is Co-President of the Casting Society of America. He is in the final stages of his “how-to guide”: “HOW TO CAST LOW BUDGET INDEPENDENT FILM – A guide for first time producers, directors and film makers.”
THE CASTING PROCESS
I think what is so unique about what I do, is that every film is different. The bones of what I do, how I do it, the pace, timing, knowledge, it is all part of the experiences I have had on previous work – but every job is different with different circumstances. Saying all of that, there are basic “actions” to tackle when casting.
Being ready to start can mean so many different things, but for the sake of pairing down what I do to basics, let’s assume that a film has a producer, line producer, attorney and director attached. Financing is in place (or at least some of it) and its now time to talk about casting. This is when I come on board.
The most important thing in my mind is that I have a firm grasp on story, characters, plot, tone and a mutual understanding about the direction the film makers want to take the film in. My number one casting philosophy is, “Everyone must be in the same film.” Meaning that all of the actors cast must feel like they are part of this universe being created. But possibly more importantly is that the crew needs to be on the same page. If the producer and director are not communicating well, if the costume designer or set designer, lighting, if everyone is not “on point” then you are going to have troubles.
From the start, what I do is flesh out who could be in the roles of the film. I create lists. I sit down and spend hours on each role trying to think about actors, the obvious ones who are box office draws, to the ones I have seen in theatre or film festivals, or met on a general a year or often years before. What I do is what I like to call, “casting director stalking,” following the careers (or the lack there of – because sometimes that’s where the gems are found) and cobble together the potential of what could make a great cast. This all takes time, because anyone can go on IMDBPro and make a list of actors, but a talented casting director gets into the mind of the writer, thinks about what an actor whom nobody else is thinking of could bring to a film and fights for those actors to illuminate the story in ways not thought of before. This concept may seem to contradict the, “everyone must be in the same film” philosophy, but if done correctly (it’s an art by the way—watch the HBO doc ‘Casting By’ and you will see what I mean) the casting process should elevate the script, enlighten the story, enhance the possibilities, and illuminate where there was no shine.
You have to remember we are talking about actors. Actors, the best ones, are artists, they are practicing a craft. When you watch great acting, you should feel transported. Your very state of being should be “out of body” you should not feel like you are watching, you should just be feeling. I know it sounds hippy-dippy, but that’s what I think I try to bring (under the best circumstances) to the job. I don’t hit it out of the park every time, it doesn’t always happen, but it was I strive to do – when I am given the freedom to do so.
Now that you have my philosophy, the basics are, I read the script, write a breakdown of all of the roles, write my own version of a synopses and log line (see if it matches what the writer has written) and then I consult with the director and producer. I bring the lists, I show my ideas, I send links of actors. I send the breakdown out to agents. I call the agents who I work with, I get the film covered by the agents. I think about who at every top agency has someone who may be right for the film. I discuss the budget with the agents so they know what the deals would look like. In general, I would say any film under $5 million dollars, the representatives have a good idea of what the standard fees and offers are going to look like. I then talk to my team and we start to figure out who we would make a direct offer to, who they would want to meet and I start auditions to introduce the director to actors and to give actors who want the chance to be seen (whom I think could be right for the role), a shot in front of the director.
Auditions are where a lot of creative work is done. It is often the first time the director has heard the words spoken out loud. It gives me a chance to see how the actors are responding to the script and to the director. And it shows me how the director communicates with the actors. I could write more on this topic, because this is a big deal: how the Director communicates – it can sometimes sabotage the casting process. But assuming everything is running smoothly, auditions are also where the characters as written can change from male to female, Caucasian to Latino, where can we see different types of actors who truly populate the world we are creating and/or reflect the world we live in.
I call the agents, set up the offers and deal points and confirm everything in writing, copy the production attorney and wait for an actor to accept the role. Once that happens, there is additional negotiation and additional deal points that need to be hammered out. Depending on various situations, I will do this work or the production attorney will take on closing the deal.
In general, anyone that is considered a scale player with no back-end or a day player, I will close that deal. Once a deal is closed, all of the paperwork is sent to production and they handle travel, housing, call times, etc…
ATTRACTING “NAME” TELENT AND HOW THIS EFFECTS DISTRIBUTION (AND CASTING GODS)
Many times I am asked to try to get a name actor into a film. This mostly has to do with the foreign distributors, because they feel more comfortable selling a film that has someone in it that they recognize. Every distributor is different, they all have different ideas and lists of who means something for their specific territory. In general, my rule is, if my Mother knows who the actor is then the distributor will be happy. It’s that simple and that lame all at the same time.
One thing I have seen time after time is that the more known names you have in your film the better chance you will have with distribution—this is true. This does not always correlate to creating a beautiful film. My second philosophy on casting is this: “Cast the best actor for the role.” You will always be happier doing this, it may mean more work from your producer or sales team to get the film in front of a distributor, but the film will be better for it and at the end of the day, that is what you want right? Not to sell out your integrity as a film maker? But so many do sell out—please travel to AFM, EMF or the Marche—where you will see film titles that make you wonder, “how is that film watchable?”
If you don’t have a ton of money to spend on an actor, then you better have a combination of the following to attract A-list talent: A director with an excellent festival history or some cool quotient like directing A-list music artists in music videos, or winning an Academy Award for a short film, or a writer/director with a script that wins a prestigious awards, like the Nicholl Fellowships in Screenwriting. A producer who has a great track record. An attorney who has worked on award winning low budget independent film. You should be able to show how amazing your cinematographer is. The vision of the film should be clear and presented in a look-book, on a website, with examples of how the film is to look. Any crew members with distinguished credits on their resume should be highlighted and touted. If you have an actor attached, who is that actor? Is your director or writer or producer represented by a major agency or manager – this can help a lot.
Try to remember that your film is not the only film that is being cast. You are competing with hundreds of films, television shows, theatre – all of them are trying to get the same 10 actors into their shows and getting an actor to read your script even with an offer (let alone getting the agent to read it) takes time. And if the casting situation is time sensitive, then you must have some combination of the above…or faith in your Casting Director to make a miracle happen.
As an example, last year, I cast a film called A POSTHUMOUS WOMAN. It was shot in Northern California and the budget for the film was under an Ultra-Low Agreement. I loved the script, and we had a well known, successful independent producer with known festival award winning credits to back up the film with a co-director/writing team that had never directed a feature film before. But the script was great, and Lena Olin’s manager liked it, so we made an offer to Lena Olin for the lead role. It took six months from the moment I offered her the role to the time she accepted the role. The only reason she even read the script is that her husband picked it up and read it randomly and told her that this was a role she had to play. I had faith that this material was going to connect with Lena Olin – I just prayed to the Casting Gods to make a miracle happen. And by the way, these are the only Gods I believe in, because let me tell you, they have come through multiple times in my career!
#iknowisoundcrazy – but it’s the truth.
There is a deep faith your casting director must have in the material in order to punch through getting A-list talent onto a low budget film. There is strategic consideration, strategic phone calls, placement of how to pitch the team, I try to make the film the coolest project ever – things like that that go into getting that talent to say yes and into getting the best cast possible.
SOME CASTING DOS & DON’TS
Do research who you want to cast your film. Look at films that you love, films that you think are similar to the one you are making and find out who cast that film. Reach out to that casting director and see if there is interest from them to cast the film. Just like actors, some casting directors will meet with you without an offer, some won’t.
Do trust your casting director: they are usually the ones who won’t bullshit you or sugar coat things. They are the ones who want this cast well too – it’s their name in the main titles – so it is in their best interest to make the best film possible.
Do have a strong opinion about actors. Know actors! If you don’t know actors, don’t poo-poo suggestions because they are not “The Ryans” (Gosling, Reynolds, Phillippe). If Joseph Gordon-Levitt or Rachel McAdams are on your list, you should probably have a back-up.
Do have a strong vision for your film. Answers like “yes” and “no” help us a lot. Casting Directors can work with “yes” and “no”, wishy-washy, not specific answers are not good. My high school acting teacher said it best, “God is in the details!”
Don’t show up late to auditions.
Don’t text during auditions. Pay attention to the actors!
Don’t ever ask how old an actor is while in the audition. You will be breaking State and Federal employment laws. Anything that you need that is personal background information on actors can be found out after the audition via the Casting Director speaking with the actor’s rep. And if you want to get to know an actor more, take them out to coffee after the audition to find out if this is the person you want to spend the next 3,4,5,6 weeks with.
Casting is about taste. It’s about knowing actors. It’s about connecting the written word to the spoken word by having a deep and meaningful understanding of the acting process and actors. Casting is about relationships. The relationships built with actors, agents, managers, producers, directors, etc… Casting well is about trusting in the process. Successful casting is not done in a vacuum. It takes a leader, a strong director with a vision, a producer who can execute that vision and great communication between all. Most of all, it should be the most rewarding part of the film making process.
Orly Ravid April 9th, 2016
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