Make Your Movie: The Casting Process

When producing a narrative, whether it’s a short or feature-length film, one of the utmost critical moments in pre-production is going to be the casting process. It can be especially trying if you are an independent filmmaker who doesn’t have the budget to hire a proper casting director.

A few years ago a good friend of mine came to me for help with his first film. As it often happens when we’re first starting out, he was a young filmmaker with a very limited budget and very few contacts in the business. He had been on set before and had gathered much knowledge with regards to the production process but had never gone through the pre-production process before so a lot of it was fairly new to him. His biggest concern was talent. Where to find it. How to post a casting call. Headshots, auditions, the works. I put together this “cheat sheet” to walk him through it. Naturally, I thought I’d share this info with all of you.

Where to start?

The first thing you should know when casting your project is where to find the actors you need. There are quite a few websites out there that can help you with this. One of my favorites it Mandy.com. I’ve cast several indie project using this sight and it hasn’t let me down yet. However, I’ve also heard that Backstage and Actors Access are great resources as well. Someone once recommended Craigslist and Model Mayhem to me, but I would only use those sites to find extras, and even then they’re not that reliable a source.

 

HEADSHOTS

When looking through headshots always pay attention to whether or not they’ve done more theatre then film or vice versa, since this may effect their performance. However, if they place their film experience first it could be that they aim to break into the film industry and are looking to add more to their film experience which might make them a more willing candidate. Pay attention to where and with whom they’ve performed.  College plays can be great experience but could also mean they were not auditioned for that role, but merely cast as a class requirement which they paid for.

SAG

Actors associated with this union will need to be paid according to the minimum requirement for your type  of film. (See http://www.sagindie.org/resources/contracts/) You should always be up front with a SAG actor and let them know from the start whether or not you can meet these requirements as this may heavily weigh their investment in your project.

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THE AUDITION PROCESS

First Auditions

These auditions should be similar to speed dating. You want to meet them, get a first impression and send them on their way. You should be spending no more than 10 minutes with each actor, tops. This is to ensure that neither you, nor they, waste precious time on something that might not be a good fit.

I suggest you hold at least two of these “speed” auditions at different times of the day and at different days of the week. For example: hold one audition in the morning, during the work week, and one in the evening on the weekend – or vice versa. Schedule a 2 hour time-frame and ask all actors to arrive promptly within that time-frame. Note: If your window is from 1-3pm, ask them to  come in from 1pm to 2:30pm so you can be sure you won’t go over schedule. Late comers should not be seen, but you may reschedule with them.  This shows that you are serious about punctuality and informs you whether or not they are serious about auditioning for the role.

Ask each actor to prepare a two minute monologue and bring in a hard copy of their headshot and resume to the audition. Keep in mind, actors with more experience might have enough material on their reel that you might not need a monologue, nor will they want to perform one. In this case, I suggest you still meet with them and ask them to read a few lines from your script. You still want to keep the meeting at 10 minutes or less, so keep it short and leave the details for the callback.

 

Setting up

Always place a sign outside the door that reads: AUDITIONS IN PROGRESS – DO NOT ENTER IF DOOR IS CLOSED. Eager actors have a tendency to forget their manners and come in or knock incessantly during your auditions. The sign will help keep interruptions to a minimum.

Place a desk outside the audition space with a numbered, sign-in sheet and a pen. This ensures you see each actor on a first come first serve basis and eliminates confusion. The sheet should have a Name, Phone number, and Email section to fill out for future contact.

I find it very useful to record each audition. You can do this yourself but I recommend hiring a casting assistant for this. It frees up your time and allows you to focus on the acting, not the camera. Your assistant can also help by jotting down their own notes after each performance so you can have a second opinion to consider when making your final decision later. I also recommend inviting another member of the crew (either the producer, DP, or director if either is not you) so you have yet another perspective. However, I would advise against going over three people for this, the more opinions you gather the more paperwork you have to do later. And nobody wants that.

If you are recording the auditions, instruct your camera operator to keep the shots at a medium closeup. You want to capture each actor’s facial expression as well as any body movements and hand gestures in their performance.

 

During the audition

Have a chair ready in your audition space. As you call the actors in by name, ask them if they prefer to stand or sit for their monologue. Once inside, ask them for their headshot and resume. Avoid accepting more than one headshot as you’ll likely have a digital copy already on file. All hard copies should go into one general folder for later reference.

Time the monologue during the audition and do not allow them to go over the two-minute time limit. This not only ensures you’ll see as many actors as possible, it helps you weed out those who can’t follow simple instructions.

Any notes you take should be taken after the performer has left and before the next actor is asked to come in. It’s important for you to pay close attention to the entirety of each actor’s audition in order to properly assess their performance.

At the end of each performance you should ask the actor to “slate” their audition. Generally, this mean they will cite their name, phone number, and email address into the camera. This comes in handy as a reference later and when sharing an actor’s performance with someone who may not have access to their resume.

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Callbacks

If your first auditions go well you should have plenty of actors to choose from. Choose your top 4 to 6 choices for each role in your film and ask them to come back for a second audition. At this point you should already have your “sides” ready. Sides consist of one scene (2-3 pages from your script) per role, that each actor will read at the callback audition. Ideally, the scene you choose should have more dialogue than action. The more lines each actor reads for you, the more you have to judge their performance on.

Some filmmakers like to send this as an attachment with the callback email. Some like to hold off until the day of, so the actor can read it “cold” (without rehearsing). I personally, like to email it to them the day before the callback audition so they have a little time to think about the role, but not too much that they over-rehearse. You want their performance to be as natural as possible.

Set up

Set up your sign, table, chairs, and room, just as you did with your initial sessions. Only this time, you won’t be asking them for their headshots and you won’t need anything other than their names on the sign-in sheet, since you’ll already have that. You might still want to have them “slate” into the camera at the end; again, just in case you’d like to share the video with key members of your crew.

You should have at least two assistants for this second audition. One to run the camera (I highly recommend you shoot callbacks if you didn’t do so for your first auditions) and one to read with the actors. I advise against reading with the actors yourself for the same reason I advise against working the camera yourself: You want to focus on their performance. I also like to tell my reader to deliver their lines as monotone as they possibly can. This not only gives you a gauge to work off of, but it catches your actors by surprise and forces them to to really think about the emotion of the scene. I find that most actors will work even harder to pull emotion out of a non-responsive reader when that reader refuses to react within the scene.

Improv

Some people like to do some improvisation during callbacks, but I tend to shy away from doing too much of these as you might give the actor the false hope that they’ve landed the part. One good improv technique is to have the actor switch roles with the reader, regardless of gender. What they do with the reverse role is a good way to test their talent and versatility.

Final decision

Always notify your final choice by phone to inform them of your decision. I find that it’s just good manners; sending an email is too impersonal in this case. If you get voicemail, just ask them to call you back so you can tell them the good news personally. They’ll thank you for it. Also, take this opportunity to congratulate them and welcome them to the cast. This is also a good time to ask or their availability for the shooting schedule and/or rehearsal time, so you can get started on that as soon as possible.

 

So, that’s it! I hope you found this information useful. As always, if you have any questions, comments or concerns please post them in the comments section below or join in the conversation on Facebook or Twitter.

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