My Balls of Steel column is just over a year old. I’ve taken you on my bumpy ride from pursuing an adaption of the Pulitzer Prize-winning book, Slavery by Another Name (SBAN), all the way to Sundance. While SBAN is still going strong, I now have a different, more immediate quest – to write and produce a short film.
Whether we like it or not, the industry is changing. We have to carve our own destiny. Gone are the days of a spec feature script opening doors. We need to blast through the walls by producing our own films, short or otherwise.
Indie filmmaking. Our new lover.
The idea for our short film, Impasse, came during one of my voyeurism moments at a coffeehouse on a cold, dreary day. I witnessed a couple arguing, but was unable to hear their words. I tweeted their body language and my interpretation of the battle. Hundreds of followers were glued to their Twitter streams, hoping love would prevail.
I instantly knew this was the short film I would write for director Michael Bekemeyer.
How do we get great talent on a micro-budget?
Who else to ask but my friend, and legendary casting director Marci Liroff (Mr. Popper’s Penguins, The Paul Reiser Show, Spiderwick Chronicles, Mean Girls, and more).
“Casting is one of those parts on a film that can raise a film up beyond the merits of the story or screenplay – but can also drag it down. If done well, all the actors should blend well together into one beautiful painting. As a director, you have to make sure you’re casting actors that are all on the same page and will work well together in the ensemble.”
We could do that. Hello, Twitter!
Both Bekemeyer and I are big supporters of indie filmmakers and follow the progress of actors, writers and directors we adore, two of whom are actors Wonder Russell (The Collectibles, Connect To) and John T. Woods (Perfect Sense, I Fucking Hate You).
We set our bar high and pinned our dream talent to the wish-list board. Truth is, we didn’t have a plan B, even though we knew Russell and Woods were offered many roles, we weren’t going to be pansies. We wanted them. Period.
How could we convince them to do our little film?
Again, I pinged Liroff, “Casting for a short or a micro-budget indie can be difficult. Since money is tight (or nonexistent!) you usually end up using friends and family who will do anything for you, or actors who are just starting out, or are looking to get some good footage on their reel. Another great idea to snag someone really great is cast against type. Cast them in a role they would never normally get. That way they are so excited to have the opportunity to play a different role, and you are the hero who saw something in them no one else has and has brought it to life – and to your project! Aren’t you smart?!”
I’m smart! I’m smart! Oh wait, she meant that rhetorically. Reality check.
Since I’m not a casting director, I had to do what was already in my control – write a great script.
I sat down and in only a couple of hours wrote the first draft of Impasse. That may seem fast, but after the dozens of rewrites I did on SBAN, I knew how to nail a scene efficiently. That’s the beauty of years of writing… it gets faster the more you do it.
The script was off to Russell… and within 24 hours, my email inbox pinged.
Wonder Russell signed on! Woohoo!
But we still needed to snag John T. Woods. That was trickier. I didn’t know him at all. We had mutual film friends, but hadn’t connected yet, which still surprises me.
Not wanting to come across as a crazy writer, I did what has worked for me in the past – stalking. Not that kind of stalking, but the kind you do on Vimeo, looking up actor’s reels, doing web searches of their names, and reading their Twitter streams to find some sort of organic way to connect.
“John T. Woods” is a name in the indie world. We needed a name. But beyond that, we wanted his talent. The more I stalked, the more I was more convinced he was the perfect actor to play Wonder’s husband. It had to be him. It had to be them… together.
If only we had the money for a casting director to approach his agent.
My friend Kim Garland wrote and directed her short, Vivienne Again, and set aside money for a casting director. I lived vicariously through her. When I watched her short, the talent popped! What a difference great actors make in a short film. So many are full of untrained actors. Not hers.
Garland set the bar for our film.
Liroff explains, “In the early phases of development I see filmmakers attaching a casting director to help them attach actors. It’s getting harder and harder to make an indie without names these days and the casting director can facilitate the filmmaker in connecting with the actors due to their relationships in the film industry.”
With no money in the bank, I had to use the resources I had – balls of steel.
Well, actually, it was Twitter, but “balls of steel” sounded better. Amuse me.
I went to my Tweetdeck and shared links, promoting other indie films Woods had been in. We started tightening our networks little by little until Woods first connected with Bekemeyer, and then with me. We played the dance until I finally blurted out something like, “We’d love you to kiss Wonder Russell in our short film.”
OK, so I used the cute girl to nab the cute guy. That’s not prostitution, is it?
Who cares. It got his attention. Turns out, Woods and Russell had been in a film together many years ago, and he was anxious to work with her again.
Regardless of fate, the script still needed to deliver, or we were out of luck. Another couple of drafts, and my words were off to Woods… and the wait.
If Woods came back with a “no,” we were going to call Liroff for her help. There was no way I was going to put any less than the perfect match with Russell.
A few weeks later, and ten chewed nails on my fingers, my email inbox pinged.
John T. Woods… said, “YES!”
That was a week ago, and we haven’t stopped smiling.
The lesson in all of this is even though we are making an indie film, we still need to listen to professionals, like Marci Liroff. Get advice. You don’t need to reinvent the wheel. Do all you can within your means, but know when to ask for help, and use your network.
You are not alone.
The second lesson is if you write a great script, the talent will come. Put the work into creating characters actors are dying to play. That holds true in your feature scripts as well. Short films are a great way to hone your craft. Try writing one.
I can’t wait to see how Russell and Woods bring my words to life, how Bekemeyer will interpret them as he directs, and how film editor Eric Brodeur (editor on Filly Brown and also worked on The Surrogate) will remold it all in post production.
This project is a true collaboration. What’s best is we’re using as many people from our social media networks as possible. In the coming weeks, I’ll introduce you to them all. Our actors and crew are literally coming together from the four corners of the country to make Impasse. Now, that’s pretty cool casting.
Check out Marci Liroff’s site for information on her private coaching for auditions (in person and through Skype) and her upcoming Audition Bootcamp in L.A. April 23, 25 & 30. If you can’t make the Bootcamp, she has them available on DVD.