Balls of Steel: Cast ‘Em

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.

Strap on tight. I’m taking you along.

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.

Writer. Check.

Director. Check.

Cast. Umm…

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.

Wonder Russell

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.

Fate!

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.

John T. Woods

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.

12 thoughts on “Balls of Steel: Cast ‘Em

  1. Pingback: A Roundup of usefull links from this week: Canon 5D mkIII vs RED Scarlet | indieplex

  2. joy

    kudos !!
    personally this article has come just at the right time.
    we r a group of film maniacs in mumbai, india who have adopted to the same measures mentioned in this article.
    we r coming up with a psycho-thriller which is currently in the final stages of completion.
    hope to break-in in the states.
    plz provide tips if any.
    cheers…

  3. Zac

    Lee, while I do agree with most of Jeanne’s assessments that it is easier to break in by producing your own stuff, that isn’t the only way to get your own stuff produced and on the big or small screen.

    There are many producers (and directors) out there who don’t consider themselves a multi-hyphanate. I love writing. I love producing. But I hate producing something I’ve personally written. Why? I think by being a producer of my own work I would be to near and dear to the words on the page that collaboration can help or hinder. Film is a collaborative medium and there are others out there that are looking for short scripts, web series, etc. Cast your net. Find those people and hopefully you can find your foot in to Hollywood’s doors.

    Good luck out there.

  4. Zac

    Lee, while I do agree with most of Jeanne’s assessments that it is easier to break in by producing your own stuff, that isn’t the only way to get your own stuff produced and on the big or small screen.

    There are many producers (and directors) out there who don’t consider themselves a mulch-hyphanate. I love writing. I love producing. But I hate producing something I’ve personally written. Why? I think by being a producer of my own work I would be to near and dear to the words on the page that collaboration can help or hinder. Film is a collaborative medium and there are others out there that are looking for short scripts, web series, etc. Cast your net. Find those people and hopefully you can find your foot in to Hollywood’s doors.

    Good luck out there.

  5. Jeanne Veillette BowermanJeanne Veillette Bowerman Post author

    Lee, I don’t at all mean to imply cast selection is all I have to do as a producer, or that anyone and everyone should produce their own work. Producing requires a business mind, not just a creative one. I owned my own business for 15 yrs, and up until I took the job as Script’s editor, was self-employed since 1986. I know what it takes to run a business… and making a short film is just that.

    As you state so well, the complications of producing your own work are many. Which is exactly why we are adding a new column by Julie Keck (@kingisafink) specifically dealing with ALL the layers and complexities of indie filmmaking. My story of IMPASSE is just one small slice, and only one way to do it. Julie will cover much more than I can, as she has vast experience in this area.

    No fears. Between my experience and Julie’s column, ScriptMag.com will be bringing the good, the bad, and the ugly… and hopefully educate screenwriters enough to help them decide if they want to jump into indie filmmaking themselves.

    Hope your shoot goes well next weekend. Please keep me posted on your experience!

  6. lee

    The beginning of your piece breaks my heart. Screenwirter are meant to be producers now? It may be ok for you, and all credit to you for that, but what about good screenwrites who have little talent in producing?

    It’s bad that it has come to this. We’re diluting 2 talent pool as screenwriters start doing half assed job as producers.

    We need to give writer an accurate picture of what a producer does. There’s so much more to think about than the nice part of assembling your cast –

    Where’s your legal advice coming from? You want to just download a contract from the internet? Well, everyone I’ve seen I see legal reasons that can make it invalid. Guess what, the shoots over and now my fee has just double. Can’t pay, I can own your film.
    Insurance for a 2 day shoot? Between $200-$300 or probably more than feeding your crew. Are there ways around it? Sure, but you probably needed years of making friends with other producers.
    When your DP gives you the list of lighting equipment he needs, do you know what is essential and what you can get away with not having? Do you know the diffenece between a soft box and an apple box? An American and an Italian?

    These are some of the things a good producer can do in his or her sleep and they’ve learnt their craft much like a writer has learnt theirs. Being a good producer is as hard as being a good screenwrier. What was your first screenplay like? Yeah, chances are this is what your first production could turn out like.

    Also there will be a huge conflict of interest while filming. If you over run on your first day, you’re going to have to cut a scene or part of it. Are you going to be able to do this to YOUR script? What about a director (Your employee) not shooting your script the way you see it?

    There is a huge benifit to being in control of your own destiny, but it comes at price.

    Anyhoo, wish you all the best with your production and hope this gives fellow writers an idea of what a producer’s job involves. I will be shooting a short film next weekend and these are some of the problems I have faced.

  7. Marci Liroff

    What I neglected to mention, is that no matter how great your team is….at the end of the day your SCRIPT is your calling card. If you don’t have stellar material that people can relate to then all the connections and relationships in the world won’t matter.
    Lovely article lady!

  8. Kim Garland

    Jeanne, you have assembled the most amazing group of filmmakers! Clearly I’m a fan, but you are about to have everyone get a chance to really see what you can do on film. I’m so thrilled to follow this journey and wish you all great success!

    PS John T Woods is hot. Shhh, don’t tell him I said that.

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