Paul Peditto authored the book The DIY Filmmaker: Life Lessons for Surviving Outside Hollywood, wrote and directed the award-winning film, Jane Doe, starring Calista Flockhart and has optioned multiple scripts to major companies. He teaches screenwriting at Columbia College-Chicago, has professionally consulted on thousands of screenplays since 2002. Follow Paul at www.scriptgodsmustdie.com and on Twitter @scriptgods.
Casting is way important for your movie.
Casting the right actor could be 50-60% of eventual actor performance. Some say it counts as much as 70-80%. Others venture it’s 90% of the battle.
Duh and duh.
The decisions you make with casting will go a long way to deciding the success of your movie.
That’s another duh. And one more…
The casting priority pyramid parallels the final cut pyramid for Hollywood movies. For Studio or large Indie movies you, the writer, almost certainly won’t be in the loop on final casting decisions.
Micro-budget changes that dynamic. Chances are good that if you’re a micro-budget writer you’re also either the director and/or producer. That means you’re not only in the room, but you might actually be the one deciding who gets hired. Yay!
With Jane Doe, we had a quarter million dollars, giving us Indie-level money that brought us a big-time New York casting agent, Marcia Shulman (who cast one of my fav movies of all time, A Christmas Story). She came in when my producer brother got the bright idea to leverage a powerful casting agent by promising a producer role (a strategy he also used to get Paul Dano to act in his micro-budget film, Light And The Sufferer). We had 250K, a strong script, then Marcia came in giving us access to large agencies like Gersch, Paradigm, APA, which gave us access to actors like Calista Flockhart, Edie Falco, Adrienne Shelly, Joey Ragno, Elina Lowensohn, Vinny Pastore, and others. Life is great when there’s Indie money. But what happens when you’ve got only $44,000 total?
Choices happen. Start with this one: Name actor or not? You can write a two-day cameo that can be played by a lesser-name actor if you pay their rate. This is cheaper than you might imagine and has big upside on the distribution end. All things equal, selling the movie with a name actor will be easier. Paying them their rate for one or two days won’t bankrupt you and, possibly, they will take less $$ for back-end participation. Point being, you paying upfront $$ for a name should help with film festivals and distribution. A movie that doesn’t make Sundance or Austin without a name actor– How are you selling the thing in current overcrowded landscape of digital product?
Let’s examine that option: To not go the name actor route. While it’s true the majority of flicks that are accepted into A-level fests have name actors, plenty of micro-budgets that make Sundance every year don’t.
So, option 2 of saving that money that you’d pay a name actor for a cameo role also has validity. You can keep the money for back-end distribution costs, festival submissions, etc.
This leads to another decision: SAG or NON-SAG actors? There’s no one-size fits all advice here. While there isn’t much production money originating in Chicago, there is a stunning talent pool of actors. It begins in the drama schools of colleges like DePaul, Northwestern, Art Institute of Chicago, Columbia College. Add the astounding theater scene, 150+ theater companies producing regularly both Equity and Non-Equity. Throw in the five TV shows currently producing in town and you get the idea. Chicago is loaded. My odds of finding good NON-SAG actors goes through the roof here. How about your community in Iowa? If you’re not drawing actors from New York or Los Angeles, who’s going to respond to your Craigslist ad? What are your options in Des Moines?
This is the reason you want to control costs as script level. If you can limit key actors to a small number of days, it increases the chances you can make SAG $125-a-day offers.
With Chat, we considered a “name” actress for the role of Dr. Lauren. This is the juicy, bad-guy, Lady Liposuctionist From Hell doctor role. We scheduled her for two days so paying a “name” say $2000 per day was actually doable. The question was: Did we want that money for production contingencies, and/or for post costs, or for two days with a name-actress? We chose to go with a great local actress I teach with at Columbia, Cheryl Graeff, who pulled off some truly nasty work for that $125 a day.
We went SAG-minimum with six actors total. This is a large expense but only one of the characters, Falcon (Rush Pearson), needed to be paid for 15+ days. And the trade-off, what you put on the screen in terms of performance, cannot be overstated. Might you get lucky with that Craigslist ad and grab yourself a fabulous free actress? Sure.
You also might not get lucky. And what’s that gonna look on the screen?
Making $125-a-day SAG offers opens you up to a different class of actor. You can post on Actor’s Access, Breakdown Express, make calls to local casting agents, put up notices at local acting schools, call local theaters, and yes, try Craigslist…
Which takes us to the moment of truth: The audition.
If you’re the writer of a Studio or Indie flick, you likely won’t get within sniffing distance of final casting decisions. With micro-budget, you’ll be in the room. That’s because in addition to being the writer, you’re likely: 1-The director 2-The producer 3-The director and producer. The audition process isn’t that big a deal, really. The only thing in the balance is the fate of your movie.
For Jane Doe as the dummkopf, idiot-savant, craps-dealer director, I found myself giving smiley faces, half-smiley faces, or frowny faces to the actors after their auditions. Yes, I gave a smiley face to Edie Falco. Edie is now a three-time Golden Globe winner. I now work in the backroom of Chicago Filmmakers. ‘Nuf said.
Don’t give smiley faces, OK? Set up your room this way…
First, reserve a space where the actor performances where you won’t be disturbed. Locally in Chicago you can reserve a room with Park District. You should practice the Robert Rodriguez mantra of paying for nothing if humanly possible in trying to find space for auditions. I book rooms for free through Columbia College because I work there.
You’ll need a welcome area outside with table and chairs. On the table will be the “sides” (scenes for each actor). The actors will check in, be given sides and, hopefully, have been scheduled with enough time in between auditions (say 10-15 minutes) to look over the sides and prepare.
Inside the audition room, you should be prepared as well. You’ll need to record the auditions. You’ll have a single long table with the director, producers &/or writer. Actors will come in, be greeted by the director, drop off a resume, be asked if they have any questions by the director, and begin the audition. They’ll be asked to read, either with someone from the movie (reading a role from the table) or with another actor in the call backs. They’ll then be thanked and exit. And the next actor will be shown in. Rinse, lather, and repeat.
You may have noticed from the above that the audition is the director’s show. Unless as a condition of his being hired the producers have control, it will be the director’s call who is ultimately cast. That said, if your director is Captain Bly in the audition room, there’s a good likelihood they’ll be a power tripper on set, and you might take note of that. Only a fool wouldn’t at least ask the opinion of other people in the room on who to call back or not.
Also helping is the camera you’re running. It’s curious, but sometimes the strongest actor in the room… isn’t. Meaning: This is film (well, digital.) Actors’ performances have a tendency to look different in the camera than in person. Occasionally the person you thought was in the room comes off as stilted. The person you thought was stiff comes off as subtle and intriguing.
Tape your auditions. Put them password-protected on Vimeo. Consult your key people for opinions. Work up a list for each role and the actors you want to call back. Make those calls and book the call backs. It would be nice to have a Casting Director to do this tedious groundwork. Alas, if it’s micro, guess what that role pays? Exactly what you got paid as writer five drafts and nine months ago: $0.
The call backs are a different animal from the initial “generals”. These are narrowed-down, your best actor options. You’ll likely be pairing them off. So, for Chat, if we’re bringing back to the Top 3 Falcons, we’ll want to match them off with the Top 3 Mary Roses. These characters have several scenes together and you’ll want to see the chemistry the actors have together. You also want to see how the actors take directions and do follow-up readings. It’s far more impressive for an actor with no preparation to take their reading in a whole different direction than just repeating their first “choice.”
Never forget, whoever you hire you’ll be spending days, if not weeks, with them on set. The audition process is for the actor-director relationship as well. You don’t want to be shackled to an arrogant, inflexible Diva for 18 days. Look for the actor who will bring these intangibles to the production.
The great strength of our Chat director Boris Wexler (see Boris, I did say something nice about you!) is his pragmatism. He believes in an empirical approach. Yes, he trusts his gut, but he also wants to know what the people around him are thinking.
When it came time to make the final choice for one of the lead characters, Boris decided on Actor A. He asked me and the producers who watched the call-backs who they would choose. It was clean sweep, for Actor B. Boris cast Actor B. That is a very great strength and something you should endeavor to emulate in your own micro-budget experience.
Trust your gut on casting, but keep an open mind.
- More articles by Paul Peditto
- Writers on the Web: Cast a Web Series, Part 1
- Writer, Direct, Repeat: Working with a Casting Director
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