Friday, March 29, 2013

Priorities - Casting

There are points in the chronicles of the films I've worked on that I think it's appropriate to address a production issue at greater length, or expand on a point made in one of the production posts. This will be one of those posts.  I refer to these posts as "Priorities," the things we need to focus on in production.

As we just showed how not to cast with  "Plaster," I thought this was a good time to discuss casting.

After a particularly long casting session a week or two ago for a short film, the casting director I was working with said she never understood why there isn't an Academy Award for casting directors, and, frankly, I had no good answer. The more I thought about it, the more it made no sense.

If you want to make the case that casting is decided by the producer and director, understand that almost everything is ultimately decided by them, and that doesn't stop us from giving awards to those people. The last time the Board of Governors voted on it as a category was 1999, and the category was rejected.

Oddly, the Board of Governors has also rejected best stunt work  - repeatedly. I don't get that one either.

The issue of the award is not as important, though, as some of the misunderstandings about what one should expect of a casting director, what a casting director actually does, and what to look for in the casting process. Especially on the Indie level, which is the only one I can talk about from personal experience,

Let me look at some misconceptions.

"What is so important about a casting director. I know who I want for my film, and as for name actors, I know who the agents are. Why not just submit myself?"

First misconception is that casting is just about name actors or the stars of your film. Getting the leads right and getting mediocre supporting actors will show on screen.

One of the arguments I often hear is "Anyone can cast George Clooney or Brad Pitt. I don't need a casting director to tell me that."

No, you don't. Somewhere, though, there was a casting director who took all the small roles Clooney did and thought to put him on E/R., or cast Pitt in Thelma and Louise, or Denzel in St. Elsewhere.

More on this later.

On indie films, as for submitting to agents yourself, the connections a casting director has with agents is a huge help. The casting director I worked with on this short does a number of high-profile voice-over jobs, and a lot of big name actors are cast in these good paying jobs. Agents want to keep casting directors happy, because these sorts of jobs can be filled by any number of actors, and agents want to be sure they are getting the call.

That means they will read a script from the casting director that they won't read from an individual production company, especially a start-up with a first-time director.

"Won't the breakdown services be just as good for the supporting roles?"

It constantly surprises me how many new filmmakers are willing to throw big money at a few name actors, and then take whoever they get in supporting roles.

I co-wrote and produced a film called Town Diary. Our lead, through no fault of the casting director, turned out to be rather disappointing. He was an established actor, and it turned out he had a lot of preconceived notions of how a lead should carry a film, including telling the director how he would play it, regardless of direction.

Worse, he had zero charisma.

The casting director and her assistant had reservations; the director and I loved him. No one is perfect.

What saves the movie for me is the supporting cast. This includes the wonderful Angelica Page (the woman who poisons her child in Sixth Sense), veteran Bob Hogan (a staple on NY TV series, a recurring role as a Judge on Law and Order, and the guy for whom Colonel Hogan is named in Hogan's Heroes.) and Terry Quinn.

Yes, that Terry Quinn, from Lost, before that show hit the air. Terry was still a well-known actor (and a regular on X-Files and Millennium.). We were a small film on the SAG Modified Low Budget contract with a first-time feature director, and we got the perfect person for that, and other roles.

For the lead female, the agents submitted Vera Farmiga. Now, I won't say I regret not casting her because the woman we hired was fantastic (and every bit as pretty), but my director rejected Vera because she was "too sexy." Yeah, we'll talk later.

The supporting actors still make the movie for me (a LOT more on this movie in later posts).

For me, another big reason for a casting director is to get those actors who are "industry hot." I discussed this extensively in talking about 1999, which featured future stars Amanda Peet, Jennifer Gardner, Timothy Olyphant (in a really small role) and Dan Futterman.

I won't go over old ground covered in the post linked above, but over the years, from shorts to features, I met actors who later became famous. who were cast because the casting director knew who was "industry hot," people I would never have thought to cast.

Now that we've talked a bit about casting directors and their importance. let's talk about what to look for, and some common casting mistakes I see.

Isn't Hiring SAG Actors Too Expensive for A Low Budget Film?

It amazes me that when I talk to first-time filmmakers, I still here that they want to go non-SAG because SAG is "too expensive."

I cannot imagine someone setting out to make a movie and not being familiar with the SAG Indie Contracts, but I still get it a lot.

First, SAG doesn't charge as fee to become a signatory.

Second, if your feature is under $200K, you can hire SAG actors for $100 per day. If your short is under $50K, you can hire SAG actors on and not pay them upfront (they get deferred payment if you sell your short, but that doesn't happen often).

On both of those contracts, you can hire SAG and non-SAG, so, yes, your friends who will work for free can still be in the movie in small parts.

This is all well-known by experienced filmmakers, but the misconceptions I get make me feel obligated to point out the obvious for those just starting out.

It never ceases to surprise me that some young filmmakers are willing to spend what they need on fancy equipment,. but look to save on what they put in front of the camera.

There is no comparison of the pool of actors you will see if you are SAG as opposed to non-SAG. That does not mean every SAG actor is good, or no non-SAG actors are but your pool of talent changes.

If you are making a movie in any major city, shoot SAG. Period.

Looking for A Name

When looking for "name" actors, people either look too high, too low, or in the wrong places.

While low budget producers don't ask me about Clooney and Pitt, they will ask me about Joseph Gordon-Levitt or other industry hot young actors. Forget it, you missed the boat on them.

Others will not take having a name in the cast into account at all. I have never suggested casting someone just because they were a name, but having no one recognizable will not help you stand out when it's time to sell your film.

You can get recognizable names who are right for your film anywhere from the SAG Modified Low and up, sometimes even on the Ultra Low, if you set your sights realistically.

Think folks who were supporting actors in bigger movies, the antagonist in successful indies. If you are in NY or LA, recognizable faces from television. Many of these folks are looking for an opportunity to show a different side of their talent - give them that chance.

When Law and Order was shooting in NY, I found regular guest stars and recurring characters as good folks to target. Same would go now for Blue Bloods.

For indie filmmakers, too many think like Hollywood. You want someone to play a cop? Cast the guy who played a cop in this movie. A tough guy? Get the guy who played a tough guy three times.

For most actors, this is exactly what they are not looking for, unless the pay is right. When Chris Noth left Law and Order, the last thing he was going to play was a detective, yet this is probably what indie folks were sending to his agent.

Think of talented actors who have never played the type of character you are offering. While we are on type-casting....

Casting With and Against Type

Folks who have never acted may think actors are neurotic, unstable folks, and while there is an element of that, I would argue that it takes a tough center to continue to audition and get only a small percentage of those auditions.

I have often told actor friends who have never been on the other side of the table that very often they aren't cast through no fault of their own, but simply because they don't look like the picture the director has in their head.

For Town Diary. I had the deputy from Lone Star in my head when I wrote the role of the local sheriff. The casting director brought in a person who, if crafted from an online program, could not have been closer to what I imagined.

He also happened to give the fourth or fifth best performance.

It never ceases to amaze me how much some writer/directors cannot get away from the way they heard the lines in their heads - hence,  the dreaded line readings. I strongly urge young filmmakers to move beyond their own head, and let good actors show you other dimensions you had not imagined.

Beyond that, if the old girlfriend you wrote about was a blonde, and the best performance you see is a brunette, think seriously about adjusting, unless hair color is really important (Legally Blonde would probably not worked as well if it were Legally Brunette)

Similar for tall, short, etc. Also, unless the role needs to represent a certain ethnic group, try to think outside-the-box a little there as well. (One of Forrest Whitakers early film roles was for a character originally written as a Jewish dentist.)

Look for the performance they can give, not the performance they give in audition

It's rare on a feature that the actors have seen the entire script, more often only the sides. You cannot possibly think that the entirety of an actor's work is done just from this small sample. They are trying to impress you with this material, and sometimes may make choices that are wrong based on the short section of the script they have read.

What I'm looking for is how well they executed the choice they made, even if it is different from the choice I expected.

For any actor I like, I will always give a note with a different choice, even if I like the choice they made. My goal is not to get them to the perfect performance in the audition room. I want to see how they incorporate notes.

This is especially important in lead and major supporting roles. Resume will often tell you a good deal as well.

It's Not the 'Combine' - Past Performance is best predictor of future behavior

In professional football, there is this event called the 'Combine' where college athletes are put through a series of measurements: how fast the run the 40 meter dash, weight they lift, etc.

Old-school scouts will tell you that for all the measureables, they still believe the "eye test". What did they actually do in game situations in college?

In horse racing, there is a saying to never bet on a horse to do what he hasn't done. Lots of horses will put up great workouts in the morning, only to fade when challenged in a race.

For actors, I love when I have tape on an actor. Even if they are good, are all their performances basically the same character in different movies? Are they so cameleon-like that they are completely different from role to role?

Most actors aren't Meryl Streep - you will see a lot of the same character traits from role to role. In the old days, this wasn't considered bad. Humphrey Bogart basically had two character-types - good guys and bad guys - and most performances can be lumped as one or the other. but somehow, he still gave memorable performances.

When I look at tape from other shows, I look to see if there is a range. If there is, I have a better reason to believe I will see the range in this role.

Agents will provide tape, but today, you can also YouTube performances outside of the best selects that the agent sends - or just rent the shows or movies.

For me, actors that grow over time give you better performances in the long run. Look for them.

There are exceptions: genre movies (sci-fi, horror, crime) often do just fine with stock characters. The effects and stories are more the stars  than the actors. Comedies often can do this as well (has anyone ever used the words "range" and "David Spade" in the same sentence?)

There are also limits: no matter how much you go beyond "type", casting John Goodman as the hot young stud in Thelma and Louise would have probably failed - and did you really want to see him with his shirt off?

At this point, let me offer some rebuttal advice from someone who went to the grave with more knowledge of casting than I pretend to have, Elia Kazan. from "Kazan on Directing":

"The first thing you should do with an actor is not sign a contract with him. Take him to dinner. And take him for a walk afterwards."

Kazan famously worked with the earliest and some of the best of the Method Actors, including Brando and Dean. Kazan goes on in the book to say that actors can never get very far from who they really are, so don't cast them to go beyond who they are.

I would argue that this is not necessarily contradictory. Actors are people, and some have limitations.

One of those limitations for me is intelligence: it's a hard thing to fake. It is why you see so many of the same actors in the work of writers like Aaron Sorkin. I don't think you can give dialogue of a highly-educated character to an actor who is not that smart. It comes off like the old sci-fi movies where, when they wanted to ingenue to look intelligent, they put her hair up and gave her a pair of glasses. It rarely worked, and it is the same with men or women. Good actors can play characters who know less, but not more.

There are also those rare casting opportunities where the actor's life experience informs the role. In the short we were casting, one of the juicier supporting roles was a rock musician who is now successful telling off a record executive who he no longer needs. The guy we went with was a musician who had a lot of pain in that area that we could never teach or show.

I often think of Madonna in Desperately Seeking Susan, where basically playing herself was better than anyone "acting" that role could have been, or Jerry Lewis in King of Comedy. In the scenes where he is kidnapped, the pain that comes with fame, especially the double-sword of fan adulation,  is something that very much comes through. Lewis clearly knew this from first-hand experience.

The thing about those instances is that they are, for me, the exception. A well-trained actor can find the essence of a character whose specific experience is very different from their own. When casting actors about I know little, I will look to their training and their theater work.

Let's go to the videotape!*

OK, it's not videotape any more, but always, always record the auditions.

For one thing, it is too easy to forget the specific audition after seeing hours and days of them. More important, the final product will be on film. Some actors translate better on film than in person. Additionally, I have often argued that the camera "loves" certain actors. That is a big part of what used to be called "star quality." Simply, if you can't take your eyes off the picture, you are in good shape.

This is something you cannot learn or teach, It's there or it's not. It's not even about being a good actor. When you take a good actor who also has that "thing", you have something special.

Casting a lead requires more than a good actor or actress

A lead has to carry a film. Some talented supporting actors have not reached the point in their career where they can carry a film, and good acting isn't enough.

I have seen this one too many times, and it was part of our problem on Town Diary. Our lead was a good actor, but his only other "lead" role was in a bad Melanie Griffith movie, and if I had bothered to watch it, we would not have cast him.

The best way to know if an actor or actress can carry a film is if they have done so before. I always look for leading roles in other films or in plays. It is a huge opportunity and also a huge burden, and not all actors (I use the term gender-free) are up to it.

Especially on an indie film, your lead will be working almost every day, if not every day, and for the most hours. Every other actor enters his sphere. Consistency of character, as well as character arc, are more difficult for your lead than anyone else.

Add all of that to that "watch-ability" factor mentioned above, and you will be asking a lot of them. Do your research and make sure this person can not only be good for one day, but for 25-40 days.

You are my soul-mate - at least for the next month

The relationship between director and lead is legendary. Hollywood abounds with stories of directors and leads who did not get along, and many of those times, the end result was good - or even great - despite, and sometimes because of, the tension.

For better or worse, it is a relationship. They don't have to be your best friend. Many of us can think back to  romantic relationships in our lives that was fueled by the different personalities, by the tension, sexual and otherwise. Tension can be used.

Still, that is hard. If you have a reason to believe the actor will be difficult, I highly suggest casting someone else. Even though actors are often on best behavior at rehearsals, some will give hints, little signs that the working relationship may not be good.

If you are a first-time director and the actor has a resume a mile long, there may also be a sense that they know more than you do, and they probably do. You are still the director, and while you need to take everyone's contribution as a part of the final product, it still needs to be your vision.

The give-and-take there is not something that can be quantified. If you are giving line-readings every day, something is wrong. You need to find a better way to get the performance from an actor. By the same turn, if the actor has decided to ignore you because he has a better idea, that doesn't work, either.

I have seen a number of lead actors chew first-time directors up and spit them out. It's not pretty, and once that dynamic enters, there is no winner. If the director comes down hard on the actor, there is a tension that is not good on set. If the actor gets away with it, the rest of the cast, and then the crew, lose respect for the director.

Some of this is Freudian. No, it does not mean the actor wants to marry their mother or kill their father (it doesn't mean that isn't true, of course) but that they may be reacting to a past traumatic experience; namely, having watched some other lead bully their way through a movie while they had to play second fiddle. Consciously or sub-consciously, they said to themselves, as they nursed their psychological wounds, "When I get my chance...."

Again, this is not just a theory, but something I have seen on more than one occasion.

With leads, think not only about the actor, but the person you are casting

This is hard to tell, but there are sometimes signs body language that tell you this might be the case. Is the actor condescending when responding to your note? Sarcastic? Does he cut you off when you are talking? If that is happening here, it will definitely happen on set.

There are probably dozens of aspects of casting I have left out, and they will probably come to me when I hit "publish" and thereafter.

Consider this a primer.  There is certainly no shortage of advice on casting from bigger names than me. What I offer here are my experiences and observations.I welcome feedback, especially from your own experiences.  Don't be afraid to disagree! I promise to not invoke Production Infallibility.**

* A phrase that first entered the popular vernacular when NY sportscaster Warner Wolf used it on evening sportscasts in the pre-ESPN and SportsCenter days.

**I often joke that the Pope does not claim to be infallible, on to be infallible in matters of Church law. I sometimes invoke the same thing on set, admitting that while I am not infallible, I will claim to be in matters of production. As you might guess, that has a varying degree of success.


Kangas said...

Excellent post! But I have to take small issue with the SAG recommendation. While I am looking at doing a SAG shoot, in the past it's not been the money that is the primary issue but the contracts and what we promise.

While they say you just sign this 2 page modified agreement, one clause of any of the agreements is that by signing you are agreeing to the LONG FORM contract except where the 2 pages modifies it.

So you're giving a first-position security interest in your film, along with all the other extensive rules in the book.

Which means you're going to be hiring someone to keep the payroll, pay medicare/workman's comp, pay extra money for travel expenses(not just flight but the salary for travel days).

I'm just saying that it's not as easy as simply cutting a check for $100 per day to a SAG actor, because if that was the case it would be a done deal. But when you're making features in the sub $25-40K range it may still be out of reach.

(but I definitely have some questions I may hit you with about Casting Directors, as we would definitely like to up our game on the next)

JB Bruno said...

Thanks for the comment and the added points you made.

As for flight and travel days (and even per diems, I usually pay that out up front, and even with projects that got sold, I never had a problem with owing more later.

I have had to pay out with films that got sold later, and it wasn't all that daunting, and not a killer for the film.

The Ultra Low Contract specifically mentions no step-up fees specifically written in, so you don't usually owe more, other than the accounting issue you mentioned.

On the MODIFIED LOW, it can get tricky. The reality of the current distributor-friendly market means the profit margin for films without theatrical is slim, and, as you accurately point out, the actors are in first position. I did have one film where that became an issue - where we were not making our money back and still had to pay upgrades to actors.

However, have not had that problem on the Ultra Low.

Would love to hear your take and experience with casting, and what works and doesn't work for you int the process.

Thanks as always for the feedback.

Kangas said...

I haven't really had any problems with casting so far, but have looked into the SAG thing in the past. As a guy who never signs any contract that contains even a single clause I'm not willing to live with, that SAG contract is crazy.

It's my understanding that yeah, SAG doesn't typically enforce them all, but my problem is that I haven't been willing to take the chance.

Also, with the tiny budgets we've typically shot at there hasn't been room to pay a salary to actors PLUS a bond equal to the total salary of all actors. Is that still a stipulation?

We're on hold right now because we have one investor with some money but I'd like to get enough we can actually go with minor name actors. I don't really want to shoot another micro-indy with no names, as distribution has all but disappeared for those. (well, distribution that PAYS at least)

JB Bruno said...

Kangas, good points. The bond starts at the Modified Low - on the Ultra Low. there is no bond.

I can't speak to potential other problems in the contract. I hear what you're saying. I think any other sorts of assurances and explanations would have to come from a SAG rep - though I know a guy on the Board (who is also a producer) who can probably answer them as well. Email me if you get to that point

Kangas said...

Cool, will do thanks!

Kangas said...

Hey, a question--I went ahead and downloaded the new documents/package from SAG since it's been a few years. Don't know if they changed it since the merger with AFTRA, but the Ultra Low Budget contract does say it includes a bond. Think it's new, or something you can negotiate out of on an ultra-low?