When we set out to cast our micro-budget feature, "Jessica," we were certain we’d be able to quickly find an up-and-coming actress to star. I mean we’d written a script about a complicated and conflicted character, the kind of breakout-caliber role that actors dream about, and one that with a bit of luck would propel their careers, all of our careers, to the next level. What we didn’t know was how, as first time and micro-budget filmmakers, we’d be expending an enormous amount of time and energy trying to get past the gatekeepers and how some much appreciated tough-love advice from an unexpected source would finally allow us to move forward and start making our movie.
Our journey started by making a list of actors we were interested in. We worked hard to remain realistic, and so we set our targets on people who had impressed us in smaller supporting roles. People who might be looking to advance to leading-lady status and who could help provide our little indie with some much needed name recognition. We quickly signed up for IMDBPro, where for less than $20 a month we knew we could get contact information for the agents and managers of all the actors on our list. How amazing is that!
Okay, we’ll be honest; those first few calls were terrifying. These were REAL agents of REAL actors, and we were, well, struggling filmmakers. “But,” we rationalized, “surely they would recognize this as an amazing opportunity for their clients, right?” Wrong. Instead of a series of hard-won yesses, we were quickly met with questions like, “What are your dates?” “Does filming have to be in Chicago?” and “What’s the rate?”
One thing we rarely heard was no. Instead we were asked to submit the script with a written offer, an offer that, if the actor liked the material, meant we’d be attaching her without an audition or even having had spoken. So we submitted, one by one, down our list. And one by one, the offers expired. We always followed up, but what we quickly learned was that NOT hearing no, still most often meant NO.
Frustrated, we began thinking we’d made a mistake in not hiring a casting agent, so we asked ourselves what was the best cast independent film in the last few years. Our answer, Martha Marcy May Marlene. Bound and determined to get whoever cast that film to cast ours, we reached out to casting director Susan Shopmaker. Susan warned us up front that our budget was too low for her company, but somehow we managed to convince her to read the script, and shortly thereafter received an email that read simply, “You were right. A very well written script. Let’s talk soon.”
You can’t imagine our excitement. We anticipated her saying, “I want to cast your movie, and I have the next Elizabeth Olsen for you. Let’s do this!” In case you’re wondering, that’s not how the conversation went. Instead Susan was honest – painfully honest. She told us that as untested filmmakers it was going to be very difficult for us to get the script past an agent’s desk, especially at our microbudget rates. She also told us we were still aiming too high, that we were targeting working actors who had carved out nice careers for themselves. Lastly she told us that our lead actress would not be the reason someone would come see our movie. People would come see it because we’d made a great movie. This was a real light bulb moment that allowed us to stop looking at casting as a way to ensure the success of our film, and to refocus our attention on making the best film possible.
Susan suggested we reach out to local casting agents, so the next day we contacted Chicago based, Paskal Rudnicke Casting (Public Enemies, The Break-Up, etc.). We found that the staff there was not only happy to work with us but also happy to show us the wealth of talent that existed right under our noses. We saw 50 talented, passionate, hungry, actresses for the lead role. They each came in with a unique take on the character, showing us things we hadn’t thought of, challenging us to answer some tough questions, and bringing the character to life for us for the very first time!
From that session we cast an amazing local actress who was even willing to let us shoot a teaser trailer with her for our Kickstarter campaign. The video can be checked out here: http://kck.st/1aqn68b. The campaign has done really well so far, but we’ve still got a ways to go, and it ends at 7pm (CST) on July 18th! We’d be very grateful if you’d be willing to take a look and consider supporting our campaign.
5 LESSONS WE LEARNED ALONG THE WAY: