Tapio Kines is the author of Screenwriting Fundamentals, an online
course on Lynda.com. He has written and directed two features, and is
the first filmmaker to ever use crowdfunding to finance his work. Check out his online courses here.
As the saying goes, 95% of directing is casting. Speaking from personal experience, I can confirm that a well-chosen actor not only brings a character to life, but can also make your shoot more enjoyable and relaxed. A hastily-chosen actor, on the other hand, can turn it into a nightmare.
Still, casting is an under-discussed aspect of the filmmaking process, and I think new directors could benefit from some advice on what to expect, what to look for, and how to behave. These tips are drawn from my own adventures in casting two features.
If you’ve never cast a film before, here’s the skinny on what you need to do:
1. Hire a Casting Director.
If you’re hoping to cast name talent, you’ll need a professional casting director who has established relationships within the top agencies. Can’t afford that, or not interested in names? You should still designate someone as your casting director. There’s lots of scheduling and phone calls involved in this process, and you can’t do it all. Also, a Casting Director makes your production look legit to talent and their representatives. The good news is that the only real prerequisites for the job are good organizational and people skills, and a feel for what you the director are looking for in your cast. If you know someone who’s keen to take on this position, prior casting experience isn’t crucial, though it obviously helps.
2. Set up production-only contact info.
Let’s face it: a lot of dodgy people want to get into the movies. It goes without saying that you don’t want them contacting you personally. As you prepare for the onslaught of headshots and resumes, make sure you’ve set up a phone number, mailing address (or P.O. box), and email address that are associated only with the production.
3. Break down your characters and send out a casting notice.
Here’s where you and your casting director take every single character in your screenplay and write a little bio about them. Be as specific as you want to about age, race, and gender, along with any technical requirements for special skills, dialects, travel, nudity, etc. This breakdown is what you send out to the world, along with brief scenes from the screenplay for each character. These scenes are called “sides” and are what the actors will read from during auditions.
Breakdown Services (breakdownservices.com) has long been the dominant player in this field. They will send your stuff to agents (though rarely at the top agencies) and managers, and you may receive some headshots of actors you’ve actually heard of, though probably not A-listers.
Posting the notice to actors directly is now fairly common, though the professionalism of the talent you will reach will be, uh, variable. The better-known sites for casting calls include backstage.com, nowcasting.com, casting360.com, mandy.com, productionhub.com, exploretalent.com, and actorsaccess.com (which is owned by Breakdown Services). I’d advise against using Craigslist, but that’s just me.
4. Find a professional venue for your auditions.
This should also go without saying: Do not do any casting in a private home. It’s creepy. Rent an office space, or if you’re broke, see if you can score some free space at a local live theatre (some will allow this, provided you audition members of their company).
5. Book a decent amount of time for this.
You want to see a lot of actors for each role, so that you’ll have a large and varied pool to choose from. Don’t skimp. Give yourself a full week after the casting call to cull through the headshots and select the actors you want to bring in. Then give your Casting Director a week after that to call the actors’ reps (or in some cases the actors themselves) and schedule the auditions.
For a feature film, give the audition process itself no less than two weeks – and three weeks or more, if you can afford it. I suggest you see at least 20 actors for each of the major roles, and at least 10 actors for each of the minor (“day player”) roles. With each audition ideally taking 15 minutes, that means if you’re casting 5 major roles and 10 minor ones, you’ll be seeing 200 actors, so you’ll need 50 hours minimum (and add at least 10 hours to that, because nothing goes like clockwork during casting). Mix it up so you don’t, say, see all 20 actors for the same role in a row. Otherwise you will hear the same lines all day and you will go insane.
Finally, don’t forget to include at least 3 days for callbacks, which is when you, well, call back the talent you liked the most, and give them other scenes to perform and/or a chance to read with each other to see if there’s chemistry.
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