I remember sitting at home back in Sydney, Australia with this script that my co-writer John Chriss and I had written, about these two families in the remote Texan countryside after the Civil War, and thinking “now what?” I knew that in order to get the movie made we needed to not only attach actors who would nail the roles, but also ones that were recognizable enough to attract investors, sales agents, distributors and eventually audiences.
No known actor would ever take a look at my film. I was completely off-the-radar in Hollywood – and even though I was confident that actors would be attracted to these characters and want to do this movie, how was I going to get through the agents, managers and the “firewall” that surrounds these actors in the first place? Well, I was pleasantly surprised at how it all went down.
1. Write a good script.
I know this sounds obvious, but it’s the most important thing you can do. Without good material, no one is going to want to help you. We wrote a script that’s essentially a slow-burn character piece about two families in the middle of the countryside. Not exactly the kind of story that puts dollar signs in people’s eyes, but we worked hard to make it the best script it could be. At the end of the day, people respond to good stories with believable, unique characters. If you can write something with honesty, that reads with confidence and passion, you’ve given yourself the best start possible.
2. Team up with producers who are more experienced than you are.
It wasn’t until my writing partner John and I got the script into the hands of working producers that it actually came to life. J.M.R. Luna was my old friend from film school and he flew to Australia for a few weeks to help me raise money from potential investors. It didn’t go as well as planned, so he reached out to some other producers he knew in Los Angeles: Dave Szamet, Steven Berger and Kyle Fisher. They loved the script, joined on as producers and immediately convinced John and I that this script deserved to find top-level talent and have a chance at a life in the marketplace. They had an end-goal in mind that even John and I hadn’t dared to dream of (because no one thinks their movie is ever going to see the light of day) and a strategy by which to get there. They lit the proverbial fire under us and got the ball rolling (prepare for copious metaphors).
3. Find the right casting director.
Our producers set up a handful of casting directors to meet with, all of whom had racked up a ton of experience working on great projects. We ended up going with the wonderful Emily Schweber, not just because of her long career and wealth of experience, but because she showed true passion for the project. She cared about doing justice to the script and, like our producers, believed we could attract top talent.
A couple of weeks later I was meeting with what seemed like every working actor in Los Angeles; actors I had grown up watching on TV and character actors from some of my favorite films. All were supremely talented, regardless of experience level. The quality was always consistent and this doesn’t happen by accident.
Emily shepherded us through the process, encouraging us to be brave with our choices but also measuring expectations. We would constantly ask her, “is this actor bankable?” to which she would reply, “I don’t know anything about that, but he’s a great actor who’s right for the part!” And she was right. While it’s impossible to ignore the benefits of having a star-studded cast, or that one “bankable” actor who will bring in money and audiences, the most important thing is making sure you get the right actors for the right parts. There are incredible actors out there and “the whole is greater than the sum of its parts;” meaning, find the right actors for the right parts, who have the right chemistry with each other and who combine to make a great cast that makes the movie better. Emily made sure this was always the priority and I thank her for her guidance.
4. Agents and managers hold the keys.
Forming good, working relationships with agents and managers in this industry is crucial to landing a great cast. Fortunately, because of the prior work of our producers and casting director, we were able to get the script looked at by agencies, despite my being a first-time feature director. These agencies will give you coverage on your script and if it’s good, it will internally pick up steam at that agency and they will try and help package your film with their actors. This is a great position to be in, because you now have access to their talent pools. It doesn’t mean that you will necessarily have the pick of the litter, but you are legitimized in a sense and the agents will vouch for the script when giving it to their clients.
Michael Cooper and Franklin Latt at CAA were instrumental in landing us James Badge Dale and they continued to be supportive throughout, sending us casting suggestions for other roles and even offering to help with the film once it was finished. William Forsythe’s team – manager Kieran McGuire at The Arlook Group and agent Steven Muller at Innovative – were essential in William coming on board. These people all could have told their actors to hold off for a bigger payday, or to do the “sure thing” project with the name director, but they didn’t. They encouraged them to pursue quality material and take a chance on some young, passionate filmmakers.
5. Pass “the test.”
Whenever you get a bite on an offer to an actor, it’s usually followed up with a meeting. When you’re not an established director, this meeting is a time for them to test you: to make sure you are in full command of your material, to make sure they can trust you and, perhaps most importantly, to see if they like you. See it from an actor’s perspective – here is their chance to walk away from the project before it even gets going because once they commit to the role, they are committing to trusting you. Their work and their reputations will be in your hands. That is a huge leap of faith for an established actor to take for a rookie director. I remember meeting with James Badge Dale and thinking “this guy has just been directed by Steve McQueen, Robert Zemeckis, Shane Black, Marc Forster, Gore Verbinski and now he’s here talking to me about working with me?” I made sure I was clear and confident in the story I wanted to tell and how he could help me do that.
Thankfully, he said yes.
Kane Senes recently co-wrote, produced and directed his debut feature film, “Echoes of War,” shot in Austin, Texas and starring James Badge Dale, Maika Monroe, Ethan Embry and William Forsythe. Senes is now developing his next feature while producing a project for Cannes award-winning director Anton du Preez from a script they co-wrote. ARC Entertainment will release “Echoes of War” in theaters, VOD and iTunes on May 15, 2015.