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Sundance Films Reveal Their Casting Secrets: 26 Filmmakers Tell Us How They Did It — Sundance 2017

From working with non-professionals to hiring a Hollywood casting director, Sundance filmmakers tells us how they found their actors.

Director Marti Noxon & "To the Bone" star Lily Collins

Director Marti Noxon and “To the Bone” star Lily Collins

Gilles Mingasson

From working with non-professionals to writing roles for specific actors to hiring a top casting director, there is no one way to find a great cast for an independent film. IndieWire checked in with the Dramatic Competition and NEXT directors of Sundance 2017 to find out their secrets.

READ MORE: The 2017 IndieWire Sundance Bible: Every Review, Interview and News Item Posted During the Festival

Gillian Robespierre, “Landline” Jenny Slate was attached from the beginning. I wrote the role of Donna in “Obvious Child” for Jenny, and when sitting down to write the next project it was a no-brainer to write another role for her. We then built the family around her with the help of two incredible casting directors, Doug Aibel and Stephanie Holbrook.

Zoe Lister-Jones, “Band Aid” Almost all the actors in the film were either friends or people I had personal connections to, so it was a relatively easy process. I called them all personally.

zoe lister-jones band aid

“Band Aid”

Geremy Jasper, “Patti Cake$” “Patti Cake$” was cast in a very unorthodox way: actors, non-actors, rappers, legends, garbagemen. I was lucky enough to get accepted into the Sundance Directors Labs in the summer of 2014, where you bring three actors out to Utah to workshop some scenes from your script. Through this process, we found the actress Danielle Macdonald (Patti), who my producer Noah remembered from a role she played in “The East.” Danielle is Australian and had never done anything musical before, much less rap, but she looked exactly like the Patti in my brain. She’s an incredible actress who spent the next two years training / morphing into Patrica Dombrowski.

Siddharth Dhananjay, I found on World Star Hip Hop, where he had posted some hilarious/infectious amateur R&B videos of himself singing renditions of Destiny’s Child while smoking Newports in a do-rag. He’d never acted before, but I invited him to Utah. He was graduating from college that week and hopped on a plane.

Bridget Everett I saw on the season finale of the Amy Schumer Show, where she performed an X-rated cabaret song. The split second I saw her face, I knew she was Barb. She’s a brilliant comedic performer, but also has such a deep reservoir of emotion.

"Patti Cake$" cast

Mamoudou Athie, Siddharth Dhananjay,  Cathy Moriarty, director Geremy Jasper, Danielle Macdonald, and Bridget Everett of “Patti Cake$”

Daniel Bergeron

Cathy Moriarty I worked with on a short film in Mexico, and the first time I met her I knew she was Nana. We had to hide her glamour and age her 15 years, but she just had the sarcastic yet warm essence of the women I grew up around in Jersey — all soul and cigarette smoke.

Our casting [directors] Jess Kelly and Becca Dealy really connected to the material and brought the thunder in fleshing out the cast: Sahr Ngaujah, McCaul Lombardi, Nick Sandow, etc.

READ MORE: How ‘Patti Cake$’ Director Geremy Jasper Went from Indie Rocker to Breakout Filmmaker — Sundance 2017

The hardest role to cast was Basterd. We saw so many great actors, but nobody felt right until Jess and Becca brought in Mamadou Athie, a Yale-educated actor who currently plays Grandmaster Flash on “The Get Down.” Dude is deep and brought an authenticity and humanity to the character we could never have anticipated.

And then I went out on a limb and wrote roles specially for people I just love and that’s where MC Lyte (a childhood hero) and Big Body Bes (modern legend) came in.

Matt Ruskin, “Crown Heights” I begged (producer) Avy Kaufman to do it. She has incredible taste in actors and is really good at getting people interested in a smaller films. Talent reps know she may be calling the next day about a Spielberg film, so she’s able to get people’s attention and get much quicker responses, which was invaluable to us.

Lakeith Stanfield in Crown Heights

“Crown Heights”

Courtesy of Sundance

Cate Shortland, “Berlin Syndrome” We cast in Sydney and Berlin with Kirsty McGregor and Anja Dihrberg.

Cory Finley, “Thoroughbred” I reached out to both our our lead actors [Olivia Cooke and Anya Taylor-Joy] as a fan, having been struck by their performances in movies I’d loved.

Kirsten Tan, “Pop Aye” I had rigorous discussions with my Thai casting managers about what each character should look and feel like, after which they literally took to the streets or even social media to scour through possibilities, since I was mainly looking for non-professionals. The other main star is an elephant. For that, we visited different elephant villages through Thailand in Chiangmai, Surin and Ayutthaya. We probably met close to 100 elephants or more. In the end, I went with Bong, the very first elephant I met.

Gerard McMurray, "Burning Sands"

Gerard McMurray directing “Burning Sands”

William Gray

Gerard McMurray, “Burning Sands” We took our time with the casting process, spanning seven months to find the right actors for this film. Our casting director, Kim Coleman, brought in just about every young black actor in Hollywood that was available. Additionally, I wanted to break and discover new talent, so we hired George Pierre for casting out of Atlanta.

READ MORE: Sundance After Trump: How The Election Changed the Filmmakers and Their Films

Marti Noxon, “To The Bone It was a process of trying to find the right woman to play Ellen. Only went out to a few actors. As soon as I sat down to meet Lily [Collins], I started sweating because I knew she was the one. It was like a blind fate and the minute you lay eyes on the person, you think — Oh. This is the person I’ve been looking for all my life/film. When we discovered we both have tattoos on our left wrists with the initial LJ on them (mine for my kids, hers for her name), we felt like fate stepped in.

Director Marti Noxon & "To the Bone" star Lily Collins

Director Marti Noxon & “To the Bone” star Lily Collins

Gilles Mingasson

Alex [Sharp] came next. Our casting director, Rich Delia, suggested him. I’d seen “Curious Dog” on Broadway and remembered how special he was. We met over Skype and I just got a feeling that he would bring the perfect mix of awkward/try hard/sexy to the part. I hadn’t imagined him British. That was kind of hard to wrap my head around. But in the end I think it made the character more layered.

Finally I met with Keanu [Reeves]. I was super nervous. I generally don’t like talking with huge movie stars. There’s just this uncanny-valley feeling of — you belong on a screen and I belong in a seat objectifying you. But we got past that pretty easily. Keanu strikes me as a kind and very sensitive person. By the end I wanted to bake for him, which meant to me I could get past the star thing. He showed me his motorcycle and I felt like that was a good sign. Then he said yes.

Joshua Z Weinstein, “Menashe” Authenticity was our central priority in making the film. One of the ways we were able to get access to the community was through our producer Danny Finkleman, who is a Hasidic Jew himself. He was not only a key gatekeeper but also served as part of a team of advisors who made sure that the all aspects of the film were honest and genuine representations of ultra-Orthodox Judaism.



Courtesy of Sundance

Casting was a lot of fun, but it was certainly an atypical experience overall. This was not the kind of situation where we could simply call a casting agent or post information on the Internet and expect the type of actors we needed to show up.

99.9% of Hasidic men refused to be in the movie, and the .01 percent who could act were not easy to find. As such, it was very much like a game of telephone where my phone number was distributed within the ultra-Orthodox world, resulting in some of the strangest phone calls I have ever received. Eventually, we were able to pull together an incredible group of performers and subtly tweaked the roles around their strengths and personalities.

Michael J Larnell, “Roxanne Roxanne:” We worked with a casting [director] Jessica Daniels. She was great.

READ MORE: Sundance 2017: Here Are the Cameras Used to Shoot This Year’s Acclaimed Films

Matt Spicer, “Ingrid Goes West” I didn’t tell my agents that Dave Smith (my co-writer) and I were working on this script. I emailed it to them on a Friday with a note that said, “This is my first feature. Let me know what you think.” I had been working on another project for over two years that I’d thought was going be my first film, but it was coming together so slowly that I was starting to lose hope. So I was shocked when I got a call the next Tuesday that Aubrey Plaza had read “Ingrid” and wanted to meet.

"My Happy Family"

“My Happy Family”

Courtesy of Sundance Institute | Tudor Panduru.

Nana & Simon, “My Happy Family” We started very early with the casting, which took almost one year. We were traveling through the country from theater to theater and casted both professional and-non professional actors.

John Trengove, “The Wound” The ritual depicted in “The Wound” is a very specific rite-of-passage into manhood practiced by the Xhosa people of South Africa. From the beginning, we had a rule that all cast members had to be Xhosa, with first-hand experience of the initiation. Our unstoppable casting director, Cait Pansegrouw, interviewed literally hundreds of young men, many of whom had no prior experience in front of the camera. It yielded some very interesting results, better perhaps than if we’d gone a more conventional route.

Tarik Saleh, “The Nile Hilton Incident” I wrote the main character with Fares Fares in mind. I love his charisma and his ability to bring sympathy to flawed people. I had two fantastic casting directors. Fabien Boitiere, based in Paris, found the Sudanese cast and the French-based actors. Marwa Gabriel is Cairo based, anf in my opinion the most talented casting agent in the Middle East. She found the Egyptian actors.

"The Nile Hilton Incident"

“The Nile Hilton Incident”

Courtesy of Sundance Institute.

Alexandre Moors, “The Yellow Birds” Tye Sheridan was already on board when I joined the project. But a month or so before pre-production, we had to cast again the lead for the film. I was in France then, with limited access to films. As I was looking for young actors for the role of Bartle, I saw this YouTube clip of an interview that Alden Ehrenreich gave on the red carpet, trying his best to answer silly questions from a TV reporter, and I was immediately convinced he was the one.

Jun Geng, “Free and Easy” Those who are cast into the roles are mostly local actors from where my films are shot. I have been shooting in my hometown, where the land breeds these excellent artists who joined me in my projects almost a decade ago. I love the way they look, their temperament, and the sense of rhythm. My films are the brainchildren that we gave birth together. In collaborating with them, my films manage to acquire a special texture.

Francis Lee, “God’s Own Country” For the UK cast, I worked with casting directors Shaheen Baig and Layla Merrick Wolf and in Romania, I worked with casting director Domnica Circiumaru. In the meetings, I worked extensively with the actors on various scenes. I knew casting the lead roles would be tough. Not only would the actors have to go on a massive emotional arc, but they would also need to do things many actors would be uncomfortable with.

The Hero

“The Hero”

Courtesy of Sundance

Brett Haley, “The Hero” My co-writer Marc Basch and I wrote the film with Sam Elliott in mind. He was the first person we sent the script to, and was the first person to come onboard. Once that happened, we were able to cast incredible actors around him. Laura Prepon and Krysten Ritter were big fans of Sam, and they quickly signed on to work with him. Nick Offerman and Sam were friends from working on “Parks and Recreation” together, and Sam is married to his other co-star, Katharine Ross. So I really just used the appeal of Sam to cast this thing up.

Macon Blair, “I Don’t Feel At Home In This World Anymore” I wrote the script with specific actors in mind for four roles (Melanie Lynskey, Elijah Wood, David Yow, and Lee Eddy) and when we were able to get the movie financed by Netflix, they allowed us a great deal of creative freedom and we were able to offer the roles to the people I’d always envisioned. Beyond that, we worked with some great casting directors.

Justin Chon, “Gook” Well, I cast myself because it was the cheapest option. I cast a YouTube star as my brother and rehearsed for two months to get him where he needed to be. I relied on help from the community to cast a young African-American girl. I cast my dad because he was the cheapest option.

Shooting "Gook"

Shooting “Gook”

courtesy of the filmmaker

Felipe Braganca, “Don`t Swallow My Heart, Alligator Girl!” It was a long process of casting research traveling in the border between Brasil and Paraguay. The idea was to mix local actors and non-actors with some professionals and experienced actors for some strategic roles to have the feeling of this “suspended reality” I wanted for the film. The two most important female characters were [played] by two indigenous girls: the indigenous activist, actress and singer, Zahy Guajajara (who plays Lucia in the film); and the teenage indigenous star of the film, Adeli Gonzales (who plays Basano, the “Alligator Girl” of the title).

Dayveon Sundance


Courtesy of Sundance

Amman Abbasi, “Dayveon” I really have to give a lot of credit to our casting directors, John Williams and Karmen Leech. I knew I wanted non-actors in this film. I wanted individuals who could bring their own life experience into these roles. John and Karmen searched for many months for the lead character role of Dayveon.

READ MORE: ‘Dayveon’ Review: Amman Abbasi’s Debut Pulls A Powerful Coming-Of-Age Story From The Rural Heart Of Arkansas

Michelle Morgan, “L.A. Times” To me, casting is like trying to catch lightning bugs in a jar. It’s just so damn frustrating. My original cast are not the people you see onscreen. But like the old adage … everything happens for a reason and I simply could not imagine these roles played by anyone else now.

Director Alex Ross Perry, Actor Emily Browning and Actor Analeigh Tipton on stage at the World Premiere of Golden Exits

Director Alex Ross Perry, Actor Emily Browning and Actor Analeigh Tipton on stage at the World Premiere of Golden Exits

© 2017 Sundance Institute | photo by Jemal Countess.

Alex Ross Perry, “Golden Exits” For the last three years, ever since my film “Listen Up Philip” premiered at Sundance, I have been failing to make a medium-large period-piece film. It is apparently impossibly unachievable, but in the years of meeting with actors who like my movies and who I come away wanting to work with, I have amassed a fairly large mental inventory of people I can contact easily and already know would be great collaborators. Problem is, I can’t put them in the movie they read the script for, since it’s not getting made. But I can write a smaller movie with them in mind, email them, explain that I still want to work together, and would they be interested in this movie instead? That is how I put together almost the entire cast of “Golden Exits.”

Mark Palansky, “Rememory” The story was written specifically for Peter Dinklage. I had worked with him on my first film (“Penelope”) and built this film around him. Once he was involved, I worked with our tenacious casting director Tineka Becker to find the right fits for all the other roles. In regards to Anton Yelchin, he was attached to another film I was making a few years ago. I knew he would bring something so special to “Rememory,” and he did.

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