19 October 2010
Casting, minus the couch
photo credit: snapchick.com
While the edit of Up Country plugs along, I'm directing some of my attention to my next project(s), in the hopes of avoiding a long gap that I've found becomes harder and harder to end the longer it goes on.
One of them, which I can't really talk about yet, involves some pretty inexperienced people (and some pretty experienced ones, so it should be an interesting learning experience all around). There's cast members already attached, which led to a discussion of casting methods. This, of course, led to me talking about casting methods on Twitter. Turns out everyone has different approaches, all of them equally valid. I thought it might be interesting to talk about mine and see how it differs from other people.
Worst-case scenario, it gives me a chance to ramble.
It's a multi-step process:
1. What are we looking for?
Obvious, right? Not exactly. You may know, for example, that the script calls for a 25 year old white male, but that doesn't really describe the character. What is he going to have to do? What are some key elements of his personality? If you've ever cast anything, you know a time will come when you're looking at a really talented actor who can't play the age range. Then you've got to decide if the age range can move. It helps if you know that from the beginning.
2. The collection of "talent"
I qualify "talent" for the simple reason that a lot of the people you look at will be awful. I gather people a couple of different ways. I put out a casting call, which is kind of a scatter-shot approach that sometimes works. Also I put out a social media casting call, which works better. Third, I reach out privately to fellow filmmakers, looking for suggestions. You get a lot of people.
Since I know what I'm looking for, I flip through headshots. I do this pretty quickly. 15 seconds, max. Most of them won't even remotely fit the character you're looking for, which is easy. Beyond that, you're looking for people who could work, who fit in a range. I go through those again and usually prioritize them, focusing almost entirely on the actor's eyes and how they hold themselves in the frame. The interesting ones go in the first pile. The bland ones go in the second pile. Hopefully I won't have to get to the second pile.
I have a couple of actor friends that think this step is just horrible. I see where they're coming from. I'm eliminating a lot of talent. But an actor thinks they can play pretty much everything, and maybe they can, but there's lots and lots of actors out there. It's one of those horrible realities. In theatre you can go outside type more easily. In film it just takes the audience out of the film. You have to ask yourself: is it worth it? Couldn't I just as easily get someone who fits the role?
4. The reel
Generally, I think reels are pretty much a waste. I never, ever cast someone based on what's in their reel, and I'll only watch maybe 10% of them all the way through. My priority is simple: I'm looking for a reason to thin the pile. Most of them I'll shut off after 30 seconds. I want someone who looks magnetic on camera and can carry that throughout a take, someone who moves well. Anything that looks like their dropping character or struggling with an accent or anything that even reeks of mediocre and I'm gone. Remember, this is what they consider to be their absolute best work. So if it's mediocre, why bother?
Things that annoy me in reels:
2. A scene where two actors look really similar. Who am I looking at?
3. That time the actor had one line on Law & Order. What does that tell me? There aren't very many shows where I'll care that an actor had one line. Among them: Mad Men, Deadwood, and LOST. And mostly because I think they might have a good story to tell.
After the reels, I'm probably down to, I dunno, 2% of what I started with, maybe fewer. That was the easy part.
5. The resume
Here's where I start to look at what an actor has done. Really, I don't care so much, I'm just skimming for things that look interesting, for projects where I know someone else who worked on it, for films that might be easy to track down, stuff like that. If I can get a copy of the project easily, I'll reach out to people for that, since it might take some time. I try and do it discreetly.
Also at this point I'm scouring the interwebs, looking for anything I can find on an actor. To me, this is more important than the resume. I'm not going to be directing this person's past performances. I'm going to be directing a person. Maybe this comes from having directed a lot of non-actors. I don't really care what the actor has done. I'm more interested in what I think they can do.
So here I'm looking for interviews (print and video), a blog, a twitter feed, a facebook page. If they have some writing ability, that's a big plus. Basically I become this person's stalker. I look through their facebook photos of them drunk at parties. Anything I can find, really. It's not really as creepy as it sounds. Basically what I'm looking for is an intelligence level in what someone writes, and I want to know how they look when they haven't been made up and professionally lit. Some people look like completely different people when the light changes. That's kind of important.
But you pick up stuff that becomes helpful. The last person I researched, it was obvious from her facebook photos that she's a dog lover. That's information that, should I end up directing this person, I can use to get a better performance.
7. Past work
When I get ahold of that past work, I'm looking for a lot of the same things I'm looking for in the reel, but beyond that I'm watching to see how an actor builds and sustains an arc. How clean is the performance? Do they command the screen? This is usually where I start bringing in other people. But I almost never bring in film people. I have a group of people who have pretty good reads on actors, just normal audience members who I've had dozens and dozens of conversations with over the years about actors. I trust their instincts and know what sort of things they're seeing. More importantly, they don't know these people, so they aren't rooting for the actor they've worked with. Their only bias is toward the project. You meet an actor and you get attached to them, you start looking for a way to squeeze them into a project. But these people come at it clean. They don't any of these actors, couldn't care less about them as human beings. That's important.
I almost never contact the references on the resume. Is that poor form? Maybe. I don't really care. This is where I use that list of people who have worked with the actor. I'll usually reach out to past directors of their films. Basically I want to know: 1) How hard do they work? 2) How do they take direction? 3) How are they to work with? 4) Would they cast them again?
I have a zero tolerance policy for divas and assholes, which is basically what I'm trying to weed out. If you aren't willing to lay in the mud, I'm sure I can find someone who is. I'll take a B- actor who works his ass off over an A- actor who doesn't, no question.
Around this time, I start to try and figure out what type of actor they are. Are they comfortable with improv or are they more comfortable rattling off 5 pages of dialogue? That can be a big issue, depending on the project.
Finally, after all that, I make my first contact with the actor, usually by email. As you might imagine, by this point I have a pretty good idea of who I'm talking to and how comfortable I'd be working with them. If we can meet in person, great. If not, the phone works just fine. I like to pick their brain and talk to them about how they like to work, what sort of filming experiences they've had. I'll sometimes ask them about their past performances, about what they liked and didn't like about them. Really, I'm trying to get a sense of how well I'll click with this person. I want to know how well our styles and personalities will mesh. I talk to them about my methods and see what sort of reactions I get. I like to think I'm pretty good at detecting bullshit at this stage. I used to have a job where I conducted job interviews over the phone, so I can usually weed out insincerity.
And with any luck, during that phone call, I may just cast them in the film.
So that, roughly, is my method. Are other filmmakers similar? Completely different?