There are many hurdles to filmmaking left hidden from view when you begin pursuing your dream of making films. I can only imagine that casting films with an actual budget would probably be an enjoyable experience – a comfy room, coffee and snacks, a producer and casting director to keep you company, and then one by one, the actors magically appear for you to judge, then yes, sign me up. But this scenario just isn’t true from what I’ve experienced as self-funding and independent filmmaker.
Regardless of the project, the importance of casting, and how you cast, should never be undervalued or neglected. If you’re making a film and fail to appreciate that getting the right or wrong casting will have the greatest affect on the outcome of your project, then all I can say is, “you’re going to learn the hard way!” You should do anything you can do with the resources you have to cast the ‘right’ person for your project. Casting the wrong person will deflate your project, if not ruin it completely – and I’m not just referring to their acting ability, as their personality is just as important. Yes, there are many aspects to a film that could signal disaster – a bad script for starters or forgetting to bring back up batteries, but the reason for this essay on ‘casting’ is because it is a process in filmmaking that I feel most ill equipped for.
When you start out making films you’ve already got a sense of the core things that you will need – a script, a camera, editing software, even music. But there are no YouTube tutorials teaching you how to “get the casting right”, which is something that develops out of necessity. Thinking about it now, even when I was at Uni, emphasis on casting was never explicit. You got whoever was interested, and you try your best to not fuck up. But why?The first narrative based short film I produced featured a filmmaker I met at a local film night – who incidentally had never acted before, and an actress from a local theatre group (who I met for the first time on the day of filming) from a recommendation. My second film was my University grad film, so this time I cast two jobbing actors and I paid for the privilege – the result was not bad, but the film has dated considerably due to the advancement of HD filming equipment. I then went back to asking friends for help on my third film as I just didn’t have the money to pay anyone and I desperately wanted to test out my new camera equipment. But since then I’ve always paid my actors. If I couldn’t afford to, then I didn’t make the project. This has meant my number of projects have deceased according my life situation and financial security, but I think it is fundamental for all self respecting filmmakers to pay their cast. Firstly, it will enable you to have absolute control over who you hire, because if you don’t pay, you are at the mercy of their availability, and this will, more often than not, lead to bad casting choices and thus ruining your project. Of course it is possible to find decent castings without paying, but how often and infrequently is that going happen?
My process of casting has developed from trial and error over the few years I’ve been making films. Another thing they never mention in ‘director-school’, is that you’ll be taking on all these roles than you never knew existed. I could pay someone to help cast my short films, but I just don’t have the finances to justify it. So I’ve learnt to do it myself, and now feel I am pretty good at it – although far from perfect. Ideally, you’d want to set up a casting session so you could meet everyone who applies. They would then read from a script you’ve provided and audition in front of a camera to give you a better idea of their screen presence. Even though I’ve never done it this way, if and when I do, I’d throw in a bit of direction to see how they handle it – a useful tip, because it is possible actors have cemented that reading in their performance and would be unable to offer you an alternative (a problem with less experienced actors). The reason I’ve never set up a casting session like this is because I feel the size of my projects do not warrant the effort and irritation it would cause me to hold a casting session. I live in Brighton, and most actors who apply for my projects live in London – Brighton based actors are used to travelling for casting opportunities with no guarantee of getting the role, but most London actors bulk at the idea of getting a train down here for a half hour meeting – I fear that no one would turn up if I bothered doing it. So instead, I pick several of the applications for a meet and I travel up to London to say hello – this is not an audition, but rather to judge their personality as I have already seen and approved of their showreel and acting chops. This is a weird experience, because you’re asking questions whilst trying to see whether that person who you have just met for the first time embodies any of the characteristics you are looking for. Whilst acting enables people to play roles not necessarily anything like themselves, I do believe that by meeting someone face to face, rather than just by watching their showreel, you get an immediate sense and understanding of whether that person can play your character.
For my short film That’s Not Me, it was more difficult to cast than any project since, because I had no previous film work I felt able to show. My university work was shot on DV tapes so the quality in comparison to my new HD equipment felt like it had been made it a life time ago (in reality it was only a few months), and I felt embarrassed to show anyone as it didn’t reflect what I knew I could achieve – and that’s why I made Loop with a bunch of friends. I wisely chose Brighton based actors, and I paid (always helpful). For them, there would have been no real disappoint if the film was a disaster. Robert, who plays the lead, appreciated the script and sentiment behind the story, and Jamie, who plays the supporting role, was interested it taking a role against type. I think I did well casting That’s Not Me, considering I showed them little in return for their trust. From there, I was able to cast the next film with a better arsenal both in experience and example of what I can do. I was confident I could make a decent short film, but I was yet to properly prove it. So if you’re casting for the first time, get a decent script together and pay the actors, and you’ll almost certainly get whoever you want.
After That’s Not Me was released, actors have always seemed to trust me as a filmmaker – knowing it will look and sound reasonably good. But having said that, casting continues to pose many different and interesting problems. Going make to my process of casting, typically I put out a ‘casting call’ online for the roles I am looking for. I describe the script and project as best I can and ask only consider applications with showreels or films available for me to watch. I then spend several days taking my time to look through each of the applications, which is often quite a gruelling experience as you have so many faces and clips to work through. After that is over, I send my favourite dozen or so applicants the script and links to my previous work. Depending on the response, I then try to message all the applicants with a generic response thanking them for taking an interest in my project and wishing them all the best for the future – even if they’re not right or the role, I try to make an effort as I’ve been ignored in the past and it’s never a nice feeling. So after those ten or so applicants have seen some of my previous work and read the script, they will more often than not respond positively to the opportunity – occasionally someone will drop out at this stage, some won’t reply for weeks, and some will seem a bit odd in their correspondence. So, I get a feel for the people I am interested in, and with every step I am honing down my choice.
There has been several occasions that I have gone through this long-winded process, to then have my favourite applicant drop out – I can only speculate as to why this happens. I try to be honest with the actors I meet so that they should expect a very low budget production, and although I still provide food, drink and even hotels if needed, perhaps some actors are not keen on spending a few days slumming it. Or perhaps they didn’t like me or my choice of coffee chain. Recently, someone I had pegged for a role in The Missing Hand tried to convince me to change the shooting dates – I can only expect that he had double booked himself, and hoped one project would change schedules to suit him (ironically the dates did end up changing because of the weather). Because I pay and my projects are funded from my own savings, I don’t relinquish control easily, so I said no to the actors demands and recast the role – I also sacked an actor recently because it took him almost a week to reply to me as I was trying to arrange an upcoming shoot and I felt his reason for not replying within a reasonable time was not a sufficient excuse, considering we were only a few weeks away from filming. Now, if I didn’t pay, I’m not sure what I would have done. Instead, because I do pay, I was able to replace the actor with relative ease, and I think the project has turned out better for it. Funny how those things happen.
I’ve always had to work hard at casting my projects, and it has never been an easy or outrightly enjoyable experience, but I’ve learnt a lot over the last few years and I hope it will pay off in the long run when I eventually start making bigger projects. Like I said at the beginning of this ramble, it’s not something I ever considered doing when I first started out making films – if anything it seemed like a burden. But now a few years in and with a healthy number of projects under my belt, my respect for casting and the process could not be more evident, but interestingly this hasn’t eased my reluctance to start casting a new project. At my sort of indie level, casting requires you to do a lot of admin work, e-mails, repetitive conversations, and endless organising and scheduling – but it’s an absolute necessity if you want to make the most of what you’ve got. A decent cast will elevate your low budget film into something decent. For me, good casting is the difference between a good indie and a terrible indie. For the ‘Linda’ role in Killer Bird, I had over one-hundred applicants to work through, but I am sure I made the best choice from what I was given. I put in the effort to make an informed decision, and in hindsight, I’m so glad I did.
I write from my own experience, not as a ‘how-to’ guide to casting, because I am not an expert, but I am learning the role by doing it. If you’re a filmmaker and you’re thinking about your next project, but don’t spent the necessary time to properly cast your film, it will slap you in the face later down the line and all that hard work with the more glamorous aspects of production, would have been pointless. The good news is once it’s over and you’ve got everyone on board, your project will be so much better for it. I am very lucky (and hard-working enough) that I am now in a reasonably healthy position when it comes to casting. I have a few films online that show people what I can do, and more importantly, I finish what I start – in the indie film world, that is gold dust. I have also formed several lasting relationships with my actors, and I will continue to work with them whenever the opportunity arises, as I feel just as comfortable recasting them as they do working with me.
I have developed my own process and it works for me and the level I am working at. I encourage you to develop your own methods, and figure out what works best by learning from your mistakes. Remember, when you’re casting a project, you are meeting with other jobbing creatives who are looking for the next opportunity, so treat them with respect. If you don’t, then talented people won’t work with you and in a few years you’ll be wondering where it all went wrong.