There’s an old adage out there, something like "80% of the director’s job gets done in casting.”
While I’m not entirely sure that’s true, it’s impossible to deny that casting is one of the most important aspects of narrative filmmaking.
It’s as simple as this: great casting decisions can save even the most poorly shot, poorly edited film, while bad or even mediocre casting decisions can sink a film where the other aspects of the production are firing on all cylinders. All of this is to say, casting is really damn important because the characters onscreen are the first point of connection for your audience.
Important though it may be, many inexperienced filmmakers make a handful of easily avoidable mistakes when casting their early films. Let’s take a look at a few that I’ve made, and a few more that I’ve seen from other filmmakers.
Not having a casting director
This one is a bit contentious, especially in the low-budget filmmaking community. When we’re just starting out, most of us don’t have budgets large enough to pay our actors and crew fairly, let alone a dedicated casting director.
But let’s back up for a moment and take a look at why a good casting director can be invaluable to a production. This video from Brian Jun and the wonderful people over at Film Courage explains it better than I ever could.
Essentially, it boils down to having a professional on your side who is not only familiar with your script and your purpose, but who is in a much better position to track down and negotiate with top talent than you are.
In most cases, you can put out casting calls all day, but your chances of attracting the same level of talent that a good casting director can are slim to none.
For that reason, if you have a decent budget for you film, and you’re genuinely invested in making the best possible product, hire an accomplished casting director and let them work their magic. You’ll be glad that you did.
[Bonus Tip] What to do if you can’t afford a casting director
If you’re working without a budget, a casting director is probably out of the question unless one is willing to donate their time to your production. Not likely, but it can happen.
Quite luckily, though, the internet has largely democratized the casting process, making it possible find actors that we never would have been able to reach just 10-20 years ago.
In those cases where you can’t hire a casting director, put out casting calls in local publications, in online forums and various websites, in social media groups (facebook, in particular, is great for this), on bulletin boards at your local theaters and colleges, and anywhere else that makes sense for your locale.
Just note that when you take the DIY approach to casting, it will take a while to find the right actors, and it might even slow down your production schedule.
Whatever you do, don’t settle for the first actors you find if they’re not the right fit for your production. You’ll regret it. I can guarantee that great actors are out there if you look hard enough. So be patient. Take your time. Be thorough.
Having too strict of an interpretation of your own script
Going into the casting process for my thesis film a few years back, I thought I knew exactly what I wanted: a 20 year old male and a 40 year old female who looked like mother and son.
That age-range seemed key to me because that's how I had written the script, and that's how I had been imagining the characters all along.
Well, imagine my surprise when the best casting decision — not necessarily the best actors we saw, but the best pairing of two actors — happened to be in the age range of 40 for the male and 65 for the female.
Despite the fact that I rationally knew the best casting decision to make (the older actors), my brain went into self-protection mode because that casting decision jeopardized my “artistic vision.”
Luckily, a mentor of mine at that time slapped some sense into me and prevented me from making a stupid decision.
The moral of this story: keep an open mind in the casting process. Rarely will you find exactly what you’re looking for. Sometimes, however, you may find something better. But you have to be open to seeing it. If not, great casting choices may pass you by and your film may suffer for it.
Not having a competent reader to play scenes with the people auditioning
This is another lesson learned from the days of casting my thesis film.
When we held casting calls, we designated one kid to read scenes with the actors. Not only was he terrible at reading the scenes, but his terribleness threw off the actors who were auditioning for us. Not a good scenario at all, and one that’s totally avoidable.
Your reader doesn't have to be an exceptional actor, but they can't be a monotonous robot either. If the reader can't emote and play off of what the actor is doing, it's going to be much harder to tell if the person auditioning is truly capable or not.
Luckily, most people are capable of reading lines in a way that doesn’t suck. If your reader just isn’t cutting it, pull them aside and politely ask them to step it up. If they can’t, have someone else do it, or do it yourself.
Not giving constructive, actionable direction
Almost never will an actor give a perfect performance in a casting session, but that’s not the point. One of the most important things about casting is learning how well actors can take direction.
The idea is to see if actors can take the feedback that you give them, then channel it into their next performance. This is crucial for when you’re on set and you need to tweak performances.
Of course, this means that you have to give feedback that is actionable and constructive when you’re in the casting session.
“Play it more sad” is not good direction. Nor is it ok to ask them to do it again without giving any feedback. These are both things I’ve seen.
Instead, try giving the actor specific bits of context about where their character has just come from, both physically and emotionally. Remember, they likely don’t know anything about your script other than what’s written on the sides, so little bits of context can be extremely helpful.
In addition try giving them a motivation in the scene, something they’re trying to accomplish. When combined with pieces of context, a clear motivation can skyrocket their ability to understand the scene and act it out accordingly.
Lastly, it can be helpful to have the actor play the scene in two ways that are completely different from one another. Even if you’re set on the scene being played a specific way, this can help you determine how much range the actor has.
Not recording the audition, or doing screen tests
This one seems like a no brainer, but I’ve definitely seen student films where no one thought to bring a camera to the casting sessions.
It doesn’t have to be anything fancy, and you don’t necessarily have to set up lights or an additional microphone or anything like that.
Just make sure that you capture the performance in something resembling a medium shot so that you can see both their facial expressions and body language in the shot.
When you go back and review the footage after the casting session (which you should always do, at least for the people you were interested in), you will undoubtedly notice things that were never apparent to you in the casting session itself.
Casting your friends, family, or yourself
Sometimes, when you’re just starting out, you don’t have much choice in who you cast in your films. You’re unknown as a director, unsure of whether you can even make a good film (hint: nobody can at first), and you don’t want to waste anybody’s time, especially not good actors.
Here’s the thing, though. When you’re just starting out as a filmmaker, there are definitely people in your area who are just getting started with acting. Even better, most of these people are actively looking for low-stakes film projects to test the waters.
How do you find these people, you ask? Maybe they’ll be enrolled in acting classes at a local college. Maybe they’ll be understudies at a local theater. Maybe they congregate online in a facebook group. Do your research, and you’ll find them.
Just remember, you shouldn’t feel guilty about wasting anybody’s time when you take this strategy. It gives them acting experience and something for their reel. If you’re honest about where you are as a filmmaker, and you give people a good idea of what they can expect, you won’t waste their time.
With all of that said, family and friends can be convenient, and sometimes they’ll surprise you and do a really good job. Just don’t settle for them when there are likely people better suited to your script who genuinely want to act in films.
Not doing callbacks
Sure, you might think that you found the perfect actor for a role in your first casting session. Then you go and cast them on the spot, only to find out in rehearsals — or even worse, in the middle of production — that they’re not quite as perfect as you first imagined.
Doing callbacks allows you another chance to evaluate and interact with actors more closely than you could in the initial casting session. Ideally, this is where you’d really get down in the trenches with them and give them some serious direction.
The other great thing about callbacks is that they allow you to try different pairings of actors so that you can see where there might be chemistry.
You can cast two great actors individually, but if they don’t work well together for whatever reason, then they’re probably not the best choice for your film.
In the end, your casting decisions are one of the most important pieces of the puzzle in terms of the ultimate quality of your film.
Don’t take the process lightly. Take your time. Do your due diligence. Find the best people you can.
And if you find yourself making any of these mistakes, now you know what to do to correct course and steer yourself towards casting success.
Best of luck.
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