It’s been said by countless directors that casting is unequivocally the most important element in the filmmaking process. Many directors subscribe to the famous notion that 90% of directing is casting, as they recognize that a film that is cast well, and according to the director’s vision will always be far more realistic and authentic than one cast in any other way. Surprisingly though, so many new directors don’t place an emphasis on the casting process and simply see it as another pre-production task that just needs to get done. So for you budding directors out there, be sure to read this post all the way to the end as I’m going to walk through importance of choosing the right talent, and explain how your actors can and will completely change the dynamic of your final picture.
The Casting Call
Casting talent can be a very frustrating process. Even with so many fantastic actors out there, all eager to audition for their next indie film – it’s typically very hard to find the perfect fit for an originally written character. It’s quite common to hold a casting session and have many talented actors come in and out of the room, but none of them are right for the role, no matter how good they may be. They might have the talent, but not the right look for the character. Or possibly they have the talent and the right look, but there is some intangible quality about them that just doesn’t embody the character on the page accurately. This type of struggle is common at nearly all casting calls, but I have learned over the years that it is possible to increase your odds of finding that perfect fit, simply by being more selective early on in the casting process.
If you’re casting for a film with only a small handful of roles, don’t bring in 300 people cattle-call style whose head shots and resumes you haven’t even seen yet. You’re only going to waste your time and theirs. Instead, take as much time as needed early on to hand pick a dozen or so actors for each of the key roles. Research who they are, watch their demo reels, see where they trained and who they’ve worked with. Know as much as you can about them before you call them in. This will immediately put you in a better position to find more suitable talent, and will also allow for more time with each actor during the casting session. Unlike a commercial casting call where you might hold auditions every 5 minutes, you have the luxury of slotting in your actors every 15 – 20 minutes (if you’re bringing in fewer people), to allow for re-reads and to see if your talent can take direction.
Hopefully you get some great talent on day one or two of your casting process. But if need be, take another day or another month to cast your film if that’s what it takes. It’s better to spend as much time as you need to up front to ensure that you find the right actors to tell your story, otherwise your film will suffer later on. You need to find talent that is so good that you couldn’t even picture making your film without them. Only when you feel that strongly about working with your chosen talent, are you truly ready to make your film.
Before we go any further though, let’s get back to why actors are such a crucial part of realizing your vision as a director –
No matter how fantastic any given director may be, great directors do not ever attempt to change who an actor is on a fundamental or psychological level. A great director can get a dramatic performance out of a comedic actor, or can make a shy actor appear confident, but it is simply not possible with any form of over directing or manipulation to fundamentally change someones persona… At least not in a way that will feel honest on the screen. An actor who is naturally charismatic will add charisma to every scene they are in without much effort, just as an actor that is naturally quiet and internalized will bring those elements to their character intrinsically. Recognizing this basic truth can have a dramatic affect on your work as you will start to look at your talent differently and seek out inherent qualities in the people that you work with, rather than surface level character traits.
How Casting Affects Production
Let’s assume you decide to only hold one day of casting, and you ‘settle’ for your talent rather than continually searching until you find the right actors. You might have convinced yourself before getting to set on day one that your actors will be fine, or that you can coach them as much as they need and give them lots of takes, but trust me from experience – you are going to have major issues on set. All of the problems that you didn’t address in the casting room (things like not being able to take direction, an inability to connect with the character, or specific habits), will all start to come to the surface. As they arise you will become increasingly frustrated and will probably be tempted to start micro-managing your talent rather than simply being there to guide and support them. And while you may be able to struggle your way through the shoot and tell yourself it will come together in the edit, once you get there the problems will be even more clear.
I don’t want to sound discouraging by saying any of this, as I truly believe anyone can find the right talent. You don’t need to hire A-list celebrities or have a huge budget to bring together a well rounded cast, but you do need to understand how important it is to get the right actors on board and take the necessary time to find them. Don’t ever cast out of convenience, and always remember that your actors are the number one element in your film that will shape it’s identity.
Let’s now think about another scenario. Say you took a month to cast your film, instead of a day. Naturally, you will have made better casting choices by virtue of the fact that you had more time to cast, and therefore you would have seen more targeted actors. When you get to set on day one and you start working with your talent, rather than seeing problems arise that you didn’t know existed – you will start to be pleasantly surprised. The best thing for a director is finding actors that can surprise them and show them things about their own characters that even they didn’t see themselves. So when you find a talented actor that really clicks with your script and understands the work, they will do this for you day in and day out without fail, and it will make your life so much easier. You can then let them roam and try ideas freely, reeling them in as you need to, or pushing them into a different direction if you see fit. But you won’t be micro-managing, and they will in turn appreciate your trust in their performance. Best of all, when it comes time to edit your film, you’re going to notice the subtle nuances in their performance that you didn’t catch on set, and ultimately these traits are what will take your final product from good to exceptional.
A Few Final Words
Virtually all film directors start out working in the industry in a different capacity. Before they were directors they were writers, editors, cinematographers, producers, or other types of artists. Naturally, when someone has a background in any one of these things, they are likely going to approach the craft of filmmaking from the angle that they know inside and out. For example a trained cinematographer is likely to focus on their shooting style, camera choice, and locations as a starting point… While an experienced writer might initially be overly focused on what’s on the page, not yet understanding that it is there as a blueprint to be interpreted, not a rigid guideline. The point being, that no matter what your background might be (unless you come strictly from a performance background), you are very likely to prioritize your given skill above and beyond all else. This isn’t always a bad thing as your skill set and talents should define your work – but they should always take a back seat to your story and directing your actors. After all, directing actors is the foundation of directing and if you want to tell the best story possible, then you must focus on performance above all else. If you are simply directing as a means to get your cinematography on the screen, or to see your writing come to life, those reasons aren’t good enough. You need to strive to tell a story through your unique perspective of the world, using actors that fit into your vision, and then use your skill set to compliment it. Not the other way around.
All of us independent filmmakers are always trying to make our work more cinematic. We want the best cameras, the latest editing software, and the most professional gear so that we can make our work feel bigger than ever. But there is nothing more cinematic than raw performance. Performance is the essence of cinema, and once you can get excited about that, everything else will fall into place.