Monday, August 4, 2008

Dear Indie Producer

Dear Indie Producer,

What is the best way to go about finding really good actors for a short or independent film? It seems that so many short and indies have bad acting. I'd like to avoid that. Is it the actors or the directors? Basically, how does one make sure that the acting will be good?

Alison Coffey
Iowa City, IA

  • Don't cast the wrong actors.
I've been here before. Wrote a short, produced and directed it myself. And, I made a mistake in casting that I won't repeat again. I had a local stage actor in mind for a principal role as I wrote the script. It was someone I had worked with before on theatre productions; someone I'd been really pleased with in that milieu. So, I cast her in my short without auditioning her.

It was a mistake.

I still don't know if it was an incompatibility with the role, or a poor transition from stage to screen work. But, I didn't fully see the gap until we were filming, and then I couldn't do much to change it. I think I kept hanging on to the good impressions of the prior work we'd done together, hoping that good things would translate... I kept hoping we could rehearse ourselves to a performance I wanted. Ultimately, nope.

It was a mistake as a producer, and a failure as a director.

So, a piece of advice for casting your ultra-low-budget short or indie feature film. Hold auditions for everybody. You need to see and feel the dynamic among different combinations of auditioning actors. One actor may read beautifully as Character A; but, when paired with another actor auditioning for Character B, they don't match up somehow. You'll have to make some hard choices.

You've got to be selfish with your movie. If someone looks the role, but can't act themselves out of a box, don't cast them. Worst-case scenario will be that they won't improve during rehearsals/filming, you won't be able to direct them or edit them into an acceptable performance, and your movie will suffer for it. Badly.
  • Contact local casting directors and/or acting coaches and schools.
If you're making a feature, find the money to work with an established casting director. Casting is their business. They'll know actors you've probably never heard of. They'll know which actors have agents and don't. They'll have an idea who's reliable, and who's a flake. They'll have an idea who's a consistent performer, and who's not. They'll know SAG rules. They'll know politics and etiquette with agents.

If you don't have enough money for their casting fee(s), barter. Figure out how to make the situation a win-win for you and them. Or, hold a fund-raising garage sale, benefit concert, etc. to raise the dough. It will be money well-spent.

If you're casting a short, a casting director will be overkill. Instead, contact local acting coaches and acting schools. Ask them for their help getting the word out about auditions for your movie. Ask them for recommendations of local actors. Cast the net (pun intended) as wide as possible in your community about your upcoming auditions: web sites, college acting departments, local acting schools, community and professional theaters, audition fliers in coffee shops and community bulletin boards, etc.

Plus, each state has a film commission. Check out their website and resources. Do they post an audition announcement page? Get yours on it.

And, don't forget your peers. Ask your fellow filmie friends what they've done and how for casting their short/indie movies.
  • Be prepared for auditions.
Be sure to choose "sides" (audition scenes from your script) that give actors something to bite into during their auditions. If it's a scene where two characters are brooding silently in a car -- not much to work with there for an auditioning actor, y'know? On the contrary, if it's a scene where two characters are hiding from someone and heatedly discussing their next move, there'll be more subtext and dynamism in the scene for auditioners to work with. And, sides should be no longer than two pages, three max.

Assemble a team for the auditions. A sign-in person, who may or may not be the person who scheduled actors' audition times. The director, the producer, a camera person if you're shooting auditions. And, an extra person who can read lines with an actor, if necessary. Plan for and manage your time so that your team can get actors in and out of auditions on a timely basis. Do your best to create an atmosphere of efficiency and respect, so that actors can give their best auditions.
  • If the director is inexperienced or uncomfortable with actors, s/he could benefit from auditing or taking an acting class.
To collaborate on a good performance, it helps for both parties to speak the same language. Learn what actors look for in scripts, in their roles. Learn their vernacular. The better to guide them (or get out of their way).

Thanks for the question, Alison!

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