Casting The Micro-Budget
(From the Writer's POV)
Casting is WAY important for your movie.
Casting the right actor could be 50-60% of eventual actor performance. Some say it counts 70-80%. Others venture it's 90% of the battle.
Duh and duh.
The percentage doesn't matter. Bottom line, the decisions made in casting will go a long way to deciding what the very success of your movie. Now here's another duh:
The writer doesn't make the final call. Not unless the writer happens to be the director and/or producer. Which is pretty much NEVER on a Studio movie, and RARELY on a 10mil+ budgeted Indie.
The casting priority pyramid parallels the final cut pyramid for Hollywood movies. Directors make final casting decisions. You, the writer, almost certainly won't be in the loop on final casting decisions. Why would you be? You'll be too busy running with your sandaled clay feet, making bricks for the same pyramid-without straw, Judah!-just where you belong.
Micro-budget, of course, changes the dynamic. Chances are good that if you're a micro-budget writer you're also either the director and/or producer. That means you're not only in the room, but you might actually be the one deciding who gets hired. Yay!
With Jane Doe, we had a quarter million dollars, giving us Indie-level money that brought us a big-time New York casting agent, Marcia Shulman (who cast one of my fav movies of all time, A Christmas Story). She came in when my producer brother got the bright idea to leverage a powerful casting agent by promising a producer role (a strategy he used to get Paul Dano to act in his micro-budget film, Light And The Sufferer). We had 250K, a strong script, then Marcia came in giving us access to large agencies like Gersch, Paradigm, APA, which gave us access to actors like Calista Flockhart, Edie Falco, Adrienne Shelly, Joey Ragno, Elina Lowensohn, Vinny Pastore, and many more. Life is great when there's Indie money. But what happens when you've got $35,000 total?
Choices happen. Up front, concerning casting, you'll start with this: Name actor or not? You can write a two-day cameo that can be played by, most likely, a B-name actor who you will pay their rate. In doing so, they will loan their name to your movie. Paying them their rate for one or two days won't bankrupt you and, possibly, they will take less $$ for a back-end particpation. Point being, you will pay upfront $$ for a name that should help on the back end with film festivals and distributors. Doesn't take a genius to know that name actors = sales. Your movie with no-name actors? Much dicier.
A not so well-known fact is that agents must inform their clients of any offer, which in turn increases your odds that the actor might actually read the script, which in turn increases your odds (from zero) that they might-yes, I know how much of a long shot it is-that they might be intrigued to take on your micro-budget for the pittance your offering up front if you juice-up back end profit participation. It's worth a shot!
The other option: To not go the name actor route. While it's true the vast majority of flicks that accepted into the Toronto Film Fest have name actors, plenty of micro-budget make Sundance every year that don't. So, option 2 is saving that money you would give a name actor for a cameo role, keeping the money for production (our money's on the screen, man!) or for your backend post-production costs (stop laughing but you are supposed to have at least the same amount as the production budget saved for post costs). Maybe you want to keep actor costs down, after all.
This leads to another decision: Even if you go no-names, you still need to decide if you're going SAG or NON-SAG actors. There's no one-size fits all advice I can give here. My situation in Chicago will not be yours in Omaha. While there isn't much production money originating in Chicago, what there is is a stunning talent pool of actors. It begins in the drama schools of colleges like DePaul, Northwestern, Art Institute of Chicago, Columbia College. Add the astounding theater scene, 150+ theater companies producing regularly both Equity and Non-Equity. Throw in the five TV shows currently producing in town and you get the idea. Chicago is loaded. My odds of finding good NON-SAG actors goes through the roof here. How about your community? If you're not drawing actors in New York or Los Angeles, who's going to respond to that Craigslist ad? What are your options?
This is the reason you want to control micro-budget costs as script level. If you can limit the key actors to a limited number of days, it increases the chances you can make SAG low-budget $100-a-day offers to key actors.
With Chat, we considered making offers to a "name" actress for the role of Dr. Lauren. This is the juicy, bad-guy, Lady Liposuctionist From Hell doctor role. We scheduled her for two days so paying, say, $2000 per day was actually doable. The question was: Did we want that money for production contingencies, and/or for post costs, or for two days with a name-actress? We chose to go with a great local actress I teach with at Columbia, Cheryl Graeff, who pulled off some truly nasty work for that $100 a day.
We went SAG-minimum with six actors total. This is a large expense but only one of the characters, Falcon (Rush Pearson), needed to be paid for 15+ days. And the trade-off, what you put on the screen in terms of performance, cannot be overstated. Sure, you might get lucky with that Craiglist ad and grab yourself a fabulous free actress.
You also might not get lucky. And what's that gonna look on the screen?
Making $100-a-day SAG offers opens you up to a whole different class of actor. You can post on Actor's Access, Breakdown Express, make calls to local casting agents, put up notices at local acting schools, call local theaters, and yes, try Craigslist…
Which takes us to the moment of truth.
As we discussed, if you're the writer of a Studio or Indie flick, you likely won't get within sniffing distance of final casting decisions. That's reserved for money people and/or the director.
The dynamic shifts with micro-budget. You'll be in the room. That's because in addition to being the writer, you're likely: 1-The director 2-The producer 3-The director and producer. The audition process isn't that big a deal, really. Only thing in the balance is the fate of your movie.
For Jane Doe as dumbkopf idiot-savant craps dealing director, I would give a smiley face, half-smiley face, or frowny face to the actors. Yes, that's right, I gave a half-smiley face to Edie Falco. Edie is now a three-time Golden Globe winner and Peditto now works in the backroom of Chicago Filmmakers.
Don't give smiley faces, ok? Set up your room this way…
First, reserve a space where the actor performances won't disturb anyone, and where you won't be disturbed. Locally in Chicago, the Park District reserves rooms. You should practice the Robert Rodriguez mantra of pay for nothing if humanly possible in trying to find free space for auditions. I book rooms through Columbia College because I work there.
You'll need a welcome area outside-table and chairs. On the table will be the "sides" (scenes for each actor). The actors will check in, be given sides and, hopefully, have been scheduled with enough time in between auditions (say 10-15 minutes) to look over the sides and prepare.
Inside the room, you should be prepared as well. You'll need to record the auditions (I'll discuss why shortly). You'll have a single long table with the director, producers &/or writer. Actors will come in, be greeted by the director, drop off a resume, be asked if they have any questions by the director, and begin the audition. They'll be asked to read, either with someone from the movie (reading a role from the table) or with another actor in the call backs. They'll then be thanked and exit. And the next actor will be shown in. Rinse, lather, and repeat.
You may have noticed from the above that the audition is the director's show. The director is in charge, both of the process of the audition and the results. Unless as a condition of his being hired the producers have control, it will be the director's call who is ultimately cast. That said, if your director is Captain Bly in the audition room, there's a good likehood they'll be a power tripper on set, and you might TAKE NOTE of that. Only a fool wouldn't consult the other people in the room on who to call back or not. When the actor leaves the room it's not uncommon for the director to look around the table and ask for brief thoughts on each actor. It will help determine who you call back.
Also helping is the camera you're running. It's a curious thing, but sometimes the strongest actor in the room, isn't. Meaning: This is film. Well, digital. Actor's performances have a tendency to look different in the camera than in person. Occasionally the person you thought was in the room comes off as stilted. The person you thought was stiff comes off as subtle and intriguing.
Tape your auditions. Consult your people. Work up a list for each role and the actors you want to call back. Make those calls and book the call backs. You'll need a Casting Director to do all this tedius groundwork. And, if it's micro-budget, guess what that role pays…? Exactly what you paid the writer for seven drafts and six months of his life gone in writing the thing: $0.
The call backs are a different animal from the intial "generals". These are narrowed-down, your best actor options. You'll likely be pairing actors off (and will want to schedule for that). So, for Chat, if we're bringing back to the top 3 Falcons, we'll want to match them off with the top 3 Mary Roses. These characters have several scenes together and you'll want to see the chemisty the actors have together. You also want to see how the actors take directions and do follow-up readings. It's far more impressive for an actor with no preparation to take their reading in a whole different direction than just repeating their first "choice."
Never forget, whoever you hire, you'll be spending days, if not weeks with them on set. The audition process is an audition for the actor-director relationship as well. You don't NOT want to be shackled to an arrogant, inflexible Diva for 18 days. Not on a micro-budget where everyone will be asked to go above and beyond in terms of energy and commitment. Look for the actor who will bring you these intangibles.
The great strength of our Chat director Boris Wexler (see Boris, I did say something nice about you!) is his pragmatism. He believes in an empircal approach. Yes, he trusts his gut, but he also wants to know what the people around him are thinking.
When it came time to make the final choice for one of the lead characters, Boris decided on Actor A. He ask me and the producers who watched the call-backs who they would choose. It was clean sweep, for Actor B. Boris cast Actor B. That is a very great strength and something you should endeavor to emulate in your own micro-budget experience.
Life Lesson 22Z: Trust your gut on casting, but keep an open mind.
PAUL PEDITTO wrote and directed Jane Doe, an A-PIX Films release starring Calista Flockhart. The film was awarded Best Feature at the New York Independent Film & Video Festival and grossed over 2 million dollars.
Six of his screenplays have been optioned, among them Crossroaders to Haft Entertainment (Emma, Dead Poet's Society).
He has won semi-finalist honors at Nicholl Fellowship Screenwriting Awards and Slamdance.
Other imdb credits include Home In The Heartland, and The Group, which was accepted at multiple film festivals around the country.
Four of his stage plays have been published by Dramatic Publishing Company, two of which were presented on National Public Radio's "Chicago Theaters On The Air" series. Over 25 productions of his theatrical work have been performed in Chicago, Philadelphia, Los Angeles and New York. His adaptation of Nelson Algren's Never Come Morning won 9 Joseph Jefferson Citations including Best Play and Best Adaptation. His adaptation of Ben Hecht's 1,001 Afternoons In Chicago is a two-time Jefferson Award nominee. Pura Vida, a stage play based on his novel, was produced at Chicago's Live Bait Theater, earning a feature article in the New York Times.
He teaches screenwriting at Columbia College and Chicago Filmmakers, professionally consulting on thousands of screenplays since 2002. His book Writing Screenplays is now available for purchase.