I’ve recently returned from a very quick casting gig in Columbia, Missouri. It was my first time to the Show Me State and there was record heat, of course, but that’s not what this is about. I’d like to share what I learned about what I do for a living by traveling for this project.
First, my airplane seat assignments (both going out and coming home) put me next to “the chatty person” on the flight. You know the type: “I have you all to myself for four hours and I’m going to interview you like I’m Oprah Winfrey.” I brought work with me and opened up my book as soon as I sat down on each flight, but that didn’t stop these folks. We were gonna talk, dammit!
Okay, so I gave in and had conversations with two people which included (among many other topics) quite a bit of Q&A about my job. In between those in-flight interviews, I spoke to 40 filmmakers at the Indie Filmmaker’s Bootcamp at Stephens College, an American Academy of Arts program. While most of my speaking engagements are to groups of actors on subjects relating to my work in casting and the books I’ve authored, this audience was made up almost entirely of indie filmmakers. I didn’t think much of it, going in. I figured talking about casting is talking about casting. Well, it turns out that, due to my audience, my whole presentation changed. I learned that it’s one thing to talk with actors about the casting process and quite another thing to talk with filmmakers (or, as was the case during my flights, non-industry folks) about actors and the casting process as a whole.
Filmmakers perceive actors as baffling little critters. They know they do magic with the words on the page and bring characters to life on screen in ways for which any number of storyboards could never prepare them. Beyond that, there is very little most filmmakers know (or, frankly, care to know) about actors and the process actors go through to show up on their set, ready to do the job. Bob Clendenin told me (when my partner Blake Robbins and I were interviewing him for our new book Acting Qs) that producers are scared of actors; that their world freaks them out and that’s why producers almost always prefer to see actors “performance ready,” rather than prepping for a role in the audition room. And, while it’s true that most filmmakers would prefer not to demystify the world of the actor, it seems they do respect the magic, just the same. I began my talk with this opener: “I work with actors. I will see submissions from a thousand actors, preread a hundred actors, bring you in for callbacks with ten actors, and you will choose the one best-suited for a role. Sure, you work with actors too, but I work with a lot of actors you’ll never know.”
Some context: my appearance at this bootcamp was a one-day-only event. In ten days, these filmmakers would conceive, write, cast, crew, shoot, edit, and screen a film from scratch. My day (casting) was day two of the ten-day camp. After providing an overview of the casting process for the filmmakers and doing a little Q&A about SAG rules, child labor laws, local hires, deal memos, and selection of audition sides, I stopped and said, “But my job is to make sure you never have to worry about any of this stuff. If you hire a good casting director, all of the details that could snag your cast during the shoot (not clearing Station 12, filing a Taft-Hartley report, negotiated accommodations not being provided, etc.) get tied together as a part of the casting process and, when cast is handed off to production, there are no loose ends.” Michael Steven Gregory, the exec director of the Southern California Writers’ Conference and president of the American Academy of Arts, piped in at that point and said, “This is why casting is something you do NOT want to scrimp on. Pay your casting director to get a professional cast and to deal with the issues that you’ll forget to verify when you’re busy trying to lock in a location or replace a fried-out crew member.”
Stan Foster, the CEO of the American Academy of Arts agreed. “I was married to a casting director. The amount of work they do to ensure your film is a success is immeasurable. And you don’t ever really notice how hard they’ve worked if you hired a good casting director. But, boy do you notice the difference when you didn’t hire one!” This is the moment at which I added, “I often say I work with first-time filmmakers. Actually, I work most with second-time filmmakers. They cast their first films themselves and then they come to me saying, ‘I’ll never do that again!’ and that’s where our relationship begins.”
By 3pm, the script was finished (writers were working during lunch and throughout some of the casting process that I led using improvisation, before the script was available) and we had cast our five leads. The filmmakers made comments like, “You were right! You can tell who has the role, once you’ve seen a few different actors try out,” and, “This is hard work, but I have a respect for it now.” By having the filmmakers in the room through every portion of the casting process (developing the terms of my casting deal memo and what I’m expected to deliver, releasing the character breakdown, making actor wish lists, discussing budget and limits on what we can offer to actors, outlining shoot dates and checking conflicts, scheduling and conducting prereads, what to look for in an audition, cutting the list down for callbacks, serving the vision of the producer or director or writer or all of the above at once, notifying cast members, finalizing cast deal memos and contracts, and passing off cast to production) and condensing that process down into just ten hours, the filmmakers were exposed to things they otherwise might never experience. And really, that’s what the whole bootcamp thing is about: immersion.
After my time with the filmmakers was over, I finished my notes so that I could close off this project’s casting file confident that I could come back to my notebook if any of the cast should fall through or production dates were pushed (not that this could happen in the bootcamp environment, but we were doing “the real deal” for the experience). While sitting alone, writing (as the filmmakers began breaking down the script for production elements and creation of day-out-of-days), I was approached by several participants who wanted to express their excitement over the casting process. Future casting directors? Maybe. Only time will tell. But we do have a great job, that’s for sure. Our fingerprints end up all over the finished product, and we can rejoice over a job well done as soon as we start hearing reports from the set (from both cast and crew) over how wonderful the experience is, for all involved.
So, as I flew to Missouri, what did I say about my job? “I love it. I get to read a script and help it become a living thing. The population of these fictional worlds exists in part because I help bring people together.” “I never knew there were people in such jobs,” the young lady seated next to me on the trip out said to me. “Yep. Only a few hundred of us, but we’re here.”
And on the way back to LA, an octogenarian debated that any of today’s stars could be considered “actors,” since, in his opinion, “they’re all a bunch of doped up idiots with no talent, no morals, and no range, getting paid too much to do nothing.” I countered, “Oh! You’re talking about stars. No. I work with actors.” He asked, “Oh, yeah? Like who?” I began listing names he certainly had never heard. “Never heard of ’em,” he scoffed. “Exactly,” I said. “I work with actors.”
Originally published by Actors Access at http://more.showfax.com/columns/avoice/archives/000266.html. Please support the many wonderful resources provided by the Breakdown Services family. This posting is the author’s personal archive.