Thursday, August 27, 2009

This is the blog I should have written before I wrote the last one.

You know how actors complain that they're treated like cattle? Well, there's a good reason.

Actors are to film what meat is to cooking.


Does that mean it's okay to treat actors like cattle? That's not where I'm going with this. The point I want to make is that if you find the best meat, you don't need to throw as many sauces, seasonings, and fancy cooking gadgets at it to make something tasty.

Which means that everything starts with casting.

Over the years I've developed a few really good tricks that help me not only find really great casts, but also work with the copywriters, art directors, creative directors, and producers who hire me. I already gave you one of my tricks in my last blog. I'm not going to give you any more, though, until I give you an overview of how casting works.

How casting works.

If you've never worked with a casting director before, here's how it usually goes down. You send out a breakdown, which is a description of the roles you hope to fill.

The casting director puts out a casting call, which is just a fancy way of saying that they let people know about the role. Depending on the casting director, the budget, the specifics of the role, and the time available, that could mean pulling head shots from their files, calling agents and asking them to submit people that fit the bill, putting a listing up on Craigslist or one of the online casting services, or trolling the comedy clubs, looking for new talent. If there's something particularly unusual about the role –– say you need a paraplegic rodeo clown –– they might contact the rodeo, the VA, local stables, and anybody else they could think of who might be able to connect them.

After a day or two (it used to be a week), the casting director filters through the submissions and asks the most likely candidates to audition.

At the audition, the casting director slates the talent –– which means asking them to state their name, then turn to face profile on both sides. The camera is then widened out to show the actor from head to toe and sometimes he or she will also be asked to turn completely around. If you're using a body part (for instance, if the actor is holding a can of soda), the casting director will shoot close-up shots of those body parts involved.

Then the casting director asks the actor to read the script. Usually a couple of times, with adjustments suggested by the casting director to make the performance more appropriate to what you're looking for.

There's a misapprehension that casting directors are cruel. And yeah, some are. But those are the stupid ones. A casting director is hired to help you find actors for your roles. Those that berate actors, make them uncomfortable, don't provide thoughtful direction, and are generally dismissive are going to have a harder time finding you the right people. Which means you're less likely to want to turn to them to help you find the right people.

On the other hand, the way budgets and timelines have shrunk, it's a wonder casting directors have time to say hello, much less work with the actors. And to be fair, actors have a responsibility to be prepared. I'm always astonished at the arrogance of some actresses in Hollywood who can't be bothered to change out of their yoga clothes or brush their hair when they're auditioning for a role that clearly requires someone attractive. Most of them do it because they want to be taken seriously as actors, not just as decoration. Which is fine. But if you're playing the role of a trophy wife, a love interest, or even a spokesperson shilling a product, you're going to have to accept that your appearance is integral to your effectiveness. Besides, you're going to have a better shot at impressing both me and the casting director with your acting ability if you come in looking the part.

Sorry. Where was I?

Oh right. Casting.

Picking your selects.

What you end up with is a stack of head shots, a log listing the names of the people auditioning, and a tape/DVD/link where you can see your hopeful candidates performing the role.

Up until this point, your involvement has been limited to waiting. But now you get to watch the magic unfold.

A lot of directors make a huge mistake at this point, which is to eliminate people who don't give them exactly what they’re looking for. They're looking for the exact performance they have in mind, but up until now they’ve been playing a game of telephone: They tell the casting director what they want, the casting director tells the actor what he thinks they want, the actor does a performance that he thinks the casting director thinks they want, and the director watches in horror as one person after another doesn't "get it."

If the project has a substantial budget, they either do another three days of casting,hire another casting director to see if they can do better, or go look in other places.

I've done jobs for ad agencies that are so caught up in this spiral of failure that right off the bat they'll hold casting in LA and New York and sometimes Chicago and Toronto. I'm not saying you can find exactly the right person anywhere. Especially if there's something really critical aobut the role, it makes sense to look in more than one place. It also makes sense to look in the most appropriate place.

I once worked on a commercial involving two Swedish speed skaters. Speaking Swedish. The agency and production company automatically held casting in New York and LA (we were going to shoot in Calgary, so we would have to travel our talent, regardless). It was only after we came up completely dry on both coasts that we were able to hold a casting in Sweden.

I know, duh!

Sorry. Where was I?

Oh right. Casting.

The callback auditions.

So you’ve got your casting tapes/link and your log. Now you get to choose who you bring in for a callback audition.

A callback audition is where you, Aspiring Director, get to direct your talent yourself. It’s an exhausting process because you invariably see more people than you have time for and because you have to develop at least a bit of a relationship with each one before you start working on the part.

Actors often complain that they didn’t get much time in the callback. The alternative would be to bring in fewer people, possibly missing the one who gives you gold.

The copywriter, art director, agency producer, and creative director are often –– usually –– at the callback audition, which creates several other problems and opportunities. One is the dynamic between the agency and the director. Do the agency people defer to the director? Or do they expect him to execute their vision? A lot of agency people aspire to directing themselves, and have no compunction about jumping in and directing the talent themselves.

Another is the tendency for copywriters and art directors in particular to focus in on one aspect of a performer. I’ve had ten minute discussions about an actor’s eyebrows.

But there’s also an opportunity to set the tone for the way in which the actors are treated. I make it a point never to talk disparagingly about actors, or to make fun of any physical characteristics they might have. Sure, if the announcer has a lisp, he’s probably not the guy you want to choose to sell Listerine, but you make the point and move on.

I also don’t allow any discussion of one actor in front of another. It’s just not nice. And there really is no upside.

The biggest benefit is that you get to discover just what the copywriter and art director had in mind when they came up with the spot. Often, they won’t even see eye-to-eye with each other, so having a chance to talk about the broadness of the performances, the physicality of the humor, or the subtextual stuff that deserves to be emphasized will help them see the potential in what they’ve done. And hopefully convince them that you’re working hard to add value.

Making your recommendations.

Once you’ve seen all the people, it’s time to decide on your recommendations. Again, the dynamic with the ad agency is going to have a huge effect on who gets what he or she wants. But I’ve figured out a couple of things that help keep the discussion on relevant points. (I’ll get to those in a later blog.)

What a lot of aspiring directors find disappointing is how little power a director actually wields. You have to come to consensus with the copywriter, art director, creative director, and agency producer. And then you present your recommendations to the clients, who not only have their interpretations of the spot, but generally get veto power on every aspect of its production.

I’ll get to things you can do to help streamline that process later, but in general, you present a first choice with at least one back up choice for each role. If all goes well, you have a cast. If not, you find yourself scrambling, trying to figure out how you’re going to satisfy a client and/or agency person and still create something the way you know it ought to be done.

By the way, that last sentence pretty well sums up the entire process of commercial directing. It’s fun as crap, but it’s also a lot of work that has very little to do directly with putting images on film.

Thursday, August 20, 2009

Casting is like dating. Or should be.

Okay, stop it, you perv. This is not about the casting couch.

Get your mind out of the gutter and think about the person you want to be with. (If you're lucky enough to be happily married or in a long-term relationship, think about what you love about your partner.)

What came to mind? Age, height, weight, and ethnicity?

Didn't think so. And you know why? Because those things don't describe a person, they describe arm candy.

Guess what. Same goes for casting.

I'm sure you've heard it a million times –– story comes from character. I know I have. Well, creating a character is not just the writer's responsibility. It's the actor's, too. But mostly it's the director's.

So when you're casting, don't just put a call out for a "Male, 50s to 60s, caucasian." Fill in the details.

Here's the casting spec for one of the roles in the spot I'm casting right now:

CEO: Preston Beardsley III was born to be the CEO of a company like General Specifics. He has silver hair and a silver tongue, both cultivated deliberately over his 50-65 years. He wears expensive, conservative suits well and he’s generally serious –– some would say contemplative –– but he would tell you that his best features are his winning smile and firm handshake. They’ve done more than their share to close a lot of important deals.

See what I did there? I told the casting director and the actors who I'm looking for, not what the person I'm looking for looks like.

If you don't know who you're looking for, then don't waste your time (or your actors' or your casting agent's) bringing people in. Sure, somebody might walk in and hand it to you.

Somebody might walk in and hand you a chicken enchilada, too. But that doesn't mean you cooked it.

Saturday, August 15, 2009

I'm not really taking back what I said.

Eric makes a good point about my penultimate blog. Some ad agency people actually prefer not to have a director muck up their commercials by being involved in post-production.

I get it. (Disclosure from the Department of Credibility: Before I started directing, I worked in ad agencies myself, moving my way up from copywriter to creative director. My last staff job was as Senior Vice President/Creative Director at BBDO/New York, creating huge ad campaigns for the likes of Pepsi, Pizza Hut, Visa, and Skippy.)

One of the reasons I got into directing was because I was fed up with watching in horror as one director after another shot his "vision" instead of my spot. (Which, by the way, is being generous. Many of the directors I worked with had barely a wisp of vision, which they thought was enough to justify their utter contempt for advertising in general and total lack of respect for the time and effort my teams and I put into creating work on behalf of our clients.)

The harsh reality of this business is that there are a few people at the top who get to spend other people's money to make "art". Their foibles are not just tolerated, but encouraged –– whether it's gratuitously putting hot women in latex in all their spots, dropping pitchers of milk in slow motion, or shooting everybody with extreme wide-angle lenses while a tuba plays an oompah in the background.

The rest of us directors would love to "exorcise our demons" (really, that's how a lot of those guys describe what they do –– with a straight face no less) on somebody else's dime, but are not. We're like architects who dream of being Frank Gehry, but have to content ourselves designing strip malls and prisons.

And to Eric's point, when you're creating the equivalent of a new museum on an unlimited budget, dealing with a prima dona is not only accepted, but expected. What's the point of hiring a famous artist, after all, if you don't get to regale the fetching young intern with tales of your epic struggle to create a masterpiece with him?

My problem isn't with the Pytkas, Tarsems, and Kays. I may not be crazy about some of work they do, but I'm glad they get to do it.

The ones who mess it up for the rest of us are the directors who don't know their place. They cop the petulant artist pose without realizing they're being hired to renovate a six-unit apartment building on a limited budget. They act as if they're doing the agencies a favor by showing up at all. As a result, a lot of agency people feel their spots turn out better when the director hands off the film and disappears instead of working on post.

And they're right.

By the way, back when I worked at the ad agencies, not all the directors I worked with sucked. Some were thoughtful, creative people who both understood the limitations of the assignment they were taking on and the possibilities it presented. It might seem strange, but those were usually the guys I had to work with when either money or time precluded hiring the A-list director.

But it makes sense when you think about it. If you're willing to shovel stupid amounts of money at a sub-par director to indulge his gratuitous whims, you can afford to hire an editor with the skill to turn his raw sewage –– I mean,footage –– into something worthwhile in post.

Wednesday, August 12, 2009

A wonderful example of a spectacular failure.

I rented 'The Other Boleyn Girl' the other night. The 2003 version. Have you seen it?

It's an interesting story. But more interesting is the choice made by Philippa Lowthorpe, the director. She shot everything documentary-style. Even to the point of having the main characters –– and we're talking people from the 1500's –– speaking to camera as if they're being interviewed, complete with jump cuts that compress the quotes.

I can't say that I liked the choice. In fact, I hated it. It took me completely out of the story and felt as if I were watching a rehearsal rather than a film. But you have to admit it was a brave thing to do.

All in all, I'd call it a spectacular failure.

Maybe it's just me, but I'll take a spectacular failure over a mediocre success.

Friday, August 7, 2009

Jesus was a carpenter. Not a director.

Almost every time an ad agency hires me for the first time, something strange happens. They ask -- sheepishly -- if I might find it within my heart to spare a couple of minutes helping out with post-production.


What makes this strange is that the way I get hired is by telling the ad agency people how I imagine their commercial turning out. I sell them on my "vision", which is actually a big enough subject for its own blog, but for today's purposes let's just say it's the way I promise the commercial is going to look and sound.

The thing is, how a commercial looks and sounds is determined to a huge degree by post-production. That's where you do the editing, color correction, audio mixing, music composing, title treatments, and special effects.

A director who doesn't get involved in post is like a carpenter you hire to build cabinets for your kitchen, only to have him leave you a pile of lumber you have to cut, stain, and assemble yourself. They're doing half the work and expecting all of the credit.

I don't work that way. But a lot of directors do. And I think it explains a couple of things:

1) Why post-production budgets are increasing while production budgets are decreasing;
2) Why American advertising is generally pretty crappy; and
3) Why some agencies think a director deserves to make less than minimum wage. (See my last blog if you don't know what I'm talking about.)

Monday, August 3, 2009

What is a director worth these days?

I was just offered $1,000 to shoot a one-day job.

That might sound like a decent amount, but it's not, and I'm not just saying that because I think I deserve to be expensive.

In order to shoot for one day, I generally have to prep for two weeks. Casting. Location scouting. Designing sets. Selecting props. Rehearsing. Fitting wardrobe. Hiring crew. Preparing with the crew. Tech scouting. Designing my shots. Scheduling the shoot day. Drawing shooting boards. Meeting with the agency. Meeting with the agency's client.

I also do at the very least a first cut of the spot. Which usually requires at least three days to load, review, and cut the footage.

Let's call it thirteen days.

Some days are fairly light. But others can be quite long. A day spent casting can easily last 14 hours. A shooting day is always more. If the days average out to ten hours apiece (which they don't, not when you work as hard as I do), I figure I was just offered the opportunity to work for less than $7.69/hour.

Minimum wage in California is $8.00 an hour. In Oregon, where I live, it's $8.40. The ad agency making the offer seemed a bit put out when I pointed this out.

Someday, Aspiring Filmmaker, you're going to be offered an "opportunity". The lesson for today is to recognize it for what it is.

Am I saying not to take any job that pays less than minimum wage? Absolutely not. Even with my years of experience, you can easily get me to work for free. All you need is a really great concept and a client who appreciates the value of what they're getting.

But there is a line –– an invisible line that I've decided I'm never going to cross: if you're going to pay me, you're going to have to pay me more than I'd make at Wal-Mart.

Saturday, August 1, 2009

I'm gong to chew on this Ham Sandwich just a little more.

Thanks for all the emails pointing out what looks to be a flaw in my reasoning.

It's a valid point. If you have to be so much better to compete these days, how do films like 'Transporter 3' manage to get made?

Because 'Transporter 3' is a film the way a Big Mac is food. It does a lot of things a film is supposed to do, but it's made in a factory and sold to an audience that doesn't care a whole lot about quality. Or, rather, likes quality just fine, but cares a lot more about consistency: seeing a big-name movie star hitting all the beats of a story that's familiar enough to keep them comfortable.

You, my friend, don't own the factory. And even if you did, I wouldn't tell you to make films any other way. This is America. Like it or not, the formula for making the best-selling films is going to be exactly the same as the formula for making the best-selling hamburgers. The business of Hollywood is to make money, which means minimizing costs and maximizing profit.

So your movie has a big fat hole in it. So what? The movie is but one part of a marketing entity that involves several overlapping brands: The studio, the star, the director, and the franchise. Sure, you want to make a decent movie. But is an additional investment in quality materials really going to improve your return?


I'm not saying all Hollywood films are crap, by the way. Some are utterly spellbinding. But that's because they're created by talented, super hard-working people who manage to apply their craft without costing the studios extra time, effort, or heartache.

But back to you.

Presumably, Aspiring Filmmaker, you want to make 'real' films. Meaning films that actually play for an audience beyond the 5 friends and other aspiring filmmakers who show up to see your masterpiece at a film festival. Which means your audience, until you break in, is Hollywood.

Take a minute to mull on that. Go on. I'll wait right here.

You ready? Let's go back to the food thing. You think the chairman of McDonald's has a Big Mac for dinner? Oh sure, whenever his picture is taken he does. But do you really think he doesn't "research" the latest uber expensive restaurant any chance he gets, just to, you know, see what those impetuous artists are up to?

My point is this. In order to break into Hollywood, you have to get Hollywood's attention. And there are two ways to do that. One is to be Hollywood –– meaning make a film that finds an audience so massive that Hollywood knows you can do what it does. The other is to be what Hollywood envies –– meaning make a film that's so good that Hollywood knows that you could make an acceptable piece of crap in your sleep.

I can't tell you how to do the first. Hell, even Hollywood doesn't know how to do the first, beyond throwing hundreds of millions of dollars at star salaries and marketing and advertising.

But I can tell you how to do the second.