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.