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Low Budget Legends

Casting for Lowbudgetistas

We have just started casting our latest narrative feature, so this is the perfect time to discuss casting and talent. Since we are low budget, we don’t have a casting agent: we are the casting agent. We discovered on “Game Theory” that casting is one of the most important aspects of shooting a movie. You need to take it seriously. A fantastic script and beautiful lighting will not make up for a flat actor with no charisma. And, if you are lucky, as we have been, you will find talented actors whom you can cast again and again in your films.

Calling All Actors

We put a casting call on Craigslist and on Backstage. Backstage is an industry magazine with an online and print component.  The Backstage ad cost $120 bucks total for a two week run print and online. The casting call on Craigslist went under “Talent Wanted” and cost nothing. It’s a good idea to cast a wide net. Interestingly, some of our favorite actors came from Craigslist. We’re in New York City and so have a rich pool of talent to begin with.

In your casting work, always remain calm. You will meet all kinds of people, and your patience will be tested. But, you will find the right people if you persevere. Always be courteous with everybody. And remember to trust your gut and have fun! Casting is one of our favorite parts of making a movie. We try to enjoy it and to make it enjoyable for anyone who comes to the audition!

The Casting Call

Backstage wants all sorts of detailed information in their casting call. Craigslist is completely free-form. As you read other casting calls you might see very specific descriptions for roles, but the key to being low budget legends is being flexible about what you are looking for and what you find. You can know exactly what you are looking for in your head, but you also want every opportunity to find that diamond-in-the-rough. So, we try not to be too explicit about age or ethnicity, unless the plot demands otherwise. One of the luxuries of being low budgetistas is that, when you are the writer/director/casting agent, if you come across a really great or interesting actor, you can change the script and re-write to suit their quirks. Be open to people you may not have originally had in mind. The converse, of course, is to go with your gut if you really think someone fits the bill.

Mention character nudity or sex scenes in the casting call, so that the actors know exactly what they are getting into.

Thanks to the Actors
We have gratitude to everyone who sends in their resume and headshot. It’s a big deal to put yourself out there in that way. We may have thick skin – which anybody in the arts needs – but neither of us could put our faces up there for scrutiny the way most actors do. Even the ones who use photos from their camera phones. Acting is a tough job. There are few roles, and fewer GOOD roles, every aspect of your being is inspected, so we have love and respect for every last person who shows up for us.

Always be civil with and respectful of your talent, even if you know they’re not right, or even if they are ego-tripping. They showed up for you, so show them common courtesy. We don’t believe that any director ought to act light a haughty mogul. Treat others the way you’d like to be treated.

Who to Audition

In casting our latest movie, we received about 1600 resumes and head shots after running the ads for 2 weeks. The real difficulty is in winnowing down this number to about 100 candidates for the 20 roles. Bring in more people than you need, because you may need extras or you may have actors flake or freak out at the last moment. Have a deep bench. In our last movie, we had one actor cancel the day before the shoot. Because we were flexible and we had about 25 actors working on the film, we were able to replace her and the scene was even better than we had imagined!

So, for this film, we are casting about 20 roles. About 10 are regular speaking roles, some characters are in almost every scene. As we winnowed the number down to about 100, we applied a few rules of thumb which we developed during our first film. Here are those tips for actors and then for the people who cast them:

FOR THE ACTORS

Headshots

Get a professional head shot, not a camera phone photo or a photo that you took at the bar with your friends. If you are serious enough to send in your photo for an acting ad, be serious enough to spend the time and money on a good head shot. It does not have to be Richard Avedon quality, but it should demonstrate that you are committed to your craft and to any project that you apply for. This is true even if you’re acting as a part-time gig, or even on a lark. Someone is actually, seriously, making a movie. You should be serious enough to send in a real headshot.

Reels

We love reels. Not TOO long, mind you, but a little bit of video can go a long way. If you don’t have a good reel, don’t sweat it, but if you have a reel, put it online or have a web-savvy friend put it up for you, then just provide a link to it. Between YouTube and Vimeo, you can find someplace to host a three minute reel of yourself. Don’t include the reel, or any large file, in your email to the director or casting agent – it will just clog up their inbox and make them unhappy.

Follow-up

I know this sounds strange, but don’t follow up. Unlike the business world, following up or being exceedingly pushy will probably not win points in the low budget world. Maybe it does in the high budget world, but that is another story. Generally, the person casting is also the director/assistant director/screen supervisor all rolled into one. They might even have a life outside of this film, so don’t waste their time. No movie – high or low budget – likes to deal with people they perceive as too needy.

Cover letters

You don’t need a long cover letter. You don’t need to explain that you are leaving your life as a widget salesman to become an actor. If you seem like a good fit for a role, from your looks and experience, then you will inevitably come in for an audition. Just include the basics: “I saw your ad on backstage and I would love to come in for an audition attached is my headshot and cv.”   There is really nothing that a long cover letter can add. Instead you might take a misstep, come off with the wrong tone, and inadvertently offend one of the directors or casting agents. You might spell something wrong and make a bad impression. There are too many pitfalls and, since most people don’t expect a detailed cover letter, why chance it?

Workshops

We put very little stock in workshops and acting schools. Everyone has workshop experience and, while it does signal interest and seriousness of purpose, these are traits we can easily assess in other ways. A resume with a ton of workshops and 2 webisodes does not inspire confidence. You don’t have to include *all* your workshop experience.  Workshops are good to take. They can be a great place to network, perhaps find a mentor, or to build your acting tool kit but, unlike say, medicine, formal education is not necessarily useful – leave some off. If you have too much of it and no acting jobs, it may only raise unwanted questions.

FOR THE CASTING PEOPLE

So you are casting the film. What should you look for in those 1600 headshots and resumes?

Experience

Generally, if people are responding to ads for a low-budget flick, then they don’t have tons of movie acting experience. That is okay, you will still find a bunch of talented actors in the 1600 responses. And, even though these actors might not have a ton of experience, they still have some experience. So, what kind of experience is good experience?

We love theater actors. You will probably get some theater actors who want to move into film – especially if you have an interesting/unorthodox character or script. Theater actors are used to working in a busy environment where the director has to deal with everyone from the lighting director to the set designer to the actors themselves. They can function well in a low budget atmosphere. Theater actors also are used to memorizing lines. It is amazing how many people come to the set completely unprepared, including theater actors. However, theater actors are a bit more prepared, and when they need a line they don’t completely break character.

There is a false notion among many actors that everything can be fixed and edited in post. This is NOT true. Editing is not like cutting and pasting in a text editor, it is the construction of pacing and drama. If you don’t know your lines, we can’t just splice together takes. As a director, I think it is very obvious in movies, when lines are flubbed and the director goes to the master shot. We hate to do this. So yes, theater actors can be your friends.

There are habits from theater that might be difficult for theater actors to break, though. You don’t need to project as much – your gestures don’t have to be as grand. In film, less is more. So, not every theater actor may be ready for movie acting, but theater experience, in general, is always a plus.

A Picture tells a thousand words

Cliché, but cliché for a reason. In a good head shot, you can tell if someone has a sense of humor, if they have intelligent or inquisitive eyes and, of course, if they are attractive. Unfortunately, a bad head shot can mask these traits and you can lose out for want of a good shot. If you feel that an actor might be good, but they have a bad shot, trust your gut and call them in, anyway. It’s easy to be brutal and just toss people into the trash – you have 200 more to go through tonight, right? Still, trust your gut.

The Audition

Once you have settled on who is coming in for auditions, here are a few more tips you might want to follow:

Tape doesn’t lie. Someone may look good in person, but horrible on camera. Also, after seeing 40 or 50 people, it’s very easy to forget names, faces, and talent. It is incredibly useful to go back to the tape and review your notes with the video record of the audition. When the camera starts to roll, have the actor state their name. You don’t want to be matching up names and faces at some later date. You might want to have the actors sign a release, but if you never plan on releasing the footage, don’t worry about it.

Have the actors read some actual lines from the actual script you will be using. If possible, have them interact with you or another actor. You can’t just have somebody read lines out of context and expect them to be good. If actors ask too many questions about their characters, if they try too hard to get in character, we generally don’t like them. We have nothing against method actors, but we like to see what someone can do in a cold reading with just a short explanation. If you’re interested in them, you can have them read again, and give them more details about the movie at a later time.

If you don’t think they’re going to work out, again, be courteous and tell them you’ll get back to them if you need them. Never make a decision on the spot. People we thought we loved at first, we ended up not casting, and people we did not think we wanted to cast, ended up being great in our film. Give yourself some time to think and reflect. If you decide the actor may be right for a role, have them back at least once or twice for callbacks. Talk to them about when you’re shooting and be honest with them about the low budget nature of your production. TELL THEM you may not have a makeup person. Can they do their own makeup? If not, no big deal, but you may not be able to use them. Weed out the prima donnas early on.

Humor and intelligence are very important. Humor and intelligence go a long way toward being a team player and being teachable. It’s important to have people working for you who can communicate, as well as listen. Remember, most people are on their best behavior in a casting call. If they’re not, ditch them immediately. If they can’t put their best face forward there, then they will be trouble later on down the road.

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