Directing tips: Working with actors (part 1 of 3) - Casting and auditions
(Excerpt taken from my new forthcoming film book, "Making Your First Blockbuster" due early 2019 by Michael Wiese Productions)
Casting can make or break your film. It can be a long and laborious process, but once complete, 90% of the director’s job is done. If your budget allows, you could consider hiring a casting agency to read your script and offer a list of potential candidates for the roles. If your budget is tight, you will have to do the searching yourself, and that means sending the word out to the film and acting communities that you’re looking for talented Thespians. Your cast could come from local theater productions, online notices and callouts, friends of friends, talent agencies, previous films you may have seen, or actors you already know well. Finding the right actor to fit the character in the script can be very hard, but when you do find them, it can be a very exciting time for the film.
Casting for the lead roles is of course very important, but casting for the minor roles requires equal focus. Your whole scene or film could rest on the weakest link. If you have three talented performers in a scene spitting out your witty dialogue, only to have a minor character with one line mess the whole thing up, the scene will fall apart.
There are many acting websites that list actors for producers and directors to pore over. These pages will give all the relevant physical descriptions and abilities: height, size, eye color, hair, experience, skills, as well as photos and a video showreel. Their CV or résumé will list what TV, film, theater, and radio work they’ve done, too. Once you have contacted an actor, or they have gotten in touch with you about your production, it will be time to arrange an audition.
Auditions can be great fun. You’re meeting new people, and you could receive some new ideas and insights about the script. To begin with, talk to the actor about something not related to the work. How they got here, the weather, anything to give them a chance to relax and you an opportunity to get to know them as a person. Since it’s a good idea to video the auditions too so you and other members of the production team can review them at a later date, let actors know you’ll be recording what they do. In addition, have a few spare copies of the script with you in case people need them. If other actors have been cast, or you know some, take them along to the auditions for the new people auditioning to read with. Scenes can go flat pretty quickly with an untrained actor, most probably the producer, trying to read with the trained actors . . .
You would send them the script before the day of the audition, so highlight a few scenes that enable them to show you a range of different emotions and transitions. This could be the big confrontation scene, or the scene when her husband leaves her, something meaty to give the cast something to work with. Let them know that they have the opportunity to read more than once, as it might take a moment to get into the zone. It is all about creating a relaxed and calm environment so they can perform their best. If they can go more than once, that can take the pressure off. No one likes the cold, hard director who thinks keeping people on edge produces the best work . . .
Try not to tell them what you expect or how you want them to play the scene either. It’s a good idea to let them show you what they’ve prepared. It gives them a chance to show you their work and what they can do, also saving you time since you might spend 10 minutes telling them to do what they’d already planned! Once they’ve shown you what they’ve prepared, give them some direction and ask them to play the scene differently. It doesn’t have to be the way you see the scene playing on film, but by asking for something new, you are ascertaining whether they can take direction. They might be wonderful in the part they performed, but can they adapt and change to new approaches when on set?
Do they know their lines? This is a biggie! Allowances can be made if scripts are being sent out to actors late, but how much you allow is up to you. Most of the talented professional actors I’ve had the pleasure of working with have known their lines no matter how late the script was received, even if this was the night before! They changed plans or stayed up late, whatever was required to know the text well enough to perform the following day. I’ve also sat in on auditions when actors have given any number of excuses as to why they don’t know the text well, but reassured the director and production staff that they will know it come shooting day. On the day of the shoot, guess what? They don’t know their lines! The writing may be on the wall regarding someone’s behavior and attitude early on if you know how to look for it. Ignore this at your peril!
Another good idea is to get the actor to improvise a scene around one of the scripted scenes. Maybe they could play an extra scene that is related to the one they’ve learned. For example, in the script, the character might have just been fired from his or her job. They might not have a husband or wife in the film, but you could improvise a scene where they go home and tell their spouse about losing their job. This would show you what other skills they might have and their understanding of the character. And if they don’t know all their lines for the other scene, now they have an opportunity to not have to be a slave to them.
If an actor is late for rehearsals, then start without him or her. Most respect the process and will be on time; it could well be a one-off occurrence. But it shows them that the show goes on with or without their presence and can subtly send a clear message that they are not the center of the production if they had any other intentions in mind.
"Making Your First Blockbuster" is due to be released early 2019 from Michael Wiese Productions.