Uncomplicating the Casting Process

Kim Nunley April 5, 2011

A quick Amazon.com search reveals no shortage of books on acting. But casting? That’s another story as Hester Schell, who’d worked with actors for 25 years, realized when called upon to cast a Northern California–shot feature in 2009.

The filmmakers had a lot of questions, she said, in a phone interview last month. Too many, she realized. Professionals in every other way, they, like most filmmakers, had no idea what they were doing when it came to casting. And they had no guidebooks to help them find their way. So she wrote a draft of her own, sent out two queries and heard back from both of them within 60 minutes.

Casting Revealed, Schell’s new book out from Michael Wiese Productions, offers independent and Hollywood filmmakers tools to help them acquire the best actors they can. Schell received her Master of Fine Arts from the University of Utah and was a tenured Professor of Theatre Arts at De Anza College in Cupertino, California. She’s acted as a guest faculty member for a number of art schools, has presented at a variety of workshops and seminars and currently, she is CEO and publisher of the online publication, ‘Bay Area Casting News.’ It’s Schell’s hands-on experience in filmmaking and stage plays, including her work as a director, writer, producer, Screen Actors Guild member, acting instructor and casting director, however, that has given her enough casting knowledge to merit book-length treatment.

An expense many independent/financially limited directors might want to forgo is hiring a casting director. According to Schell, filmmakers can indeed save money by handling their own casting assignments. Though hiring a professional casting director who has experience and already established connections reaps rewards, her book lays out key issues to consider in the DIY mode, noting quality actors can strengthen a film while those not so skilled can absolutely tank even the most quality of scripts.

In her book, Schell continuously stresses the importance of being professional, organized and respecting actors for their craft while at the same time expecting equivalent respect from those who are interested in working for you. Actors are looking to collaborate with filmmakers who they believe are dedicated and on top of things, and running a casting process that doesn’t follow industry expectations will quickly identify you as amateur. Schell breaks down how to distribute announcements, run auditions, take on callbacks, and discusses the intricacies of working with unions and managing contracts.

Understanding how long the casting process will take is one of the biggest mistakes that budding filmmakers make, Schell told me in our interview. “The common thread that I see from young or new directors is not allowing enough time for preproduction and underestimating how long it takes for the entire casting procedure.” Even after successfully making your way through the major casting steps and finding the talent you’re looking for, organizing a shooting schedule that works for all of the actors you want can at times be difficult. “Some new directors think that because people are auditioning that they have an open schedule, and those interested in hiring the latest established or hot actor can be looking at years of waiting to [fit filming time] on their calendars, so start way in advance,” Schell stressed to me. Therefore, the need for a proper timeline, one that allows about two weeks between each of the major casting steps, is crucial. Independent filmmakers should allow themselves at least three months from their first shoot date for the entire casting procedure to play out.

Casting Revealed explains that properly announcing your project to potential actors is the first key to successful casting. The focus three months out of shooting should be on preparing the preproduction breakdown, which is an announcement of the project and each of the roles available. Ensuring the breakdown is written professionally and to industry standards is vital for attracting talented and experienced actors. “Craft your breakdown in such a way to inspire confidence by showing you know what you’re doing… Make it exciting,” the book states. The components of a breakdown include the project’s title, name of producers and director, description of the project, intended shooting format, details of the roles available, expected submission procedures, any payment or perks provided to actors and approximate shooting dates as well as other details. Once completed, the breakdown should then be distributed to actors through the appropriate channels specific for your type of project, which could include national, regional or local online venues, social networks, via press release or sent directly to agents of actors you’re specifically interested in hiring.

It’s no secret that there are an abundance of actors that want to work, so it’s likely that the response from interested parties will be heavy; the book offers ideas on handling the load.

Running auditions is more elaborate than assumed, but Schell explains industry expectations, discusses how to manage the event and offers up tips on how to effectively evaluate each actor. In a move I personally found appealing, she includes some directorial tidbits, such as offering up ways to challenge and shepherd actors towards the type of performance you’re expecting while in the audition. During our conversation, she explained her directorial tip further by saying, “Rather than say, ‘I want you to look depressed,’ instead you tell them what they’re specifically doing, [such as] reminiscing about lost love or thinking of their lost mother.” Successfully setting up the audition room with a film camera and script reader so that you have watchable audition footage to analyze later is also addressed, and Schell once again recommends allowing at least two weeks for adequately looking back over audition footage and determining who is to be asked for a callback.

Asking a select few back for callbacks gives the opportunity to reevaluate talent a final time so that you’re more confident about your final casting choices. Once final decisions are made, focus is dedicated to managing union stipulations, if necessary, and offering contracts. Because of the ever-changing and considerable amount of information involved in covering union and contract requirements, Casting Revealed only skims the surface in this area, but Schell points the way to where more information can be acquired.

Although not specific to the actual casting process, still closely related to improving a filmmaker’s ability to hire quality actors is to have an intricate understanding of the acting craft itself, as well as a better grasp of what type of actors invoke an emotional response. During our conversation, she told me, “[Directors] should go to the theater, watch acting live. Pay attention to actors who you respond to emotionally.” Schell highly recommends that in addition to reading her book, all directors take an acting class, which she believes will give filmmakers a better understanding of the way an actor works and thus an improved ability at getting actors to respond to your direction. She explained to me, “Everyone will direct actors differently, but if you have an idea of an actor’s tool box, you’ll understand how to get them to use their tools.” And although her book doesn’t touch the intricacies and art form of writing of a script, she does stress that ensuring that the story is ready and good enough for filming needs to remain the number one priority prior to a filmmaker even contemplating casting.

When asked if there are still casting errors that beginning filmmakers will make even despite reading her book, she bluntly stated, “Oh, of course. Everybody makes mistakes and it’s hard to anticipate what they are. The key is to try and do everything we can to prepare.” Schell believes that being more educated will help limit those mistakes and facilitate a greater understanding of how to cast true talent. As someone in the early preproduction planning stages of my own first film, I hastily admit that reading Casting Revealed will prevent me from making what would have been several disastrous casting blunders.

You can order Hester Schell’s Casting Revealed via Amazon.