Casting Notes #8: Deciding Who to Call In (For Filmmakers)

Posted on October 14, 2013 by admin

This 20-part series, written by Team J’s Bjorn Munson, covers the lessons learned during the casting of The Broken Continent web series pilot in 2012. You can find the full Table of Contents in Part 1.

This series is meant to help other independent filmmakers, primarily those who are casting a large ensemble (10+ speaking parts, multiple background actors, etc.). Individual articles may be useful to production companies looking to cast other work such as commercials. There are also a number of articles specifically for actors on how to better submit for auditions, do the auditions, and deal with the statistically inevitable rejections.

The lessons learned have been applied to Team J’s Stonehenge Casting service, an online tool for producers to find actors and actors to find work.


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Deciding Who to Call In

And now the hard part.

Actually, if you’re doing it right, some of the previous steps might be hard — or at least should take some noticeable effort. [1] However, I find many filmmakers get especially antsy at this stage.

While deciding who to call in is a critical step in the process, if you’ve done the previous work, rest assured that you have laid the groundwork that allows you to focus more on casting versus logistics (though we’ll touch on logistics regarding scheduling below).

Nevertheless, do not discount the importance of choosing which actors to call in. In essence, this is the your first round of casting choices. Far too many indie productions — and a few commercial production companies — depend on that first round of casting to narrow down the field. I’ll hear people say they want to “be open” and “see what’s out there,” but it wastes valuable time, energy, and money. [2]

(For those of you who are anxious about cutting out worthy candidate or not getting enough of “the right” candidates, this is why a good casting director is so valuable.)

When it comes to deciding who to call in for your web series or indie feature, here’s how we planned the steps for Broken Continent:

  1. Review the Casting Rankings
  2. Review the Casting Spreadsheet with the Director
  3. Make sure you have enough actors for each role
  4. Initial Scheduling
  5. Contacting Actors (Finalizing Schedules)

Bear in mind that these steps will not go perfectly; you will not be able to call in everyone you were convinced at the outset were going to be perfect for this or that role. And yet, you’ll find a great cast.

1. Review the Casting Rankings
Whatever ranking or “triage” system you are using — whether it’s letters, numbers or colors as shown in our sample spreadsheet [3]— I find it’s useful to go through the list of actor submissions after the initial processing to double-check all the rankings (this is assuming you’re ranking them as you’re processing them).

During the Broken Continent, we eventually had three people (including myself) going through and transferring information from the over 500 submissions to the worksheet. At the same time, I was going through submissions and giving them a ranking per the color-coded system I mentioned in the last article.

Normally, actor submissions will taper off dramatically after the first three days of a casting notice and drop to almost nil after a week [4]. That should give you the perfect opportunity to review all the submissions thus far and see:

  • If some of the people you invited to submit have, in fact, submitted. [5]
  • If you’ve ranked all the submissions.
  • If you see a ranking that you want to tweak
  • If you see anything missing from a submission (e.g. contact information incomplete, etc.)

There’s always going to be something. The goal here is to be confident that your casting spreadsheet includes everyone you might want to call in — as well as rankings for everyone.

Before going to the next step, it’s great to already have at least a partial call-in list of actors covering most of the roles (see the second tab on the sample spreadsheet). Of course, you might be able to generate this partial list (or finalize a list) in talking with the director. [6]

2. Review the Casting Spreadsheet with the Director
We posted the Broken Continent casting notice on Tuesday, May 1, confident that we’d get the usual flurry of submissions and by the week of May 7, we could set up a time for me and Francis, the director/showrunner to go over who I was planning to call in for the auditions, which would start on May 20.

By May 10, we were still processing submissions, racing to be ready to start inviting actors to audition by May 14 (just shy of a week’s notice).

The lesson learned here is to back out the casting notice a bit further and have a deadline for receiving submissions (though being unofficially open to receiving submissions after that).

I know many professional projects where the director or producers simply show up as the casting director has handled it all. Who is being called in? It’s a surprise, but there’s sure to be good actors called in. Depending on how you’ve organized your indie operation, you might want to do it that way. [7] However some form of dialogue here can potentially be very valuable — even if you wait to talk to the director until you have a call-in list — as the review addresses questions like:

Have we missed someone?
The director was sure they told you to call in Joe Actor or Jane Actress, but doesn’t see them on the list. This might be because someone genuinely forgot to contact the actor and they’re not even on the spreadsheet.

A frequent possibility is that the actor is not listed, probably because even though you reached out to them to submit, you haven’t heard from them. As I’ve mentioned previously, directors, producers, and other people who are not casting directors often seem perplexed that actors don’t respond to email or phone calls — and so they often need to make peace with this fact. [8]

Reviewing the casting spreadsheet at this point allows you to contact that in-demand actor again.

Do you not want to call in someone on the list?
This happens. The most likely reason not to call in a particular actor is because you know they are both high maintenance and insane. [9] However, there are other reasons the director might not want Joe Actor. Perhaps the role requires special skills the director knows Joe doesn’t have. Perhaps the director wants to save Joe for a future role (if it’s a web series). Perhaps the director’s vision for the role doesn’t really fit Joe’s tone.

The bottom line is that your audition slots are limited, and if you can save both your time and the actor-you-won’t-cast-anyway’s time, you’re doing everyone a favor.

Have we misunderstood a role?
If you are able to sort the spreadsheet and show the director all the actors you’re thinking of calling in for a role, that might jog the director’s memory about another actor to call in.

However, it’s also possible that, in seeing the actors you have lined up, the director realizes you’re not getting actors who match his or her vision. Does the role need to be more unconventional? More conventional? Should the possible types be broader? Narrower? Is there some aspect of the role that isn’t being addressed? [10]

As mentioned previously, you may not have the time to have a thorough meeting with the director to talk about casting choices. In some cases, some teams may want to delegate more to the casting director (or producer wearing the casting hat). However, taking time for these review points is always beneficial.

3. Make sure you have enough actors for each role
Theoretically, you can always add additional audition dates, but as we’ll get to in the next few articles, finding the right audition space for the time you need will be moderately daunting at the very least. Therefore, you want to make sure you have multiple good candidates for each of the roles you’re casting. [11]

Let’s go back to the casting example of a project with 10 roles. You’ve theoretically received at least 100 submissions, or at least 10 actors, interested in each role. In reality, you probably have more actors interested in what appear to be leading roles or “cool characters.” For The Broken Continent, we had far more people interested in being King Eadwyn or Queen Malkyn than, say, the hulking knight Vymont or Loe, the wounded footsoldier.

Some of this is because there are less actors who can play imposing hulks convincingly, but many an actor — not unlike regular people — would rather play the superhero than the sidekick, the lead rather than the supporting player, and the beautiful person rather than the homely foil. [12] One of your jobs as the casting director is to ensure you invite or otherwise find enough actors to be called in for the various roles, whether or not the actors were originally looking to fill them.

In short, you should do your best to have 10 candidates for each role, but in reality, you might not. You’re going to cut down that group of 10 (or 20) actors to the five you’re going to call in (or attempt to call in, see “Initial Scheduling” below). The casting police will not come because you have four candidates for this role and seven candidates for that role. The real pressure is that you have called enough actors in to cast the project.

Wait! How do I know which are the five? Isn’t that the most critical part of this whole article?

Good questions. In short and in order: you’ll know, and no, the most critical takeaway from this article is to know you’ll find the right cast (more on that below).

In regards to the first question, all the steps above will naturally narrow down the field. Some of the actors will simply not be as experienced. Some of the actors will be ones you or the director (or both of you) absolutely want to call in. You’re also about to do scheduling where you’ll find some of the actors — including people you absolutely knew would rock the part — are unavailable. Your list of actors to call in will naturally diminish from the 10 or more you were looking for into five or so you want to (and can) call in. Know this will happen and trust the process.

Trust the process? Perhaps that sounds overly “new age-y” to some, but if you’re looking for something with grueling mechanistic precision and absolute answers, casting really isn’t for you (film and theater are pretty much out as “scientifically precise pursuits” as well). Maybe I’ll change my mind after a few dozen more casting gigs, but there are a few things I find with each casting I do:

  1. You don’t get to audition everyone you want
  2. Some actors are a delightful surprise
  3. Some actors aren’t quite as delightful
  4. Your final cast in no ways resembles what you thought your final cast would be at the beginning of the process
  5. You are excited by your cast

Number five is not automatic. It’s the result of all the hard work you did up until this point (and through the auditions and the final offers to actors). I can’t explain number five with scientific veracity, but every time I find it to be true. If you work hard on casting, you will get a great cast. It’s not the perfect cast, but in its own weird way, it seems like they’re the cast that had to be there right there, right then, for that project. If the auditions had been on another day or if the project was shooting a month later, it probably would have been a different cast. But then, that would be the right cast for then and there.

The best analogy I can think of relates to long-distance running [13], but if you don’t believe me about trusting the process, you’re probably won’t believe the analogy.

Work hard. Give casting the time it’s due. Be diligent and you’ll be both comfortable and confident that you will find the right actor for every role you need to cast [14]

4. Initial Scheduling
Now comes the relatively zen task of taking all the people you want to call in and plugging them into your available audition times. The key trick here is to fill up your timeslots (i.e., X actors per hour) so that:

a) You’re not keeping actors waiting for a long time to audition [15], and
b) You all have time to discuss your impressions of the actor after with each other without
c) Feeling like you’re running out of time (“Oh my god we have 20 minutes left in the space and there’s five actors in the waiting room!”)

Don’t worry about grouping actors reading for the same character unless it seems to magically happen. If you really feel you need to see people that close together, save that scheduling feat for the callbacks (i.e., when you have far fewer people to call in).

What we did for The Broken Continent

You can see some of this on the sample spreadsheet. Yes, another part of the spreadsheet, check out the Tab marked “Schedule.”

After the top contenders were determined, we simply cut and pasted them into a timeslot. This method easily allowed us to transfer information about which characters both the actors and we wanted them to read for — a planned technique that proved very handy in the audition process (to be further discussed in Part 11).

Those actors that noted restricted availability based on the posted audition times, were, in almost all cases, accommodated. [16]

We estimated about five minutes per actor, with a five minute buffer each half hour to allow for some auditions going longer as well as bio breaks (aka “using the restroom”). That broke down to 5 actors per half-hour or 10 actors an hour.

Filling in the slots wasn’t strictly first-come, first-served. Because of our rankings, I made sure to first call in the actors we had identified as absolutely wanting to read for parts. In fact, if you recall the article about getting the word out [link to article,] there were some actors I emailed or called right off the bat. If they were interested and available (and submitted their materials — a pretty good sign of being interested and available), I booked an audition slot for them early.

What we’ll do next time

Well, for one thing, I’ll be using Stonehenge Casting’s folder management function to expedite some of the sorting, but that’s for another article.

In terms of the tactics described in this article, they worked pretty well.

I will limit the actors to four per half hour versus five for future casting calls. That little adjustment should make the actual casting sessions next time that much more relaxed. [17]

One way to accommodate less actors per hour may be to shift the first round of auditions to video auditions, allowing us to have one to two smaller callback sessions.

5. Contacting Actors (Finalizing Schedules)

So now you should have a nice draft audition schedule.

The next step is to create a boilerplate email send out to the actors. [18] You can leave space to personalize each email for actors you know — and you can also go the other direction and essentially do a mail merge depending on your technical skill. However, this original email must contain:

  1. The location the auditions will be held (i.e., at least the address they can plug into the computer to calculate how far away it is); and
  2. The time you want them to audition (you’ll let them know they can ask for a different time if that doesn’t work). [19]
  3. The instruction that they, the actors, must confirm with you that the audition time works OR to contact you if it doesn’t.

You may also want to include:

  • Payscale, such as any agreements your production is operating under (e.g. SAG-AFTRA Modified Low Budget Agreement, etc.).
  • What character(s) you want the actor to read for.

Since what you most want from the actors at this point is to confirm they are still available for the audition (and at that time), this initial email contact should be as short as possible while still providing enough information to make the decision.

Once the actors have confirmed, you can send them a second boilerplate email. This should:

  • Confirm the time and date they’ve agreed to.
  • Confirm the location with painfully detailed directions (perhaps as an attachment) [20]
  • The roles they should prepare for (with sides almost always as an attachment)
  • The rehearsal dates and shooting dates (which should have been at least generally indicated in the original casting notice, but might be more definite by the time you’re sending these emails).
  • Contact information they can use if they’re delayed.
  • The cutoff time and what to do if they’re really, really delayed. [21]
  • Re-iterating any other information already provided. For example, a link to the original casting notice, the link to your company or production website, and the payscale — always the payscale.

The goal here is to give them all the information they need to prepare for auditioning for the role, which of course is a specialized job interview. Good information on your part makes actors more at ease and more confident. It also answers many logistical questions that would otherwise take up precious audition time.

At this point, if at all feasible, I recommend providing the audition phone number. It could be just for the audition day itself or it could be for any questions beforehand. In either case, providing the number gives actors a crucial channel of communication — and the ones that really need it will appreciate it. [22]

Bear in mind that the schedule won’t be completely finalized in the week leading up to the auditions. Someone will invariably get sick or have car trouble or book a paying gig the same day as the audition. They may frantically contact you to re-schedule — and since you’ve planned all of this out, you should have space in the schedule and can usually oblige.

But to get into how to organize and conduct the auditions, we first need to make sure you’re squared away with a great audition space, which is the focus of the next article.

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FOOTNOTE # 1: And if it wasn’t hard at all, perhaps you might consider writing a series of articles on casting the rest of us could read? Whenever possible, I like to work smarter, not harder.

FOOTNOTE # 2: As will be repeated many times, your actual audition time will be finite. Even if you have your own space to audition people (and as we’ll go over in Part 9, don’t choose just any old space), auditions take valuable time — usually when people are in the midst of other pre-production activities.

Eliminating candidates from consideration before even calling them in is something every other industry does when they do their hiring. They do this because they want to save time, energy, and money — and it works.

FOOTNOTE # 3: The Broken Continent Sample Casting Spreadsheet was mention in the last article. This is essentially how we handled processing all the actor submissions for the Broken Continent. In the last article, I explain how I went about color-coding the entries. Here you can see why I might change the “triage” rankings to letters or numbers in the future as it would make sorting that much quicker.

FOOTNOTE # 4: This is assuming you don’t post the casting notice on a weekend and are not casting for The Broken Continent, which got over 100 submissions in the second week — along with people interested in choreographing stunts, doing camera work, and, of course, composing music.

FOOTNOTE # 5: Time to shoot off another email, Facebook message, text, or phone call. And, depending on how many submissions you have and how much time you have, you might decide to let the actor do whatever it is that’s taking up their time as you already have plenty of people to call in. Remember, as stated elsewhere, I’m assuming any actor part of your production team or integral to your investment and fundraising strategy is pre-cast. That great actor you know might get the part? They get to audition with everyone else (otherwise, why solicit blind submissions?).

FOOTNOTE # 6: There are no rigid rules in an indie production for who is doing the casting. There were three initial producers for The Broken Continent. Oftentimes, a writer/director will share the “casting director hat” with one or more producers. In this case, I served as the casting director, but even there, the level of sharing casting minutiae will depend on the working relationships of everyone involved. In the end, the director (or showrunner, in the case of a web series) should have the final decision on who to cast. However, the casting director can and should work to give the director the best range of choices and so may have a large influence on who is initially called in (theoretically, the director/showrunner could always ask for additional casting calls if everyone is a disappointment).

FOOTNOTE # 7: The logic here being that the director and producers are busy with other aspects of pre-production.

FOOTNOTE # 8: To be honest, I know one of the reasons is that directors and producers often assume I contact the actors promising them an audition slot. I always say we’d like to consider the said actor for one of more parts. There were actors I was 99% certain we would call in unless they were out of the country and 95% certain we would offer a part. However, there’s that pesky 1% at the very least, isn’t there? Also, in talking with the director, we might decide to call the actor in for another part rather than the one I was originally thinking of. That’s why I don’t offer guarantees of auditions to actors.

There’s also the fact that I know quite well that it wouldn’t matter if I did guarantee an audition slot — or a part — to some actors. They might be too polite with me on the phone to say, but they might want to read the script first, might want a gig getting them more money, or might (gasp) not really think as highly of the director as much as the director thinks of them.

FOOTNOTE # 9: The truth is that there are some very talented actors out there that nevertheless are not worth the trouble of working with. If they are not bringing in investors, related financial advantages, or “guaranteed distribution,” why bother? (And if they are, they’re probably part of your production team and you don’t think they’re too high maintenance or insane).

The presence of high maintenance actors is felt by everyone on set — and often proves a drain on energy and time — making production that much harder. Therefore, save yourself the trouble. I always say that, wherever possible, drama should be on screen, not on set.

FOOTNOTE # 10: For example, let’s say you as the casting director knew the role needed to be filled by someone who is conventionally attractive, possibly even drop-dead gorgeous. However, you didn’t realize the role also requires the actor have a slimy tone and you picked some innocent ingenues. Or the role requires someone who’s good with accents. Or card tricks. Or partial nudity. Or card tricks while partially nude.

FOOTNOTE # 11: Bear in mind that this still may not work out. A veteran casting director I know has mentioned it’s not uncommon for the client to turn to him after an exhaustive casting sessions and essentially ask, “So, can we see some better actors for the role?” I’ll mention this again with finding the right audition space, but have a Plan B in case you need additional audition time. You might need it.

FOOTNOTE # 12: This principle is also at play when it comes to the intelligence and overall wit of characters, because actors by and large would rather play clever characters. It takes a special kind of humility to jump into playing the doofus and to do it well (a prime example would be Bill Fagerbakke, better known as the voice of Patrick Star of Spongebob Squarepants, whose delivery is often sublime). I’ve found the more access you have to veteran actors, the easier it is to find actors willing to be troubled, clueless, goofballs… and do a good job of it (another reason to try and budget as much as possible to pay actors). However, if you have these type of “uncool” characters, do make a point to invite some trusted actors to read for them. The “cool” characters will have many takers.

FOOTNOTE # 13: If you dear readers will bear with an analogy far afield from the realms of theater and film, this whole casting process, and knowing you’ve done a good job — and in fact all you can do — reminds me of long-distance running.

I’m thinking here of the cross-country runs you might have done in school or perhaps training runs you might have done for anything from a 5k to a marathon. Invariably, unless you conscientiously refuse to run solo, ample opportunities exist to slack off during your solo practice runs. You can slow to an almost walk-like trot up that steep hill. You can decide not to pick up the pace when you know you should push.

Absent a coach or other scrutiny, no one can say, come race day, whether your performance was the best you could manage or not, but you’ll know. For me, I find it’s the same for all sorts of aspects of filmmaking. I won’t beat myself up for not getting 4-minute miles. I’ve never gotten that. But I know when I could be shaving 10 seconds per mile off my time and am not pushing myself to do it.

Just as you won’t get a better race time than your body can manage, you won’t get a cast better than you deserve — because even if you luck out in getting actors far more talented than your material or your director, well, there’s the roadblocks that are your underwhelming script and director.

(And yes, having a great script and production team to execute said script is important too)

FOOTNOTE # 14: Indirectly, this is yet another argument for having the closed audition. I’m sure someone can provide anecdotal evidence, but I have yet to find statistics of other industries that consistently leave hiring to the vagaries of chance to who might walk in the door that day.

FOOTNOTE # 15: Bear in mind that, for SAG-AFTRA and other union productions, you may need to follow rules on how long actors can wait to audition. I can’t tell you how many casting calls I’ve been to where actors are hanging out for hours to audition. It’s completely avoidable — and it’s a good thing when actors notice the audition process was quick and easy.

FOOTNOTE # 16: This is another argument for stating the audition dates in the casting notice and for actors to read and respond appropriately to said casting notice.

FOOTNOTE # 17: What does “more relaxed” mean? Well, on more than one occasion, we felt like we couldn’t ask certain actors to read for all the roles we wanted or do all the reads we could. This was addressed with callbacks — the people we wanted to see again we were going to call back anyway. However, having that extra time would have made us feel more confident going into the callbacks — and perhaps put us a bit further ahead in our decisions.

FOOTNOTE # 18: Why an email versus a phone call?

Once again, this is for time management.

Let’s look at our case study example: you’re casting a large ensemble and you have those 10 people per 10 roles. In other words, 100 people. Now you’re going to be doing initial auditions with 40-50 of those people. It might take you 15 minutes to create the email template and then easily 2 minutes or less to personalize each email and shoot them off. That’s a bit less than 2 hours. Maybe even closer to 1 hour if you’re hitting your groove.

If you call each person, my experience is that each conversation is at least 3 minutes and usually 5-10 minutes. If they’re a new actor to you, you’re taking a moment to get to know them. If they’re an old actor to you, you’re catching up. This isn’t bad, but you’ll have a chance to catch up or get to know them later. Right now, this method will take 2.5 to 8 hours.

The point of this contact is scheduling the audition. You can be polite and efficient at the same time.

If you have actors near and dear to you, you’ve probably already called or talked to them to make sure they submitted for the project.

You can also list a telephone number if you want to make it easier for actors to contact you if they have questions — but you have to realize you’re accepting that potential extra time spent on logistics.

For the Broken Continent, the majority of actors had no problem handling the scheduling via email. Remember: most actors are busy too. Keeping something as boring as scheduling an audition time short and sweet is a plus.

FOOTNOTE # 19: The reason to give them a time is the same rationale as discussed in Footnote # 18 above: efficiency. Since you’ve already mentioned the date(s) that you’re going to have auditions in your casting notice, actors who are serious about their submission have “penciled the time in.” If the particular date and time you’ve proposed won’t work, they’ll let you know!

Even if you only get half of the people to accept the initial audition slot, you’ve saved a bundle of time — and in my experience, it’s easily 80% of people who accept the initial audition slot.

Remember, you do want to leave enough openings in the audition times to move people around AND you want to make sure actors know to ask for a different time if they can’t make it.

FOOTNOTE # 20: “Painful” only to the extent that you have gone to the pain of walking around the audition venue and an explain any vagaries of the location (e.g., “from the lobby, look for the red door on the right” OR “walk past the ancient suit of armor after defeating the pygmy sphinx” and so on). We’ll go over the walk around in Part 10: Organizing the Audition Space.

FOOTNOTE # 21: You don’t need to dwell on this in any communications to the actors, but if you’re like many productions, you’re renting the audition space and so there’s a particular hour you need to be out of there. No, the actors don’t need to know the details of your rental agreement, but you do need to communicate a time when auditions are over for the day. This helps conscientious actors know when “incredibly late” becomes “too late” and it makes it easy for your check-in staff to provide answers.

If you don’t do this, you’ll have some actor hoping to audition at 6pm when you’re closing up shop at 5pm. All the drama of that conversation could have been avoided (assuming the actor reads their email).

FOOTNOTE # 22: Perhaps we’ll move almost entirely to a world of texts and twitter updates for this, but the day of the audition itself seems to be when actors call the casting people when they’re stuck in traffic, have a flat tire, or suddenly need to take a family member to the emergency room (all of which I’ve been called about, by the way).

Bear in mind that the casting director and director don’t need to be at the other end of this particular phone. In fact, it’s best that the casting staff member responsible for check-in has this phone. The can adjust the schedule for that day and inform you during a break.

For the Broken Continent, Team J purchased a pay-as-you-go phone that is only used during audition days. Very cheap, absolutely helpful on the days that it’s needed and completely ignorable on days it’s not.