Casting Notes #13: Determining and Conducting Callbacks (For Filmmakers)
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 for actors to find work.
Determining and Conducting Callbacks
If you’ve actually gone to all this trouble with your auditions thus far, you owe it to yourself to do callbacks. And if your casting director has done their job well, the director has some tough choices.
At the same time, you can rest easy: you should already have the audition space for all the time you need for the callbacks. Plus, you already know how you’re going to go about running the auditions. In many ways, the callbacks are even more fun — because you’re excited about all the actors you are calling in.
The overall steps are:
- Sort all the actors
- Review the actors & auditions and pick your “finalists”
- Schedule the callbacks
- Run the callbacks
1. Sort all the actors
Now it’s just about time for the creative team to meet and discuss who to call in. The definition of the “creative team” can vary from project to project. It nearly always means the director (or showrunner) and the casting director, but may also include producers or writers. Just as not every decision-maker is in an average writers’ room, you won’t want all your project’s leadership here. Ultimately, the director or showrunner should have the final decision about who to bring in for callbacks.  At the same time, other members of the creative team can and should have recommendations.
For the Broken Continent, since all three of us were not only producers, but potentially wearing writer or director ‘hats’ for a future series, all three of us felt comfortable weighing in. Of course, as the showrunner, Francis had final say.
However, before this meeting (see step # 2 below), there’s a few things the Casting Director should do, either by organizing the the print headshot/resumes into folders or by organizing them into online folders in a tool like Stonehenge Casting.
First off, you want to eliminate all the ‘Reds.’ No, you’re not being a McCarthyite, you’re just being practical. As mentioned in running the auditions, you have some actors who did not do well. You rated them ‘Red.’ These folks are not up for any of the speaking parts, so they may be removed from the pool under consideration. If you want to consider any or these actors for background roles, go ahead and make sure they’re marked as such.  You may still want to have two folders of the Reds on hand for the review: ones who rated a Red who are up for background and ones who rated Red who did not, in case one of the other creative team asks, “Hey, where’s [Actor they know]? Didn’t they audition?” 
Next, the Casting Director wants to group the “Greens” for each role. If you have two-to-three greens per role (or more), you’re in good shape for callbacks. If you don’t, you want to be sure you have the ‘Yellow’ folder for each role handy. That way, you can determine if you want to call back any of those actors. Alternately, if all of you review the ‘Yellows’ and no one looks promising, you may want to call in additional actors for that role — perhaps even doing a new casting call in extreme cases.
Also, you want to make sure it’s reasonably easy to review the taped audition. This can be as simple as having the video files marked by day along with a printout of the final audition check-in list of the actors who showed up, so you know where to fast forward it.
Note that this whole preparation is primarily, “put the actors into folders according to a Green, Yellow, Red system.” In that sense, it isn’t complicated. The complexity comes in that some actors might have read very well for one role, but not another, and some roles might not have any “Green” candidates. To facilitate the meeting going smoothly, the one among you wearing the Casting Director hat should know all of these facts: they should have the big picture on everyone’s reactions thus far.
2. Review the actors & auditions and pick your “finalists”
There’s no hard and fast rules for where to begin, but if the Casting Director does have a good idea of who the green candidates are for the various roles, there is a good approach to pursue.
Start with the roles where there are few, but sufficient ‘Greens’ for the callbacks. For these roles, all the group needs to do is validate that those are indeed the people to call back. Starting this way builds momentum and confidence as you get to the more complicated decisions: for example when you have multiple actors who could be called back for multiple roles… or you have roles where you don’t appear to have a lot of good candidates.
For the Broken Continent, we only occasionally needed to consult the audition tapes at this point. The auditions were fresh enough in our memories, it was mainly if someone’s headshot did not resemble them at all that we needed to go back and find out why we rated “So & so” a ‘Green.’ (Yet another reason why actors need a good headshot).
In discussing the candidates for a particular role, one actor might clearly be favored candidate by all the decision-makers. For any of a number of scenarios, if you’re committed to having callbacks, you might as well call that favored actor back. These very possible scenarios include:
- If you cast Actor A in Role # 1, that decision greatly impacts who you should cast in Roles 2 and 3. 
- You may want Actor A, certain to be offered Role # 1, to read with the actors for Roles 2 and 3 during callbacks to ensure a good fit.
- You may want Actor A for Role # 1 — and they might even agree to it tentatively. But then something comes up and Actor A isn’t available. Good thing you had those other actors called back, huh? 
If you’ve already laid out the process of callbacks during the initial auditions, this won’t be a surprise for the actors and they’ll be excited to hear from you… which neatly brings us to:
3. Schedule the callbacks
This can be essentially the same process discussed in Steps 4 & 5 of Part 8: Deciding Who to Call In. Once again, since actors are busy people too, sending requests for schedule dates via email is a perfectly acceptable practice. If you have new and additional sides, be sure to include those as well.
Feel free to include that you enjoyed their audition in the email and be sure they know how to contact you with questions about the script, etc. If you haven’t worked with these actors before, this is where a lot of the relationship-building begins. Odds are that some of the actors you don’t wind up casting are still actors you want to work with in the future. Expect to spend a bit of time with the callbacks.
With that in mind, for the Broken Continent, we went with 3-4 actors per half hour. I’d definitely recommend no more than that. If you want actors to read with each other, you might want to structure things a bit differently, but there too, try not to overcrowd your hours. For example, you might want no more than the 6-8 people you want to read together for the same hour.
4. Run the callbacks
Here should be a process very similar to the process described in Part 11, about how filmmakers can run their auditions. The difference is that you should have more time, which you can fill with trying a few more takes at a read and playing with a given actor. You can and should address some of the logistical questions an actor might have. At this point, the actor should have no doubt about the payscale  and while shooting schedules are often in flux, your final candidates deserve to know the latest, greatest information. After all, if you want to hire them, they better have those dates free — and the best actors are working hard to fill up their schedule. 
In terms of what scenes the actors are reading for the callbacks, I highly encourage having additional or alternate sides from the script. In studio and commercial situations, it’s not uncommon for an actor to audition with the same scene from the script through several rounds of ever-higher-level staff on the project. There’s certainly merit in this approach as it shows consistency , but taking into account our case study, since you are the final decision makers on casting, why not be that much more certain of your casting choices? As mentioned previously for the auditions themselves, if you don’t have additional material, write it! We did this for several characters in the Broken Continent and were very happy we did.
As with the first round of auditions, you want to address actor questions. It’s okay to be vague about when final casting decisions will be made. We’ll talk about the different reasons why you might not want to give a firm deadline in Part 16. However, if you can provide a “no later than” date for casting decisions –even if it’s “before the end of April”– then that helps the actor.
Before you get to letting the actors know, you need to make your final casting decisions. Before you do that, you might have some additional casting, which is the focus of the next two articles.
FOOTNOTE #1: Remember our case study example. If you’re dealing with studios and whatnot, I don’t have any claims about what should be — except I know anecdotally that creative teams often have their meeting and executives often then exercise their input which may be a veto.
FOOTNOTE #2: For the Broken Continent, as part of the audition process, we asked all the actors if they would be interested in background. That way we knew if they were up for it (or ambivalent) before asking.
Note that if you are using Stonehenge Casting, actors already indicate in their profiles whether they are willing to work background, so you can filter accordingly. Remember, they might change their mind depending on the project — most hard-working actors are up for any part, but don’t yearn for background.
FOOTNOTE #3: Usually, at least one of the auditors remembers who auditioned, including those actors they know and had great hopes for, but whose auditions were lacking. Disbelief, couched in previous excellent experience with a given actor on set might make an auditor forget the disappointing audition. Nevertheless, the auditor asking about the actor may lead to a necessary discussion about who to call in. There are, occasionally, actors you want to call back, but often if your expected cast does not materialize, you need to talk through your assumptions to find the new cast. Remember what I mentioned in Part 8, step 3: almost without fail, you don’t wind up with the cast you expected at the start of the casting, but you’re still excited by your cast.
FOOTNOTE #4: Depending on what you’ve worked out for your audition venue, you might be able to add in a new casting call with the same audition space, perhaps adding a few more hours at the beginning and end of a callback day. Ideally, you’ll be able to do this within or close to your original schedule.
FOOTNOTE #5: Actors play off of each other. Even for stories where you have a clear protagonist, you want the actors to mesh. As we’ll discuss when talking about making the final casting decisions, you’re casting an ensemble — or if you prefer analogies, you have several ingredients and spices for the dish you’re making. Time and again, one of the faults I see in low-budget film and smaller theater productions is totally mismatched actors. To go back to the spice allusion, you know there’s something off with the dish if the spices are wrong.
FOOTNOTE #7: For The Broken Continent, we left the exact details of the compensation somewhat up in the air, because we did casting before we did our crowdfunding. This made sense because we wanted to show potential backers the cast we had assembled and we then had a larger team rooting for us to succeed. Nevertheless, we were clear with the actors that the project was under the SAG-AFTRA New Media Agreement and the rate we were aiming for was similar to the SAG-AFTRA Ultra-Low Budget agreement which at the time was $100 per day (standard 8-hour workday if you actually follow Federal labor law, I might add).
While this approach worked well and made sense at the time, I don’t think I’ll leave things so ‘up in the air’ for Team J projects in the future. I want to be able to let the actors know up front what the rate or pay range is, so they can choose whether or not this project is for them. It’s fairer in my mind to the actor and also fits with my overall Norwegian communication style: I have a low ‘bull’ threshold and like to be as direct as propriety and need-to-know considerations allow.
FOOTNOTE #8: I almost always have the good actors I want to work with contact me if there’s a schedule conflict or even a potential conflict. Generally, they’re trying to build relationships too — and they know that if they can’t work with you now, they hopefully can work with you later. However, that respect they’re giving you goes both ways. If you really don’t know and can’t give them definite production dates, then you have to be prepared to let them go. For example, let’s say you’ll shoot for 10 days in “the month of September,” but you don’t know when yet. Maybe you don’t have all your locations locked down. An actor you really want to work with can book some other three-day shoot from September 14-16 and calls you because of the conflict. If you can negotiate a deadline to let them know the dates, great. If not, then thank them for letting you know and if the dates don’t work out this time, then hopefully you’ll get to work with them in the future. This is an easy approach because it’s the truth. Plus, you’ve also shown that you value the actor booking work. Note that if it’s a case of the actor (or agent) trying to force you to commit to a casting decision before you’re ready, this approach still works. You’ve given them an answer and they get to decide. Team J’s unofficial official policy is to be insidiously nice. It works for the nice people and annoys the jerks no end.
FOOTNOTE #9: It can be frustrating to the actor, who may silently say, “If you like me enough to keep calling me back in, just hire me already!” but they won’t say it out loud. Unfortunately, this is often part of the process, and it’s often hard to tell where the proper vetting of actors ends and the corporate covering-of-posteriors begins.