Casting Notes #14: The Bonus Round – Fight Auditions (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.
The Bonus Round – Fight Auditions
While many of the articles in this series can apply to many different projects, this one is pretty specific to what we did for The Broken Continent. Nevertheless –or perhaps for this reason– I wanted to go into the additional auditions we did specifically to test actors’ faux fighting ability. As you may be aware, the genesis of the Broken Continent came when its writer/director, Francis Abbey, worked with an accomplished actor-combatant and thought it would be fun to do a film involving some swordplay. Great fights were planned from the beginning and advertised in our crowdfunding campaigns, so we knew we needed to deliver.
If your project has any special physical performance requirements –anything from juggling to stunt driving to equestrian work– it’s not at all a bad idea to verify your performers can do what you need them to do. Odds are, you need them to do that specific physical action on cue and repeatedly.
Also, when it comes to stunt driving, equestrian work, and even juggling –depending on what is being juggled– safety is a concern. The bad handling of a monologue means you need another take. The bad handling of stunts or stage combat could result in injury or death. ‘Death’ really should make you pause and think about how you hire performers here.
In many cases, you’ll have an expert on hand to judge the performer’s prowess. In fact, in situations where safety is even remotely a concern, you should absolutely have an expert. Specifically, unless someone on your production team is a sought-after stunt coordinator or fight director, budgeting for the services of such an expert is a must. In part, what you’re paying for is the expert’s experience with –and knowledge of– stunt performers and stage combatants who can safely deliver the needs of the script. In that sense, the expert is vetting the performers for you.
In our case, by the time we were ready to cast, we also had an experienced fight director in the form of Robb Hunter. The exact relationship you as the casting director or producer have with this expert varies. In general, a good approach is to consider the delegation that often occurs with a choreographer: the director or producer is responsible for the overall vision, but the choreographer often translates that vision into the particular physical display. This isn’t simply isolated to dance or performance skills. I recently worked on a short film set during World War II where the director had a team of historical reenactors.  In many cases, you may find you will have enthusiastic experts in some particular performance skill, happy to do it on camera. Just be sure they are ready to work in the way you need and safety concerns are addressed. 
Robb has worked with many actors in the area and had some suggestions for actor-combatants to check with. However, some of our leading roles ideally needed to be able to handle weapons as well — either for the pilot or for future planned episodes. For that reason, we scheduled an additional audition after our regular auditions when we had an idea who our cast would be. In addition, there were several along with those actors who voiced interest in being one of the actor-combatants both in their response to our initial casting call and then during the auditions themselves.
This meant that the special fight auditions were attended by two overlapping groups of performers:
- Actors who had speaking roles who we definitely wanted to do well, but would need varying degrees of fighting ability 
- Actors or stunt performers who did not have any speaking role that we wanted primarily for their stage combat prowess 
By design, we did not immediately tell Robb whether the performer walking through the door was to have a major or minor physical role. That meant he was testing each and every one of them with the same high standard for the expected physical demands that we were applying to the actors with the acting roles. 
Because we wanted the performers to get physical and be safe, we needed another audition space than what we used for the regular auditions. The process for finding an audition venue and organizing the venue was the same as outlined in our earlier articles in the series.
We wound up with a dance studio. The floor was such that it could withstand the rigors of the athletic audition and it was sufficiently large to accommodate several people.
This was a key difference in the format of the fight auditions: Robb and his assistants could audition a large group each hour and then break up into smaller groups to run individuals through additional routines. Finally, each individual or pair did a camera test with the routine. At the end of the day, we checked in with Robb about his recommendations.
Within those recommendations, there were surprises both pleasant and not as pleasant. Some actors whom we didn’t know at all who proved to be surprisingly good combatants: able to take direction and deliver hits that were soft as feathers but looked like sledge hammers. Other actors, some of whom clearly wanted to engage in some faux swordplay, hammered away with the weapons without regards to their fight partners.
The key thing is that we were now comfortable about how to proceed with the fight training (and related rehearsal costs). For The Broken Continent, we followed up the auditions with several rehearsals for the main fight, and staging the fight for the camera crew.
Whatever your project, in the indie realm, these physical performances are probably a key part of your “production value.” With that in mind, it’s worth the time to make sure it can be done safely and look spectacular.
FOOTNOTE #1: In regards to the WW2 reenactors, these men are experts in period tactics and how to handle their weapons safely, but realistically. The director was able to give their commander basic instructions and they choreographed the action, even being able to repeat themselves on multiple takes. As long as safety concerns are addressed, being able to do this level of delegation is a joy to watch and capture on film.
FOOTNOTE #2: The production team (director, producer, casting director) should always discuss how they’re going to work with the performers or coordinators before they’re on set to avoid headaches, heartache, and potential injury as much as possible. Certainly, for any physical performance where the possibility of serious injury is possible (e.g. anything from motorcycle stunts to juggling chainsaws), you absolutely need to know what your production insurance is covering and what the performers’ insurance is covering (if anything — this likely only works if they’re hired as independent contractors, and even then, you better verify).
FOOTNOTE #3: Within the actors we cast, there were actors whom we knew would need to fight in the pilot and others we knew whose characters would eventually fight in the series. We proceeded on the assumption that we would do a series, so we didn’t have a problem with any of those actors attending the fight auditions. However, we only really tried to make sure the ones who would fight attended. If we were able to continue as a series, we planned to have Robb hold a “stage combat boot camp” for everyone who needed to fight on screen in addition to individual fight rehearsal times.
FOOTNOTE #4: Again, for many actors, just as we did with the background actors, wherever we could, we tried to make sure our actor-combatants had some vocal chops to match their physical prowess as, in many cases, we anticipated their characters appearing later in the series.
FOOTNOTE #5: This also meant that Robb came out to the check-in table a couple times to ask me if someone was already cast to fight in the pilot. Some actors, and would-be stage combatants, were not as skilled as perhaps they thought they were… especially in regards to safe hits.