Casting Notes #16: Making the Final Casting Decisions (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 actors to find work.
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Making the Final Casting Decisions
Now comes the moment of truth.
By the way, “final casting decisions” may be a misnomer. As you’ll see in Part 17, your first choice may suddenly be unavailable, which leads to your second choice.
But this is still decision time. You can do it. And by ‘you,’ I mean the same creative team who was behind the callback decisions.
As before, the director or showrunner should get the deciding vote. However, the decision may not be obvious. The director may appreciate some perspective from the rest of the creative team.
Before meeting, all of you should try narrowing actors down with these questions:
Who’s the top choice for each role?
Yeah, this is the question some of you have been wanting to put off for the longest time — especially if the the casting director has given you a lot of choices.
What does ‘top choice’ mean? Ask yourself who’s going to be best at that particular role.
Remember any role has some essential attributes an actor needs to sell. That’s what you were testing in your auditions. Among all the contenders, you had the “green, yellow, and red” candidates, but like as not, there were one of two “green” candidates that you and your creative partners raved about. 
Sometimes you’re aided by the fact that one actor was good in Role A, but great in Role B, and you can’t see anyone else in Role B.
This realization is critical to building your cast — and one of the reasons you often don’t get the cast you were expecting, yet all your hard work results in a strong cast at the end of the process.
If you’re truly stuck on two different actors for one role, it’s probably because you found both actors were very strong at selling those essential attributes.  Now’s the time to step back and consider not just that character’s essential attributes, but how they relate and must relate to other characters. Understanding those key relationships and how the two actors sell that relationship can be crucial, which also leads to:
Will the top choices work with each other?
Don’t ignore this question! This is more than chemistry, though that’s a big part of “working with each other.” One of the biggest issues I find consistently arise in indie film productions and smaller theater productions is uneven casting. By this, I mean that it’s clear some actors are more experienced than others — or their acting styles are remarkably different and aren’t meshing.
A veteran actor can be generous and give younger actors a great deal to work with in a scene, but that sometimes depends on the temperament of the actor and skills of the director.
Who are the next choices?
You won’t want to do this and it hopefully won’t be important, but it’s all part of risk planning. You want to think about other actors now versus when you suddenly need a replacement for your lead.
The reasons for this are multi-fold. Not only may your preferred actor be unavailable when you first contact them, they also may suddenly need to bow out because of an emergency.
Will those choices work with one another?
Don’t worry about figuring out every iteration of who will work with whom. There’s no reason to go through a neverending thought experiment on this. However, if you have a key relationship, especially between leads, it’s worth while to spend a moment considering if the new match will be uneven in any way (for the same reasons mentioned above).
Is everyone happy, or at least comfortable, with these choices?
If you’ve gone through all questions above diligently, this particular question should be answered. Nevertheless, it’s good to ask yourselves this question at the end. Nagging doubts and tingling spider senses should be voiced and addressed (though perhaps not always resolvable in that same meeting). Does one of your creative team really feel you need to call in more actors for one role? Do you all agree that you have the strongest cast you can have? 
Once you’ve answered these questions, you can move on to who will be contacting actors and what information to be conveyed, but that’s the focus of the next article.
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FOOTNOTE # 1: If you recall in part 11 about running the auditions themselves, I recommend always taking a minute after each audition to discuss the actor who just left the room. This is because, yes, you can remember the actor’s audition and, yes, you can review the tape — but you absolutely remember if you raved about a particular actor to your creative comrades. This happened for various actors for all of us while casting The Broken Continent. Enthusiasm counts.
FOOTNOTE # 2: It’s not uncommon for an actor to discover something about the character that you –even as the writer/director– may not have realized that still rings true to what you intended. You may find that actors sell a character’s essential attributes in much the same way OR you may find two actors find two ways to play a character that are different, but you find equally compelling. So long as the chosen actor’s approach meshes with the other actors and their approach, that’s fine.
FOOTNOTE # 3: Every project has a different timeline, so answering the question of if you have the strongest cast you can have is constrained by how soon you need to move into production. There have been many projects where I would have loved to have audition or outright cast certain actors and the schedules didn’t work out. You need to be prepared for that unhappy possibility.