Casting a micro-budget independent feature film - The Hollywouldn'ts

Casting a micro-budget independent feature film - The Hollywouldn'ts

Casting a micro-budget independent feature film - The Hollywouldn'ts, blog post by Darius Stevens Wilhere

Hey wait a second....who is that speck in the far distance? (Filming inside one of the largest libraries in the world in Mexico CIty)

Hey wait a second....who is that speck in the far distance? (Filming inside one of the largest libraries in the world in Mexico CIty)

So it's been a very interesting couple of weeks. A few friends and I are working on getting our first feature film done. It's a comedy I wrote entitled "The Hollywouldn'ts" and this blog article is actually going to kick off my documenting this process for the weeks and months ahead.  

Now for those of you who don't know, even when you have money, making a feature film is really, really, hard. And to have it not suck is even harder. 

And when you don't have money, well...making them is also very, very, hard, but making a very good one is almost damn impossible. 

Oh that speck is actually me. This was an amazing location, that we got for 1/10th of the cost which was still 1/10th more than we had. 

Oh that speck is actually me. This was an amazing location, that we got for 1/10th of the cost which was still 1/10th more than we had. 

Ultimately it comes down to writing for what you have and doing the best you can with it. But if you only have $500, don't go trying to make Avatar 2. 

At the micro-budget level you essentially have to focus on two primary things: talent and locations. In this post, I'm going to talk about talent. 

One of my best friends playing a lead in my first feature film.

Writing for who you know

There are two types of people you have to write for when you write a micro-budget movie.

The first people you write for when you have zero money is for the people you know. Friends, family and amusing people you've run into in life (hopefully not with your car). Write for people who've acted with you, or that you know can play themselves or a variation of it really well. 

The second people you write for are talented actors who will be attracted to the script because of the quality of character you have written for them to play. 

Look. There are hundreds of thousands of professional actors out there. Most of them are extremely desperate for work. And a lot of people make the mistake of thinking that because you have no money, they won't be in your film. This is really untrue. Good actors recognize that you are doing something you are passionate about, you've probably got a family member handling the food, another friend maxxing his credit card to get you some lights and gear and that the person doing the most work for nothing is probably you. Actors respond to passion and just like you, they'd rather be working doing what they love, than doing something else. 

The beautiful and talented Allison Hawkstone on set. 

Offer them a piece of the pie if the film gets sold and if you have written a great screenplay, even a medium good one, you will have actors lined up around the block to work with you as a member of the team to bring this story to life.

So while you should write for who you know, you can also write damn good characters and you'll attract talent who are willing to work on the same terms as you. Actors also generally have one of the most important jobs that takes the least amount of time on individual productions. They may spend years, even decades perfecting their craft, but they'll only be on your set for a few weeks at most on your budget level.   

Shooting out in the forest with a close friend and a professional actress. 

Shooting out in the forest with a close friend and a professional actress. 

Getting the word out

Looking online you will find numerous internet casting services. Use the largest ones to reach the most people. Breakdown Express/Actor's Access and others. When you write about your project be brutally honest. Say "We may not have a dime, but my mom cooks the meanest pasta outside of Rome and you will never go hungry. All pay is deferred and will be based upon sale. But you've got credits and we'll give you footage for your reel."

Don't say "We are working to get some money and we will try to pay you if all goes well before the shoot finishes and and and." Say it like it is. Your honesty will attract good talent, because a lot of this industry is surrounded in bullshit, and if people recognize you are serious and no bullshit, they'll take a bet on you. 

Also make sure you provide great character descriptions. Give actors a sense of the character, how big the role is and how vital it is to the film. Don't ever say "it's only a tiny part with one line" or denigrate the part. 

Back when I was doing a lot of casting, I once made a comment to a director that it was only a background part. I never made the mistake of saying that or thinking that again. And as the years went by I began to see the truth of what he had imparted to me: Even a bad extra can ruin a scene. You want great actors for everything. But give those actors something that they want to be! Tell them why they should fight each other for that role. Inspire them dammit! 

If you do, they will beat a path to your door. 

Saying it like it is

Saying it like it is

Picking the cast

Once the submissions pour in, and trust me, they will, you need to start looking for the best people to play the parts. How do you do this? Trust your taste. Go with your gut instincts. If you can't wait for someone to finish the audition, they're probably not right for the part. If you see the scene coming alive in your mind, this is a person to note. 

Usually you'll be sifting through on-line head shots and possibly demo clips that they've uploaded. And if you ever want to get inspired about making a movie, watch a bunch of actors demo clips. The vast majority of what you see will leave you thinking "I can make a better movie that that!" or "How cool! Look what they did!"

Either way going through headshots and demo reels is going to allow you to select actors based on their physical resemblance to the role and the acting ability they have to pull off that role. 

I will caution you, don't be so quick to dismiss people that aren't professional actors. Every major star today started somewhere. There are diamonds in the rough out there, and they all start with little or no experience, but there will be something about them that is captivating. Some people call it "natural talent." I call it "determination to succeed."

The people most likely to be great are those who are driven to be. They aren't just doing this for the "fun of it," they want to be excellent at it. It works in every profession in existence including the creative ones. Does everyone who wants to be great end up being great? No. Of course not. But reversewise, no one ended up being great without wanting to be. 

Search for the most passionate and in there you will find your cast. 

Get Self-Tapes

Some people are quick to call people in for auditions. I never am.

Let's face facts. You've got no money and most likely the people looking for acting gigs that aren't paying already have a day job and either want to act because they love it, or because they are trying to build a career. So be considerate of this. To do auditions you need a space to do them that is clean, professional has water and copies of the scripts. It has to be somewhere! 

But the actors have to get wherever you are doing the auditions and that takes time and money that they may not have no matter how much they'd love to do the part and since there is a huge chance they might not get it, well they might decide not to try and you might miss the perfect actor for your part. This is one of the reasons that self-tapes are great.

What's a self-tape you ask? Simply, it's an actor filming their own audition at home or wherever they want to. In addition to being a very convenient way to get auditions from a lot of actors, it's also a great way to allow the actor some space to create the role. Auditions can be extremely stressful for actors who are nervous about getting a part, because usually they go into a room, are handed a script, given a minute or two to show what they can do and then sent on their way. 

A self-tape allows the actor to practice it as many times as needed to get into the character. It allows them to change their clothing to associate with the part. It gives them some breathing room and you'll be amazed sometimes at the awesomeness you get.

You know how Elijah Wood got his part in Lord of the Rings? Self-tape. He took the time to really create the character, get in costume and show the part. And Peter Jackson saw the passion and the rest is history. 

So my recommendation: send the script piece you want them to audition for with the dialog (called a "side") and then ask for a self-tape. And as a piece of advice, don't offer them much direction at this stage. Sometimes an actor will completely surprise you with something you never thought of. And that is magic. 

If you find an actor that is good, but isn't quite getting what you want, no problem. When you select all the people who were good or great on the self-tapes. THEN set-up the in person audition and give them all the direction you want. 

And if an actor says they don't know how to do a self-tape, well I'll do a video on that shortly and you can send them the link. Otherwise tell them to have a friend record them on a smart phone and send it in, or post it online privately and send you the link. 

In Person Auditions

When you meet actors, be courteous and thankful, especially on micro-budgets. They are, after all, willing to work for little to no pay to help you realize a dream. Appreciate that.

Make sure you have a camera set-up to tape the audition. No matter how good you think your memory is, you'll want to compare auditions and even show them to other people. You will regret not taping them, so tape them. 

I recommend having someone else read the lines with the actor so that you can focus on their performance. Don't look through the camera, look at them. Catch the mannerisms and nuances. You can always watch it back later when they leave. 

I have another piece of advice which you can disregard (any of this you can disregard), but I always like to give the actor the first interpretation of the character. I'm always excited to see what an actor will bring on their own instinct before giving them my interpretation of the character. If their own interpretation is wildly off, then I step in and help hone the performance. If after a number of tries the actor can't get it and I don't see that they are going to get it. I tell them thank you and that we'll review the tapes and let them know as soon as the auditions are done. 

How do I know when I've found the right actor? I want to keep watching them. Something about them or their performance makes the scene explode to life in my mind and starts to bring the movie itself to life. 

Often I'm torn between multiple actors, I review tapes until I find the one that most physically resembles the role and keeps me riveted the most. That's the one I pick. But I also like to take the runner-ups, the people obviously passionate about acting, and I like to find a way to get them into what I'm shooting. It's true, sometimes it is only as an extra, but that's still one more credit to their resume. And I'll often write some additional dialog or give them some action that gives them a moment on screen. They deserve it. And they'll remember it too. 

As another note, when you make your selections for the best actors, a director I once worked for always insisted that I had the actor for the part and two other actors who were just as good to be back-ups in case something went wrong before the shoot actually rolled. Trust me on this, it will save your butt.

I'll work to get up a tutorial on self-tapes on the youtube channel ASAP. 

In the meantime, keep on keeping on friends. 

Casting a micro-budget independent feature film - The Hollywouldn'ts, blog post by Darius Stevens Wilhere

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