Directing

Things to Avoid When Casting a Film

Choosing your actors

Photo by Madmolecule

For very simple projects and film exercises, we often write a script for someone we know or we simply cast a friend (or a friend of a friend) or someone else who seems handy to play a part. This practice is fine. You certainly don’t need to go through an elaborate audition process for a simple chase scene exercise, but you should be aware of a few pitfalls for larger productions:

  • Never use one of your crew members as a player in the film. You diminish the size and therefore efficiency of your production team when you pull one of them out. A crew of four people that loses one to become a performer is diminished 25%. Usually this drastic trade-off becomes visible on screen in numerous ways.
  • Try to use someone who has a reason to commit to the film. Filmmaking is arduous and time consuming. Actors and even acting students have a reason to participate in a film until the very end because it’s important for them to have “tape,” meaning samples of themselves performing. The better the project is, the better their “tape,” so they have a strong incentive to perform well. Not only do they get a credit on a film, but the “tape” can also lead to another acting gig. However, a close friend who is an economics major might be willing and even excited about being in your movie, but after the first ten-hour production day, they may start to lose interest. With mid-terms coming up, with an impatient girlfriend to appease and a job to maintain, suddenly the thought of sticking around for three more shooting days isn’t so appealing. Frequently, good buddies find the limits of their friendship on film productions.
  • Think twice about casting family members. Family relations are often complex; add to that the stress and arduousness of the filmmaking process, and you’re working with a volatile mixture. Besides, do you really think you can direct your mom?
  • The super funny guy at parties who does a spot-on perfect imitation of De Niro in Taxi Driver can suddenly seem less than convincing once you look at him through a camera lens. The context of a personal relationship is very different from that of a film. What’s funny or brilliant between a group of pals kicking back on a Saturday night, a very forgiving circumstance, often doesn’t cut it for a broader public. 

Casting for type means casting someone because they seem naturally right for the part in some way, whether they look the part, or behave just like your character in real life, or have the same profession your character has. Casting for type can work well, especially if the person happens to also be a fine actor. With non-actors, since they don’t necessarily have the skill to perform anything other than themselves, casting for type is the only way to go. But again, one should be careful that the non-actor doesn’t suddenly change once the camera is turned on them. I once cast a real-life police officer; mostly because he volunteered to provide two real-life police uniforms for the film, which I needed. The uniforms looked great, but the acting was another question. With the camera rolling, the officer was unable to keep a straight face—to do things he ordinarily does dozens of times a week without cracking a smile. It didn’t work so well to have a cop pull up on an emergency call with a silly “Hi Mom” grin on his face. CUT!

It takes a skilled director, and lots of patience, to get a great performance out of a non-actor. For most films, casting skilled actors is important in order to get what you need for your film. Even if your film has no dialogue, a good actor can bring a new interpretive energy, authenticity, and creative resources to the project.

Excerpt from Voice and Vision: A Creative Approach to Narrative Film and DV Production by Mick Hurbis-Cherrier © 2007, Elsevier, Inc. All rights reserved.

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