5 Casting Mistakes First-time Filmmakers Make

The biggest joy for me as a casting director is the moment when the right actor leaves the audition room and the director, producer, and I all look at each other and smile in firm agreement. When it’s right, you just know.

Sometimes, I’ll have to fight for an actor to be considered, and sometimes the creative team can’t see eye-to-eye and concessions are made. All of this is part of the business. However, I see too often that new filmmakers are making mistakes that ultimately hurt their films. In my work as the Casting Consultant for the Live Action Short Film Department at the School of Visual Arts, I’ve had the pleasure of working with young filmmakers on their first projects, and that experience as well as my work with professional directors has taught me a tremendous amount.

So, without further ado: The 5 mistakes first-time filmmakers make!

1. They cast their mother/ girlfriend/ cousin/ roommate to act in the film

First-time filmmakers are often short on time and money so they have to improvise, but that doesn’t mean you should skip the entire casting process and just hire your friends. If your friends happen to be trained professional actors, then go ahead and hire them. However, too often I see filmmakers take this casting shortcut and then struggle to get credible performances out of untrained actors. It can be a good idea to go with a friend or relative for a small role (Remember Rob Reiner’s mother in When Harry Met Sally?) but all actors should be subject to the same audition and call back process (unless they are offer only). Seeing actors audition together can help you evaluate how everyone will work together.

2. They don’t hire a casting director

Yeah, I may be a bit biased on this one, but the fact remains that hiring a casting director will save you time and energy and will ultimately put you in touch with a higher level of talent for your project. Casting directors are focused on finding the best talent for your project. As directors and producers, you have to juggle a million responsibilities. Far too often, casting is left to the last minute. Casting directors know where to find talent and can lead you to actors that you would not be able to reach on your own. Also, talent agents expect to work with casting directors, so by not hiring one you’re wading into murky waters when it comes time for contracts and negotiation. First-timers assume a casting director will be too expensive for a low budget project, but most casting offices tailor their fees on a by project basis so don’t just assume that you can’t afford it. In my book, you can’t afford not to. Which leads to….

3. Not budgeting enough (or any) money for casting

Aside from hiring a casting director, their are substantial costs involved in the casting process. Everything from audition space to printing sides can cost money. Also, professional actors expect to and should be paid for their work. Even if you just pay scale, you are showing that you are an industry professional who respects the artistic contributions of others. I get frustrated by the projects where everyone gets paid except the actors. Sometimes the money for salaries just isn’t there. If that’s the case, take the budget you do have and make the audition process and the on-set experience as comfortable and pleasant for the actors as possible.

4. Not budgeting enough time for casting

Each film is different, so early on in pre-production you need to plan enough time for your entire casting process. Often times, first-time filmmakers neglect to plan enough time to post a casting notice, sort through admissions, schedule auditions, schedule more auditions because the first round didn’t yield enough prospects, schedule callbacks, put out offers… The process can be time consuming and all encompassing and as a director you’ve got a lot of other things on your plate (another reason why you should hire a casting director, but I digress) Time is money and if you don’t plan ahead and give yourself enough time to find the best cast, you may be scrambling just to scrape a passable cast together. Don’t wait until it’s too late.

5. Trying to circumvent SAG-AFTRA

Let’s make one thing clear: If a SAG-AFTRA actor works on a non-union film, he is working in violation of his union rules and may be reprimanded if this work comes to the attention of SAG-AFTRA. There are simple contracts in place that allow filmmakers to work with SAG-AFTRA actors on low-budget shorts and features. Your casting director will be very familiar with these contracts and any actor with an agent will expect an agreement to be in place. Look, I know that the likelihood of a SAG-AFTRA actor getting fined or suspended for working on a non-union short or feature is small, but that’s not the point. If you ask that actor to take a non-union job, you are putting him/ her in an uncomfortable position. Just don’t do it. File the paperwork. Work with SAG-AFTRA. Act like a professional.

I would love to hear from actors and filmmakers about their casting stories. Any more insights and observations are always appreciated.

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