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13 Ways to Cast A-List Actors in Microbudget Films

Julia Stiles in Between UsMy film Between Us is about to come out in theaters and one of the questions I’ve been asked at some of the 22 festivals in seven countries I’ve been to (and yes, that sound you hear is my feet splashing on the beach when I won the Grand Jury Prize in the Bahamas) is how the hell I got a cast like Julia Stiles, Taye Diggs, Melissa George and David Harbour in a movie that according to Kickstarter only cost $10, 000? So let me explain…

1. Choose Castable Material. One reason I chose to adapt an Off-Broadway play in the first place is I knew I’d find good, castable material that no one else was turning into a feature. I actually turned down Beau Willimon’s play Farragut North, and George Clooney turned it into Ides of March and got a happy ending from my sloppy seconds. It was good, but I knew would be hard to adapt for a low budget, if need be. But with Between Us, I knew it was at its heart four people in two rooms — how hard could that be? More importantly, the four parts were incredibly well written, with great chew-the-scenery moments for each actor. They were also written for 30-ish-year-old actors, and the two female parts were especially rich. That’s key: There are far more working (and famous) actresses than actors, and there aren’t enough good parts for them. So if you can get a script with really great female roles, you’re golden.

2. Assemble a Team. Contrary to popular wisdom, you don’t need an A-list casting director. What you need is someone who can sound like a credible casting director on the phone. I teamed up with Alison Buck, who’d been recommended by my pal, director Matthew Harrison. Alison had recently moved to L.A. from New Zealand and been working as a casting director in her spare time while also holding down a day job as a manager. Which meant that she had an office, a phone, knew the casting lingo and had the confidence to sound like the movie was happening. Yes, she had some contacts in the agenting world, but that’s not why we got her. She also had the stamina to stay committed to the film for what wound up being over four years.

But the casting director was only part of the team. I also needed to surround myself with a credible group of producers. To that end, I rounded up New Yorker Mike Ryan, who’d had seven films at Sundance. His claim to fame was helping discover Amy Adams in Junebug. I got Hans Ritter in L.A., who’d been instrumental in discovering Ellen Page in Hard Candy. Barry Hennessey was a four-time Emmy winning producer on Amazing Race… and had been my line producer on my previous film. And to top it off, we got Dana Altman, my producing partner on my first film, and Robert Altman’s grandson… not bad casting genes in his DNA! And of course, as the co-founder of Slamdance, and with some good casting under my belt for my previous film (Open House with Oscar-nominee Sally Kellerman, Anthony Rapp, Kellie Martin, et al), there was proof that I knew how to work with at least somewhat fancy actors.

3. Aim High. So with that team on paper, we decided to tell people we were making the film for $2 or 3 million! This was in 2007-8, so it didn’t sound so crazy at the time. And at that budget, the prevailing wisdom was to offer something called “Schedule F” which SAG says is a $65, 000 flat rate. Now of course, we didn’t have a dime. So that meant we were doing “finance contingent” casting. Which means some of the agents and managers will take you seriously (10% of $65k is still enough to support at least a small coke habit), so they’ll get someone in the office to do coverage on the script and it gets in the system.

4. Go to New York. Something I learned by casting both Open House and Between Us is to target junior agents at the big agencies — and specifically ones in their New York offices. The L.A. talent agents are all running around like crazy trying to get their actors booked into pilot season. Television is where the long-term money is for the agencies. The L.A. people have neither the time nor inclination to worry about indie films, no matter what their budget. But, the New York branches of those same agencies spend more time trying to get prestige Broadway jobs for their L.A.-based high profile actor clients. Consequently, they’re also better attuned to know which actors in their clientele are inclined to want to do (and can afford to do) meaty, “actor-y” roles — whether they be on stage or in indie films. In general, the New York agents also tend to have gone to classier Ivy League schools, think they’re smarter, and have more time on their hands to actually sit down and read a script (and not just pass it on to a bitter intern to do coverage).

The sweet spot is to find a junior agent in New York — someone who just finished being an assistant, just got their own desk, but doesn’t yet have their own assistant. These are the hungry young bucks, eager to make a mark for themselves by discovering great material and prove themselves to their senior agents, A-list clients and the big bosses in L.A. And without their own assistants, they’ll actually answer their own phone!

5. Be Bi-Coastally Curious. From New York, come back to L.A.. This confuses the agencies, in a good way. If they think you’re bi-coastal, they will take you more seriously (Scott Rudin has offices in L.A. and N.Y., why shouldn’t you?). If you live in L.A., get a 917 number. If you live in N.Y., get a 323. Leave messages at 6:00 AM in L.A. or 9:00 PM in N.Y. Then play them off against each other: “Oh yes, that sitcom actor’s good, but your N.Y. colleague has this other Broadway actor that seems more… how do I put this? Substantial. Do you have any feature actors who are better?”

6. Don’t Have a List! Every director has some sort of list in mind about your dream cast. Forget it! You will never get your dream cast. Not all of them, not on your budget, and not on the week you want to start shooting. And then when you do cast someone else, you will always view them as inferior to the person you had in mind when you wrote the script or made your list. This is an important concept both creatively and practically.

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