Welcome back, dear readers! For those who don’t know me, my name is Tennyson E. Stead. My career as an award-winning writer and director goes back 20 years, and I am a veteran executive in independent film finance and film development. If you’ve been following me or my work you’ll have noticed that my company, 8 Sided Films, is sponsoring the 8×8 Screenplay Competition. 8×8 is a contest geared towards giving genre screenwriters the tools and education to develop and produce content independently, and as the man in charge of delivering on that promise I’ve been putting some recent effort into cataloguing the lessons I’ve picked up over the course of my continuing rise to fame and glory. My success in casting is very much at the heart of why critics, festivals, my film community and my audience continue to support my work, and what I offer here is a short primer on how filmmakers can turn the audition process into a source of strength and support for their independent projects.
KNOW THE CRAFT: Many directors are content to leave the casting up to casting directors. Still more adopt an “I may not know acting, but I know what I like!” approach to casting, and trust that casting people that look or “feel” right in the part will satisfy the demands of the script. On the other hand, Sidney Lumet once wrote that casting is 90% of a director’s job. When it comes to casting, you need to be able to tell the difference between an actor who will do the work and an actor who will own the work. Almost any acting academy will let a film director audit classes, so do it. Make a habit of it. Build a vocabulary for scenework.
BUILD A PERFORMANCE COMMUNITY: When an actor you like asks you to attend a play they’re in, make it a point to go. Stick around for drinks with the cast after the show is over. If you have fun, it might be worth getting to know the theater company as a whole. Check out some of their other shows. Look for ways to help the company out. Your actors will wind up much more loyal to you, and you’ll expose yourself to more and more of the kinds of performers you enjoy working with. When the time comes to audition, you’ll have some thoughts on who to call.
START EARLY: If you are not developing this script in cooperation with WME, CAA, ICM or Paradigm, then you need to assume that assembling your principal cast will take every ounce of development and pre-production time you have. Don’t hold out for that lucky break with Natalie Portman or Joaquin Phoenix unless you happen to know them or their agents personally. Don’t hinge your production on the availability of resources you have no real means of accessing. As soon as you have a script that you feel would inspire confidence in everyone you need to make this movie a success, start the audition process. Give that process plenty of time to fail before it succeeds. Make sure you have enough time to find that one actor who is both perfect for the role, and who has a command of his or her own craft to the degree that he or she challenges your own professional and creative standards.
THROW AWAY THE MOVIE POSTER IN YOUR HEAD: Does your leading character need to be a man? Does your leading character need to be white, or young, or however it is he or she seems to be on the page? Chances are good that most of the things you’re assuming about your main character are incidental. Throw away your preconceived notions to the fullest extent allowed by the action of the story you’re telling. Don’t let the images in your head keep you from seeing what’s right in front of your face. Don’t throw away a great casting opportunity slip through your fingers because an actor is the “wrong” gender, color, or age. Think long and hard before refusing to cast someone because of how they look.
DO NOT CAST THE ACTOR WHO “NAILS” THE CHARACTER: Cast the actor who nails the audition. There is a difference. What you’re looking for, in the end, is an actor who can do their job at least as well as you can do yours. Consider that if you had every decision about your movie locked down at this early stage in the process, there would be no room for discovery. In performance, the same basic principles hold true. Rather than trying to find a character that works, look for the actor who brings the most to the material. Give yourself plenty of time with each and every actor. Bring an actor you’re crazy about to read with them, and see which ones can keep up. This is not the time for you to focus on the details of the character. Focus on the actor. Find a cast you can trust to make the film deeper, richer, and more entertaining than the movie in your head.
Listen to Tennyson E. Stead tell his ‘Arriving in L.A. story here.’
If you’d like to ask questions, rebuke me with experience or hearsay, or just flirt from the safe distance of your personal computer, you can always find me at Tennysonestead.com. To find out more about me, my ensemble, and my stories, we welcome you to our online community at http://www.8sidedforum.com – and please, please support our upcoming feature, Quantum Theory. Quantum Theory is the story of two brilliant, snarky women of science who develop a prototype that gives them the power to change reality itself… until it’s snatched from under them by LDI, a ruthless and powerful defense contractor. Stealing it back means winning a shell game of changing realities against a company with limitless resources, and the future of our world depends upon their success! You can find out more 8sidedforum.com, and at Quantummovie.com.
Tennyson E. Stead is a writer, director, and producer of film and transmedia. In his childhood, he spent all his time building cardboard spaceships and rescuing his sister in them. These days he does basically the same thing.
For any production to realize its full creative and financial potential, every creative element must reflect the overall goals of the project. Every great collaborative work was produced by a team of talented people, united by a common intent.
8 Sided Films and the 8 Sided Forum represent our collective stewardship over the stories born from intent too multifaceted, specific, or unique for studio production, and our commitment to honoring that intent as the foundation for a more personal relationship with our audience.
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