August 25, 2013 / Ryan Elainska
This is the fourth part of my series of posts telling the story of how this film came to be. If you missed it, you may want to begin over at Part 1.
Getting my Documentation in Order
As soon as I had locked the location, I started casting. By this time, I only had a few months left in which to do pre-production, and finding good actors, more than any other project, made me incredibly nervous. Shooting a no-budget movie in the middle of Northern Indiana doesn’t give you access to the biggest talent pool in the world. I had already planned to search nearby Ft. Wayne and South Bend for actors, and the more I thought about the number of important roles I had to fill, the more I suspected I would eventually have to look as far afield as Chicago.
While attending the River Bend Film Festival I had met a young actor and producer named Stephen Bailey, who proposed taking on some of the pre-production responsibilities for the film. Although we didn’t end up working together for very long because Stephen accelerated his plans to move to Los Angeles, he helped me get the casting process started and suggested using Actors Access to solicit reels and organize casting calls. Actors Access offers producers the ability to accept auditions via video submitted by the actors. Since driving to Chicago costs time and money—both of which I had in only very limited supply—knocking out one round of auditions without ever leaving town sounded like a great idea. First, though, I had to write some sides.
“Sides” is what Merlin Mann refers to as “a term of art”. Sides are short scenes given to actors—either in advance or at the start of the audition—to read for the producer, director, and casting director, often with another actor, but usually alone, while one of the production team reads the other parts in the scene. Some independent productions just steal scenes from the actual screenplay for the film to use for auditions, but John August recommends against this. As he points out, the regular scenes may not be particularly useful for the purpose of evaluating actors, and hearing the same lines read over and over increases the likelihood that you, the director, will eventually tire of hearing them and be incapable of imbuing them with any actual meaning.
Anyway, I spent one night at my boring third-shift job pounding out a few quick scenes that covered all the speaking roles in the movie. It was fun; writing scenes whose only purpose is to give actors something to read that resembles the characters in question—and therefore don’t have to contribute to moving the story forward or making it more coherent—relieves most of the pressure from the creative process. I also had to provide Actors Access with a casting breakdown: a list of all the parts I was auditioning and some basic data about the requirements for those actors. If you’re curious about what a casting breakdown looks like, I’ve included a link below, along with a link to the sides (SPOILERS).
Auditions: Round One
Once I uploaded these documents, I was ready to accept video auditions through Actors Access. I gave pretty specific instructions in my casting call: I asked the actors to read the sides for the part they wanted, using a friend or fellow actor to read the other part for that scene. Some people, as I suppose always happens, ignored this and read the lines on their own, just leaving small pauses where the other character’s lines should have been. Unsurprisingly, none of those people were any good, so I didn’t have to decide whether to reject them because of this technicality.
Submissions varied pretty widely. Most came through Actor’s Access, and many submitted not only their reading of the sides but links to their resumes and reels, so I had more material to use in evaluating their acting chops. I had also posted casting calls through Mandy, on the Indiana Film Commission Website, and at some local and regional theatres, so I got a few submissions through YouTube as well, and a few people even sent in DVDs and hard-copy headshots, including an actual high-school girl who was also a director of short films. One actress turned out to be from North Carolina, and expressed herself willing to bear the cost of driving to and from her hometown in order to play the part. She was good, too, and I might have considered her if someone else hadn’t pretty much blown me away.
Before I get to that, though, a word about Casting360, for anyone who might find themselves casting a film soon.
Casting360 claims to provide a service to actors similar to that offered by Actors Access: the ability to view and respond to casting calls and upload headshots, resumes, reels, and video auditions. You’ll notice I don’t link to them, though, and that’s because they scam actors by accepting their credit card information as payment for submitting to casting calls, then add spurious charges to those credit cards which they will consistently refuse to remove, forcing their victims to register complaints with their credit card companies. They prey on the desperation of inexperienced actors, and they list auditions by scraping genuine sites, such the ones I mentioned above. When I spontaneously began receiving emails through their service, I at first watched some of the auditions, but I quickly grew curious about how they had even found me. A little Googling confirmed that Casting360 should be avoided by anyone hoping to run an ethical production, so I requested that they remove my casting call from their site. This was eventually done (I think), but I feel bad for all those actors, who could have paid Actors Access’s very reasonable $2.00 fee to submit their audition through a legitimate and helpful service.
Anyway, many of the auditions I used were pretty terrible, but a few stood out, and one audition in particular caught my attention: an actress by the name of Joyce Hshieh.
If you’ve heard anything about the movie or have read the rest of this site, you already know that I ended up casting Joyce in the lead role, but almost no one knows that she essentially had the part in my head from day one. More than anyone else who read for the part, she “got” the character almost immediately, partly, I’m guessing, because she was just a good fit for the role, but also because she asked questions about the part in advance.
Now, usually auditions don’t work like this (as far as I know) but Joyce emailed the single-purpose gmail address Stephen and I had set up to cast the movie, asking me to elucidate certain lines in the sides. I suppose if I had been casting a movie with an actual budget and thousands of actors clamoring to audition, I would have ignored this as an unnecessary drain on my time, but she was literally the only person who tried it, and it didn’t take long for me to write quick responses to her questions. Because of this, watching her audition was only a couple steps away from watching the character of Amy actually come to life. She went on the callback list immediately, along with most of the other actors who eventually made it into the movie. While a few other women who auditioned for the part of Amy also turned in good performances on their audition videos—and received an invitation to the callbacks, just in case—I had to constantly resist just handing the part to Joyce.
The one drawback about Joyce, of course, was that she was Taiwanese, and one of the other major characters in the story is her birth mother, so casting her meant I needed to find an Asian actress to play Maria. I felt comfortable enough with Joyce, after our exchange of emails, to tell her that I was considering her for the part, and that it would make it easier to cast her if she encouraged all the middle-aged Asian actresses she knew to audition for the part of Maria. She promised to do her best, but I was already worried that the talent pool was so small I wouldn’t be able to find a competent actress of any ethnicity for Maria; what were the odds that I could find one who would pass for Joyce’s mother?
Next: Callbacks, and how I found Joyce’s Filipina mom.
If anyone finds out about a job that exclusively involves writing disparate scenes that never have to make sense together or in any other larger narrative, please let me know. ↩
It’s not a universal rule, but I’m a pretty big believer in the idea that if someone can’t be bothered to read and follow simple instructions, odds are high they’ll cause some other kind of trouble further down the line. ↩
categories / Production Process
tags / auditions, Merlin Mann, John August, Casting360 scam, casting, Joyce Hshieh, Story of the Film