Inside the World of a Casting Director – 3 Part Series

By Marci Liroff

People always ask me, “What does a Casting Director actually do?” Well, I’m here to tell you all about it! Joy Wingard wrote to me from college saying she’s interested in being a casting director and wanted to know what really goes on in the world of casting.  Since I was crazy busy, I asked her to jot down a few questions and I’d answer them over the ensuing weeks.  She asked quite a few insightful questions that I wanted to share with you all.

Q: I’ve heard that casting for films is a lot of budgets, negotiating, and handling contracts.  Do you feel the position is mostly business or is there an equally creative side to it?  How about for a Casting Associate?

A: It is the CDs job to (sometimes) put together the casting budget.  It is sometimes done by the line producer, but they want our input (i.e. how much do you think it’ll cost to get a good actor in this part).  The CD negotiates all the actor deals (not the extras).  It differs from studio to studio, but some studios have the CD negotiate everything up to a Schedule F deal ($65,000 and under) and Business Affairs does the deals higher than Sched. F, and Warner Bros has the CD negotiate everything up to $250k.  The CD (and associate) need to know how to read a Day out of Days (the shooting schedule) and formulate a deal.  In television the deals are standard.  Business affairs negotiates the test deals for pilots and series deals, thank the good lord. There’s so much to do on a pilot, at least we don’t have the added pressure and time-suck of having to negotiate and paper (do the contracts) for all the test deals and series regular deals. The CD does the weekly/daily deals on the series, but like I said it’s a standard “top-of-show” formula for guest stars and SAG-AFTRA scale for co-stars.

The creative side comes in when you are assembling the cast and coming up with ideas in terms of putting together the perfect ensemble.  I try to think of creative ideas that are unexpected and outside the box.  There is a LOT of psychology involved in handling the large groups of the creative team (producers/writer/director/executives at the studio).  You want them to hire “your guy” and you have to get them to feel that it was their idea in the first place! The CD is part of the team that makes the final decision on who gets cast.  It is ultimately up to the head of the studio/network to approve our choices.  The CD is an invaluable part of this decision making process.

Some jobs are more creative than others.  Some jobs you feel like you are just a glorified taping facility. I try and stay away from those situations! Depends on what you’re working on and who you’re working with!

Q: This pertains a bit to the prior question, but what is a typical day like for you – and for a Casting Associate?

A: ME when casting a pilot:
Up at 6am. Read and answer as many emails as I can that came in throughout the night and early morning. Remember, we’re a global casting community now. Submissions are coming in from everywhere around the world via the internet. Check submissions on Breakdown. View TONS of demo reels and self-taped auditions. Return calls. Exercise (very important) and walk the dogs.
9am-10am – get to the office and continue the above.  Check-in w/producers/director/network execs and answer questions and get answers to questions! Pre-reads and general meetings for upcoming auditions.
Sessions w/producers for several hours. Return calls/emails throughout. View MORE demos and auditions. Negotiate deals. Go over the budget. Meet with producers. Talk to studio execs and network execs.  Keep everybody informed and on the same page.  Go over more submissions. Try to be creative and come up with people to flesh out the cast.  LUNCH – usually in the office – working lunch trying to catch up.  Afternoon – more of the above.  Leave work around 7or 7:30.  Come home, walk the dogs, make dinner, return calls/view submissions/demos/return email while eating dinner until 11pm go to bed.  6am…wake up, rinse/wash/repeat.

Associate: get into office 9am, check messages, return calls/emails.  View demos and auditions.  Upload anything that wasn’t uploaded last night to our website so the team can weigh in. Go thru submissions.  Schedule auditions.  Check avails. Check $$ quotes to give to biz affairs so they can negotiate series test deals. Fill out test deal forms for biz affairs. Maintain and update master lists on ALL roles (meaning who we’ve seen, who we’re thinking of, who we’re getting tape on, who’s pre-read….and ALL their avails. This is an incredibly tedious process and must be kept up-to-date for the studio/network.).  Field calls all day long.  Take agent/mgr pitches.  Schedule Marci’s pre-reads and general meetings.  Negotiate co-star & guest star deals.  Videotape auditions, edit, and upload them.  Working lunch and catch-up. Clearing actors w/front gate to get drive-ons. Go over submissions w/Marci and pick who’s coming in to our next session.  Brainstorm new ideas.  Leave around 8-9 pm.

As you can imagine, trying to be creative during this process – not easy! I think it’s nothing short of a miracle to get a brilliant cast during pilot season. Imagine that there are probably 60 other pilots all trying to get the best actors for their show simultaneously. It’s like a giant race trying to get the actor you want into your office before the other guy gets him!

Do you have any questions for me? Feel free to ask them here!

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Casting: Behind-The-Scenes And Up On The Wall – Finally!

By Marci Liroff

Many times casting feels like an invisible job. No one seems to know or understand what we do as casting directors. Actually, if I’m doing my job correctly, the casting should disappear into the movie. The ensemble that I help put together with the filmmakers should work so well  that you don’t realize that they are actors up there on the screen…just like how Meryl Streep disappears into every role she plays and becomes people like Julia Child, Margaret Thatcher and Karen Silkwood (Silkwood -a favorite of mine from director Mike Nichols).

You can imagine my surprise when I was asked to be on the wall of some very notable filmmakers at The ArcLight Cinemas 10th Anniversary celebration in a poster sized photo. Shocked would be more like it. Casting is such an over-looked part of the filmmaking process. People that should know better – the producers, studio execs, network execs, writers, actors and some directors still don’t quite understand what it is that we do. How many times have you heard a director say, “Yes, I found her after searching high and low. I knew when I first set eyes on her that she was perfect for the part!”  In reality, the casting director has been searching the globe, watching sometimes thousands of auditions in person and viewing hours and hours of auditions sent in from hopeful actors around the world.

Joel Schumacher is a director I’ve worked with a couple of times who always gives me credit where credit is due. He will always make a point of telling people that I literally made him meet Isabella Rosellini years ago when we were doing a little gem of a movie, Cousins. The role wasn’t written for an Italian woman and Joel just couldn’t see it. I begged, I pleaded that this was perfect casting and would give us a sentimental thread to connect to the original film ours was based on, Cousin, Cousine. After spending just a few minutes with her, he knew she was the one and with a very easy re-write of a line or two, she added a wonderful element to the movie. I remember in my initial interview with Schumacher I suggested Mare Winningham for the role of Wendy in St. Elmo’s Fire. Sometimes you just know.

Same was true with Lindsay Lohan on Freaky Friday. When I suggested her for the lead in Freaky Friday in my initial meeting with the director and producers, she had done The Parent Trap for Disney a few years back and for some reason they just didn’t want to use her again after she had already done a reboot of a famous film (both Freaky Friday and The Parent Trap were popular films in the 60s and 70s. Did you know Jodie Foster starred in the original Freaky Friday?!). I had Lindsay self-tape her audition from New York and when we saw it we were less than impressed. But, I still just knew she was the one. I talked to her on the phone and gave her some notes from the director and myself and had her do it again. The new self-tape was better – enough to have us fly her from NY to Los Angeles for a screen test. When she arrived for hair and makeup we were shocked. Lindsay was so embarrassed about her freckles, she had gone out and gotten a spray tan. She showed up sporting a bright orange glow. Think carrots. This was back in 2002 and believe me when I tell you that the technique of spray tanning has come a long way since then! We immediately hustled her into makeup where we spent the next couple of hours trying to “take down” her color to a human level. She won the role because she was so good with great comedy timing, and had great chemistry with our lead actress Annette Bening.

– Sidebar: Lindsay tested with Annette Bening who was cast in the role of her mother. Two weeks before we were to shoot, we still didn’t have a full script. We were receiving the re-writes 10-20 pages at a time, and Annette just wasn’t comfortable going ahead without seeing the entire script and she pulled out. Because she pulled out, Tom Selleck, who was to play her fiancé, pulled out . Then Gary Marshall had to quit (he was to play her father) because his film Raising Helen changed their shooting schedule. Then Chad Michael Murry thought he should jump ship too. I talked him into staying. I think I threatened his future career truth be told! I came up with a list of replacements. I remember championing Julianne Moore. The head of the studio at the time, Nina Jacobson, had just seen Jamie Lee Curtis on the cover of Shape magazine. In the article, she showed the before/after photos of what a real woman looks like sans makeup and Photoshop. It was brilliant and the town embraced her. We hired her and she jumped in fearlessly into rehearsal and pre-production just 10 days before we started principal photography. The rest is casting history. Can you even imagine Annette Bening in this part?

Another great casting story happened on the original Footloose. Many times I like to think outside the box when I read a script. When I was coming up with ideas for the Reverend Shaw role, I had just seen John Lithgow in Brian DePalma’s Blowout playing a serial killer as well as in The World According To Garp playing a transsexual who was adjusting to her new body. I thought he was a spectacular actor. The role was written as a salt & pepper haired, Paul Newmanesque, charismatic man. You can just imagine the look the director, Herbert Ross, gave me when I brought him up. This was another case where I stomped my feet and insisted he audition him. This was 1983 and I remember his audition as if it was yesterday. We read the scene where Shaw admonishes his daughter Ariel (played by me in the audition!) for coming home late because she’d been out dancing. Lithgow read the scene with such intensity and such love. I get chills whenever I think of it. The director gave him the role right then and there in the room.

During awards season, when I see Martin Scorsese thank the brilliant casting director Ellen Lewis when accepting his award for his films and television, you know we’re getting somewhere!

So you see, this is only a small part of what we do as casting directors. We help bring films to life by putting together the perfect ensemble of actors. I’ve always thought of myself as a filmmaker and I’m so glad others are starting to see it too.

(ArcLight photo by Doug Hac)

What are some films you’ve seen lately where you thought the casting was seamless and brilliant? What are some films you thought were miscast?

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How Not To Fall Off The Tightrope In An Audition

By Marci Liroff
Do you ever flub a line or get lost when you’re auditioning for a role?
Your palms get sticky, your throat gets dry, you start seeing black spots floating in front of your eyes and you suddenly can’t hear?! Fun…right?! Actually, no, it’s not fun at all! It’s a horrifying feeling when that happens and I’m going to tell you how to win over the room when this happens. Yes, you heard me….win them over.
Here’s what’s happening when you’re auditioning or performing live. I liken it to a tightrope walker. When the tightrope walker is up on the rope, the whole audience is rooting for them. They are on the edge of their seats with anticipation and are subconsciously praying for them to do well. When the tightrope walker missteps and loses her footing and almost plunges to the ground (or rather the net!), the entire audience gasps. But, when the tightrope walker gracefully and masterfully recovers and rights herself back on the rope the entire audience springs to their feet and applauds.
Likewise, when you’re in an audition and go up on your lines, it’s how you recover that can either make or break you. If you dissolve into a puddle on the floor with “I’m sorry’s” or “Can I please, please start over again?!”, or “Damn, I f*cked it up again!”, you’ve essentially just lost your audience. Yet, if you can gracefully dip down and check your sides (because in your preliminary auditions you’ll still be holding your sides and turning the pages along with your scene), find where you are, and look up and continue…’ve just won us over. It’s as if you’ve almost fallen off the rope, corrected your footing and gotten back onto the rope and pulled off your trick. We’ll follow you anywhere.
Another smart thing to do is if you’ve just started your scene and you feel you are way off-track from what you’d prepared – say, “I’m going to start again”…..compose yourself, and immediately start again. When you start saying “I’m sorry, can I please start over….please?!!” you’ve lost us because you’ve lost your power. Remember…this is your audition. Take charge, take control of the room. I don’t mean you should act obnoxious or needy or demanding. There’s a fine line between being charming and in control in an audition and being a diva. And please, don’t do this when you’re 2-3 pages into your scene!
We want you to succeed. How you behave in an audition is indicative of how you may be on set. A true pro wouldn’t fall apart because they forgot or screwed up a line. Hey we’re all human. ALL of us. It’s just a line, you didn’t run over my dog, it’s not the end of the world. But, how you handle it is everything. Everything.

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