Casting Is Harder Than You Think

Reader Sean writes in:

I was wondering if you could shed some light on casting directors, and why they’re ATL. Seems like a pretty easy job to me. “Oh, YOU’RE the one that thought Tom Hanks would be great in that role! What a genius!” Psssh!

If by “ATL,” you mean “Above the Line,” they’re not. “Above the Line” does not refer to having a single-card credit at the beginning of the movie. Lots of department heads get that, including the cinematographer, editor, and production designer.

The “line” is an actual line on the budget. It separates the crew from the truly expensive people: actors, directors, writers, and producers. Everyone else is below the line.

The reason they get a single card credit is that their job is a lot harder than you make it out to be, and their skill has a massive influence on the final product of the film.

Yes, picking Tom Hanks is kind of an obvious choice. Tom Hanks should play every role. I wrote a horror script about zombie nuns that Tom Hanks would be perfect for.

The trick is, convincing Tom Hanks that he wants to play Sister Mary ARRGH BRAAAIIIIIINS! That’s where a casting director comes in. She has to negotiate between the producers’ and director’s desires and the agents’ and managers’ demands.

And suppose Tom Hanks doesn’t want to play the lead in Little Sisters of the Apocalypse.1 What then? Well, the casting director must find a suitable substitute.

Living in his shadow, or riding his coattails? You decide.
Nope. Keep Looking

And don’t forget, unless you’re making Castaway, there’s more than just one character in the cast. In fact, movies tend to have dozens, even hundreds of characters, each one of whom must be chosen from scores of auditions.

We’re not talking about a student film, where you just ask your friends to play the minor roles. You really have to sift through hundreds of headshots and resumes, sit through hours and hours of auditions, and narrow the field down to three or four choices.

And here’s where the really awful part comes in– unlike most departments, the director won’t necessarily bow to your expertise. Sure, he’ll trust the DP when she says we need to use the 9-light instead of the HMI to light the street; that doesn’t mean he’ll believe you when you tell him Bill Pullman is not interchangeable with Bill Paxton.

Now do that for the entire cast. It can be quite frustrating.

One bit of advice a casting director gave me– never, ever, ever give the director an option that you wouldn’t be happy with if they were chosen. Because the director will always choose that person.

This can probably apply to any department. Say your boss wants you to buy some chairs for the conference room. You try out a few at the furniture shop. Several are in your price range, including one that feels slightly uncomfortable. Even though it’s a reasonable price, don’t show the coordinator that chair later on.

Obviously, that’s the one she’ll pick, and you’re going to have a numb butt at every production meeting for the rest of the season.

And that’s just one of the insights you’ll be getting from Crew Call: the Below the Line Podcast, brought to you by TAPA! Kickstarter campaign coming soon.

Footnotes    (↩ returns to text)

  1. An unlikely scenario, it’s true, but just go with it for the sake of argument.
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4 Responses

  1. Thank you, TAPA, for defending those of us in casting!

    For Sean, I think it’s incredibly rude and arrogant of you to assume you know how to do a job when you clearly have never even worked in a casting office. Why don’t you go be a casting assistant during pilot season, and then get back to me.

  2. Oh God, Casting is the devils work. Especially on anything that doesn’t have a billion dollar budget. In film school I had to cast three projects at once, one of them consisting of only men, and 10 of them. Big roles. With a VERY specific director looking for miracles. It’s the only time I’ve ever felt overwhelmed.

    Sean: Try casting four movies at once and lemme know how easy it is.

  3. I also think (even though we all have bad experiences from time to time) it’s good to have respect for and have appreciation for every single person’s job on set. There was one female producer who was known to have rotated everyone’s position for a day; she was an electric, I believe, one day, and it gave her even more respect for the job set electricians do. While it’s easy to look at someone doing their job and think “oh please; any monkey with the intelligence of a rock could do that (no offence to monkeys)”, it’s often not the case; it just LOOKS easy. Plus, it’s better when we all respect what each one of us does and makes for a happier set working environment.

  4. Right on target. After fifteen years of doing television shows (and twenty before that on features and commercials), the value of good casting has become increasingly clear to me. Put the right actor in the right role, and magic can happen — choose the wrong actor, and the whole thing falls apart. You really can’t overemphasize the value of good casting.

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