Whether you’re producing a web series, a stage play, a movie or a bootstrapped startup, the most important decision you’ll ever make is this:
“Whom should I surround myself with?”
During production, your cast becomes your family. You’ll love them, you’ll hate them, you’ll argue with them and you’ll be forever in their debt — and, by the time you’re done, they’ll all feel the same way about you.
Since August, I’ve been producing The Baristas for a January 2011 release. And while a handful of actors are crossing over from their 6-year run on Something to Be Desired, the vast majority of the faces I’ve surrounded myself with are brand new. In essence, I’ve known some of these people for less than a week and I’ve already entrusted them with the future of both my creation and your viewing pleasure.
Am I crazy?
No. I just have gut instincts, common sense, and the unsettling ability to divorce myself emotionally from whatever’s in front of me at the time.
Here are 5 tips on how I used those traits to assemble a cast I believe in*.
1. Have someone else organize the auditions, so you can remain objective. In the case of The Baristas, I asked Erik Schark (who plays Rich on STBD and TB) to organize the auditions, interface with the actors, schedule their call times and conduct any relevant follow-ups prior to the audition date. That way, Erik got to see everyone’s head shot, judge their resume and bio, decide whether or not they fit our needs, and serve as a buffer for anything that went wrong, while I remained blissfully unattached.
Then, whenever an actor finally entered the audition space, I could view them as a brand new entity. I had no preconceptions based on what I’d seen in anyone’s head shot or bio, and no idea whether or not they’d been impossible to communicate with during the lead-up. That allowed me to only judge their performance and their ability to take direction in the moment. Afterward, Erik and I compared notes and he explained how some actors diverged from or exceeded his expectations, which I could then consider as a counterpoint to my own instincts.
2. Keep the cast as small as possible. How many characters do you need to tell your story? The right answer is always “as few as possible.” The audience can relate to two characters faster, and care about them more deeply, than if their attention is divided among ten.
On the other hand, don’t short-change yourself. If you need ten characters, or fifty, then cast for ten or fifty. Just make sure each of them is absolutely, positively necessary to tell your story. When you add even one more character, you’ve simultaneously added new wardrobe, scheduling and transportation concerns, as well as an extra character arc that requires a satisfying resolution.
Don’t invent more work for everyone involved while diluting the impact of everyone’s contribution. Whenever possible, less is more.
3. Weed out the problem children early**. Creating a web series from scratch is fun, but it’s also hard work that requires long hours from everyone involved. When the chips are down, you’ll need to rely on professionals who can remain dedicated, innovative and supportive in the face of adveristy. Identifying who those people may (and may not) be begins as early as the audition process.
When you’re casting, in addition to studying the skill and magnetism of the actors, also note their personalities and work habits. Did they show up late for their call time, or cancel without warning? Are their current schedules flooded with work or personal obligations that will make your project a low priority? Do they have trouble taking direction, or understanding the basic explanation of the work involved and your expectations of them?
As easy as it is to optimistically overlook a warning flag now, what may seem like an isolated issue is always a symptom of a larger problem. If an actor is late, argumentative, distracted or confused today, s/he’ll continue to display poor time management, teamwork, attentiveness and listening skills tomorrow. Make sure that the value an actor will ultimately bring to your venture is worth the time you’ll spend correcting their negative habits throughout.
4. Improvisation is always a plus. Even if your production will be 100% scripted, it helps to know how adaptable and innovative your actors can be under pressure. Sometimes a line won’t work, or a scene will have to be tweaked, or (god forbid) an entire episode will need to be reconceived and reshot for any number of reasons. Knowing that your cast can invent on the fly can provide you with a subconscious safety net for those times when you need to change course quickly.
Also, some actors read extremely well during auditions but can’t improvise whatsoever. Others may come across stiff when they’re working from a script but they’re captivating when they’re allowed to improvise. Understanding your cast’s strengths and comfort levels is key to helping you provide them with material and scenarios that will challenge them creatively while ensuring that they can deliver their best (and most watchable) performances.
5. They’re your cast, not your lovers***. Ideally, while you may love (or at least appreciate) every actor you’re working with, that doesn’t mean you owe any of them anything (unless it’s stated in the contract). If you need to cut an actor from a scene, or an episode, or from the cast entirely, that’s your prerogative. Make your choices based on an honest evaluation of what’s best for that scene / episode / series, not on what’s best for your relationship with that actor. Most actors would prefer to have one good scene in a great film than a lifetime’s worth of great performances in drek that no one ever saw because everything else about the project was unwatchable.
* It should be noted that I’ve broken every one of these rules at least once. That doesn’t make them any less of a cautionary tale. Buy me a beer sometime and I’ll explain how I fixed each problem. (Sometimes, the solution itself involved beer…)
** Sometimes, the problem child is you. Buy me two beers and I’ll tell you all the ways I’ve hurt my own projects with my own poor time management and communication skills. (But if, like me, you already know you’re a scatterbrained grouch whose flaws are bound to sabotage your own work, that makes it even more imperative to cast actors who can adapt to your own particular brand of lunacy.)
*** Unless you actually are working with your spouse, lover, family or friends. But, even then, they want what’s best for the project too. Don’t let guilt, ego or libido cloud your judgment now, or you’ll have even more regrets — and an unwatchable product — later.