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Tales From The Script: Casting & Directing Talent

By August 6, 2013Business


We’re all about capturing the moment.

We go buck wild on pre-production, we always put story first, and we stay present on the shoot at all times.

But sometimes the best way to tell a story is to craft a scripted narrative… and instead of capturing the moment — you’re controlling every moment.

It’s a whole new ball game, but it’s one worth playing — because it’s a lot of fun.

A scripted narrative is a much bigger production than event work; you need to build everything from the ground up, and as Patrick says, “create your reality.”

Working with a script means you’ll need to hire talent and direct them to fit into the reality you’ve created for the piece. Once you’ve hired talent, you’ll be working closely with them, constantly telling them what to do in order to properly tell the story and fit into the narrative.

Scripted work is not easy, and you’ll probably have a lot of questions when it comes to casting people for your narrative…

How do I find the right actors?

How do I direct those actors productively?

Where do I find extras to be in my movie?

These are just a few of the questions that will come up when you’re working with actors on a scripted narrative, and our shoot with the Strangling Brothers Haunted Circus provided us with all kinds of insight on this topic.


Four ways to find the perfect actor…

So you’ve got your story figured out and your script in hand — but now comes the hard part: finding the people who will carry out your vision on the screen.

You’ve got a few options when it comes to finding actors for your film, and since you want the piece to be great you need to make the right choice and you need to make it in a timely fashion.

Unless you know a guy who knows a guy who is the perfect actor for your piece, you’ll probably go one of the following ways when it comes to casting an actor:

1. Talent Agency

Contacting a local or non-local talent agency is a great way to find the actor or actress you’re looking for. Local is obviously ideal, since it means you won’t need to fly the talent out to the shoot location. But if your budget allows it and you can’t find the right person locally, consider a talent agency in California — where everyone is an actor.

A talent agency will have a website where you can scroll through different head shots and find someone who you think might be right for the part. Give them a call and talk to them about the actor or actors you’re considering — often the agency is going to be very honest with you, and they might give you a few different ways to help you decide if the actor is right for your piece.

For example, they might think a few actors at their agency would be good for the role, and they’ll send them your way for a private audition. This is nice because instead of trying to choose between 20 actors, you might just have to choose between 3 people.

Or, if you have a copy of your script ready to go, some agencies will allow you to send it to them and they will record a video of their actors reading from it. This is a great option if you’re going out of the state and don’t have time to schedule an audition.

For this Strangling Brothers piece we went through a talent agency to find our actor, Cory Dangerfield — and he was perfect!

2. Local Acting Boards

Almost every city will have a local performance board, where directors and production companies can post auditions. These boards are checked by local actors and dancers frequently. You can hold an audition or set up what are called “go-sees,” where actors will come to meet you and it’s basically like a job interview.

When holding an audition, it’s important that you determine not only who looks the part and acts well — but also who can take direction well, because that’s what you’ll be doing all day!

3. Casting Director

A casting director is also a great option for finding talent. The great thing about a casting director is that you can tell them what you need and what your resources/limitations are, and they’ll pull from different talent agencies to find what you’re looking for.

For example you might tell them you’re looking a non-union actor and you only have X amount of money, and they’ll find your talent based on your needs. Drawing from different talent agencies in the area will give you more diversity than calling just one talent agency.

4. Craigslist

The fabled public website where any post you make will probably leave you with a lot of uncertainty and fear. We wouldn’t recommend going this route unless you really have to, simply because of the probability of not finding what you need while wasting a lot of time auditioning the wrong people. That being said, it’s always there if you need it.

Union or non-union?

When you’re hiring an actor a really important factor is whether or not they’re a member of an actors union or not.

For larger commercial shoots actors will almost always belong to a union, whereas independent productions will often hire non-union actors because they offer a lot more flexibility. By “flexibility” we mean that hiring an actor who belongs to a union means all the actors you hire for the shoot need to belong to a union as well, and that can be limiting.

Actors do or don’t join a union based on the opportunities they want to get — joining a union will open up opportunities for more commercial work, but remaining non-union will offer more unique opportunities through smaller independent companies looking for that flexibility.

This is just a brief overview of union vs. non-union actors, and a great resource to learn more about the subject is by research the two largest acting unions, SAG and the AEA.

The important part is that you identify whether you’re looking for a union or non-union actor, and hire accordingly.


“That was so amazing! Now do it this way…”

Now that you’ve hired your talent, it’s time to work with them.

Directing talent is no easy task, and professional actors offer up a whole new set of challenges. How you treat them can make or break your final piece, so it’s crucial that you know how to work with an actor to get what you need out of them and keep them feeling good throughout the day.

Here are some helpful tips for working with actors:

1. Praise and rephrase.

You’ll definitely have an actor performing lines and scenes several times over before it feels just right. It’s really important that you praise them after each cut, first telling them that it was great, and then moving forward with a suggestion of how they could do the next one differently. Language is important — don’t say anything negative to the talent or they will begin to exude that negativity, get frustrated with you or themselves.

2. Treat them like a star.

Regardless of the level of stardom your actor has achieved, you should treat them like an Oscar-winner. Be aware of their needs and be attentive — if you have a PA on set, make sure they’re aware of this and able to cater to the talent. It is so absolutely crucial that the talent is treated well — if they are having a bad experience on the set, it could ruin your whole piece!

3. Consider a script supervisor.

Depending on how familiar the talent is with the script, you may consider assigning someone to be the talent’s right-hand-man with the script on set, there to offer support when they forget a line and keep an open dialogue with them about the script. This person can also help out when it comes to attending to the talent’s needs.

We used a script supervisor for this haunted circus piece and it helped out immensely — our talent had limited time with the script beforehand, and having a script supervisor there to keep him on track between takes was vital!

Lights, camera… extras?

Everywhere we go, we see a bunch of people walking around and we have no idea who they are.

This is true in the real world, and the fake world. Constructing a fake reality often means finding a bunch of people to walk around — and you have no idea who they are.

Getting extras is kind of a weird thing… where do these people come from?

Well, there are basically two things we’ll recommend when it comes to getting extras:

1. Family and friends and friends of friends.

For this particular shoot, the Strangling Brothers company had a lot of family and friends willing to come out and be a part of the shoot. This was awesome because they were happy to come out and help and we didn’t have to pay to hire extras. Now, the good thing about finding family and friends rather than just random volunteers is that they were able to converse with people they know during awkward lulls when we weren’t shooting.

These people have to do a lot of standing around, it’s important to consider that they have someone there to hang out with while they’re just chillin’.

It’s also much easier to tell them what to do when they feel more connected to the piece. Often for so many types of shoots you’ll need bodies in the frame, and you’ve most likely experienced the random “hey, do you have a minute?…” moment with someone while filming. This can work in a pinch, but getting family and friends of your own or of the client to come out for the piece can make a huge difference in levels of enthusiasm and restlessness from the extras.

2. Hire them.

You can hire extras through something like Craigslist or extras unions (search for these locally), and it’s important to consider adding them into your budget because you’ll feel a lot better about telling them what to do if you’re paying them to be there.


You are a reflection of your talent’s performance…

Seriously, you are.

Whether you’re doing an interview or scripted work, the level of enthusiasm you have around your talent is going to have a huge impact on their overall performance.

On this particular shoot, we experienced that firsthand….

In Utah it really only rains about 3 times a year. So it only makes sense that during our shoot there was a torrential down pour, complete with thunder and lightning in the middle of a field where we had a bunch of generators running (hint: generators and lightning do not mix).

Also, the storm came right at one of the most crucial scenes that required a ton of participation from the extras who volunteered to come out for the shoot.

We were shooting the scene with the two demented clown brothers onstage, and before them sits a crowd of jeering circus-goers. We had to keep that crowd pumped up and ready to go for several takes, cheering like they would at a real circus.

There we were, with a tarp over the Epic to keep it from getting dumped on or struck by lightning, and huge group of 40 extras standing around in the rain ready to go home!

Patrick ran up and down the aisle waving his arms like a wild man, trying to keep the crowd as amped as possible for as long as possible while also running back to the camera to make sure the image was on point.

Without that kind of enthusiasm and energy, the scene would have been a total fail — people don’t want to stand in the rain pretending to be excited, but they do want to help people who are passionate and excited about what they’re doing 🙂


Don’t forget the power of improvisation…

Our event coverage experience did come in handy a few times on this shoot.

To tell the story of the haunted circus, we obviously had to show some people walking through it and being scared shitless.

But ‘scared shitless’ can be hard to fake… so we intentionally set up the experience of a lot of our actors to be the real experience of walking through the haunted circus for the first time.

We didn’t let people even so much as peek inside the trailers before we were rolling, so that we could get real reactions form them as they walked through and decapitated clowns jumped out at them.

It was kind of like this:

Richard Gere was directed by Gary Marshall to snap this box shut, it wasn’t a scripted moment but became one of the most memorable moments of the movie because Julia’s reaction was so natural.

This is a strategy you always want to consider when filming, because it can produce both the best results and you won’t have to do much directing in that moment at all, it’s a real natural reaction coming from a real person.

These moments do, however, need to be well planned out — because you’ll only have one chance.

You create the reality…

As we said before, we love doing event work because we love capturing the moment.

But (with the exception of moments of improvisation), scripted work is not about capturing the moment — it’s about control. Casting and directing talent is a huge part of that — and how you handle it is going to effect all the other things you need to control on the set.

Staying on schedule? It’s pretty hard to do if your talent is grumpy and demanding the sandwich that you forgot to pick up.

It’s also pretty hard to do if your talent just isn’t working out, and you can’t get the scene right.

For these and many other reasons, it’s so crucial that you approach casting and directing talent with your vision in mind, and don’t settle.

For our haunted circus shoot with the Strangling Brothers, how we chose our talent and worked with them made all the difference when the rain came — and we pulled it off without ruining the camera or getting struck by lightning.

Our dreams, however, are still haunted by clowns.


What’s your experience working with actors and scripts?

Tell us about it!


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  • Rodrigo says:

    Working with actors is one of the toughest parts of the filming process, it’s a craft that perfects itself with time. The more actors you direct, the better director you become. In my experience, I found that using a “dramatic vocabulary” was very handy in order to improve my communication with the actors. After a shot (if I had any corrections to make) I talked with them and asked them to consider 3 things: their objective, risk and urgency (these terms are being roughly translated from spanish).
    The objective is “what they want to achieve” in the scene, the risk is “what will happen to them if they fail” and the urgency is “how much time do they have to acomplish their objective”.
    These three words are very helpful. Any trained actor will get them and improve their performance immediatly (and will respect you more for using a proper dramatic vocabulary), they are also very simple to explain to people that have no dramatic training. Along with that, it allows you to have a more efficient way to communicate your ideas to improve the performance of the actors.

  • Garry says:

    After 30 years of working with many actors, both union and non-union, professional and non-professional, I can say that for the most part, they are not as “fragile” as you have described in your blog. I find actors to be risk takers, eager for direction and possessing a desire to get it right, both for the film and for themselves. I do agree that you need to give them concrete feedback, not just, “let’s do it again and see what happens”. They also respond to a relaxed demeanor on set, rather than the archetypal screamer director. I have had a couple meltdowns during shoots, but they were the result of the actor beating himself up, not feeling like he had done a good job. In that situation, a calm voice talking them off the ledge seemed to work best.

  • Thanks for your kind words. That was a fun shoot to work on. David was a joy to work with, and the crew was extremely accommodating. Minor note: you’ve mispelled my name in your blog. Once again, there is no “e” in Cory. Beleive it or not there is another ‘Corey Dangerfield’ out there, and because of his reputation, I try to keep myself distanced from him in every way possible. Best of luck to you guys.

    • Margaret says:

      Thanks Cory! Really sorry for the misspelling — I just checked my records and saw that David totally did give me the correct spelling. I think maybe my love for Corey Feldman took over in the particular moment 😉

      You did an awesome job!