Recasting the Casting Director

Producer Sandra Katz has tried for three years to raise money for Nothing Men, a film by first-time director John Serpe. “It’s a vicious cycle,” she says. “You can’t get all your financing until you get a name actor, and you can’t get a name actor until you get your financing.”

Sound familiar? It’s a common scenario: A first-time director and producer are seeking $1 million and a cast for an independent feature. They have a script, but are having trouble convincing anyone to read it. Agents and managers don’t have the time or patience to consider a project with no money and no shooting date. Investors want to know what talent is attached and the filmmakers don’t happen to be friends with A-list talent—or B-list, for that matter.

Enter the casting director. She (the Casting Society of America estimates that three out of four casting directors are female) has been casting long enough to have developed relationships with agents, managers, and actors. They trust her.

Here comes the latest twist: After a month of pitching, our hypothetical casting director gets the script in front of supermodel Claudia Schiffer, whom the director agrees would be great in the role of the blonde girlfriend, and Schiffer agrees to attach her name. According to Phoenician Films’ VP of Production Mark McGarry, Claudia Schiffer means $400,000 in German pre-sales. Soon, an investor returns calls. As a result, an agent returns calls. Next the casting director is talking to Stephen Dorff, who also means big money overseas. A few months later, the cast is locked, the film is fully financed, and the first day of principle photography is set. Upon her request, the casting director (who has since moved on to two or three new projects) will be listed as associate producer.

This scenerio is happening more and more often these days, and it raises a few questions. What exactly is the role of a casting director in independent film today? Is it legitimate for a casting director to get a producer credit if he or she indirectly assists in financing a film? How do casting directors—and producers and directors, for that matter—balance a film’s creative and financial needs? The Independent posed these questions to an array of directors, producers, and casting directors.

Juliette Taylor has been a casting director in New York for the past three decades and is a firsthand witness to the evolution of her trade. Her credits include “around 30” of Woody Allen’s films and many features by Mike Nichols, Nora Ephron, and Alan Parker. According to Taylor, the casting director began as a kind of administrator. “There was a period probably up until the early sixties when casting directors in the big studios only made grocery lists and had big cattle calls for actors,” she recalls. “It was not a selective process. Marion Dougherty was really the person who broke the mold.” Dougherty revolutionized her art during her tenure as unofficial queen of New York television and feature casting, spawning half the casting directors in this article. “Before Marion, casting directors were more secretarial and organizational; nobody really looked at them for their opinions. They were up against directors who expected to see hundreds of people, all of them the same. But Marion chose to show directors two or three actors who were all quite different. She added dimension to the roles she cast. Of course, people loved that because she was so creative and bright and had such great instincts.” According to Taylor, Dougherty was one of the people who pushed the casting director’s name from the credits crawl at the back of the picture to the main title credits at the front.

When casting directors were elevated from facilitators to creative players, their power increased accordingly. With the advent of independent film, there has been another metamorphosis in the casting director’s role. As a result of the increasing pressure to cast name talent, the role of casting director in low-budget independents has evolved past the creative stage; it has become, in some ways, producorial. It is a well-known fact that the market for low-budget film is flooded with product and that the supply of funds has dwindled. Investors, studios, and distributors are scrambling to hedge their bets. “Studios or mini-majors are always driven to make sure they can leverage their risk by having some sort of quantifiable commercial entity,” says Ted Hope, Good Machine’s co-founder/producer, “i.e. a star.” Due to the increasing pressure to cast name talent, for many rookie directors and producers attaching a seasoned, well-connected casting director may indirectly determine the size of their budget. In some cases, she may mean the difference between development hell and a green light. If a film gets its financing because of the talent attached and the casting director is the creative and strategic force behind this, then she is effectively helping to produce the film. Or so the argument goes.
Todd M. Thaler is one of those casting directors who now has an associate producer credit to his name. After beginning his film career in production, Thaler moved into casting and cast such films as Heavy, Copland, and Mr. Jealousy. Recently, however, Thaler started itching to get back into production. In 1997, he sheparded a film by William DeVizi called Lesser Prophets through a lengthy, troubled casting process and managed to convince actor John Turturro to commit. Since Turturro is an “actor magnet,” according to Thaler, the rest of the cast and financing fell into place. “They were happy to reward me with [an associate producer] credit,” he says, “because they wouldn’t necessarily have to reward me with any more money.” Is what he did considered producing? Although Thaler acknowledges he wasn’t a “hands-on, on-the-set, continue-on-through-postproduction kind of producer,” he feels the title fits. “Considering the situation,” he says, “who really is as much a producer but me? I truly feel that if I’m going to avail myself to low- or no-budget films, films that come to me before there’s even a promise of full financing, my reward will be included in that producing unit.”

Casting director Susan Shopmaker (Hurricane Streets, Ties to Rachel) got her first associate producer credit on a film she cast last summer called Saturn, which she describes as “a very small movie . . . a true labor of love.” Like Thaler, Shopmaker had been entertaining the idea of moving from casting to producing and believes that “the credits you get on these smaller movies hopefully become a means to an end.” Careful to qualify the terms under which she would ask for a producer credit, Shopmaker says such a request “depends on the size and scope of the movie and how the budget changes because of my involvement. If somebody comes to me with a simple budget and they’ve got money in the bank, it is my job as casting director to try to do what they want, whether that’s attaching names or not. It’s different if somebody comes to me and the budget of their movie will change drastically or they don’t have money in the bank. Then because of what I may be able to do for them—enable them to make their movie—asking for producer credit is viable.”

The request for producer credit is by no means standard among casting directors, at least not yet. Many casting directors have no interest in producing or producer credit whatsoever, including such stalwarts as Ellen Lewis (Big Night, Goodfellas), Laura Rosenthal (Velvet Goldmine, Bullets Over Broadway), and Ann Goulder (Welcome to the Dollhouse, Happiness). They recognize the financial implications of casting, but see it primarily as a creative act.

For independent films with larger budgets, established producers and directors, or the support of a more reputable production company, the role for the casting director is typically a more traditional one. The producers might even cast the leads themselves. “If I’m developing a script and trying to attach an actor to help with the financing,” says Good Machine’s Ted Hope, “there’s not a huge list there. Plus, we’re pretty savvy on who the companies like as up-and-comers [so] we’d probably cast leads by ourselves.” In such cases, a casting director is hired after the leads are locked. Higher budgets may also allow the producer to sufficiently pay a casting director up front.

Many casting directors will tell you that, typically, working on independents takes time, energy, and tremendous patience for little financial gain. A casting director must be willing to break down walls with finesse and win the interest of actors and their representation despite the fact that the project may not yet be financed. “This is the same thing a producer is doing,” says casting director-turned-producer Alexa Fogel, who recently quit her job helming ABC/New York’s casting department to produce her own projects. “It’s based entirely on your energy and your relationships, and it is exhausting, producorial work.” Over the years, Fogel has been approached “all the time” by independents to “put together packages that ultimately lead to financing” in return for either a nominal fee or a deferment. Fogel estimates that “by and large, casting directors make less than heads of any other department.” She says they are “trying to rally enough so that there’s a standard that can be applied as far as pay scales, but it’s tough. There is always someone who might do it for less.” Especially in independent film, many casting directors do not get paid upfront.

That is one reason why many casting directors are asking for something else—additional credit, or speculative involvement on the back end. Producer Laura Bickford (Playing God, Bongwater) is developing a film for which she hired a casting director specifically “to cast a role to get us the money.” She insists that giving this person a producer credit “seems a ridiculous use of [the] credit, because that’s what casting directors are supposed to do. We’ve paid this casting director a small fee, and she’ll get a bigger fee and a percentage—a participation in the movie (which a casting director normally wouldn’t get)—if she gets the star that makes the movie. She wouldn’t do it for a producing credit alone.”

There are those who will, however. “I’d much rather have a producing credit than a monetary reward,” says Bonnie Finnegan, who has been a casting consultant for Paramount Television/New York for almost 20 years and whose casting credits include The Prince of Tides and The Mirror Has Two Faces. “You don’t do independent films for the money; there isn’t any money. You work on them because you like the writing and the director and because it expands your world a little bit.” Finnegan echoes the main reason cited by casting directors for working on independent films—the pleasure of nurturing unusual, innovative material. “Some of the scripts are completely different from the TV work I do,” Finnegan says. “In my mind the TV stuff supplements working on independent films that pay nothing, but the writing is so extraordinary.”

Everyone agrees that bringing in money is a producer’s job. So if a casting director’s efforts help supply you with your budget, why not oblige him or her with a producing credit?

Before doling out credits, you might first stop to consider the other side of this question. Namely, how do we determine exactly why a project is greenlighted? Are we sure it’s because of the talent the casting director brought in? If so, shouldn’t the director get producer credit, since he’s probably the one who makes final casting decisions? And what about the actor? “If actors find out that your financing has come about because of their involvement,” says Hope, “they, more than a casting director, have the legitimacy to speak of producer credit.” Then there’s the writer. Every casting director will tell you that actors most often commit to a project based on the strength of script. “The only way you can approach anybody with name value in the independent arena,” says Fogel, “is to entice them with material that is worthy or a phenomenal role to act. You have nothing else to offer. You can’t offer money.” So if the play, and not the player, is still the thing, shouldn’t the writer get producer credit?

The way producers are settling this question—at least for the moment—is described by Hope: “If the movie is being financed on the basis of the cast that the casting director truly brought in, current expectations are that the casting director would receive some form of producer credit. But it’s often impossible to attribute an actor’s commitment to only one person’s effort.” Therefore, he notes, casting directors with producing credits are still in the minority.

The job of casting director today is very much a precarious creative-financial balancing act, as the pressure has increased to bring in name actors in order to attract financial backers. As Bickford says, “Everybody needs a hook to sell a movie, and the easiest hook is a star.” But most casting directors—whether they want producer credit or not—have expressed frustration at the increasing limitations that casting known names imposes on their creative process.

“I would hope that I can bring the best actor to the part and be a possible creative entity, but this happens less and less,” says Shopmaker. “I think the whole business has changed—and there’s the word right there: business.”

“In every small film, casting names has been an issue, and I dread it,” says Ellen Lewis. Likewise, according to Fogel, the growing importance of casting name talent “is ruining us. If star power is what is necessary in a foreign sales market, then we have no choice but to adhere to what’s being dictated. But do I think we have a limited pool from which to cast? Do I think that to some degree it’s eroding the aesthetic possibilities?

Absolutely. Without question.” Put more bluntly, High Art director Lisa Cholodenko says, “I’ve seen that kind of casting fuck up a lot of films that otherwise could have been good.”

There are, of course, countless examples of independent films that have been successful despite the relative anonymity of their casts. Pi, Welcome to the Dollhouse, High Art, and Girls Town are just a few examples of films that have created, rather than capitalized on, name talent. “That kind of casting isn’t really dead,” says Ann Goulder. “When I cast The Adventures of Sebastian Cole, which was made on a very small budget, the money was already there, and the director, Ted Williams, had a great, refreshing attitude: he wanted the best actor for the part and wasn’t desperate for names.”

Among the reasons for making films independently is the ability to maintain artistic freedom without submitting to genres, financial pressures, or mainstream cultural taste. Producer/director Jim McKay (Girls Town) stresses that “It’s a beautiful experience for an audience to watch a movie and not recognize anyone. They can enter new terrain and find new stories; they don’t just say, ‘That’s Stanley Tucci! I love that guy!’ ” Fogel will cast McKay’s next feature, Our Song, and while McKay does not yet have financing in place, he insists that “I will not cast for money. I’m actually trying to cast unknowns.”

There will probably always be independent filmmakers who think like McKay, but the rise of the casting director-as-producer indicates that, in today’s climate, casting for independent film has become as much a numbers game as it is pure, unflinching artistic expression. Whatever her final credits, the casting director is the linchpin in this process.

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