Casting actors for your independent film
Next to having a great screenplay and a clear vision, casting great actors is the best thing you can do to improve the odds of your film succeeding. Casting good actors is 80% of the directing process because once you have cast actors who understand what they are doing the directors job is almost done. Nothing is worse for the director than having prima-donna actors who can't act, won't follow directions, show up late if at all, are dishonest and quit just when you need them.
If you have the money hire a Casting Director. Casting directors make it their business to know lots of actors and actor's agents. The best ones have access to a vast number of actors. They don't hire the actors. They bring them to you to audition. Casting directors know the SAG rules, how much an actor wants to be paid and will help you negotiate the contract.
The casting director is a member of the creative team. A good one will understand storytelling, will "get" your vision for the film and be excited by it, will have a positive attitude and high regard for actors, will have access to the best talents and agents and will be able to negotiate on your behalf. The best casting directors will figure out a way to get that one special talent despite the fact that they demand more than you can pay and are already booked.
Use a casting director who is local to where you are casting the film. The greatest New York casting director won't do you much good if you are looking for actors in Chicago.
You can locate casting directors through Breakdown Services, Ltd. The Casting Society of America (CSA) issues a quarterly directory of casting directors. Of course, casting directors want to get paid for their services so if you are doing a very low-budget indie, your can probably forget using casting directors.
If you can find one that is hungry enough they may work for a reduced fee but they probably won't have the experience or reputation to be able to access the best actors.
Breakdown Services, Ltd.
Breakdown Services, Ltd. provides the service of "breaking down" your script into a synopsis and cast list. The breakdown sheets will be sent to casting directors, actors agents and personal managers who will pay Breakdown Services a share of their commission if they get any of their actors cast in your film.
Breakdown Services will require that your film has solid financing behind it however so if you're paying for your film with credit cards and your rich aunt's generosity you can probably forget Breakdown Services.
Also, when Breakdown Services distributes sheets for you film you will suddenly be visible to the unions who may start to pressure you to only use union actors and crews. If you're operating on a small budget you won't be able to afford to go union yet.
What's the small indie to do?
Part of your job as an independent filmmaker is to always be on the lookout for actors. Attend local theater productions. Large cities with any kind of theater going on will have stage actors who would love a chance to break into film. Even smaller communities will have some wannabe actors.
In a pinch you can try casting friends, family and interesting people you meet. Most people are willing to give acting a try. The lure of possible stardom works to your benefit.
Ask other filmmakers and ask the actors you find to recommend other actors.
Find local bulletin boards at colleges, community centers, churches and shopping centers where you can put up notices, or run ads in local papers.
There are online casting services where you can advertise for the roles you need. Many of them let you place ads for free and the actors pay to get access to the listings. ExtrasForMovies.com has national listings of upcoming auditions where filmmakers can post their auditions for free. In the San Francisco Bay Area filmmakers can use Bay Area Casting to post a project and connect with actors.
Don't put your phone number in the ad because you may be inundated with calls. List your address and E-mail.
Ask prospective actors to send their resume and glossy. All actors have a resume of acting jobs and training they've had. They also have an 8x10 black and white glossy photo.
The entertainment business is the only business where you don't have to be entirely politically correct in your hiring practices. If your script calls for a crippled dwarf and a beautiful blue-eyed blonde to have sex then that's what you can advertise for and no one can sue you for being biased if they don't meet your qualifications.
Based on the experience they list and what they look like on the glossy you can decide if you want them to audition. E-mail or call them and set up a time when they can audition.
Try to get references and call them to find out how other directors and filmmakers feel about their acting ability and willingness to cooperate.
The SAG question
Once upon a time actors had about the worst working conditions and job security of any profession. The Screen Actors Guild was formed to provide protection and fair compensation for movie actors. SAG has become very powerful with ever increasing demands for higher pay and benefits for the members actors. This has forced many producers to work in Canada and other countries where all costs are lower and they can limit having to deal with SAG.
The fact is that there are always far more actors wanting work than there is work to do. Only a tiny percentage of actors actually make a living by acting. You do not need to use SAG actors. A SAG actor is probably a lot better than your cousin but not necessarily. But if the actor you're interested in is a member of SAG you can still hire them.
Many SAG actors will work for free or at least less than SAG minimums. SAG knows it and mostly turns a blind eye because they know actors need the work and need the practice and credits to get ahead. They almost never step in unless a member actor complains to them about how they are being treated.
You won't get in trouble if you use a SAG actor and don't pay them the minimum rate if they agree to work under your terms. It's not your problem. Actors won't get in trouble unless they are very blatant in flaunting the rules.
If you think you can afford it check with SAG about their various low-budget agreements. The ultra-low budget (under $200,000 budget) allows for SAG actors to be paid $100 per day, plus benefits and a lot of paper work. A short film agreement allows for SAG actors to work for free on short films, under 35 minutes,.with a budget of less than $50,000 as long as the film isn't sold.
Never sign a SAG agreement under your own name. If you do you are bound for life to always abide by union rules and use union workers on all your films. Form a limited liability company and sign in the name of the company if you decide to work with SAG. When your film is done you dissolve the limited liability company and you are no longer obligated to SAG.
All indies work this way.