DSR - Casting

(Previous posts here)

From first draft to final draft, the script took the best part of 18 months.  Fairly early on – around four months in – I started casting. 

The script has only two main characters – and I wrote it with two actors I knew in mind.  This was helpful for me while writing the script, but it painted me into a corner when one of the actors became unavailable. 

 It’s fairly easy to find good actors.  You put out a casting call and they’re everywhere…  Each one brings something different and interesting to a role…

But they’re not acting in isolation, and finding two good actors who have chemistry together is tricky.  ‘Actor A’ is great with ‘Actor B’, but ‘B’ isn’t available…  ‘C’ is great in that role, but is too tall/short/young when next to ‘A’… ‘C’ and ‘D’ might work together, but you’ll have to film in December rather than the summer….


I didn't have money for a casting director, so I had to go about things my own way.  I started by approaching all the actors that I’d met or worked with in the past, or had met via Twitter.  I sent out the script – which was still pretty rough at this time – and some liked it, some didn’t.

Those that liked it were keen to read for a part – but they were all available to audition on different days.  If I’d hired a room for casting, I would have needed it for a week just to accommodate the varying schedules…

So I used Hyde Park instead.

The summer of 2013 was beautiful – the longest, hottest we’ve ever had in the UK.  I spent a huge amount of time in the park, auditioning actors, and getting my second-best ever tan. 

I’m sure that most people would advise against auditioning actors in public like this – and there are good arguments against it.  However, manage the situation right, and you can keep things fairly relaxed.  Hyde Park is huge – and it’s pretty easy to find somewhere without too many people and distractions.  95% of the script takes place outside, so having a tree or two around is actually quite handy. 

And if there are people nearby?  Well, whoever gets the role is going to be dressed in period costume acting in front of a crew, bystanders, etc.  If it’s a problem that there’s a member of the public sat 50 yards away while they’re auditioning, it’s probably going to be a problem when you shoot too.    

There were three key scenes that I’d highlighted as good audition pieces (one early in the script, one around the middle, and one near the end), which were intended to give me a clear sense of what each actor might bring to the role.  We’d read the scenes, I’d give some feedback, and then we’d read again. 

I started by seeing each actor on their own – reading opposite me, playing the other role.  Then, as I found actors I liked, I’d organise another session in the park and see two actors opposite each other.

I found some incredible actors… but couldn’t find a pair who had the spark I was looking for.

So I broadened the search.  I put out casting calls on Casting Call Pro, I wrote emails to actors whose profiles I found on that site and Spotlight.  I watched hundreds of showreels on YouTube…

I soon had dozens of actors emailing me.  Almost too many.  Some, I’d approached, others had heard about the project.  People were offering to come from far and wide to audition.  Far, and wide – I’d initially limited myself to actors in London (where I was living), and actors in the South West (where I planned to film).  Logistically, this seemed like the best idea – people I could easily get access to, when we needed to rehearse and film.

Now, I had actors writing to me from all over the country.  I knew that unless there was something very special, I couldn’t encourage people to come all the way to London for a half-hour sat in the park with me.  So, I got people to send in video auditions.  I’ve never done this before, but I’d certainly do it again. 

In addition to the auditions I did in person, I must have had another 30+ video auditions, of around 5 minutes each.  An audition can be a strange and uncomfortable situation for an actor at the best of times – but a video audition can take that up to 11.  You’ve got lines you barely know, a webcam, no direction, no feedback… And sometimes (if you’re lucky) a friend off-camera feeding you lines. 

As director, you have a responsibility to recognise the weirdness of the situation when you’re watching the auditions.  You’re putting people through this, and if you’re looking for the wrong thing you’re potentially wasting everyone’s time.

You are unlikely to see someone and think ‘My God… It’s them! They’re exactly what I was looking for!’.  The situation pretty much precludes that possibility.

But – you will see if they can act.  If they have a spark.  You’ll see how they look on camera – and even tell if they’ve got a bit of an understanding of the difference between theatre and film acting.  You’ll see some potential.

And that’s enough – that’s what you’re looking for.  If you see something that’s interesting, work out the logistics and bring them in for a proper audition (as I did with several of the video auditions).  If you don’t, then you haven’t wasted too much of their time.

I didn’t meet every actor whose video audition showed they had ability.  At this stage in the process, I didn’t know exactly what I was looking for – but had to trust to (very subjective) instincts.  I think you have to do this – particularly on a microbudget.  Get it right in the casting, and you’ll make your life much easier on the shoot.  Although it’s tough, if you think someone isn’t quite right for the role you’re probably better off not pursuing it.  I know that there will be circumstances where this backfires – where you miss the incredible (and unexpected) different direction someone can bring to a role…

…But when you’ve got very little money and very little time, all you’ve got are your instincts.  Think it might not work? Move on.

So, by this stage I’d auditioned actors I knew, actors I’d met through networking, friends of actors I knew, actors who’d sent in video auditions. 

I now had a list of a half dozen actors I knew I wanted to work with at some point.  But I hadn’t yet found the right pairing – the two actors who had that spark when they came together.

I widened the net, and brought in some non-actors.  I worked for a while with a pairing that looked promising… but schedules didn’t work. 

I changed the gender of the two leads. 

I changed the gender of the leads.  Why do they have to be brothers? They could be sisters.  Or a brother and sister.  Why not? I was almost embarrassed that I hadn’t thought of it before. 

Now, gender-blind, I auditioned even more actors.  Still didn’t find quite what I was looking for – whatever that was. 

When I started writing (December 2012/January 2013), I had planned to shoot in the summer of 2013.  Now we’re in February 2014 and I’ve spent around 10 months casting (with varying degrees of enthusiasm)… But with no success.

At this point, I did two things.  One is sneaky.

Firsly, I wrote a letter to all the major drama schools in London.  I told them I was a writer who wanted actors for a read-through, to allow me to hear the script out loud before I began the next draft.  I included a description of the two main characters, and asked if they could recommend any recent graduates for the roles.

Within a few days, I had emails from two dozen actors, interested in helping out with the read-through.  Some of these actors I’d previously seen on Spotlight, but hadn’t managed to contact them as their agents had not passed on my enquiry.  This is completely understandable – if you write to an agent and say ‘I don’t know how much money we’ve got yet, and I don’t know when we’re filming’, you’re not going to the top of their to-do list.

My approach was slightly dishonest.  Was I taking advantage of people? Wasting their time?  I used every ounce of my willpower and reconciled myself to the situation fairly rapidly.  It took around 5 seconds.  Actors are an incredibly generous bunch – because they like being involved in something creative, they like meeting new people, and they love acting.  They’re in a tough business, which should – by all logic – breed the most awful individuals you’ve ever met… But instead, you find people who genuinely want to help you bring something to life – creative people, who love what they do. 

I started holding read-throughs with different pairings of actors.  One stood out – Jerome Thompson.  We chatted afterwards and it was clear he liked the script – ‘let me know if you ever decide to do anything with it!’.  I rubbed my hands together like a Victorian pantomime villain.  He had something – an energy, something dynamic I hadn’t seen before…

The second thing I did: The same week, I went to the theatre.  The Vault festival takes place each year in underground railway vaults beneath/behind Waterloo station.  And so – in a mouldy underground archway, dripping with condensation (and God knows what else), I sat down to watch ‘Captain Morgan and the Sands of Time’ – a pirate comedy by young writer/director Ben Behrens.  (If you get the chance, I recommend Captain Morgan very highly.  It’s one of the funniest things I’ve ever seen, sharply directed and beautifully written… anyway, back to the story)

Thunderbolt City.  I don’t think I’ve ever seen an actor with such huge presence on the stage.  Joe Newton – playing Captain Morgan – was magnetic.  Charming, dangerous, rugged… By the end of the play, I knew I had to get him to audition for the film.

But would he do it?  I guesstimated he was in his early 30s, a professional actor, likely to be very busy… I wondered if I’d seen him in anything before.  I vowed not to get my hopes up.

I started digging… And eventually found some contact details.  Strange, I thought – most actors are normally easier to contact than this.

But Joe isn’t most actors.  In fact, by training, he’s a classically trained composer…

…and he’s not 30-something.  He is (was) 23.

I got Jerome and Joe together, and for the first time during the casting process I felt slightly nervous.  These weren’t just good actors – they were the best I had seen for the roles.  What if it didn’t work? Joe would be playing the big brother of a man who is actually two years older than him… What if it looked ridiculous?  What if the spark I’d seen in each of them individually didn’t show up when I put them together..?

We spent around 3 hours reading through the script, acting out scenes here and there.  I filmed the last scene we played through, and watched it again later that evening.  It was rough, unpracticed… but something magic was there.  And with a beard, Joe looked older than me, let alone Jerome.  Put these two together on the screen, and you’ve got a film.

Almost a year after I’d begun casting, I found the right actors for the roles.  No compromises, no ‘it’ll be okay’, or ‘I’ll figure it out later’.  It had been a long slog but worth it – with these two in the roles, we had a shot at something great.

If you'd like to follow either of the actors on Twitter, they're here:

Joe Newton
Jerome Thompson