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Casting Directors in Indie Film Part 2: Matthew Lessall, CSA

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I’m an Indie film producer working on a series of articles detailing the benefits and logistics of hiring a casting director on your next film project. In a series of interviews with casting directors and filmmakers, I will be sharing my favorite things that I feel are most important for you to know about the film industry today and how it is changing. Here, I emailed with Matthew, the casting director on ‘FAST COLOR,’ ‘DEIDRE & LANEY ROB A TRAIN,’ and MANY other creative successes.


Matthew Lessall, CSA

Matthew Lessall, CSA

Here is an excerpt from our talk this week:

Jennica: How do you decide whether to engage on a particular project?

Matthew: I like to know a few key things about the director and producer, I ask about the financing, dates, # of roles, below-the-line attachments, actors who have been approached, agents/managers with the script, budget of the film, budget for the casting director and if I am being approached as the only CD (i.e. this is an offer) or if the producer is reaching out to me and other CDs at the same time.

Jennica: Do you mind if filmmakers are shopping around for interested CDs? Or do you prefer an offer situation?

Matthew: I prefer to get an offer. ;0)

Jennica: What factors: $$ / budget of the movie / relationships / Subject / other?

Matthew: The budget of the film is certainly a factor. Mostly I think about if the budget seems realistic for the scope of what is required by the script. But the main factors are who are the people making the film, their histories, their story to get to the point where they are finally ready to start casting and yes, relationships factor into this. Every project that I work on has different circumstances surrounding it. Besides that, the script is everything, as the script is the basis for any decision I make to cast a film.

Jennica: Do certain genres or types of stories attract you to a project more than others? Westerns? Ensemble heists? Or clever twists? And, conversely, what scripts, if any, turn you off? 

Matthew: The thing that turns me off is bad writing. It doesn’t matter the genre, if I can’t read it and it makes no sense, I’m not working on it. I would love to cast a great sci-fi script! Like casting the series THE EXPANSE would have been a dream job for me. In a way, FAST COLOR is a sci-fi film wrapped in an indie drama and so that was fun to cast, but the reality is that most independent film lives in the “coming of age” drama world or “horror/thriller.” So I think I have gotten really good at that. And discovering new talent and watching them bloom into stars is certainly satisfying (even when they don’t realize how hard you worked to get them into the film that broke them in the first place!).

Look, basically I have this thing, where I read a script and if I haven’t fallen asleep while reading it, that is the first good sign that it may be worth working on. And if the next day, I can’t stop thinking about it, that’s a really good sign. But the truth is, the best films I have worked on, always, always have a director who has a distinct vision and makes the script their own. That whatever I am imagining it could be, the director does something more, more creative, more thoughtful then I could have ever thought of in the first place. If the final version of the film looks like the version of the film I had in my head, that is actually not a good thing. The final version of the film needs to exceed my expectations and my imagination. When it does, it is always successful, because someone way smarter than me takes it to the next level a la – Julia Hart (MISS STEVENS & FAST COLOR), Sydney Freeland (DEIDRE & LANEY ROB A TRAIN), Zachary Cotler & Magdalena Zyzak (MAYA DARDEL), Michel Franco (CHRONIC)…these directors are the real deal…Also, producers are key as well. If the film is not in the hands of a really talented producer, you are doomed. So any time Effie Brown calls me or Roberta Munroe, Susan Cartsonis, I’m doing their film, I don’t ask questions I just say “yes!”

Jennica: Is hiring a CD to attach talent a good way to get a movie financed, in your experience?

Matthew: This is a really long question to answer and depends on so many additional circumstances surrounding the question. The easy answer is this: if the producer has a track record with putting together films and has intimate relationships with distributors and foreign sales companies who respect said producer, then yes, attaching talent is a good way to get the movie financed. If this is your first time at the rodeo – then no – you are going to struggle with this…

Jennica: How can filmmakers facilitate collaboration?

Matthew: Casting is a collaborative effort. So many things coming at you at one time. Like, actor suggestions from representatives, actor suggestions from the director, producer, writer, the director’s cousin. Not to mention the ideas I come up with first. My job is to take all of the information coming at me and have it make sense and research all of the possibilities that are presented. I prefer the filmmaker to constantly be asking me questions and making suggestions. A filmmaker who knows actors is a godsend!

Jennica: What’s your best / worst story of casting an indie (names will be changed…) Or notable events/projects that were turning points in how you prefer to work now…

Matthew: That would be telling! In general, most of the past 20+ years of me casting, the casts have come out pretty well and the experiences were 95% of the time all very positive. I will say this, the very first television series I ever cast, we made 13 episodes before the producer ran off to Brazil and all of the crew’s paychecks bounced. True story. So having that happen to me early on, made me prepared for anything. I do have good stories though – may they rest in peace!

I have several films I worked on that I felt were notable key moment in my career, but working with Michel Franco on CHRONIC was the film that opened my eyes to what working with a truly great director with a specific vision and complete and utter dedication to his craft is all about. Being in a casting session with him was a learning experience for me and made me a better casting director or at least made me feel like I had the ability to keep up with him and his intellect and knowledge of film. He was a masterclass for me!


Keep up with Matthew on twitter: @LessallCasting

Jennica Schwartzman

About Jennica Schwartzman

Jennica Schwartzman, a member of The Producer’s Guild of America, loves tackling a project from idea to distribution. Jennica has been published in the Producer’s Guild Magazine Produced By, Legacy Arts Magazine, Bustle and she is a guest writer on the acclaimed entertainment industry websites MsInTheBiz.com, FilmmakingStuff.com, Artemis Motion pictures’ #WomenKickAss Forum, & WomenandHollywood.com. She has been invited to speak on film festival panels and is a teacher & workshop speaker for The International Family Film Festival’s Road Scholars intergenerational filmmaking camp. Jennica has 6 feature film releases scheduled for 2018. Her films have collected TOP awards from Bentonville Film Fest, Big Bear Lake Int’l Film Fest, Eureka Springs Indie Fest, Film Fest Twain Harte, Worldfest Houston, Fayetteville Film Festival, The Int’l Family Film Fest, & the highest honor from The Dove Foundation. Jennica and her husband/producing partner/writing partner Ryan have 2 kiddos and reside in Hollywood.