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Casting Directors in Indie Film Part 3: Jen Levy, 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 spoke with Jenifer Levy, a CD with years of experience with successful projects at HBO and the WB while launching some Sundance and Spirit Award winning indie actors.

Here is an excerpt from our talk this week:

How do you decide whether or not to take a project?

The primary thing is the script. So, is this a story that I believe in? Is this a movie that I want to see?

And how many years were you casting?

Let’s see. About 20 years. I worked my way up from an intern to an assistant to an associate to a full- fledged casting director. I was always in the room because I was always the one reading with the actors. That was always my favorite part of the process and I worked with a casting director for many years, Emily Schweber who preferred to run the camera. And I always preferred being in it, in the moment with the actors, and reading with them. I had to learn very quickly how to become a good effective reader and get over my shyness and stage fright because I’m not an actor by any stretch of the imagination.

20 years. That’s phenomenal. And while casting, I know there were a lot of changes in those years-

Yes.

What were the biggest changes that you went through technologically or the culture of the industry?

In the beginning of my career, indie films were still very new, like, still very independent and everything. Most people gravitated toward big studio films. There were a lot more studio films being made every year. And then … I worked very early in my career for Ronnie Yeskel. And she had cast PULP FICTION. And that was sort of the turning point where indie films became a little bit more main stream and a little bit more accepted, and actors were really looking to do less commercial things. They felt they were artistic. The roles were a little darker, maybe. Something different that they wouldn’t necessarily be given the opportunity to do on a studio level.

That’s super interesting. Yes!

And then, in terms of technology, we used to get actual physical head shots in the office, and people used to send messengers to come pick up an actual physical script. It was ridiculous. Now everything is done on a laptop and you look at a thumbnail of somebody and you decide in half a second, do I wanna … Does their face look interesting to me? Do I wanna see this person, or not? And I found it really kind of, not boring, but, for me, I loved looking at a head shot, and I would always look at an actor’s eyes. And when you have something tangible in your hand that you can hold, you just get a different insight into someone rather than looking at a grid of thumbnail shots.

Very true. The composition of headshots are completely different, everything aiming for a thumbnail approach- something that sticks out in a completely different way than before.

But, it expedites the process. I mean, there’s definite pluses to it. It’s a much more expedited process. You can set up auditions much faster. You can see more people in a day. It’s not twelve phone calls back and forth to an agent’s poor beleaguered assistant, “11:00 for this person. No, 11:30. And 12:00…” It’s made the process a lot more streamlined. And it saves paper because we don’t have to hoard head shots for 40 days now in boxes.

What’s been your biggest hurdle working with independent film directors, and producing teams?           

Well, the producing team is just having the budget together. I mean, that’s the first thing, is having a financed ready-to-go project.

Budget needs to be ready to go and funding needs to be in order, ok, and next?

With indie films a lot of times you get first-time filmmakers. Everyone’s been a first-time filmmaker at one point. There’s no shame in that. But what I find is that a lot of filmmakers aren’t sure … They don’t speak actor language yet. And they’re not sure in an audition … They don’t want to offend anybody, so they don’t wanna say too much so a lot of times what happens is the directors won’t say anything. They won’t give feedback, they won’t give adjustments because they’re so afraid to offend, and actors, I mean, that’s what they do. “Give me a direction, give me…” They’re looking to be directed.

And what happens when a director doesn’t do that, or filmmaker doesn’t do that in the room? To avoid a really awkward kind of room vibe, the casting director then has to step in and say, “Okay, why don’t we try this?” Or, “Do you want to see that?” Or, you know, to sort of translate between the two which is all fine and good and makes for a better audition experience for an actor sometimes, but the problem with that is that as the casting director, I’m not on the set. So you have to be able to communicate. You have to be able to direct. If someone doesn’t want to do something believe me, they’ll tell you. And you have to, as a filmmaker, have a managed  expectation of what you’re gonna see in an audition. It’s not meant to be a polished performance. There’s no hair. There’s no makeup. There’s no wardrobe. It’s someone coming in and giving you their interpretation, and little surprise looks into a character. And it’s the filmmaker’s job to sort of pull out those elements that spark to them or speak to them to say, “Oh! Let’s go with that.” Or, “Let’s try this.” Otherwise, what’s the point of auditioning if you’re just gonna sit and sort of watch like Bambi. Nobody gets anything out of that. They have to be able to communicate.

Okay, great. So you’d rather make sure that a filmmaker is running their casting session and they are involved and they are part of it.

Yeah, the director needs to direct the actors. You can’t rely on the casting director for that. Imagine walking on to a set of however many- your crew and the whole thing, and you walk on basically naked and you just stand there for 20 minutes while everybody stares at you. I mean, that’s what it must feel like to be an actor because emotionally and sometimes even physically you’re raw. You’re nude. And you’re just … everyone’s looking at you waiting for you to do your party trick. And I think directors forget what it is to be a performer and to be an actor. And without specific direction, I mean, what are you doing?

What’s that first meeting with the director/filmmaker really like, and what do you want them to know moving forward?

The first meeting, for me, is really to assess what is their vision? You know, it’s their project. A lot of times first-time filmmakers are also the writers, so it’s really their world, and you just want to sort of get in their head a little bit. Like, “Who are you seeing? Whose voice were you writing? What’s the ideal cast? Okay.” “Are you open to meeting new people or are you set?” “Do you have something with your producers that you have to have a certain name or a certain level of person?” Like, is it realistic what their expectations are based on their budget, their script, all the other elements involved. At the end of the day, as a casting director you work for the filmmaker. You service the project. So you wanna make sure it’s someone you can collaborate with and someone who you can spend time with and get along with. I mean, you don’t have to have a new best friend, but you spend a lot of time together. You have to be able to be on the same page.

Do you have any favorite types of projects to work on?

Well, I’m kind of a dark and twisty person. I prefer darker stories than your typical romantic comedy. I like roles that really actors can sink their teeth into, something, like, with a little twist. That’s just my personal fave. I love Southern Gothic stories. Things that are just different. Things that aren’t, you know, a dime a dozen.

Thank you!

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.