Casting Directors in Indie Film Part 4: ROUNDTABLE on Indie Filmmaking


I’m an indie filmmaker. I sat down with several indie filmmakers (producers/directors) and casting directors to ask about the relationship between the filmmaker and the casting director. Below are a series of questions for casting directors on the indie film process! Finally, we are demystifying this unique collaboration.

If you’re wondering about why a casting director is necessary or why it is time to bring one on, I think Mathew Lessall, CSA says it best, “An opinion that is independent of family and friends. An opinion that is informed through experience. A good CD has a wide knowledge base and can hopefully expand on the possibilities of the types of actors that are initially being thought of for the various roles.”

Here is a virtual round table discussion regarding the fascinating relationship between filmmaker and CD:

OK, a filmmaker has a script, they are working on budget/financing/development… they come across your info because you worked on so-and-so’s film and they recommend contacting YOU. What are the factors that lead you towards taking on someone’s film?

Elizabeth Barnes, CSA: “I’m especially interested in stories with complex female characters, and stories of faith and social justice. The script is crucial, but perhaps more important are the filmmakers, especially if I’ve worked with them before & we have a relationship. I need to know they have all the pieces in place financially and logistically, and I need to trust their taste and point of view. I also have to be available enough to do my best work; I try to be realistic about the hours in my day and what I can realistically accomplish.”

Matthew Lessall, CSA: “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. 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.”

Matthew Lessall, CSA
Matthew Lessall, CSA

Jen Levy, CSA: “You look at it almost like a party that you’re gonna have, is this a party that I really want to invite people to that I can get excited about and really say, “I know it’s far away but you’re really gonna have a good time.” Is it something that I feel passionate about that I can really impart to agents and managers and actors?”

What are the factors that turn you off of someone’s film?

Elizabeth Barnes, CSA: “What’s not interesting to me, ‘it’s just I need to find a famous woman between the age of blah and blah.’ Great, call them up and offer them half a million dollars for a few days and you can get an answer. You don’t need me to do that.”

What is the collaboration like for you?

Jen Levy, CSA: “In the indie world it’s interesting because as a casting director you meet a ton of actors and so you have more opportunity to bring in people that you sort of champion their career or there’s something about them that sparked with you as opposed to just having to turn into a list to a studio of only A-list people. So, there’s more fun with the filmmaker, there’s more opportunity to introduce them maybe to an actor they haven’t heard of and to discover people, which is the exciting part.”

Elizabeth Barnes, CSA: “I try to find out how they work and what they want, and how much they want to be led versus they want me to follow. And then a lot of times it’s a back and forth.… every time is different and the more you spell that stuff out, the better…. Every project’s different.”

Elizabeth Barnes, CSA
Elizabeth Barnes, CSA

Matthew Lessall, CSA: “I am often the first person hired on the film… 100% involved. So involved that I often start a conversation by saying that they are hiring me for my opinion and taste and track record. If I didn’t have an opinion on an actor for a specific role, then why I am casting the film? In the end, the director and producer have to trust me and we all have to respect each other’s points of view.

Filmmakers often ask: “How do I get so-and-so to read this script?” or “Will so-and-so do a small indie film like mine?”  What attracts the talent?

Matthew Lessall, CSA: “The arc of the character you are asking an actor to play. Have they done this role before? …Independent film is an opportunity for actors and filmmakers to take chances and think outside of the box.

Jen Levy, CSA: “If you’re making a 1 million dollar movie and you’re gonna pay your actors scale … which, that happens all the time, there’s nothing wrong with that, it’s accepted fully … But if you have a character in your film that is a fast-talking good-looking lead kind of swaggery guy, you can’t then go and offer that for scale to someone like Vince Vaughn because he has studios that will pay him millions of dollars to be that guy. But if you have kind of like a dark, you know, creepy like teacher or scientist or something that he’s never gonna get paid millions of dollars to do, then those are the roles that sometimes become more interesting to the bigger names if it’s something that they’re never gonna be offered big money to do. Maybe you have a better chance at enticing them with, like, “It’s not a lot of money, but what a cool role this is. So different from anything you’ve done before.”

Elizabeth Barnes, CSA: “Great story, a fresh point of view. It’s always helpful to have examples of the creative work (director’s work, DP reel, producers’ previous work) and as many concrete logistics worked out as possible: financing, locations, dates. Actors and their reps want to know their time and effort will be used wisely, the film will look & sound great, and will ultimately get seen by an audience.

PARKER’S ANCHOR lead actresses, cast by Elizabeth Barnes, CSA

Self-tapes? These come up a lot in indie film as well as across all types of casting experiences, what are your thoughts?

Matthew Lessall, CSA: “Lately, I have been asking actors to self-tape first. Then depending on the needs of the film, we have a small select group come in and either work more intensely with the director in a one-on-one situation or bring in the other actors who could work with them and see how the chemistry is. Or sometimes it’s a meeting to just get to know the actor. It all just depends on the needs of the film. The reality is that actors are often not in the city you need them to be in when auditioning, because, good actors are often working. And the directors or producers may not be in LA or NYC at all, so technology, self-tapping, Skype meetings, these types of things have become the norm. I literally have the world to choose from when it comes to actors.”

Jen Levy, CSA:Self-tapes are crucial. Everybody is everywhere… Nobody’s looking for a full polished performance in a self-tape. We’re looking for elements of a character.”

A big roadblock to hiring a casting director for indie filmmakers is that they can fill in so many roles with friends or actors someone knows. How do you feel/what do you do if the filmmakers want to cast their friends?

Matthew Lessall, CSA: “Yes, it happens. I am happy to audition anyone the filmmaker suggests. My job is to make sure they understand the reasons why or why not the choice is going to work and how these choices affect all of the other casting decisions that are going to be made. In the end, if it works out, that’s great!”

Elizabeth Barnes, CSA: “So, like the client I’m working for right now, we’re doing a show centered around a renaissance fair. And she knows so many actors, she’s been working in this town as long as I have, and on stage, and on television, and knows so many people and has so many great ideas. And then it’s augmenting that, bringing in other people she may not of thought of, and even if it helps her get back to the person that she originally pictured in the role, now she knows they’re the right one because she saw a few others and has some context around it.”

Jennifer Levy, CSA
Jennifer Levy, CSA

Jen Levy, CSA: “I mean, it depends who your friends are. If your friend is Ryan Gosling, then I’m for it! But if you want to give your friends a break … I wouldn’t suggest … It truly, it depends on the person. No matter who is in your movie, you hope it’s the best actor for the role, but if you’re a first-time filmmaker … a lot of times I’ve said to people, “Do you want your girlfriend to do this lead role, or do you want to be able to make another movie one day? If I’ve brought you other actors … If you have viable options that are maybe more well-known or seem better for the part or more experienced … You know, it’s ‘show business’ it’s not ‘show friends.’ And everyone wants to help people. Of course you do. But maybe it doesn’t have to be in a lead role.”

Good. To. Know.