When my writing and producing partner, Zeke Farrow, and I set out to cast our film Before The Sun Explodes, we were aware of the common wisdom: “You need a name.”
Casting someone bankable will ultimately help accomplish your end goal—to sell the film. At the same time, trying to cast a star can be just the thing that prevents your film from getting made.
I’d just been through the waiting game with another project I’d written and was preparing to direct. I thought I’d take more of a backseat to that project and let other people take the reins. I waited… and waited… for over a year, for nothing to happen. I finally hit a wall. I decided to start over and create an entirely new project from scratch. I approached my friend Zeke, and we began collaborating on our own script, converting our collective angst into something positive: our feature Before the Sun Explodes.
Before the Sun Explodes is about Ken Cooper, a formerly successful comedian whose single-guy jokes feel more and more irrelevant. Now he’s an anxiety-ridden stay-at-home dad, clinging to a TV show dream that his breadwinner wife doesn’t believe in. After a fight with his wife, Ken meets Holly, a bright, charismatic comedienne, who lures him out of his shell. Their very real connection leads to a surreal, unforgettable and possibly unforgivable night.
We were only interested in finding actors who were willing to collaborate and who wanted to be part of something totally unique. We never even considered “celebrity” types, knowing how unlikely it would be to find one willing to donate their free time to rehearsing a microbudget film in a hot, little room in Culver City.
It’s Never Too Soon to Start Casting
Outside of financing, an indie’s biggest feat is finding the right cast. We wasted no time and began imagining our cast the way people dream about having children one day. As we worked out the details of our main character Ken, Zeke thought of comedian Bill Dawes, whose career has encompassed Broadway, TV, indie film and tours of Iraq and Afghanistan with the USO. In the script, Ken takes off his wedding ring before getting on stage; his comedy shows no evidence of his real life as a stay at home dad. The “single guy” blue humor of Bill Dawes ran perfectly counter to Ken in real life, making it work well for our main character’s on-stage persona. Bill had absolutely no idea we’d started writing a script with him in mind.
Once we’d finished our first draft, we decided to have a reading with all the actors we were considering. After that first reading, which doubled as an audition, it felt like we had struck gold. Zeke and I were certain we wanted to work with more than a few of the actors. The reading gave us a valuable perspective that we never would have gotten otherwise. Hearing the script out loud, having the words lifted off the page, energized us and inspired the direction we moved in during our many rewrites. There were still many more roles we needed to cast.
Actors are Your Most Valuable Asset
I wasn’t entirely convinced that Bill was Ken, until after the second reading we had. For his part, Bill says, “For the second reading, I brought everything I had. It didn’t feel good. I wanted to puke. And that’s when I knew that I really wanted the part.”
The more respect you give, the more respect you’ll get. Bill became so committed to this project that he began co-producing it with us. His involvement brought the authenticity of the comedy world to the film. Bill offered his stand-up material for the script; he introduced us to Jamie Masada, the owner of the L.A. comedy venue Laugh Factory, who makes an appearance in the film, and who let us use the Laugh Factory as a location.
Look Right in Front of You
As our first shoot date neared, Zeke and I found ourselves on a scavenger hunt for the rest of our cast. We frequented underground comedy clubs, storyteller events, all kinds of theater. We combed the Internet.
Zeke, Bill and I were able to find an eclectic group of comedians for a comedy club scene, and Zeke found three phenomenal actors—Christine Woods, Graham Sibley and Dean Chekvala—while attending a friend’s play.
I cast two of my children to play Ken and Diana’s kids, because getting involved with professional kid actors and their handlers was something we really wanted to avoid.
Keep On Keeping On
There were two roles which kept proving difficult to cast: Chip and Holly. I had a relationship with a talent agent at UTA who worked very hard to send us a lot of talent ideas. Bill started sending the script around the comedy community, hoping it would land in the right hands.
Zeke remembers the process: “Agents caught wind of the project, and pretty soon we had three agencies and a management company actively trying to fill the roles. But once agents were involved, we were getting into conversations about actors who required large holding fees, who would take weeks to read the script, and who still may not be right or might say ‘no.'”
So, we took a step back, looked at where we were and decided that if we wanted to stay on schedule, we should resist going down that road. We had to keep the momentum going, and not get seduced by anyone that could potentially derail our efforts. Finally, actor Amir Arison materialized, thanks to Bill. Amir is a series regular on The Black List, who had no qualms playing the character of Chip in what I presented to him as “a glorified art project.”
Meanwhile, though we scoured for comediennes, our female lead, Holly, continued to elude us. We’d written the character of Holly as an edgy, charismatic, middle-aged comedienne with a sharp wit, a dark past and a deep vulnerability. Not many actors can exude darkness, humor, insecurity and intoxicating charm simultaneously. Holly needed to be a force of nature, a woman who men found irresistible and with whom women could relate. There also needed to be a very real chemistry between Bill and whoever we cast.
Bill stepped up his game. “Since I had been pretty ensconced in the standup world for a decade,” he says, “I started contacting almost every interesting female comedienne in L.A. about auditioning for the part of Holly. Some were suspicious and instead of responding to me, just asked around about me. Several girls had to be told very explicitly by their girlfriends, ‘No, he’s a legit actor. He is shooting a film. You should audition for it.’ Even when these comics did submit auditions, many were terrible. Not because they couldn’t act, but because they just made lazy audition tapes; it seemed like they couldn’t be bothered.”
Bad Luck Happens (So Learn to Weather It)
One idea that Bill had was comedienne Tiffany Haddish. Tiffany brought a whole new meaning to the role of Holly. She walked in and essentially took over the room. We were mesmerized. After her electric audition, we were convinced she’d take the role of Holly and twist the character into something totally wild and unpredictable.
That very same week, Tiffany got offers to be the female lead in Keanu and a series regular on The Carmichael Show. So, as soon as we found our “Holly,” Hollywood snatched her up. The timing was unbelievable. We were devastated. There was only two weeks before we were scheduled to shoot.
We continued considering some seriously talented comediennes the agencies were sending. Bill kept forwarding us videos. I even found someone who I thought would be great from a clip I discovered online, but this particular stand-up had a full-time job as a staff writer on a TV show.
The Best Decisions Can Come From Second Chances
Finally, I decided to widen my search and consider actresses. This seems like it should have been obvious. But the actresses I had seen just weren’t convincing as stand-ups.
There was one actress, though, who had remained in the back of my mind. Bill had found Sarah Butler through his friend, J. Chris Newberg. She had put herself on video and performed a huge monologue under a blanket because she had the flu.
Watching Sarah Butler’s video for a second time, it was undeniable that this woman, sick in sweats with no make-up, was stunning, and at the same time, real. I wasn’t sure why I had overlooked her before, other than my blind determination to cast a stand-up.
The moment Sarah walked into the room to audition for us, she completely disarmed us. She was open, warm and seemingly unaffected by the fact that she was gorgeous. She also possessed an offbeat quality, a mixture of innocence and mystery, that seemed ideal for the role. She was younger than I’d imagined Holly, but definitely not too young.
The first meeting with any actor is really about getting to know them more than it is about expecting them to perform. Sarah felt so comfortable in the room that she immediately started telling us all about herself. She held back nothing. Her tales were self-referential, hilarious, shocking and also sad. Whether she was conscious of it or not, the more she spoke about herself, the more she revealed herself as Holly. When she finally got up to perform the scenes and the stand-up material, it was seamless. It was as if something I was trying to articulate for months and months had just been put into a simple sentence.
We cast Sarah immediately. As she was best-known for her starring turn in the horror movie I Spit On Your Grave, We were thrilled to offer her an escape from the horror genre she seemed to be trapped in.
Use New Media Platforms!
Finally, all that was left was to cast extras. We bribed anyone we could think of to spend their day at the Laugh Factory, promising food, drinks, stand-up and a possible cameo. Once again, Bill came to the rescue, boldly offering up his Tinder account to drum up extras.
I wasn’t sure this would work. I was a stranger to Tinder; Bill, however wasn’t. He’d moved on from its traditional find-a-date purpose and had all kinds of creative uses for it. So, fearing that we would not get the amount of extras we needed, I gave Bill the go-ahead.
“In my defense,” says Bill, “I didn’t use Tinder to cast extras using some sort of bait-and-switch technique. Like, ‘Come for the background work, stay for the dick!’ I wrote in my Tinder bio that I was looking for people to be extras in a movie I was shooting.
“A few of them did seem confused, like, ‘This is the worst date ever.’ But people did have fun, and one of the girls who came ended up dating one of the non-Tinder extras and I’m pretty sure they’re still together. So, in the end, it was all meant to be.”
Finding just the right cast for any film is crucial, and particularly complicated when a casting director is not in the budget. In the case of Before the Sun Explodes, casting became an odyssey that lead to some extraordinary discoveries. MM
Before the Sun Explodes premiered in March 2016 at South by Southwest. The film has its L.A. premiere on May 28, 2016, screening with NewFilmmakers LA.