So much of what makes a motion picture work at the level of technique (the subtle or dramatic use of color, special lenses, narrative-driven lighting, etc.) is generally intended to land just below the audience’s collective radar, supporting the story without supplanting it. At its best, moviemaking involves a certain artistic and technical sleight of hand to lead the eye and move the heart, all the while appearing to merely record the story as it happens. When it works, it’s great; but it doesn’t always work.

With so many elements at play, a lot can go wrong. A successful movie—one that really says what its creators intended—is like a small miracle. What most moviemakers learn early on is that all the technique in the world cannot save a half-baked story, and even great material cannot overcome a bad performance. In the words of Warren Beatty: “Casting is everything.”

MM checked in with some of movieland’s finest to see what wisdom could be garnered on the art of casting as currently practiced, including how the disparate demands of independent financiers, studio execs and the moviemaker can coexist and occasionally even fall in line with the film as written.

Bottom Line vs. Storyline
“Who would look good on the poster?”

Mindy Marin, whose casting credits range from 2 Days in the Valley to Snakes on a Plane, says that now more than ever, box office concerns set the bar for casting. “The times have changed dramatically in terms of how the studios do business,” notes Marin. “It is much more of a business these days, addressing the needs of the corporate entity… Which stars deliver opening weekend is more important than ever to corporate chiefs.” With box office attendance on the downswing, this trend seems likely to intensify. Finding the right balance between art and commerce is, according to Marin, “a chemistry of sorts—and no one has the exact recipe.”

Whether financing a feature independently or through a studio, the one certainty today is that those in a position to dispense largesse are going to make certain demands where casting is concerned. “Because movies are now more likely to have some independent financing brought in, even on a studio picture, who you cast is somewhat driven by who the money people think is worth something internationally,” offers writer-producer Robin Swicord, who made her feature directorial debut with The Jane Austen Book Club, starring Maria Bello and Emily Blunt. “These were discussions that weren’t happening when I was first making films—even when I was first making independent films. On my first feature, Shag, which was independently financed, almost everyone was unknown.”

The reality is that specific names will inevitably be requested—and often the same names. Say casting directors Sarah Finn and Randi Hiller of Finn/Hiller Casting, who cast Crash and In the Valley of Elah for Paul Haggis: “There is always a list.”

As in politics, getting your candidate elected requires a degree of skill—both diplomatic and strategic—and even then, some or all of the winning ticket may not be of your choosing. “Very few movies have no requirements in terms of cast,” admits Finn. “A lot of times you have to make peace with that, especially in independent films, which are often ruled by foreign financing. The people who have value in a foreign market aren’t necessarily as valuable here [in the U.S.].” Hiller agrees: “We find that a lot of times people will start out by telling us that we can cast whomever we want, but the reality is always that the cast has to work financially [in terms of box office sales].”

In the case of Crash, Finn/Hiller built a cast that, as a whole, was designed to equal the sort of box office draw one big-name star might get. “Sometimes,” admits Finn, “instead of one big name, financiers will take three to equal one, or six to equal one… [On Crash] we thought we had more than enough ‘names.’ But because the material was controversial, because Paul was a first-time feature director and because it was perceived as a darker film, it was a harder sell.” Ultimately, casting Sandra Bullock put them over the top and was what got the movie (which won the Oscar for Best Picture) made.

Putting Conflicts to the Test
“The Camera Never Lies.”

But what happens when the folks in the suits are not buying into your casting ideas? “I like the tool of the screen test,” says producer Laura Ziskin, who recalls how she and director Sam Raimi successfully utilized a screen test of Tobey Maguire to persuade studio execs that he was right for Spider-Man. “Once we put him on film, there was no question that he was the guy.”

Ziskin’s faith in the camera is an outgrowth of her collaboration with director Roger Donaldson, with whom she worked on 1987’s No Way Out. Donaldson chose to videotape all of the actors who came in to read for the film, even the bit players. “Sometimes,” Ziskin recounts, “though someone is spectacular in the room, the camera does something which is unique and unquantifiable [on tape]. I was completely struck by what a difference it made. In fact, Sean Young was not cast in the room, because there was a lot of uncertainty about her in the room. But when we looked at her on tape, she knocked us out! There was a quality the camera caught that you couldn’t really get in the room.”

Because the camera reveals so much, because it is able to show sides of an actor that even he or she may be unaware of, choosing the right person becomes all the more essential. Reflecting on Martin Ritt’s Murphy’s Romance, her first film as a producer, Ziskin recalls the director’s advice: “Cast someone who is already 80 percent the role.” Because, Ziskin continues, “The camera doesn’t lie—it’s a big truth machine.” Casting an actor who already possesses some of the qualities of the character he or she is going to portray gives moviemakers a significant edge over the camera’s revealing gaze and enables the director to take advantage of what’s already there. Though many actors have tremendous range and can seemingly disappear into any role, a piece of the person almost inevitably comes through in the character he or she is portraying. “Even with the most brilliant actors,” says Hiller, “there’s always an essence of who they are or a sense of what they connect to.”

Casting Is An Art
“Casting directors open doors.”

Given the reality that so much rests on successful casting, it is important to work with a competent casting team—people whose passion and commitment to the project are second only to the director’s. Seasoned casting directors know things about the world of actors that other industry professionals are unlikely to know: Who is out there, what their strengths are, etc. “A lot of people who are now successful,” says Hiller, “have been auditioning for a long time. As a casting director, you’re often uniquely familiar with them and their work.” Casting people can speak to the range, discipline and personality of an actor, often from direct experience. If casting a comedy, for example, the casting director may have insight into an actor who is not known for being funny, but whose comedic talents they have seen on display in previous readings. Given all the time casting pros have invested in their art, it’s crucial for moviemakers to take the assembly of the casting team itself seriously by interviewing a number of people before choosing “the one.” It’s also important to actually listen to what the casting experts have to say once you hire them. They may not be right 100 percent of the time, but this is their field of expertise—and you should defer to them for important decisions. “Casting is a creative art,” says Swicord. “Good casting directors are gifted at this the way great musicians are gifted at music.”

Session Work
“Keep an open mind.”

“I’m reluctant to cast even a movie star if he or she won’t come in and at least play around [with the role],” admits Ziskin. A casting session can reveal much about the essence of an actor, particularly when captured on film, and will help to determine whether or not the actor and director are a good match. “Always cast for the result,” advises Ziskin. “When an actor—if they are good—is known for being difficult, it’s usually a reflection of their dedication to the work.” Don’t shy away from an actor who knows his or her own mind. Sometimes, a truly talented actor will know things about him or herself that even a seasoned casting director can miss. For example, Ziskin insists that Nicole Kidman was not an early choice for the lead in Gus Van Sant’s To Die For, but there was something in her personality which dovetailed perfectly into the role, and she was able to persuade Ziskin and company to let her read. “Something just happened,” recalls Ziskin. “When she put on that wig, she became the character.” The role brought Kidman her first Golden Globe award.

Whatever stage of the process, it’s important to forget any preconceived notions of who and what fits the bill (studio demands notwithstanding). “When you start a movie,” says Finn, “you spend hours and hours talking to the director up front, but still, the character is like a big lump of clay. The more actors you meet, the more you talk about it and the more you see what works and what doesn’t. You get closer to really understanding who this person is—in the context of the story and how they need to play against the other characters in the movie.”

Oftentimes, where you are four months down the line is completely different from where you started out. The actor you fell in love with during week one of casting may wind up being your last choice in the end. The casting process is a learning experience; it has to be. Concludes Ziskin: “If you make a mistake with casting, no matter how good everything else is, the movie doesn’t work. It’s absolutely critical.”

(Image via Pixabay)