August, 2012. I’m sweating like a pig on the streets of Tokyo, frantically looking for my Japanese casting director, Satoshi Mashida.
Even though I speak Japanese fluently, I’ve never lived in Japan and the address system is incredibly confusing. I’m only here for three days, and we must land a name actor for my film Man From Reno to close out the financing we need.
I’m almost a year into this journey, and I’m only beginning to realize that Man From Reno is not an “independent” film at all. It’s part of a special sub-category I like to call “name-dependent” films. Low-budget? Yes—but not so low-budget that a financier will give you carte blanche in the casting.
Casting is a Business Decision, Not Just a Creative One
Before Reno, I directed four feature films (Big Dreams Little Tokyo, White on Rice, Surrogate Valentine and Daylight Savings). They all had very low budgets, so I had a free hand in the casting process. At a certain budgetary threshold, though, there has to be some give and take. Merely casting the right actor isn’t enough. These days, even companies looking to finance something in the $200-500K range want marquee names to justify the investment.
If You Can, Go Beyond Borders
One factor that greatly helped Reno was our status as a Japan-U.S. co-production, which widened our net in terms of “bankable” stars. This isn’t going to apply to every project, but American indie filmmakers can benefit from thinking more internationally in the actors they cast and the stories they tell. Not only does it make for more eclectic stories, it also opens up new audiences—and financing sources.
Given the good reception that White on Rice had in Japan, it made sense for me to do a Japan-U.S. co-production. After gaining little traction at the Tokyo International Film Festival’s 2010 Project Market with a script called Komorebi: Osaka Bay Blues, I started working on a screenplay about a Japanese mystery novelist and an elderly small-town sheriff who team up to solve a murder mystery in San Francisco. I even had my cast already in mind: Ayako Fujitani, who turned into a chair in Michel Gondry’s Tokyo! and cameo’d in Daylight Savings, was my ideal heroine, and my old friend Pepe Serna—a veteran character actor best known for getting his arms chainsawed off in Scarface—would be my sheriff. A bilingual, bicultural mystery.
Producer Ko Mori and his team at Eleven Arts Inc gave me the go-ahead and approved of my two leads. However, to make the financing work on his side, we needed to land a major movie star from Japan to get our green light.
Give Stars a Part They’ll Want to Accept
Cut to nine months later. My co-writers, Joel Clark and Michael Lerman, have a draft of the script ready. Pepe and Ayako’s parts are front and center, but there’s a third co-leading role: “Akira Suzuki,” the mysterious Man From Reno of the title.
Purely by coincidence, the role seems custom-tailored to fit into a busy schedule: It can be shot out in six days (out of a total 25-day shoot). It’s a juicy, flashy part—kind of like Harry Lime in The Third Man. Even when he’s off-screen, everybody’s talking about him. And he’s the title character. Who could resist that? But how do you get that script into the right hands?
The Importance of a Casting Director
I had never used a professional casting director before Reno. And boy, was I glad to have Satoshi Mashida, especially given some of the special challenges facing our project.
First of all, the system in Japan is just different. Auditions in Japan are very rare, even for minor non-leading roles: Almost everything is decided through pre-existing relationships, whether directly through the actor or their management companies.
Secondly, Japanese TV dramas are frequently packaged first, and then written shortly before shooting begins. As a result, many actors are booked up for more than a year in advance, often for projects that haven’t even been written yet!
During my five-day casting trip in August 2012, Mashida-san gave me a crash course on how the Japanese entertainment world works. However, when I stepped foot on the plane back to L.A., we still didn’t have our Man From Reno. My dream of shooting in the fall of 2012 was officially over.
Casting is Patience
Four months went by. Around Christmas 2012, I got a phone call from Ko and Mashida-san: “How would you feel about Kazuki Kitamura?”
Kazuki Kitamura is a major star, someone who regularly headlines major TV dramas in addition to roles in Takashi Miike films and blockbusters like Godzilla: Final Wars. He was never on my list simply because I didn’t think he was a possibility.
As it turns out, Ko and Mashida-san had been hitting the pavement the entire time, circulating the Japanese translation of my script all over Tokyo to every talent manager in the business. On a hunch, they sent the script over to Kazuki’s management company. Kazuki had just finished shooting two films in Indonesia and was open to doing more work overseas.
He dug it. And he had a week-long break in his schedule. We met over Skype. He had some ideas for his scenes, all of which I liked. I had some ideas for his character, none of which he seemed to hate.
In a split second, Man From Reno went from being DOA to eight weeks away from rolling the cameras. Now that we had our leading man, we had only a short period of time to cast the remaining 40-plus speaking roles, for a shoot that would span Northern and Southern California.
You Never Know Who’ll Walk into the Audition
We couldn’t afford to hire an established casting director to take on all of the stateside casting. Fortunately, our associate producer, Mye Hoang, took on the heroic challenge of not only casting the remaining speaking roles, but 150 extras.
Along the way, I was able to cast a few friends in some juicy supporting roles. I wrote the role of a sinister bag-man specifically for my old friend Hiroshi Watanabe (Big Dreams Little Tokyo)—miles removed from the harmless goofballs he usually plays.
For the role of ailing billionaire Stephen Luft, we needed someone who simultaneously projected power and fragility. After a few false starts, Mye learned that British character actor Derrick O’Connor (Time Bandits, Brazil) was available and living in San Francisco. We sent him the script, and Derrick jumped on board.
Mye cast most of the roles in Los Angeles, but we didn’t want to miss out on the chance to employ some local Bay Area actors (and our travel budget was already stretched thin). San Francisco line producer Taro Goto and I held one day of auditions, and found some wonderful actors.
Over the years, I’ve heard casting horror stories from independent filmmakers who land a major star for a supporting role but then have to endure a stream of abuse and diva-like behavior. I won’t lie: I was nervous leading up to the shoot. How would our star react to our no-frills, low-budget set?
He was right at home, as it turns out. Kazuki has never forgotten his indie film roots, and is about as down-to-earth as they come. Not only was he incredibly well-prepared, he was generous with the other actors and crew and seemed to have a never-ending supply of Japanese candy. When he left, he was missed.
We were very fortunate to have three lead actors—Ayako, Pepe and Kazuki—who were much beloved by the entire team. I am grateful I got to make the movie that I wanted, and casting Kazuki Kitamura gave me the freedom to do just that.
Casting the Spell
Man From Reno‘s Associate producer-turned-casting-director, Mye Hoang, shares tips on the dark art of casting.
- Use the available tools
Much of what you need to successfully cast an indie feature is available online for free or for very reasonable prices. To get the casting call out there, we used sites like Breakdown Express and Actors Access. I used other breakdowns to make a template for myself. After submissions poured in, I narrowed down the list, then used the sites’ portals to schedule auditions and callbacks, with a Google spreadsheet to schedule everyone. I recorded the auditions and put them on Dropbox and then highlighted my picks for Dave.
- Environment is everything
Pick a place that is professional and presentable—don’t just use someone’s house (it looks bad). Make sure it has a waiting area. We used the Eleven Arts production office whenever we could, and other times, we booked SpaceStation in Hollywood which rents for as low as $15 an hour.
Give every actor who comes in the best possible chance to succeed. I called in an actor friend to read with the actors at the auditions—a lot more fun than working alone, and it gives the actors a chance to perform with a fellow professional.
- Can they take a note?
Always give the actor direction for their second take. “Try it again, but sweeter…try it again but this time more impatient.” It almost doesn’t matter what the direction is—the point is to see if they can handle taking direction. More experienced actors can take the direction and run with it. Less experienced actors ask too many questions, or deliver the lines exactly the same as the first time—and when you’re on a 25-days-in-three-cities kind of shoot, there’s no time for error.
- Never settle
Indie films will live or die by the caliber of the acting, so fight for every role. You cannot give up or let the budget limit you from finding the perfect match. Even the most seasoned actors will consider a low-budget project if the timing is right and they like the script. Talk with their agents and you may find a way to work within your budget. And speaking of agents…
- Don’t be intimidated
Agents are there to protect their clients’ interests and get them the best possible deal, so don’t be offended or scared in your dealings with them. Just be open, honest and professional in your dealings, and expect the same treatment in return.
Remember, although the producers will take care of the deal memos and SAGIndie paperwork, it is crucial to get familiar with union guidelines before auditioning and offering roles. All can be found at sagaftra.org.
- Extras, anyone?
On Man From Reno, the biggest challenge was casting over 100 extras in two different cities. You’d think that everybody wants to be an extra in a movie, right? Wrong. The good news and bad news is Craigslist—which means hundreds of submissions, but a 30 percent flake-out rate. You always have to overbook your extras.
Be upfront about the hours and compensation, including whether they’ll get an onscreen credit or a listing on IMDb (huge for aspiring actors). Discuss things like parking reimbursement, meals, and snacks that you’ll provide.
- The director is almost always right
In the end, it’s the director’s vision and the decisions are his. It’s hard to distance yourself when you disagree with the director’s choice—every once in a while, I had a very strong opinion and I fought for it. Don’t be afraid to speak your mind for what’s best for the movie. MM
Man From Reno opened in theaters on March 27, 2015, courtesy of Gravitas Ventures. This article first appeared in MovieMaker‘s Fall 2014 issue. (Bonus: Man From Reno was featured as a MovieMaker Crowdfunder of the Week in 2013.) Featured image photographed by Mye Hoang.