I’ve never really understood the allure of fantasy football or baseball. I think my friends who speak with great passion about “their” players, trades, stats, are a teensy bit bat-shit. But that’s just me. I’m luke warm about sports unless I’m either playing them or watching them right at that second. However, the world of film has its own version of fantasy football: Casting.
When you’re pulling together an independent film project, sooner or later (often way too soon) you start thinking about casting. This is usually the point in the development process where you shift over from script development to film development. What actors are going to play the roles? Who would be good? Who can you afford? Who would be unexpected? Who’s available? What actor that you have no reasonable chance to actually hire on your budget would be best with the other equally unlikely actor you can’t help imagining in the lead? Casting all comes down to important questions like these. And so, I try not to roll my eyes too visibly when my fantasy sports-addled friends tell me about their brilliant trades.
If there’s a difference, I suppose it’s that casting really is a part of making a movie. I’ve been through the process on a number of film and video projects at this point (plus many more that have yet to be made) and in the end, you do put people in roles and eventually point a camera at them. So I suppose the process is slightly less fruitless than agonizing over whether to trade Derek Jeter for Ichiro. (Slightly.)
Just to back up a minute, the kind of casting I’m talking about is not a casting call where you need someone to play small roles. Those are important too, certainly. And I’ve found some great actors that way. Hollywood sometimes even validates my choices. Recently I cast Rico Rodriguez in my film The No-Sit List out of a casting call of hundreds of kids. A year later, he’s starring in ABC’s Modern Family. I don’t think that’s a coincidence. They saw what I saw–a young actor who stands out from the pack. That kind of thing has happened a few times for me. I love meeting new, not-yet-famous actors in casting calls. But that’s not really what I’m talking about here.
Casting a film is where you start assigning stars and well known actors to your various roles. The realities of film development dictate that you must try to find a well known actor for every single role, no matter how small. You may eventually go to a casting call to find the small roles (or have backups while you’re trying to wrangle a deal with the star you really want) but until you actually start shooting, you probably aren’t going to lock in any role that could potentially go to a “name” or a “face” — as the industry calls them. Before a movie reaches an audience it has to pass through a bunch of gatekeepers in a variety of territories and markets. Often these folks aren’t terribly creative. They make their decisions about a film’s value based primarily on cast. Not only for domestic (North American) distribution, but foreign territories as well, which can value actors completely differently than an American filmgoer would guess. (Guess who’ll get you a bigger sale in most non-US territories, Steve Carrell or Gary Busey?)
And so, you break down your list of roles to anyone who has a line or significant appearance. Maybe you hire a casting director. And then it’s fantasy football. “Do you think Jim Carrey would play that as a cameo? He’d be great!” or “Would Tom Cruise do it for scale? Low budget scale, I mean.” “I haven’t seen Kathy Bates in a while? Is she retired? In rehab? Only doing Stephen King roles?” Everyone starts in the stratosphere and works their way back down. Usually, the string of rejections serves as reality’s cold water thrown in your face. No, Denzel Washington is not going to do your movie 100% deferred…or if he will, he’s not available till Spring of 2017. Often the casting director will rein you in. After all, she’s the one who has to make the calls and send out ridiculous offers, so she’ll often wind up being the killjoy/voice of reality/only sane person in the room. Ideally, you won’t start serious casting before you have a budget and know what you’ve budgeted to pay at each role. But still, you’ll aim high. Everyone does. Harvey Weinstein figured out how to get studio stars to slash their rates to do his films so everyone else thinks thinks they can get these deals, too.
And maybe that’s not so bad. I’ve learned that if you have a good script, a positive attitude, and a start date, that sometimes you can interest an actor that no reasonable person would expect to get. I was on the receiving end of some extremely fortuitous casting with my films Full Disclosure and Entry Level. How? Well, most of the credit goes to the films’ casting directors. The script may have played a role. And then there’s bald-faced luck. Somehow the right script got to the right person at the right time. And so, we make our fantasy football lists that overshoot reality in trying to land a recent Oscar-nominee for a cameo in our teen slasher flicks. Because stranger things have happened. And we make big lists at every role because we expect to hear a lot of Nos before we get that one critical Yes.