Monday Prescriptions – Actors: Saviour, Luxury or Nuisance?

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This Monday Prescription  we are discussing cast: what do (or can) actors mean to your project?

Film Doctor - The Artist

“Actors are a nuisance”

Some of you out there are ‘tech directors’ and are used to getting what you want with your kit. You press buttons, adjust settings and ‘upgrade’ when the moment calls for it. You view actors, who have hearts and minds and ideas and emotions as ‘hard work’ or ‘uncontrollable’. Your attitude to casting might often be ‘let’s just get somebody who seems like the least hassle’ regardless of whether they fit the part or not.

Well, hold it right there. No, no, no, NO! Let’s start this post by establishing one fact in filmmaking: actors matter. Any Directors or Producers who sets out to make a film without giving the deserved respect and attention to its cast, are doomed to fail.

Let’s turn this back on YOU.

Why might you view actors as a nuisance/hard work?


1). You are an inexperienced Director and/or have simply never worked with actors properly before.
This is why you are afraid/intimidated/confused as to how to handle cast. Solution? Read books like, for example, Judith Weston’s “Directing Actors: Creating Memorable Performances For Film & Television” , get guidance from experienced collaborators – Producer, Casting Director, Assistant Director, ACTORS etc. They can help you ease into the process of working with actors.
Learn the actors’ language: “What’s my character’s spine?”, “What are my motivations?”, character’s back story, etc. are all things you should be able to answer on the spot, as a Director/Writer.  Don’t get caught off guard by them and don’t say ‘it doesn’t matter’.
You can also try “being in someone else’s shoes” and actually take a 1-day acting class yourself. This will help you get to grips with an actor’s perspective and working process by experiencing their craft first hand.
Don’t panic or fret – accept that actors are your collaborators on the project and treat them as such.


2). You have worked with some actors who were indeed a nuisance. 
So, you’ve had bad experiences. Your solution? Basically, cast right, choose carefully.
Casting can be a lengthy process, but don’t be disheartened. Take your time to find the right cast. You need suitable collaborators not only in terms of fitting the created character and character’s image, but also fitting to the project as a whole.  Is it a small, independent production? Is it genre set? Is it co-production with mid-to-high budget? High concept? Mumblecore? What kind of projects is this actor known for? What material do they do, like, want to do and connect with?  This will help inform your casting decisions.


3).  Intimidation of the Stars – you are worried about working with a seasoned ‘diva’
Yes, if you are working with an actor of certain calibre, “a star”, they might have a certain methodology, that might throw you off but don’t feel any less thirsty to work with them. The key is to UNDERSTAND them. Do not see it as some uphill struggle. The key to working with anything is to know how it works and the key to knowing is to find out! They are just people – treat them as such.
If it’s such a huge hurdle for you to get over then don’t work with ‘big people’. Roger Corman has enjoyed a whole career from working with up-and-comers (such as Jack Nicholson) but never paying over the odds or getting stars involved. Many other producing/directing teams have done the same too.


Film Doctor Working With Actors


Actors are your saviour – treat them as such

OK, so let’s do a bit of reprogramming right now. If nothing else, they can be credited for the following 3:


1. Bringing your screenplay to life – pretty obvious, isn’t it…? Film are stories about people, actors play people. They’re the lifeblood of your production.


2. Adding value to your package – remember, when we talked several times about creating a package for your project? Well, actors are an important element in the “packaging” process. Are you looking to attract investment? Guess what, named actors will add tremendous value to the film. Independent productions are quick to dismiss the importance of “names attached”, emphasising “great story and concept”. Well, while great story and concept are indeed paramount – after all, they are one of the factors attracting talent – films with recognisable names have more market value.


3. Adding to your own credentials as a filmmaker – the people you manage to enlist for your project can add to/build your reputation in the film industry.  Because your industry peers often evaluate your work on the “who have you worked with before” basis – in terms of production team and cast alike. While the involvement of a certain Producer or Financier can serve as a bait to potential Distributors, any performances delivered reflect on your skills as a Director – star or no star.


Film Doctor - Bradley Cooper and Jennifer Lawrence


“Good Actors are a Luxury”

Yes, they can be. Talent costs. Especially if we’re talking about the kind of talent that will attract publicity, distribution and other delicious trimmings.

The truth is: you need to look at the scale and scope of your film.


1. Is your project suited to “stars” ?

Not just the concept and story, but can your budget, team, co-producers and production schedule accommodate their needs? Are you in a career position to attract them in the first place? Perhaps you can acquire a Producer who can handle their needs.


2. If not stars then who?

Look at similar titles of similar scales, both visually, team-wise and budget. Who acted in those? Stars, half-stars, TV actors, unknowns? See what has gone before, it can be a great indicator of what can work for your production. Aim for something achievable and you can achieve! Tom Cruise or Amy Adams will not be nourished by a bit part in your horror film. THINK first!

Remember unknown does not mean BAD – there are fantastic ‘stars of tomorrow’ waiting out there, but you must be diligent in finding them.

Whichever way you turn, learn to avoid the major mistake of  not considering actors in your future financing/distribution equations. First-time Directors/Producers often focus a great deal on the concept, the equipment, the locations and don’t think about the marketing, the press, the distribution their pet project may or may not attract.



Film Doctor - Joaquin Phoenix - Her 

How do you attract actors who can aid your project?

OK, so we’ve ironed out your anti-actor wrinkles, explained why they really are the most important part of your project

If you are going after established talent – and, especially, if this talent is anywhere NEAR the A-list category – practice shows there are 3 common factors that come into play:

1. Financing secured so far – yep, the more of the budget you’ve got in place, the more secure the agent (or agent’s assistant) will feel that the project is worth thinking about.  YES, it might be a case of “judging a book by its cover”, but money in the bank is a safety net:  it says “this is serious business” and “these people will make this film happen”.

2. The story / the role on offer – time and time again, emerging and seasoned actors alike share the same pain: exciting roles are rare. So the screenplay is the first thing that will attract actors to your project. The higher you aim for, the higher the standard of the writing should be. No writing cliches, a story that breaks the mold, genre bending, etc. – that’s what you should be striving for.

3. Your credentials / credentials of the team – the people attached to your project matter. Even a first-time Director can pull off a lot, when working with, for example, an established Producer. So the “A-list talent” and their agents will very likely evaluate your project on the basis of the team behind it.

All in all be attractive to them!


‘Monday Prescription’ No. 108 – Whether you enlist named cast or emerging talent, never underestimate the importance of actors in your project – plan from the start.

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Any questions/thoughts/experiences of your own??? Leave a comment below!
Have a great week!
The Film Doctor Team
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