Hello Film Doctor friends.
This week we are lifting the curtain on the casting process, with the amazing Casting Director Lucy Bevan (Cinderella, An Education, The Fifth Estate), who sat down to talk with the Film Doctor team earlier this year.
Lucy, where did you grow up and what was your relationship to film?
I grew up in London. I was not immersed in film at all as a child, I came from a family that had nothing to do with film. There was no one involved in the film industry whatsoever in my family: my Dad’s a barrister and my Mum makes beautiful Christmas fairies. The first and most formative films for me were “E.T.” and “Back to the Future”, that I saw as a child. They were the films that completely grabbed me and never let go. I still think that “E.T.” is in my top 5 favourite. I think it’s one of the best cast films ever made.
And what were the developing steps towards pursuing a career in film?
I realised that I loved film in my teens and I watched loads of films. I continued through my teenage years and through university, and when I was at university, I set up a theatre company with some friends. There was lots of spare time, I was at Manchester University, and set up a theatre company with some friends – all of whom are doing really well now, loads of them working in the business. When I left university, I thought “Well I need to get a job. What do I love? – Film. What am I good at? – I’m good at the production side of things” because, when I set up this theatre company I was producing all the plays, so I thought right, well I’ll try my hand at getting into film production.
So I knocked on doors in Soho, in order to become a Runner. And that’s how I started. I bought the BFI Handbook, which I think was £10.99 and I went through it – this was obviously before the Internet (laughs) – and I looked up the 10 producers that I thought were the best, who produced all my favourite films and I wrote to their assistants, asking if they needed a spare pair of hands.
So I did it that route. Which I think is still a pretty common route to kind of get into film. Three kind assistants wrote back and said “Sorry, nothing going”. And with those 3 people, I just turned up – still can’t believe I did it – and very kindly, the lady at The Working Title, I remember her very well, let me in and gave me a minute of her time, possibly because my surname was Bevan – but I’m not related to Tim Bevan, but I got my first job as a runner that way.
And do you remember what year that was?
So I left university in 1997, and I knocked on doors straightaway, in London. The first job I got was with the wonderful producer called Sarah Radclyffe and she gave me a job as a Runner, and I became a Runner for her. I made her tea, I did everything.
They were making this film, called The War Zone, and I became her Assistant. So that was my very first job – I went from being a Runner to being an Assistant, working for Sarah for a few years. I learned a lot from her, she was wonderful.
What did you learn in that time?
I listened. Still, to this day, to be in a room with people, whether you’re making tea for them or typing for them, or making calls for them, organising their child care, their holidays or reading scripts and doing things a bit further along, I listened and I learned. And I think that’s a great way to learn – it might be the only way to learn. It’s like an apprenticeship. I really listened.
She was doing the Don Quixote film with Terry Gilliam – was happening around that time – and we had to look after him in Cannes. I was just helping her out with everything, and I learned a lot, just listening and absorbing everything about production.
And I realised, that I absolutely loved everything about filmmaking, but it was always about the casting. It was always the actors that I was most drawn to. That was the side of it that I was most fascinated by and loved right from the start, so eventually I realised, after working a few years as an assistant and in production, that I wanted to get into casting.
What was it about that, acting or casting per se, that really drew you, do you think?
You know, going back to university, early part of the 1990s, I remember seeing both Pulp Fiction and The English Patient – and, I think, The Blair Witch Project as well, and both The English Patient and Pulp Fiction had a massive effect on me. Of course, they were huge films at that time. I remember watching The English Patient and thinking, if anyone else had been cast in those roles, the film would not be what it is. It was brilliantly cast. It remains to be a brilliantly cast film.
It’s seeing a film where the actors just completely inhabit the roles that they are in and the world that they’re in, and making the whole film seem and be believable.
Still to this day, when I watch a film that’s been brilliantly cast, it’s just makes the whole film work. And I’m a total movie buff fan, as much as you are or anyone else who loves the movies, and I just find it really entertaining, moving, when someone really inhabits a role.
So, you were sort of ‘in-house’…
So my first job was with Sarah Radclyffe and I stayed with her for a few years. Eventually I’d left and I got another job in film production, for a Producer called Gillian McNeill, on a wonderful drama, called “Sword of Honour”, which Daniel Craig played the lead in. And it had a spectacular cast – Julia Duff did the casting on it. And again, I was the Producer’s Assistant, but I was constantly drawn to what Julia was doing.
She did an amazing job, she did such a good cast. I worked on that for quite a long time, it was a long production, and I think it was after the “Sword of Honour” that I took the leap, deciding I wanted to work in casting.
By the time I decided I wanted to work in casting, the person I most loved to work for was Mary Selway. Mary had cast some films that I think are the best cast films: “Withnail & I”, “Out Of Africa”, “Gorillas in the Mist”; she worked on some of the “Aliens” and some of the “Star Wars”. And I thought she was incredible. I thought, if I was going to apprentice myself, if I could learn from someone, I’d love to work for Mary. So I literally did everything I could to try and work with Mary.
Along the way, I worked for loads of other Casting Directors. I learned a lot. At the end, I got a job working next door to Mary – so I could make her tea [laughs]. She had a long time Assistant, Fiona Weir . Eventually, Mary had a few projects and I came in and helped out. Fiona had a baby, and I stood in for her maternity leave, and I was lucky to work for Mary, alongside Fiona, for the last few years of Mary’s life, before she died. So I was just so lucky to work for her. She was incredible at what she did and an incredible person. And you know, if she was around, I would still be doing her dry cleaning – I really do believe that; I always wanted to work for her and learn from her.
Because she died – it was very sad as she died so young as she did – I started out doing stuff on my own earlier than I would’ve done.
Also, around that time, before I worked for Mary, I got on my bike again, went around Soho and I did pop videos. I cast a number of pop videos and short films, and things like that, to try and get money – because there’s bugger all money in any of this, at this point. So, that’s what I did, I cast funny old pop videos and stuff.
How do you move from one job to another?
I was always pretty focused about the fact that I would like to work with that particular individual person, so I’ve always wrote to them very individually, “I’d love to work for you, because of this reason”. When I get letters from people now myself, if I get a generic letter – if I get “Sir or Madam” – it goes in the bin. If I get a cut and paste, it pretty much goes in the bin. I only stop and read, and absorb letters that are personal. And I think the way that I did it when I wrote to people was I wrote very personally to them.
You see, it was all before emails. The trouble about emails is they’re so easy to write and they’re so easy to delete. And you can always tell when they’re cut and paste, because the font’s always different [laughs]. And, I just delete them, I’m afraid. Because they’re so easy to delete. If you get a good hand-written letter – a good letter sent in the post, it lands on your desk, it’s much harder to throw away, as it’s actually physically sitting in front of you. A well written letter, I always take notice of. That’s how I employ people now.
Be absolutely sure of what is it that you’re asking the person for; if you’re writing to thank someone, thank them, if you’re writing to ask for a job, ask for a job. A focused letter is a good thing.
When did you first get representation? How did it come about? How did it improve things for you?
My agent just does my deals for me, he doesn’t get work for me per se, he just does deals for me. And I went to him and asked him to do my deals for me, because I was concerned that I needed to earn money, and he’s a great deal-maker.
So in terms of the jobs and the leaps you were making at the time, it wasn’t as a result of your agent…
No, it was just getting one gig and going from that. It was just literally being as good as your last gig, I think. Of course, there was a lot of persistence in the early days, on the bicycle, going round, doing all the commercials and the music videos, and those things. And once I started getting jobs with other Casting Directors, as an Assistant, then you are assisted by them.
Then, after Mary died…I did a film called “Chromophobia”, which was the very first film I cast, which Mary introduced me with the Director, before she died. Then after that I think it was just a question of…reputation really.
Presumably, there would’ve been jobs that you might’ve liked to have done more and ones you were sort of choosy over…
Yeah, it’s interesting. We Casting Directors, like any other head of department, have to audition, too, you know. We have to go up for jobs, too. And there have definitely been some in the past I didn’t get, that I would like to have got. But I think that’s the same for everybody. And I think those were the ones that I wasn’t very well prepared for.
I remember going for one very important meeting, when I was younger, a great opportunity and I look back – I realise, I wasn’t well prepared. I’m usually so well prepared, if I go meet for something that I want to do, but I wasn’t well enough prepared for this one, I embarrassed myself. As you can see, I’m still kicking myself for that [laughs].
Well I started doing British independent films, then I worked on this film, “An Education”, which did extremely well. Actually, I think “St Trinian’s” was a very early film that did really well domestically, and I was very lucky to get a job on “St Trinian’s”. Barnaby Thompson, who works here at Ealing Studios gave me this opportunity – and I was so thrilled with it, because I thought it was a very fun script.
Then I went to RADA and I saw Gemma Arterton do a play. “St Trinian’s” was Gemma’s first film. It was also Paloma Faith‘s first film – who’s now a big pop star. It was Russell Brand‘s first film. It was Lilly Cole‘s first film… It was a great job that did well.
So there was a bunch of independent films that I was given opportunity to do early on, that did well – the one after that being “An Education”. Then I went to Los Angeles. I took myself to LA when Carey (Mulligan) was nominated for an Oscar, and I met all the heads of casting at the studios. I said to them: “I would love to do the UK casting on your films, because I love American films”.
So I went out there and I met all the Casting Directors and I said, “If you ever need UK casting, let me know“. On the plane back, I thought to myself, “Well if anything comes out of it over the next months and years, then great”. And then 48 hours after I got home, I got a call to do “Pirates of the Caribbean”. So that was definitely worth the trip [laughs]
On that note, who offers you the work? The producer, the studios…?
Well, on an independent film, I would be hired by the producer. If I didn’t know them, I would go and meet the director and the producer, and, you know, ‘audition’ for them, as I say. And between them, they would decide they would like to use me and it would be the producer who would hire me.
On a studio film, on an American studio film, I might be doing just the UK casting – for example, I did the UK casting on Fury recently, with Brad Pitt. Mary Vernieu, who’s another, brilliant American casting director, was the Casting Director on that film, but she needed someone locally. So I didn’t cast the whole film, I don’t get the casting credit on it, but I did some local casting for her.
So, in that instance, it would be her who would get in touch and say “can you do it?” But on the big studio films I do, like “Maleficent” or “Cinderella” then it would be the studio, but again, I would meet the director and the director would approve using me, but it would be the studio who would hire me for the production.
Have you noticed much of a difference between working with US studio producers and working with UK ones?
It’s a really interesting question. The huge difference is obviously the budget: the budget of an independent British film is a small fraction of a budget on a big studio film. However, the process is pretty much the same. The fundamentals are pretty much the same: every film needs somebody in it that will ensure that audiences will go and see it.
I do a combination of British independent films and American studio films, and I love both. And each studio is different, each project is different. It’s one of the reasons I love my job: every time you work on something new, it’s a completely different set of people, and, therefore, problems that you come up against.
Because you’re the first Head of Department [Casting] that comes on board, you’re figuring out the dynamics between all the different people. On an independent film, it would be most likely a Director and one Producer, on a studio film you could be dealing with 4-5 Producers and you got to figure out who is doing what. So there’s always a different dynamic on every project.
It’s really nice working with people that you know. I worked with Lone Scherfig 3 times and it’s so nice – you’re really ahead, because the way you can do the best possible job is to really get to know the Director and really understand them. The more time you can spend with them to understand their creative vision and what they want to achieve in the film, the better.
What challenges do you face at the level you’re working at now? What’s easier and what’s tougher (than your earlier work)?
This is possibly a generic answer, but I think on every film I learned something different. There’s never the same set of circumstances of any film. You learn something and you think ‘Wow, that was tough’, and then you go off to the next one and you learn something completely different.
There is stress, there is pressure. Hopefully, as you get older, you get better at managing that. And to try to keep focused on the main point of what you’re trying to do, which is to help create the best cast you possibly can for a film.
How does one become a casting assistant or casting director today? How do you yourself hire people? Are you looking for experience or more sculptability and attitude in an assistant?
I think Casting Director is a job where you have to apprentice yourself to somebody, in order to learn what the craft is, because it is so specific; it’s so niche. So, in order to become a Casting Director, you need to start by training with somebody as an Assistant.
How do I hire people? People write to me. When I need to hire a different pair of hands I go through all the letters and applications, and I meet people. Experience doesn’t bother me at all, I’m happy to hire somebody with no experience if I thought they had the right skills. Attitude is really important.
What kind of relationship do you have with actors, writers, director and producers? Who do you tend to work closest with?
You’re working closest with your Director. Your ultimate job is to help him or her creatively achieve what they want to achieve in that film. I deal with agents all day long, every day because of the actors, so I know all the agents very well. The writers I don’t really deal with, as I’m dealing with the Director or the Producer.
Although, sometimes I do – I had a lovely relationship with Hossein Amini, working on “Snow White and the Huntsman”; we were trying develop characters for all the dwarves, Bob Hoskins, Toby Jones, Eddie Marsan and all that lot, so we did sit down and talked directly about that. But that is quite rare.
Then, with the Producer we’re dealing on a daily, frequent basis, doing all the deals.
Do you often find conflicts in casting decisions between the various parties and, if so, how does one navigate those waters?
The ideal scenario is to have a Producer and Director who are extremely close. The really great films, that really work, are the ones where the Director is very well supported by his or her Producer; it’s teamwork. It’s so collaborative and it starts with the Director and the Producer, so if they’re not collaborating very well then the whole thing is going to be a nightmare.
How often does the star or pre-sales aspect influence a film’s casting decision over, say, ‘casting right’?
Always. You can have a wonderful script, with a wonderful leading character and think ‘Oh this day bloke I’ve just seen in the theatre would be great for the part’, but if the Producer needs to raise X amount of millions in order to make the film, then s/he’s not going to be able to get any financing when there’s somebody no one’s heard of playing the lead.
Of course, I am talking about the kind of budget level I’m doing – obviously, on much lower budget films that’s how filmmakers start out, doing films that don’t need someone well known in the main part.
I think actors become aware of it as they get older. They should be blissfully unaware of it when they’re younger [laughs] It shouldn’t be bothering them.
It’s a very extraordinary situation for an actor to find themselves in where they suddenly are able to finance and green light movies. They’re suddenly offered everything and it’s really bizarre for them: years of going after things, knocking on doors, trying really hard to get work and then suddenly they do something that projects them into that next level. It’s a real game-changer and it’s difficult to navigate that when you’re young.
What dilemmas have you faced on a project? Any interesting stories of terror you can tell us?
So many dilemmas, I don’t know where to begin [laughs]
Going back in time, while I was relatively inexperienced, on “St Trinian’s”: we’ve cast our leading lady and I’ve done a deal with the Agent, only to then have the Agent calling up and saying ‘She’s not going to do it, she’s going to be offered something else’. He told me what she’s been offered and I said ‘That film is never going to happen”. I could just tell it wasn’t – there was another film on the same topic that was competing with it. I said ‘We have a deal, she’s committing to it’.
It was an absolutely appalling day, I was ready to burst into tears: I lost my leading lady, how am I going to tell the Producers? Then, that week I went to RADA and saw Gemma [Arterton] doing a play. I thought she was so brilliant, I put her in front of the Director and the Producers. She was great in the audition, worked hard to get that part and then, of course, the Agent came back and said the other film wasn’t happening.
I had to say it was too late [laughs]. But that’s the sort of thing, when you’re early on and not very experienced, that can really feel like the end of the world. There are so many stories of terror. I live in a state of terror on a regular basis [laughs].
Casting, along with Storyboarding and many other essential filmmaking roles, doesn’t tend to get acknowledged at the major awards ceremonies. Why do you think this gets overlooked (either by the industry or the wider world)?
We are the only Head of Department with a single card credit in the opening titles of a film that doesn’t get an award, but I think things are changing. For example, with the kind of films like the ones done by Francine Maisler the casting not to be acknowledged is crazy. I don’t think casting is overlooked, I think everyone understands that it’s the most critical aspect of filmmaking after you’ve got a good script.
I think it’s because Directors have to feel that it was all their decision: this was my cast, these are my ideas. Of course, it’s a completely collaborative process between a Casting Director and a Director, but it’s no more collaborative than…editing. It’s no more collaborative than any other job on a film.
So I think casting should be acknowledged and I think it will be in our lifetime. I think there is awareness that casting can really change a film.
How often, if ever, have you come across co-star approval?
Rarely, but on bigger movies with really well established stars they will have co-star approval.
Can you explain to us the difference between Casting, Casting Director and Casting Development?
‘Casting Director’ is the title but ‘Casting by’ is often the credit that we’re given. I think that there is a SAG rule that they don’t use the word ‘Director’ in the title, because the Directors Guild doesn’t like it being used – so that’s why it says ‘Casting by’ rather than ‘Casting Director’.
‘Casting Development’ is a very weird title I was once given on a project where I’d help them get the leads attached, but didn’t do the rest of the film. What it means is you’ve helped them get the leads attached and get financed, but didn’t cast the whole project.
What casting myths can you dispel for us?
There is one that Casting Directors are not on the Actors side and actually it’s quite the opposite: you want to find new talent. There’s nothing more exciting than reading with a young actor and spotting something, and you work with that actor, you help them out, get their confidence out, and help them navigate getting a really great part; there’s nothing more thrilling than being part of that.
But you have to get through a lot of ‘chaff’ to get to the ones that you really want to support [laughs]
Is there one common trait that you feel big directors you’ve worked with, such as Richard Linklater, Rob Marshall, Lasse Hallström all share?
They’re passionate about their work.
For example, I had the pleasure of working with Dustin Hoffman on “Quartet” and his enthusiasm for every aspect of filmmaking, for the casting process, for the people involved and his love of the material and the actors is incredible. It’s completely catching and energising, and you can’t help but bring your A-game when someone is like that.
David Ayer – I was really lucky to work on “Fury” – was inspiring to be with, because of his commitment and level of research, his respect for the actors. And you know, all of the great directors are really respectful of the actors. They love actors and they want the best from them, and they help get the best from them.
With directors really at the top of their game it’s a total and utter dedication to the craft, which is really inspiring.
What is the single thing that you feel many fledgling/rising actors don’t understand about how the casting process works that they should?
I don’t know what young actors think of the casting process, but what I can recommend to them is be very well prepared. I’m amazed when a young actor would come in and, for example, not know the lines. Also, be open to take direction. And don’t bring in your ‘traffic drama’: don’t bring loads of coats, bags, coffees, drama about the tube journey.
Entering and leaving the room is a skill. As a Casting Director you’re meeting people all day long and it’s really exhausting, you’re trying to give each of those people your time and your attention. Enter the room and leave the room, that’s the first you should learn. Don’t wear stripes or citrus colours, as it makes the camera jump and whoever is watching your tape will be very distracted if you’re wearing something with loads of pattern. Be mindful of your appearance – you want to look at your best.
Sometimes, there’s a level of over enthusiasm or nervousness that could be quite off putting, but I would really make sure that anyone who is like that dials it right back before they meet a Director.
Any performance improvements you could suggest to actors trying to get noticed?
It’s a really good thing to be off book, because the camera will catch more of your eye line – and it won’t if you’re constantly looking down. This is really basic stuff, but you’d be amazed at how so many people are not aware of that.
This goes back to being well prepared. Be professional, be on time and be committed.
Where, what or who are you looking to find new talent? Agencies? TV? Theatre? YouTube? If so, what scale? Sean Connery was famously cast from an amateur production. Do you ever go to those?
I have now a group of girls working for me who I would send to the pub theatres. I go to the theatre – I go every week, the well-established theatres like the Donmar, the National or Royal Court and theatre is probably where I cast most of my people.
I’d be watching a play and I might not be particularly interested in the leads, but there would be one bloke playing a servant or a butler, or a little day player who I think is really great, so I’d get them in for a film.
The girls who work for me are really great at going to drama schools and pub theatres. We also do look at stuff online. I’ll look anywhere [laughs]
You’ll have seen a few stars rise in your time. Other than talent, what do you feel separates the wheat from the chaff with actors who ‘make it’ and don’t?
You can spot them and you can spot them early on: really ambitious, really focused, really driven, really well turned out. Talented, of course, being the first thing. There is a certain confidence.
I remember seeing Tom Hiddleston at RADA and I’ve cast in his first film soon after that – Joanna Hogg’s film called “Unrelated”. There was just a fantastic confidence about him. I saw Eddie Redmayne in a play called the “Goats” and cast him in his first film after that – he was fantastic in that play.
I remember seeing Ben Whishaw at RADA as well. An important thing is that there is something of themselves that shines out. Often you go to drama schools and you see people doing a version of Judy Dench or Jim Broadbent or Kenneth Branagh, but my attention is grabbed by the people who just have a really strong sense of themselves.
When there’s something unique about them and you can really see that coming out.
What’s one piece of advice that you could give to an actor wanting to make a severe impact on the Film or Television industries?
Go for it [laughs]. Work: work begets more work. Keep going, keep doing plays and just crack on. Then opportunities will come your way.
What might put you, or another CD, off working with an entry level producer/director team?
If the script is not good enough. It’s all about the script at that point – if the script is not good enough, I cannot get an actor to say yes to the project.
What mistakes do you often see filmmakers making in the casting process?
Casting just by the looks of someone – if someone looks right for the part it is not enough. At the end of the day, hair and make-up and costume do an enormous job, so what someone looks like is only part of the story. If they have the right qualities for the part, other than just what they look like, then go for it.
What’s one piece of advice that you could give to an aspiring casting director?
I feel like I am an aspiring casting director, so I don’t know if have any advice. Good luck today, don’t f**k it up? [laughs]
Going back to the beginning did you ever think you’d be where you are today, back then? If so, why?
Not in a million years, no [laughs]. And I’m absolutely delighted every time I get offered a lovely job.
Thank you Lucy, so much for your time. Cinderella is released worldwide on Friday.
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