How to Find Good Actors, or The Pitfalls of the Novice Filmmaker.

𝕴 recently attended a film audition by an enthusiastic, but largely clueless pair of filmmakers. They had a good set of equipment, and a reasonably decent by-the-numbers concept for a genre horror/thriller. But I fear their film is doomed to be a laughing stock, because they clearly do not know how to identify, or audition, good actors.

This is an ongoing problem with novice filmmakers. They will put up their own hard earned money (they were offering money to the cast, to their great credit, which makes their carelessness in this regard even more baffling) to get the best equipment, plan shoot days and organise the logistics (the hard part of making a film), write up a script, have the project well lit, concentrate on the sound, be prepared for the edit... then throw it all away by hiring bad actors. The actor is the element of the film audiences identify most with, and it can make or break your film. A good actor can elevate a bad script (Steve Buscemi has done this numerous times). A bad actor will destroy a good script. 

Martin Scorsese, Francis Ford Coppola, Christopher Nolan, Katheryn Bigelow... these are great directors who know how to identify good actors. This is the thing that separates a good technical director (like Michael Bay) from an all-time great. Now I appreciate that you aren't going to have Robert De Niro walk through the door every time you audition a film with a fee of a few hundred pound. But there are good actors in every city, and you can do yourself a favour by helping them show themselves.

Now you can say that I'm just bitter that I didn't get the role, but I know what I'm doing, and I have worked at both sides of the table, and I'm fairly confident that they haven't got a better actor than myself for both the roles I read for.

Well I say I read for them, there wasn't very much to read.I came a long way for the audition, and there was a character note I was ready to portray: the character is arrogant because he feels he is a better soldier than the others. This is a good character note - it's something an actor can work with and sink their teeth into. But the cold read script (I'll get to this in a second) had absolutely no element of this. All the section of the script that we were reading (in the group audition) had was a few stock lines in the middle of an action scene. "Fuck." "We have to go on." We were sitting in chairs.

If you are providing a good character note, let me audition the scene where that is shown. I get that we need to sit down for the audition recording, but don't give an action scene, where the pages were over 60% screen directions. Give us a dialogue scene, where the characters motivations are evident. Any actor that can portray that element of the character, will have no problem doing the dramatic "NOOOOOOO" when that scene is being filmed. That's the bit we've dreamed of since we were kids, and will probably be putting in our showreel, we've got that bit.

And if you really do want to see the action scene auditioned, don't make it a cold read. In fact, avoid cold reads altogether. (Cold reads, by the way, are when you hand the script to the actor, and expect them to act on the spot). I really don't get what people expect to see in a casting when you cold read - it is the least effective way of auditioning an actor. For a start, an actor is employing a whole limb holding the script, and is reading, not reacting to emotion, and is desperately scanning the words instead of actually trying to interpret and convey what they mean.

We have to completely guess the mood of the scene, on the basis of the first line or two; so what do we do if the first line is something like, "Oh wow, another one." Is that sarcastic? Scared? Delighted? Disbelief? That's four very different emotional tangents to bring to a scene, and you've expected the actor to throw a dart and pick the correct one. At least send the actor the page you want them to read - you'll know a dedicated actor within seconds if they show up with the page learned off. As well as elevating them above the lazy actor who couldn't be arsed doing the very basic thing that's expected of their job, this actor has clearly studied the text, and will have a much more nuanced performance because of it.

Fuck it. Send them the whole script - give them the full rounded-out character. A good actor can portray a different element of the character in the early scenes, if they know the decisions the character makes in the later climactic scenes. Some writers are paranoid that people will steal their ideas if they send them out full script. Don't be. Actors have no reason to steal your script, they aren't as proactive as you to make their own film. Writers have no reason to copy your ideas - they can copy them off established genre films. Filmmakers have no interest in stealing your idea until they've seen the film. Get over yourself. Even if someone does steal your idea, you'll get another one. And if you are really paranoid about it, copyright law and email timestamps have you covered.

I've auditioned actors, and I've been auditioned many times. I know actors can be a pain - no-showing to auditions (I have people on a personal black list for this), dropping out at the last minute (again, personal blacklist) having 'demands'. (The filmmakers from the last time told of how an actor had told them she doesn't audition until she sees the full script - this isn't 'demanding' as they had guffawed, this is professional caution. Why waste everyone's time auditioning if when the actor gets the part, they feel the ending sucks and isn't fully invested in the project?). But there are good actors near you, and they want to be on screen. They are likely working in local theatre groups (a much more unforgiving crucible of performance than film - if they can act for an hour straight in front of a group of strangers, they're already a better actor than people you know), so reach out to them, and you might find you already have a ready-made cast.

As I said, the guys were enthusiastic, and they are doing well to be making films (they are putting two into production at the same time, another potential red flag, but it's not impossible if you are prepped fully. I'm actually impressed by their ambition). I'm just annoyed that they are overlooking this vital element of the production because they don't understand it. And despite my bitterness (all actors are bitter they didn't get the part - we exposed ourselves emotionally and didn't get the validation we so desperately crave!), I hope they do well!

* The reading was five pages of the script, with at least six characters, in two different locations. There were three actors. The lines in between were read by the guys auditioning - including the two page scene that our characters were not involved in. We were listening to the guys behind the table reading a scene we were not in. And they weren't watching us, because they were reading.