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How do I find a 'cast' for an independent film?

Hiring Cast And Crew For Your Independent Film

Ben Lyons (Producer) gives expert video advice on: What is 'scale'?; What different unions will I work with?; How can I get actors, make-up artists and crew to work for little or no money? and more...

What resources will help in casting an independent film?

The great independent filmmakers are very, very good at delegating responsibility. So you have to go out there and, if you're a director, have a producer that you trust and are willing to go to battle with. Have that faith in him that he can then go out and find a production manager who is going to be the one in charge of hiring all the necessary crew people. Work closely with the casting director, who is going to be able to go out and cast the independent film. While it's important for an independent filmmaker to be very hands-on and to know what's going on in the making of every independent film because it is their vision and their story being told, it's also important for them to delegate responsibility and trust the people around them in order to get anything done, and to be the most resourceful that they can be. You need to have a good producing team behind you, to have a great director of photography who can go out and shoot the movie, to have a casting director who can help you secure talent. Those things are very important for an independent filmmaker.

What does it cost to hire an actor for a day?

In shooting an independent film, every actor has a different fee and a different rate. Some work for scale, which is sort of the union minimum, and others demand certain perks in addition to their services, like not only do you have to pay for them to act, but you've got to pay for their mother to come to New York, and you've got to pay for their hairstylist and their publicist, and just who knows what else. So every actor has a different asking price and most actors, most great big name actors are willing to lower their fees and lower their costs to be in an independent film, because they believe in the subject matter. They believe in the role and the opportunity. Oftentimes actors do independent films as a favour to the filmmaker. If you have a family friend who happens to be a big Hollywood star, you call him and he does a scene in your little independent movie or your student film. And that's the independent filmmaker being resourceful and getting actors to do them favours. There's two reasons why an actor should do an independent film. One, as a favour to the filmmaker, or two, because it's a role that they can really sink their teeth into and show another side of their craft.

What is 'scale'?

Scale is kind of just like the union minimum. It's sort of the understanding of just a basic day of work. And it's sort of the, for an insured movie, like what you have to pay somebody to have a prominent presence in your independent film.

What different unions will I work with?

When making an independent film you're going to deal with the Screen Actors Guild, SAG, as that's what every actor who's working in insured films is a part of. You're also going to be dealing with the Writers Guild of America when making your independent film because you want to copyright your material and make sure that no one steals your scripts, so you're going to be registering your scripts with the WGA. But most independent films are not union films, the crew is paid freelance. Different crews have different unions that they're a part of in making a studio film, and there's certain rules that go with that. You can only work a certain number of hours a day, or a certain amount of time without being fed. But sometimes in an independent film, those things have to go out the window because of money, so people know what they're getting into before they sign up. Sometimes you work 18-hour days and you're only paid in food, so that's the way it goes in an independent film.

What does it cost for a location per day?

Locations can cost anything when making an independent film. To shoot Alfred Hitchcock's North by Northwest on top of the Mount Rushmore, that's expensive, even back in 1950 whatever. But nowadays it's tradeoffs, like if you approach a restaurant and say "let us shoot in your restaurant for free and your restaurant will be in our independent film", that's like advertising for the restaurant. Or different cities have different rules and tax breaks, and it's cheaper sometimes if you shoot an independent film in Louisiana because they want the business that comes with it, then shooting the independent film even here in Hollywood. People know that if you come to their little towns and you shoot a movie, you're not only making the movie there, but you're staying in the hotels, you're eating in the restaurants, you're going to the movie theatres and the ball game or whatever, so you're bringing money to the community. Every location cost is different, and a good producer can get it for cheap, and sometimes you have money to play around to buy a day of shooting somewhere and sometimes you don't, and you have to make do when making your independent film.

How much does a camera cost to rent?

With an independent film, equipment like camera cost can be very diverse. You can be using a camera you got at your buddy's school, that you stole and use for the afternoon, or you're paying fifty thousand dollars a day to use a specific camera, and then paying the actual operator to operate it, and his assistant. That's a huge undertaking when making an independent film as cameras can cost anything. Independent film makers are saving a lot of money now because of the advances in camera technology with digital video, with high definition and with certain cameras that shoot on memory disks instead of film or even tapes. Indeed cameras can cost anything. FYI: one of the cameras used in the independent film Blair Witch Project was bought at Circuit City and after filming, the camera was returned for a refund.

How much does a crew cost?

The cost of the crew depends on the crew itself and if the crew is union or not. Every independent film has a different budget and a different cost. Again, you can convince someone to say "this is a good opportunity for you to work close to this director, so will you slash your fee in half?" Sometimes gaffers, best boys, grips, dolly operators and all those guys who are the sort of technical heart and soul behind an independent film, they can go for a few hundred dollars a day or they can go for fifteen hundred dollars a day. A good producer could say if you work for 10 days we'll give you this, but if you work for 5 days we'll have to give you this. Everything is negotiable. I know that's not really a concrete answer that says a director of photography costs five thousand dollars a movie, because it doesn't work like that. It's by project. It's where the person has to go and shoot the independent film. Often times crew members are more willing to work for less if they get to work at home, and can work on other jobs in between shooting the movie, as opposed to travelling to god knows where to make a movie. And how they're being taken care of can make a difference. Are they being put in a hotel? Are they being given meals every eight hours? Or what have you. Every crew cost is different and all based on the budget of the independent film.

What if the actor or actress belongs to an agency?

Independent film makers should not be scared of talent agents. There's a myth in Hollywood that these ten percent 'Jeremy Piffin on Entourage' guys are difficult to deal with, but in fact they want what's best for their client, and they want their client to be in good films. So if you have a great script, with a great character for their client to play, that's a good relationship that you're going to form with them. And so they shouldn't be looked at as the enemy. All of the agencies have great independent film divisions. They help film makers finance independent films, they help independent films go out and be sold, they represent independent movies, they go to film festivals, so in dealing with the talent agency there's a certain language there you have to speak. You know what they want for their client? They want their client to either get paid, or to be taken care of really well, or to make sure that they have what they need to give a great performance. They do want all those things, but they're not the enemy. Nearly every actor in Hollywood has an agent, so you're going to have to deal with them at some point. And so to say that you don't want to deal with or approach that actor because they have an agent, you're going to be getting your mom and dad in your independent film, and that's about it.

What if I live outside of Hollywood and don't have access to actors and actresses?

If you want to make an independent film, and you're outside of that sort of Hollywood world, then go and approach the people who you want to be in your independent film. If you want to fly someone from L.A. to Arkansas to be in your independent film, you can do that. It's going to cost you though, and that's fine. But if you just want your friends to be in the movie and star in the independent film, approach them and ask them. Everybody wants to be a movie star on some level, and so I think people will respond positively if you approach them seriously and organized and with a real vision for what you're doing and passion for what you're doing. Then who's to say no to you?

What is an example of a successful independent movie that didn't come out of Hollywood?

An independent film called 'Fargo' that came out a few years back didn't really have a Hollywood feel to it. Sure it had William H Macy and Frances McDormand, but they weren't big Hollywood actors by any means, and it used the people. A movie like 'Fargo' went out and got local people from the community to be in the independent film and that adds to the authenticity of a movie like that.

What's the difference between a studio director and an independent film director?

There's no real difference between the director of an independent film and a studio film other than the resources that they have at their disposal. A studio director has a lot more to play with in terms of budget and resources than an independent filmmaker does. And a lot of directors do both. They direct a studio film to make money, like Stephen Soderberg will direct the Oceans movies to make money, and then go off to make Bubble which is an experimental art-house film, and he'll do it as an indie. Some filmmakers stay in a specific world. Michael Bay has always worked with Jerry Bruckheimer, and those guys are making studio films forever. Michael Bay is never going to do a little two-million dollar movie with a camera on his shoulder, he makes studio films. While other filmmakers and other directors, such as a guy named Ryan Fleck who did Half Nelson, are probably going to stay in that independent film world and will continue to work there. Just because a film is independent doesn't mean it's cheap, it doesn't mean that people aren't making money, and doesn't mean that they can't be extremely lucrative. So a lot of directors like to go back and forth between the two genres and the two styles of film, so they can express every part of their creative vision.

What type of 'crew' do I need for my independent film?

The type of crew you need depends on what your independent film is. If it's two characters sitting in a diner talking for two hours, you probably aren't going to need a huge crew to light and shoot that independent film. But if you're shooting something that's in the city, and at night and during the day, and takes place over 20 years, then you're going to need a huge crew, like a crew that will make a movie. Whether it's from the technical point of view, the actual people who are lighting the set and powering up the generators, to security people who are securing the location, who are protecting the actors from the outside public if you're shooting in a public place. Whatever it takes to get the independent film done is what you need in a crew and it's important to have the right people for the right jobs, to have someone who knows how to work a camera, work the camera. If you have your buddy Chris down the block work the camera, chances are it's going to be out of focus. If you have money to play with you might as well spend it on professional people who are going to get the independent film done properly.

What safety precautions should I take while shooting my independent film?

When shooting an independent film, they have to be insured. Actors aren't going to want to work on an independent film set that's not insured. If you're shooting in public places, wherever you get your permit to shoot is probably going to make sure you're insured. So in terms of security and safety precautions, if you are the producer or the director of an independent film, you have to be in charge of that, it's part of the responsibilities, and that's the difference in an independent film as opposed to a studio film. The studio has people that take care of that, everything's union, they shoot it on their lot sometimes. But with an independent film when you're out there in the streets with the people shooting on the fly, gorilla filmmaking, you've got to be very mindful of those things that cause any type of small. These are not only very dangerous but it could actually ruin an independent film because it would just suck the life out of it and all the resources and all the money. On a big studio film if an accident happens, they're usually able to regroup and continue on with the filmmaking. For example, in Panic Room, Nicole Kidman was cast in the lead but she shot about ten days and she broke her leg on set. What did they do? They kept going, they recast the part with Jodie Foster and the movie went on to make a hundred million dollars and it was a huge success. But if that had happened on an independent film, chances are that would have been the end of that independent film.