The Role of the Casting Director

The casting director is the first key personnel (or “key” in industry terms) hired when a film is in pre-production. The casting director, or CD, usually has ten or twelve weeks of uninterrupted time with the director to set the cast. This is the director’s first and potentially most important creative collaboration before he/she works with the editor, production designer, composer, costume designer, cinematographer, etc. After reading the script, I usually sit down with the director and ask them to give me as many adjectives as possible for each character, a step which really helps me get in sync with the director’s wants. For example, when I was casting Hollywoodland, Allen Coulter said, “This character would have bad breath.” For me, this detail was gold, and it really helped me fulfill his vision. And that’s the CD’s job: to bring the characters to life and make the director’s vision a reality. As Buck Henry put it eloquently in the documentary Casting By: “A casting director with one really good idea can fundamentally readjust an audience’s understanding of what the story is, what the impact is on the culture–that’s what they do. If we’re lucky, we get the benefit of those moments of inspiration.”

Casting By- A Feature Documentary by Tom Donahue With Martin Scorsese, Woody Allen, Clint Eastwood, Glenn Close, Robert Duvall, Jeff Bridges, Al Pacino, Robert De Niro, Diane Lane, Jon Voight, Bette Midler and John Travolta

After reading the script and meeting with the Director, the CD starts the pre-screening process. This is when the agents submit their actors and, to put it simply, the chaos ensues!  A CD can see hundreds of actors for each role. Many films have 90+ characters, so that is a lot of auditions. There are occasions when directors only want to see one or two actors for each role (after all, every film is different), but usually that only happens after the director and CD have established a good rapport/trust after many collaborations.

Once the pre-screens are over, the CD will narrow down the list and decide who will meet the director. Another round of auditions takes place, this time with the director, and then the final choices are made.

At its core, the key to being a successful CD is to trust your instincts (I believe this is also the key to having a successful life but that’s for another blog!). Trusting your instincts about actors is a skill that can be honed with experience. There are plenty of outside forces and opinions that will make it challenging to “go with your gut,” but the more fiercely you stay with your first impression, the better. Most people do not understand the role of the CD—a lot of what happens in those first twelve weeks cannot be explained (e.g., what is behind the creation of art).  The role of the CD is virtually impossible to codify or qualify; and this is why we set out to make the documentary Casting By.  The documentary takes you into the process in a way that we’ve never seen before, shining  a light on the casting process through personal narratives from industry professionals and, through archival material, piecing together the history of the unsung individuals who launched the careers of many famous actors. For more insight into what casting directors do and how they have changed the face of Hollywood, look for Casting By–in the meantime, check the project out on Facebook

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Joanna Colbert began her career as a casting director in association with Juliet Taylor on Interview with a Vampire for which she conducted a nationwide search resulting in the discovery of Kirsten Dunst. Colbert then went on to work at Universal Pictures as the Manager of Casting and then Senior Vice President of Casting, overseeing such blockbusters as The Mummy series, American Pie, Meet the Parents, and Bruce Almighty. She formed Joanna Colbert Casting in 2001 and Colbert/Mento Casting in 2006. Her credits include: No Strings Attached, the Step-Up series, Cedar Rapids, The Mummy, Everything Must Go, Hollywoodland and The Good Girl. Colbert is currently producing several projects, including a documentary about casting and its influence on film titled Casting By, a feature film titled Atticus Run, The Black Version tv series and Kate McClafferty’s blog, 356 til 30.

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