Five essential tips for casting your micro-budget feature

by Scott K. Foley and Josh Rosenberg, July 2013

Behind the scenes

Actress Maya Boudreau and DP Joe Fitzgerald

Scott K. Foley and Josh Rosenberg share their experiences casting Jessica, their micro-budget feature. First showcased on Ted Hope's blog Hope for Film, here a few of their lessons learned in casting when you have (almost) no money to spend.

When we set out to cast our micro-budget feature, Jessica, we were certain we'd be able to quickly find an up-and-coming actress to star. I mean we'd written a script about a complicated and conflicted character, the kind of breakout-caliber role that actors dream about, and one that with a bit of luck would propel their careers, all of our careers, to the next level. What we didn't know was how, as first time and micro-budget filmmakers, we'd be expending an enormous amount of time and energy trying to get past the gatekeepers and how some much appreciated tough-love advice from an unexpected source would finally allow us to move forward and start making our movie.

Our journey started by making a list of actors we were interested in. We worked hard to remain realistic, and so we set our targets on people who had impressed us in smaller supporting roles. People who might be looking to advance to leading-lady status and who could help provide our little indie with some much needed name recognition. We quickly signed up for IMDBPro, where for less than $20 a month we knew we could get contact information for the agents and managers of all the actors on our list. How amazing is that!

Okay, we'll be honest; those first few calls were terrifying. These were REAL agents of REAL actors, and we were, well, struggling filmmakers. "But," we rationalized, "surely they would recognize this as an amazing opportunity for their clients, right?" Wrong. Instead of a series of hard-won yesses, we were quickly met with questions like, "What are your dates?" "Does filming have to be in Chicago?" and "What's the rate?"

One thing we rarely heard was no. Instead we were asked to submit the script with a written offer, an offer that, if the actor liked the material, meant we'd be attaching her without an audition or even having had spoken. So we submitted, one by one, down our list. And one by one, the offers expired. We always followed up, but what we quickly learned was that NOT hearing no, still most often meant NO.

Frustrated, we began thinking we'd made a mistake in not hiring a casting agent, so we asked ourselves what was the best cast independent film in the last few years. Our answer, Martha Marcy May Marlene. Bound and determined to get whoever cast that film to cast ours, we reached out to casting director Susan Shopmaker. Susan warned us up front that our budget was too low for her company, but somehow we managed to convince her to read the script, and shortly thereafter received an email that read simply, "You were right. A very well written script. Let's talk soon."

You can't imagine our excitement. We anticipated her saying, "I want to cast your movie, and I have the next Elizabeth Olsen for you. Let's do this!" In case you're wondering, that's not how the conversation went. Instead Susan was honest - painfully honest. She told us that as untested filmmakers it was going to be very difficult for us to get the script past an agent's desk, especially at our microbudget rates. She also told us we were still aiming too high, that we were targeting working actors who had carved out nice careers for themselves. Lastly she told us that our lead actress would not be the reason someone would come see our movie. People would come see it because we'd made a great movie. This was a real light bulb moment that allowed us to stop looking at casting as a way to ensure the success of our film, and to refocus our attention on making the best film possible.

Susan suggested we reach out to local casting agents, so the next day we contacted Chicago based, Paskal Rudnicke Casting (Public Enemies, The Break-Up, etc.). We found that the staff there was not only happy to work with us but also happy to show us the wealth of talent that existed right under our noses. We saw 50 talented, passionate, hungry, actresses for the lead role. They each came in with a unique take on the character, showing us things we hadn't thought of, challenging us to answer some tough questions, and bringing the character to life for us for the very first time!

From that session we cast an amazing local actress who was even willing to let us shoot a teaser trailer with her for our Kickstarter campaign. The video can be checked out here: The campaign has done really well so far, but we've still got a ways to go, and it ends at 7pm (CST) on July 18th! We'd be very grateful if you'd be willing to take a look and consider supporting our campaign.


Jennifer Lawrence Doesn't Want to Be in Your Microbudget Movie: To be honest we never thought she did. But who was Jennifer Lawrence before Winter's Bone? A super-talented actor hungry to find a great role. So although Jennifer Lawrence doesn't want to be in your movie, the next Jennifer Lawrence just might.

The Importance of Casting Directors: These are people who have been doing this for years. They have connections to agents, to talent, and they know their way around all the rules and regulations that you might not. They'll save you time and frustration.

Whenever Possible Call Managers, Not Agents: Within 30 seconds an agent will ask about money. This is not the direction you want the call to go. But managers often ask you what the project's about. Who knows, you might be offering exactly the type of thing that actor is looking for.

You Don't Have to be in New York or L.A. to Find Talented Actors: Most cities have a pool of talented actors, chomping at the bit to find a juicy role. Check with your local casting directors; they can help you connect.

Build Relationships: Everyone who agrees to read your script represents an opportunity to become part of a larger network of people who are actively making movies. As a young filmmaker, it's incredibly important to foster these relationships. The best way to do that is by always being respectful and genuine and trying to give back in any way that you can. Remember these people gave you the time of day when very few people would.

Scott K. Foley
Scott K. Foley is an award-winning independent filmmaker and director who has been screening his work since 2001. His film, To Say Goodbye, was awarded "best of" prizes at festivals including the Iowa International Film Fest, the Athens International Film Fest, and the Wisconsin Film Fest. As a cinematographer, Scott has shot a variety of documentary and reality television shows. In 2011, Scott traveled to the Cannes Film Festival where a short film he shot had been accepted into the festival's Short Film Corner.
Josh Rosenberg
Josh Rosenberg wrote, directed and produced the festival award-winning independent feature film, Tracks. The film screened at festivals including the Kansas City International Film Festival and the 2009 Wisconsin Film Festival, where it went on to win the Wisconsin's Own Jury Prize. Josh and the film have since been featured on the Wisconsin Public Television show, Director's Cut. Josh is currently the production manager on Oprah's Next Chapter at Harpo Studios in Chicago.
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