13 Ways to Cast A-List Actors in Microbudget Films

Julia Stiles in Between Us Julia Stiles in Between Us

My film Between Us is about to come out in theaters and one of the questions I’ve been asked at some of the 22 festivals in seven countries I’ve been to (and yes, that sound you hear is my feet splashing on the beach when I won the Grand Jury Prize in the Bahamas) is how the hell I got a cast like Julia Stiles, Taye Diggs, Melissa George and David Harbour in a movie that according to Kickstarter only cost $10,000? So let me explain…

1. Choose Castable Material. One reason I chose to adapt an Off-Broadway play in the first place is I knew I’d find good, castable material that no one else was turning into a feature. I actually turned down Beau Willimon’s play Farragut North, and George Clooney turned it into Ides of March and got a happy ending from my sloppy seconds. It was good, but I knew would be hard to adapt for a low budget, if need be. But with Between Us, I knew it was at its heart four people in two rooms — how hard could that be? More importantly, the four parts were incredibly well written, with great chew-the-scenery moments for each actor. They were also written for 30-ish-year-old actors, and the two female parts were especially rich. That’s key: There are far more working (and famous) actresses than actors, and there aren’t enough good parts for them. So if you can get a script with really great female roles, you’re golden.

2. Assemble a Team. Contrary to popular wisdom, you don’t need an A-list casting director. What you need is someone who can sound like a credible casting director on the phone. I teamed up with Alison Buck, who’d been recommended by my pal, director Matthew Harrison. Alison had recently moved to L.A. from New Zealand and been working as a casting director in her spare time while also holding down a day job as a manager. Which meant that she had an office, a phone, knew the casting lingo and had the confidence to sound like the movie was happening. Yes, she had some contacts in the agenting world, but that’s not why we got her. She also had the stamina to stay committed to the film for what wound up being over four years.

But the casting director was only part of the team. I also needed to surround myself with a credible group of producers. To that end, I rounded up New Yorker Mike Ryan, who’d had seven films at Sundance. His claim to fame was helping discover Amy Adams in Junebug. I got Hans Ritter in L.A., who’d been instrumental in discovering Ellen Page in Hard Candy. Barry Hennessey was a four-time Emmy winning producer on Amazing Race… and had been my line producer on my previous film. And to top it off, we got Dana Altman, my producing partner on my first film, and Robert Altman’s grandson… not bad casting genes in his DNA! And of course, as the co-founder of Slamdance, and with some good casting under my belt for my previous film (Open House with Oscar-nominee Sally Kellerman, Anthony Rapp, Kellie Martin, et al), there was proof that I knew how to work with at least somewhat fancy actors.

3. Aim High. So with that team on paper, we decided to tell people we were making the film for $2 or 3 million! This was in 2007-8, so it didn’t sound so crazy at the time. And at that budget, the prevailing wisdom was to offer something called “Schedule F” which SAG says is a $65,000 flat rate. Now of course, we didn’t have a dime. So that meant we were doing “finance contingent” casting. Which means some of the agents and managers will take you seriously (10% of $65k is still enough to support at least a small coke habit), so they’ll get someone in the office to do coverage on the script and it gets in the system.

4. Go to New York. Something I learned by casting both Open House and Between Us is to target junior agents at the big agencies — and specifically ones in their New York offices. The L.A. talent agents are all running around like crazy trying to get their actors booked into pilot season. Television is where the long-term money is for the agencies. The L.A. people have neither the time nor inclination to worry about indie films, no matter what their budget. But, the New York branches of those same agencies spend more time trying to get prestige Broadway jobs for their L.A.-based high profile actor clients. Consequently, they’re also better attuned to know which actors in their clientele are inclined to want to do (and can afford to do) meaty, “actor-y” roles — whether they be on stage or in indie films. In general, the New York agents also tend to have gone to classier Ivy League schools, think they’re smarter, and have more time on their hands to actually sit down and read a script (and not just pass it on to a bitter intern to do coverage).

The sweet spot is to find a junior agent in New York — someone who just finished being an assistant, just got their own desk, but doesn’t yet have their own assistant. These are the hungry young bucks, eager to make a mark for themselves by discovering great material and prove themselves to their senior agents, A-list clients and the big bosses in L.A. And without their own assistants, they’ll actually answer their own phone!

5. Be Bi-Coastally Curious. From New York, come back to L.A.. This confuses the agencies, in a good way. If they think you’re bi-coastal, they will take you more seriously (Scott Rudin has offices in L.A. and N.Y., why shouldn’t you?). If you live in L.A., get a 917 number. If you live in N.Y., get a 323. Leave messages at 6:00 AM in L.A. or 9:00 PM in N.Y. Then play them off against each other: “Oh yes, that sitcom actor’s good, but your N.Y. colleague has this other Broadway actor that seems more… how do I put this? Substantial. Do you have any feature actors who are better?”

6. Don’t Have a List! Every director has some sort of list in mind about your dream cast. Forget it! You will never get your dream cast. Not all of them, not on your budget, and not on the week you want to start shooting. And then when you do cast someone else, you will always view them as inferior to the person you had in mind when you wrote the script or made your list. This is an important concept both creatively and practically.

Agents spend most of their time soullessly getting offers and pushing them on to their clients. For this, they went to Penn? So, when you meet with that junior agent in NY, tell him or her about the roles, and then say, “Who do you think would be good in this?” All of a sudden, it empowers the agent and makes them emotionally vested in the film. They will undoubtedly come up with the exact same list of clients that you would have thought of from scouring IMDbPro, but sometimes they will surprise you and come up with a new client they just signed, or someone bigger than you thought you could get. The point is, it will be their idea, and they will work ten times harder to get that person than if you had suggested them. Now they have something to prove to you (and their colleagues), and not the other way around.

7. Develop Relationships with Agents Yourself. No matter how good or powerful your casting director is, you as the filmmaker need to develop and cultivate relationships with talent agents and managers yourself: Buy them coffee in Park City, take them out to breakfast in Venice, share sushi on St. Mark’s. Whatever it takes. This is much better time spent than cultivating relationships with actors: You could spend 20 years buddying up to the next Tom Cruise, but when you finally need to cast your famous BFF, they might happen to be in rehab that month, and you’re screwed. But agents or managers who you know will always have other clients available, and will have them for not just this film, but for all your films in the future. That junior agent in New York will be a senior manager in L.A. by the time you make your next movie.

Even if you’ve gotten an A-list casting director, you need to develop these relationships yourself. You may have gotten lucky with a casting director this time, but next year when you want to make a Dogma 95 film in your kitchen, you won’t have a casting director to fall back on. It’s also more impressive for the young agents and managers to speak with the “director” and not just the casting director. Alison and I had a great system: If she contacted an agent, she would constantly refer to “the director” following up with them, and when I knew an agent, I would refer to my “casting director” as following up with them. It gave the impression that we had a real team who cared what that agent thought. And of course we always said our “assistants” would be dropping off a script, though invariably the assistant was me.

8. Play the Agency Game. As friendly as you get with one agent, make sure you’re also friends with another. Typically you get three bites at the apple with an agency: If three actors pass on the same script, they will stop returning your calls. And if all your actors do come from the same agent, then the power shifts, and you’re beholden to that agent — for better or for worse. To keep your casting momentum going, it’s best to play the agencies off against each other. Use the nuggets of success with one agency (“Oh, you know WME’s got the script out to Jennifer…”) as leverage to get the other agencies to move (“Well, yes, I suppose you could slip it to Ben for the weekend read”). Likewise, play the managers off against the agencies. Remember, it’s a game. Have fun with it! (And to really see how much fun it is to play agencies against each other, see this.)

9. Bait and Switch. With Between Us, just as we were getting a great cast, the economy fell through in 2008 and there was no way to make a film for any budget. Luckily for me, I got a book deal on a completely unrelated project, and after it had run its course two years later, we came back to Between Us — but this time the approach was to do it on a microbudget. Yes, we raised $10,000 on Kickstarter (back when that was considered a successful campaign) but indirectly raised another $30,000 or so. That was enough money to be able to pay actors $100 a day (SAG ultra-low scale if your budget is under $200k).

The crew wouldn’t get paid, but that’s our problem, not the actors. The script was exactly the same as before; we never rewrote it for a smaller budget. So we could go back to the same agents and managers we were in touch with before and they would still take our calls and use the same coverage as before. Legally, if you have a backed offer they have to pass it on to their clients, no matter how small that offer is. And frankly, an agent will take you more seriously if you have 100% of a $40,000 budget in the bank than if you have zero percent of a $3 million budget in the bank.

10. Set a Start Date. This is a lesson I learned from Robert Altman: Set a start date, and they will come. For most actors — particularly those who’ve been on TV series, or big-budget movies — they don’t need the money. It really doesn’t matter whether it’s $65,000 or $100 a day. They’re doing it for the roles. The key thing is the start date. If they’re available, they will want to work. Actors abhor a vacuum in their schedules. And there’s nothing agents hate more than whiny clients calling them every day asking why they’re out of work. The start date is more important than the budget: No one wants to get left behind.

11. Make it Real. As soon as you start asking questions like “does your client have any peanut allergies we should be aware of?” (since all you can afford to feed them is PB&J) or “what is your client’s hat size?” (to give the impression that you’ve already hired a wardrobe department), the agents will believe that you really are making the movie.

12. Magnetic Balls of Iron. You need some serious cojones to pull all this off properly. It helps to know that you have backup actors in a pinch. For literally years, I had been meeting actors for coffee (it’s axiomatic that actors don’t eat, so you can take them to reasonably nice places and not go broke). So I knew we could always make the film with talented actors if we wanted. Remember, as you cast, most of these so-called attachments will fall through. The micro-budget indie will always get trumped by the Spielberg film or pilot shoot for Scandal. But as long as they don’t all fall through the same day, you’re fine. In our case, Taye Diggs originally thought he was signing up to be in a movie with Michael C. Hall, America Ferrera and Kerry Washington. But thankfully, as they all dropped out at different times, Taye stuck with the film and we were able to build up our cast again. And of course, his agent was now even more motivated to help us out (which he definitely did).

13. Take Advantage of Others’ Misfortune. As you get closer to that start date, your ability to cast closer to the A-list actually increases. In our case, the best example was Julia Stiles. She’d always been floating around our lists (I lied; of course we had lists), but I knew she was booked for six months in a Neil LaBute play on Broadway. But her agent called me in a panic: Despite rehearsing for a month, that play’s financing had fallen through two hours before, and they needed to fill Julia’s schedule. Was I interested? Yes, make the offer! (I knew her manager was already a fan of the script, having taken him to breakfast in Venice some three years before). Within 24 hours, Julia called me and said she was in. Two weeks later, she was in my kitchen rehearsing the movie.

Now then, was all this the work of years of careful preparation and planning? Or did we simply take advantage of an actress in her most vulnerable emotional state and swoop in to save her? It doesn’t matter. The point is we made the movie with amazing actors who delivered performances that are already winning awards and critical plaudits.

And by the way, remember that so-called $10,000 budget? Once we did get our actors and started shooting, we got a very nice financier to invest in the film. His check may have only cleared three days before the END of principal photography, but clear it did, and even most of the crew got paid. It may not be the ideal way to make a movie, but it’s definitely one way.

In addition to being a writer, director and producer, Dan Mirvish is the co-founder of the Slamdance Film Festival.