Spring 2017

The Body and Soul of Live Casting

TV directors speak out on their role in the process even as remote online methods threaten to push them 'out of the room.'

Illustrated by Stuart Bradford

Veteran television director Rosemary Rodriguez recalls an uncomfortable situation not long ago in which she tried to guide a guest actor for an episode of a popular dramatic series whose casting did not involve her input. It didn't take long to figure out the wrong performer had been chosen.

"I didn't get to weigh in on the actor because they sent [online video links] to cast the role, and I was shooting, so they made the choice without me," Rodriguez recalls. "The actor showed up on set for a recurring role that started in my episode, and he was nervous and inexperienced—he didn't even know what a mark was. It was difficult to work with him, and it was obvious he was in over his head. I had to call the executive producer and suggest they rethink the idea of this being a recurring role, and the character didn't continue past that episode."

Rodriguez feels the situation might have been resolved differently had she been initially consulted. "When you take the director out of the equation," she adds, "it won't always be detrimental to the production, but it often will be."

By contrast, sitcom director Victor Nelli Jr. recently collaborated with producers to find an actor to guest on a couple episodes of Superstore and was shown some online choices to consider. But Nelli had some ideas of his own.

"I knew all the actors they proposed, and they were fine," Nelli says. "But because I knew the show, I threw a few other names out to try and bring another color to the character"—a quality, he adds, not necessarily evident in the script. "An actor came in whom I also knew, and he killed it."

These experiences lie at the foundation of a growing creative rights challenge facing television directors today—an increasing movement away from live casting sessions for guest roles, and the benefit of the real human interaction that affords—in favor of online casting, diluting the director's influence as a result. This development stems from shrinking prep schedules at a time when sophisticated technology now provides an alternative approach.

Online casting, combined with shorter prep time, with production often fanning out to far-flung locales, all factor into what director Matthew Penn, co-chair of the DGA Television Creative Rights Committee, calls "the high-pressure world of episodic television."

"Sometimes, we get pages [the day before shooting starts], and that can mean, for some roles, we need to make a decision immediately," Penn explains. "That can make dialogue between the director and the showrunner about casting that role more challenging. And there are many other factors. Certainly, when people are not in the same place geographically, online methods are helpful. But none of that changes the fact that the best scenario always happens when the director and the showrunner are together, getting the benefit of each other's perspective when making creative casting choices. It's on both parties to see if they can find a way to make sure some kind of human exchange occurs."

Certainly, many high-profile shows still emphasize live casting sessions as a matter of policy—in recent years, NCIS, The Good Wife, The Blacklist and Mad Men among them.

Director Jennifer Getzinger, who worked on Mad Men for years, emphasizes that "it was just a priority" to do live casting for that show. "We never used video for any role on Mad Men," she says. "We did all casting in person. I don't know why we could somehow do it for that show all the time, and so many other shows today somehow can't. It was just a matter of priorities."

Director Karen Gaviola agrees, pointing out that many shows are still produced entirely in a single city, but that some producers make a conscious decision to forgo live casting anyway. She says "the notion that everyone is too busy—that's an excuse, as far as I'm concerned. For a one-hour drama, we usually get seven days to prep, which I personally think is plenty of time to spend three hours at a casting session if everyone is in the same city."

Directors say the industry gradually evolved over the last decade from the periodic use of videotapes and DVDs to a nearly ubiquitous reliance on state-of-the-art online interactive tools such as Breakdown Services Ltd., one of the prominent Web companies now widely used by casting professionals.

Casting Pros' P.O.V.

(Top) Rosemary Rodriguez (left) says taking the director out of the casting equation will likely cause problems later; (Bottom) Matthew Penn (right), co-chair of the DGA Television Creative Rights Committee, notes the realities of episodic TV make ideal casting protocol "challenging." (Photos: (Top) Jeffrey Neira/CBS; (Bottom) Alicia Gbur/ABC via Getty Images)

Veteran casting directors Fern Champion and Sharon Lieblein, partners in Champion/Lieblein Casting, refer to online casting as "a necessary evil," in Champion's words, and a methodology "we fought until fairly recently," according to Lieblein.

"Eventually," says Lieblein, "we realized it worked both ways—that actors were sending us tapes from all over the world, and it widened the pool. Still, if the director is not in the room, that's a big loss to casting directors, because we won't totally know what is in their head, what they are looking for."

Adds Champion: "When we send [links] to directors or showrunners, they really should be coming in here, or asking for a [casting session] to see more. They should be open to the casting person telling them, 'the tape isn't so great, but you have to trust us and come in and see the person live.'"

The alchemy changes when everybody's in the same room. Penn says a live casting session is the only way a director can gauge the "essence of the actor." Gaviola points out "there is absolutely nothing like giving a note, and seeing if the actor can adjust to the note—seeing in the room what the actor's range is." Nelli calls live sessions "mini rehearsals" and declares that the dynamic "levitates the show."

Rodriguez adds that the process is "just logical," not unlike a meet-and-greet. "When they show up on set, you already know the person, so you will work better with them," she says. "You take that away, it's almost like having someone come to your house for dinner, and you have never met them before. Nobody does that."

Compressed Circumstances

(Top) Jennifer Getzinger calls live casting simply "a matter of priorities"; (Bottom) Victor Nelli Jr. (center) says the fast pace of sitcoms makes live casting tough. (Photos: (Top) Tony Rivetti/ABC; (Bottom) John Fleenor/ABC)

In sitcoms, live casting has largely disappeared as a result of the compressed prep period. "The director's prep time has been cut back," as Nelli describes it. "Some shows only give us three days to prep. We used to get five days."

And, even where online casting is used, some sitcom producers often push the pace and priorities to such a point that they do not always structure time to give the director serious input on the available choices. "There is no attempt to get us all online together," he emphasizes. "We do send emails, obviously, but I wish some casting tools had better ways to insert notes. For that matter, people do Skype interviews all the time. There's no reason we couldn't have a live casting session where everyone could chime in over a live feed."

Fellow sitcom director Ken Whittingham goes even further, suggesting that in the sitcom world, "They don't really fully collaborate with directors anymore [in terms of casting]. They don't always know week to week whom they are bringing back as a guest star or whom they will need. Sometimes, they write in certain high-profile guest stars depending on their availability, and make choices before we're involved. A lot of times, they lock the show on guest cast before we even get there.

"Sometimes the director, especially younger directors, won't complain," he continues. "You can understand why—they want to get asked back."

The Takeaway

Karen Gaviola says vets should speak out on behalf of younger directors on the matter; Ken Whittingham says sitcom episodes are often locked "before we even get there."(Photos: (Top) Lance Burns/Fox; (Bottom) Eric McCandless/ABC)

So what solutions exist to reassert the director's creative prominence in the casting process?

"There are some elements in the present [DGA] contract that address this, but essentially, those elements are ones of goodwill," Penn explains. "In other words, producers and studios acknowledge that in-room casting, as it were, with directors present, should occur whenever possible, or be 'encouraged.' But, of course, that depends on many things."

So many things, Whittingham points out, that "no producers are going to jail" if they don't make every effort to include directors in casting decisions. Therefore, veteran directors strongly encourage their peers to be as proactive as they can on the issue.

For example, Nelli says, "I always call the casting director or showrunner early if I get an episode," while Gaviola adds that she tries to assert herself "to get the first look at links when they are sent out."

Directors say the Creative Rights Committee is currently exploring ways to arrange more industry events with writers, producers and casting professionals precisely to discuss these kinds of issues.

Getzinger, for instance, urges directors to actively engage showrunners and producers in conversations about the value of live casting sessions.

"I tell them, 'You know, you can have a casting session if you want one—it's your show,'" she says. "I think that the more people talk about the value of what [live] casting is, the more open they will be to doing it more often."

Rodriguez emphasizes that "there is also a lack of education about the director's role. People do not necessarily understand what their rights are, and what is important to us as artists. Directors need to be educated about these things before we show up. Everyone should carry a [DGA] Creative Rights Handbook, read it, and know what is expected of us."

As in many cases, wiser and more experienced heads can prevail.

"It's incumbent on people like me, who have been directing a while, to speak up," Gaviola says. "We need to do it on behalf of directors who do not have that economic freedom to put their neck on the line. Generally, the first people hired on a series are going to be more experienced directors. If 70 percent of those directors spoke up and said they really like in-person casting, then the next wave of directors would have the advantage of someone already speaking on their behalf. It can be a compelling economic argument to not rock the boat, which is exactly why people who can rock the boat should rock it."

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