Way back at the beginning of November (what honestly feels like five years ago), I got a call I’d spent months crossing my fingers for, about Birdland. It was the call from Ye Olde Federal Film Entity (who shall remain nameless until they finally give us the money, but you all know who I’m talking about), telling us that they will support the project, as long as we sent them a few outstanding documents and updates by Dec 1.
A month to tie up loose paperwork might seem like a reasonable timeline to you, but in this case, it was like asking us to cook a Christmas dinner in half an hour. I can make “a dinner” in half an hour, but turkey just don’t roast that fast.
Some of what they wanted was relatively easy to pull together, but some items required time and finesse. Like, for example, casting.
It should surprise no one that after rushing like crazy to hand everything in on deadline (we sort of did, and got an extension on a few things, and then handed those in on time in early January), we’re actually still waiting for them to review the paperwork and get back to us. They are slower than The Turin Horse on quaaludes. Don’t get me wrong. I like The Turin Horse. But holy mother of pearl, this process is slow!
Anyway, now that we’re at least at the “paperwork is happening” stage of things, we’re able to move on with one of the more exciting parts of the process – casting.
We had to get four actors to “commit” to the project in advance, as a requirement of our funding, in time for that December deadline. I put the word in quotation marks because the commitment is loose – basically a letter saying “if a wide variety of unspecified conditions are met, I’d be interested in starring in this film”. It’s a low-impact thing to get from an actor, but they still have to like the project and be theoretically available on your schedule. So, unless you have an actor friend who will flat-out lie for you, you do have to find actors who are legitimately interested in being in your movie, even though the letter is by no means binding.
It’s also not easy to get on short notice, because you need to give the actor a respectful amount of time to read the script and think about it. Ideally, you don’t want to simultaneously ask two actors for a letter about the same role (just in case they both say yes – in which case you have to awkwardly tell one of them that it’s been snapped up – a maaaaaajor faux pas). Approaching actors one at a time means waiting until each person says no before approaching your second or third choice. That takes time.
Anyway. Incredibly enough, we did manage to get letters from four very good Canadian actors – indie stars, even! Obviously, nobody’s signed a contract yet, so I can’t publish their names, but I can say this: it was heartening to see talent-of-a-certain-caliber take interest in our ultra-low-budget movie. I say that not because I have little faith in the project, but because I have little faith in people’s willingness to work for below-scale rates, as we will be asking them to do because our project is part of Actra’s Canadian Independent Production Incentive Program (CIPIP for short – pronounced “see-pip!”).
There were lots of agents who blew us off as well. Which is really the thing I want to talk about in this post.
Because we weren’t yet green-lit and weren’t yet able to hire a casting director, we were just cold-emailing agents ourselves to say “hey, here’s our script and our plan, whaddayasay?” Sometimes, that worked. Most of the time, that got us a polite brush-off. Many said “yes, thanks, I will pass it on to Ms. X” and then never got back to us. That type of “thanks, we’ll look into it” basically means “no” in my books, because as I’ve learned, movie people really never say “no”, even though they mean “don’t let the door hit you on the way out, Bub”! In a few cases, all we got was icy silence. Life is harsh in Agent-Town.
We were lucky to find an ally at one of the big Canadian agencies, a powerful agent by local standards, who really liked the script and helped us out by not only signing up one of his clients but lobbying on behalf of the project to his colleagues, so that we were able to get another great actress on board from within his agency. Lucky us – and I truly un-sarcastically mean that. His enthusiasm was a huge help. But lots of agents said no without really bothering to read our materials, and that’s fair enough. They get flooded with material, they’re protecting their clients, or steering them toward a certain type of movie, or a certain budget level, or whatever, and c’est la vie.
But now! Now we’re doing the paperwork and moving forward. Now we’ve got a casting director on board. And honestly, it’s a whole new world.
Now that we have a casting director, our film seems legit, and when she puts out a call with descriptions of the roles we’re trying to cast, we suddenly get a flood of names submitted – including some whose agents wouldn’t return our calls about those exact same roles a month ago.
This is only phase one of the whole process. Just because an agent has thrown their client’s name into the hat for a certain role doesn’t mean the actor’s schedule will actually be open during our timeframe. It doesn’t mean the actor will like the script or feel that they’re right for the part. It doesn’t mean that they will ultimately agree to some of our other requirements (nudity, for example).
So, you might be saying to yourself “I get it, seeing an actor’s name on the potentials list means almost nothing”. But there, you’d be wrong. The one crucial thing it does mean is this: the actor’s agent, who to a large extent controls the career decisions they make, has looked at our synopsis, our budget level, and our abysmally low rates of pay for actors, and they have said “sure, I’d be willing to put my client into this production”. And that, in itself, is a big deal.
Next week, we’ll be meeting with a bunch of actors who are a bit too big to audition (at this budget level, especially) but are willing to meet us for a coffee and discuss the project, and that feels like a big step forward. In a week or two, we might be able to publicly announce a few of the names who are attached, and that will help us get the others on board.
The dance continues.
In the meantime, how does an intrepid young producer sublimate the stress of this process without just setting the whole town on fire and walking away? Baking, of course.
Sure, the prime season for gingerbread may have just passed, but I’m sharing this recipe anyway, because delicious loaves of cakey, gingery bread should never be out of season.
I used this Martha Stewart recipe but cut the sugar from 3/4 of a cup to about 1/2 a cup. It turned out great. And it wasn’t “hairy”.