Programs Thu 3.6.2014

Short Term 12 Filmmakers Share Their Casting Secrets at Directors Close-Up

At Film Independent’s Directors Close-Up series last night, writer Robin Swicord (The Curious Case of Benjamin Button) moderated a panel discussion deconstructing one of the best-cast films of the year, Destin Cretton’s Short Term 12, which features bold, unrestrained performances by actors including Brie Larson, John Gallagher Jr., Kaitlyn Dever, Keith Stanfield and Alex Calloway.

Set at a foster care facility, the film follows the trials of a group of mixed-up adolescents who form a makeshift, albeit dysfunctional, family led by two counselors (Larson and Gallagher Jr.) who may be as troubled as their young charges. Cretton, along with producer Asher Goldstein, casting director Rich Delia (August: Osage), and actors Dever, Stanfield and Calloway took to the stage to illuminate the casting process and the techniques they used to create a relaxed and collaborative environment on set.

Out of the 10-15 scripts Delia said he reads each week, he said he gravitates toward the ones that move him in some way, trusting that ultimately they will resonate with audiences as well. Offering hope to first-time filmmakers out there, he also revealed, “I try not to worry so much about budget or necessarily what a filmmaker has done, but instead what a filmmaker is intending to do with a script.”

Luckily, Delia found in Cretton a supportive and generous collaborator who cultivated the same comfortable and safe space during the audition process as he did on set. “I try to create some kind of environment where it’s just like whatever you do, it doesn’t matter. Even if it’s wrong it doesn’t matter,” said Cretton. “Sometimes the gold comes from the mistakes,” Delia added, noting that he aims to create an environment in which actors feel safe to experiment and “color outside the lines.”

Despite the severe time constraints, Goldstein emphasized that Cretton’s razor-sharp concentration and dedication allowed them to do in-depth character building through improv and by bringing in guest speakers from treatment centers who shared their at times horrific and poignant stories with the cast and crew.

Among the cast, Calloway, who auditioned at 12 years old for the role of the young, fragile Sammy, remarked that the ease he felt around Cretton enabled him to deliver the physically taxing first scene in which his character is running in a mad dash to try to escape. Meanwhile, for Dever—who has garnered attention in indie hits this year including James Ponsoldt’s The Spectacular Now and who will appear next in Lynn Shelton’s Laggies—it was an emotionally exhausting audition process, in which she was asked repeatedly to play the film’s three most intense scenes, vying with 50 other actresses for the part of Jayden.

When discussing the exciting challenges of casting an ensemble piece, Delia explained that, “sometimes you may find someone who you think is the best for the role, but do they fit in with the other characters that you’ve started to build? You find your building block, which in this case was Brie, and then you build out from there… you have to take into account if it’s an ensemble piece how they all fit together.”

Cretton noted how the collaborative partnership of the older actors, Larsen and Gallagher Jr. really helped set the tone on set, and that their roles as leaders onscreen really translated off-screen as well. Even more important than character work, he said, is building trust not only between director and actor, but also within the entire ensemble, whose performances he noticed improved exponentially as they developed a rapport and grew to genuinely care about one another.

The filmmakers also discussed the importance of meeting and “auditioning” the parents of young actors as they are the ones who accompany them to set and can be either a positive influence or negative imposition on the production.

On selecting a crew, Cretton invoked the casting analogy: “In the same way that casting is the most important part of directing, I think handpicking your crew is just as important. I mean, you can’t train someone to be kind and respectful of another person’s craft and to not feel like they’re in competition with someone else. That just comes from handpicking people that I know are good people on and off set.”

While the auditioning process can be a daunting and draining experience for actors, the filmmakers of Short Term 12 have tried to create an atmosphere in which their performers can feel free and uninhibited to play.

When asked how he knows who is the right person to tell the story, Delia said he feels that, “there is never just one person.” That said, he said his personal barometer is when he’s witnessing an audition and can actually envision the movie taking shape. “Sometimes people come in and you love what they’re doing but it’s just not clicking and sometimes you feel like you’re actually watching the film.”

Laura Swanbeck / Freelance blogger