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Tuesday, October 14, 2014

How to find great child actors - the top 3 thing I learnt

Currently I am filming a low budget children's adventure feature film called "Who Killed Nelson Nutmeg?" with my good friend Danny Stack. It is a classic kids-solve-a-mystery-on-holiday story. Perhaps, from a film industry point of view, this is a bit out of fashion right now, but children still seem to love this kind of narrative anyway. So we thought we'd make it.

Central to the tale is a gang of four kids and an older brother. The dynamic of the group is really the drama of the film. How they work together, and how it starts to all fall apart as the mystery deepens. This, therefore, needs to be a proper 'gang', not just four kids who happen to be standing next to each other!

If I say so myself, we got this right, and it is one of the best parts of the film. Each actor is good in their own right, but they also gel together well.
How did we pull it off? How do you get four kids to act together and get along with each other for 10 weekends in a row?
In reflection, here are the three things we planned that really paid off and made it happen.

One: Spread the net wide and for a long time
We had three main sources of potential actors and we started reaching out in March, knowing we weren't aiming to actually start shooting until August.

The first source was going to every local acting school that we could get in touch with and who were open to us coming along and giving a talk and doing auditions. Some of the smaller classes are the better ones. A lot of these classes and schools focus on theatre, so the kids who do well there may not be the best ones for film! We met James (aka Woody) at one acting class that specialises in drama and doesn't do any musical numbers or dancing.

The second source was online casting sites such as the special kids version of casting call pro where more experienced actors such as Hattie, above, have profiles. We then did a closed audition day for people we liked from the casting web sites and from the acting schools. This also gave us a chance to interview the kids in a more informal manner. At the end of this process we had a short list.

The third source was an open audition. We had to start planning this in March for a June open audition date. The reason for this long lead time was because of the time it takes to get information out there and in the hands of parents. One of the main ways to communicate to local families is via magazines sent out to all parents by the schools. These only get distributed twice during a school term, so the long lead time was essential. The open audition was amazingly well attended with 280 young actors coming along. The fact we already had our short list from the closed auditions in our minds helped, in that we knew we were looking for young actors who could bring something different to what we'd seen already, something fresh or a new take on it. This was how we found Jonah (aka Swindon) as well as some of the smaller unusual roles. Some actors make such an impact we knew we'd have to get them in one way or another.

Two: Mix things up
At this point we had the short list from both the closed audition and the open audition. The task then was to try and mix people up and see what worked overall. Everyone involved by this point was a great actor and had a good take on the character. So this stage was really concerned with getting the overall mix working.

How do you do this? The answer is simple - you do as many different scenes from the movie as possible, with the biggest variety of people possible - and film them. It can be tempting to do special audition pieces or games. This is a distraction. Audition people with the actual thing you want them to do! It was also useful to ask the young actors who they liked for the other roles. It was this way that we ended up with JJ in the role of Shiv.

Three: Audition the parents
All through the casting process (and especially near the end) we were also auditioning the parents. Not for their acting abilities of course, but for their commitment to the film. Although the kids are doing the role, it is the parents who need to make the dedication. They would need to give up their own time too!

At the end of the process we had a group of young actors who:

  • had worked together a lot already during the various auditions
  • had had a hand in selecting each other
  • who had proven themselves committed to the film by returning many times
  • who already understood the film and our process in realising it 

Key Point
The overall method we have used throughout is one of transparency. We have tried to always be totally honest and upfront about this whole process and also the potential of the film with the kids as well as the parents. So no tricks or hidden agendas.