Unknowns get their shots on local shoots

'Quinceanera' sought out non-professionals for pic's roles

“Los Angeles is the indie film capital of the world in terms of number of SAG contracts signed,” says Paul Bales, director of SAG Indie. But even in a city with an almost limitless pool of available actors, there are still producers who opt for a non-union production for creative as well as budgetary reasons.

Set in Los Angeles’ diverse Echo Park, “Quinceanera’s” coming-of-age story called for teen principals. “Our concept from the beginning was to cast unknown people: first-timers, non-professionals and people from the neighborhood,” says Wash Westmoreland, co-director and co-screenwriter of the pic, which was selected as the centerpiece premiere for the L.A. Film Festival.

“Quinceanera’s” filmmakers wanted to capture the specific social milieu of a Mexican-American family in the gentrifying neighborhood. For lead character Magdalena, played by Emily Rios, Westmoreland says they wanted “someone who had a similar background to this character, rather than an actress from Beverly Hills faking it.”

To reach the community, the filmmakers posted audition notices on Latino site Nosotros.org and distributed flyers at area high schools, “casting as wide a net as possible, seeing every single person who came in the door,” recalls Westmoreland. “You’re actually looking at what someone can do in front of the camera.”

Rather than the usual politics of casting names to secure financing, casting decisions on low-budget films can be purely artistic, Westmoreland contends. “In a way, casting with unknown actors, unknown names, gives you a lot more freedom to really find exactly the right person.”

To achieve authenticity, producer-helmer Carl Colpaert also sought out non-union unknowns for his recent CineVegas grand jury winner “G.I. Jesus.” A story of a green-card soldier suffering from post-traumatic stress, the feature required a mix of U.S., Iraqi, Mexican and Iranian actors. “We had to cast harder and longer,” says Colpaert of the months-long casting phase. Going non-union “is a way to find new talent and fresh faces,” he says, noting 80% of the film was cast in Los Angeles.

Writer-director Camille Cellucci attracted some well-known actresses with the script for her short film “Grace,” produced under the auspices of the AFI Directing Workshop for Women and covered by a special SAG agreement (the guild has done much to encourage the use of union actors, developing five low-budget model agreements that cover student films, shorts and special programs at various budget thresholds). But scheduling precluded their participation.

Via Internet casting sites, Cellucci received approximately 250 submissions for her film’s two leads, eventually casting the adult character from an online submission. She believes working without a name star actually benefited her project. “My work with actress Christy Lynn Smith can be seen as an achievement of the director and actor,” she says. “If I’d had a name, it would have then become ‘so-and-so’s short.’ ”

But how does a modest indie attract recognizable faces? Casting director Nicole Arbusto of Dickson-Arbusto Casting finds that the smaller the budget, the better the material has to be. “What you are going to be selling is the opportunity to work on great material that offers something to actors,” says Arbusto, whose credits include Sundance 2006 prizewinner “Stephanie Daley.”

“Right at Your Door” helmer Chris Gorak found that even with a budget under $1 million, many name actors circled his project, an intense story of post-catastrophe Los Angeles. In addition to his principal cast of Mary McCormack and Rory Cochrane, he sought “a melting pot of casting” that realistically portrayed the city’s diversity. “My main goal was to make it feel real, and we tried to be careful with casting choices to create the believability of the story. Casting was integral in orchestrating that,” notes the helmer, who utilized SAG actors.

Every indie filmmaker must consider the realities of the resources they can rally to a project. As “Quinceanera’s” Westmoreland puts it, “We did a low-budget, non-union film, and something about the way it was made added to the spirit of the film. It needed to be the way it was to end up as the film that it did.”

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