Monday, October 12, 2009

Are these parts castable?

I've noticed in a few spec scripts I've gotten recently that some writers aren't giving enough thought to casting when writing their scripts. Now before you say, "Wait a minute! Aren't you always telling us to not offer casting suggestions?" let me explain what I mean.

Not long ago, I read a script that had no fewer than four major roles for characters under 12 - and two of those roles were under six years of age. It was a very weighty drama with a lot of the emotion depending on the ability of some very young actors. I have to admit, years of enduring bad writing has made me very wary of spec scripts with young protagonists just on principle. It's hard to write young kids without being cloying, and too often, it feels like green writers fall into the trap of concocting "cute" things for their supporting kids to do.

Generally, if I read a spec with one child actor in it, it doesn't usually trip my alert. I figure that there must be at least one child who can be found that can fit the bill. Also, if the film has a lot of adults in major roles, there's the expectation that their acting might compensate for any weaknesses with the younger actors. Plus, every now and then filmmakers get lucky and stumble on the next Jonathan Lipnicki (you know, from Jerry Maguire) or Dakota Fanning. Odds are you can find at least one talented kid. Last season, I was very impressed with a young actress named Ariel Winter, who appeared in a multi-episode ER arc as the daughter of a woman in need of a heart transplant. (She's currently on Modern Family.)

But the rub was that this script was about as heavy a drama as they come, and I'd wager that a good 70%-80% of it was based on the interactions of these kids. With two of them being between the ages of 5-7, that had me concerned that finding the right child actors could be a hassle.

Oh and all of these kids were siblings - so in addition to all of that, you had to believe they were related too. (I could be wrong, but I'm pretty sure there were also lines remarking on just how alike the kids looked - which probably would have been cut if the script got any further.)

I'm not saying that casting this film would be impossible, but the success of the project would be resting on some very small shoulders. My advice might have been to cut the five year-old and age the seven year-old up to being nine or ten. Given the restraints of the premise, it would have required some rethinking, but it would have kept me from thinking, "How are we going to find a five year old who can say and emote this convincingly?"

I'm less worried about the other end of the spectrum. If you can't find a 90 year-old actor, you just age-up a 70 year-old one. However, I do seem to recall reading once that M. Night Shyamalan wrote himself into a corner with Lady in the Water, when he insisted on finding a particular ethnicity for a role, despite being told that there were few choices in that demographic. (I think he was looking for an overweight half-Asian woman, but I'm unable to locate a copy of the book The Man Who Heard Voices: Or, How M. Night Shyamalan Risked His Career on a Fairy Tale, which covers this in detail.)

So while this isn't a major issue, and casting people sometimes work near miracles, give it some thought the next time you write a five year-old half-Asian/half-Samoan set of fraternal twins who are crucial to the plot.


  1. Best to keep children in minor roles, or as peripheral spooky elements if you're writing a horror movie...

  2. This is very good to remember. Any part can be written in a story/novel form. But not every part can be cast for film.

  3. Interesting thought provoking post,

    What sucks as a pre-pro screenwriter is that sometimes when you think up your dream cast, and it envolves child actors, that boat may have already sailed:

    Dakota Fanning -- she's 15 now!
    Haley Joel Osment -- he's 21 now!
    Macaulay Culkin... Dude's more suited to play the 90 year-old grandpa. Mr. Home Alone SHOULDNT have parental suppervision issues anymore -- he's 29!!!

    STILL, I love casting a script I've written. The gatekeepers may -- and probably will, bash me for such audacity, BUT that's part of the fun of the dream.

    - E.C. Henry from Bonney Lake, WA

  4. True, but then you get a movie like Stand By Me or The Bad News Bears. Sometimes it's worth the risk.

  5. There are plenty of talented kids who can reel off lines and do so with all the skill of a thirty year old. Most do it all the time in their own lives. The key is to keep the parts as close to their normal lives and development as possible. A six year old should be pleading and reasoning and manipulating to get a toy or to go to a friend's house, not explaining why the adult hero needs to buck up and go to Mars or something.

    Anything beyond that should be accidental wisdom. Remember, a six year old will be brutal and shove in your face the slightest hypocrisy on your part. If the timing is right, that is if the adult part has progressed to the second half of denial in their situation, the attempted manipulation by the child can serve to put a stake through any further denial and force the adult to sit back and think. Cue deep shocked look on adult actor, up comes the music, fade to, etc.

    Of course, movie reviewers will mistake that as genius on the part of the child actor and the director, and never even think the writer had anything to do with it.

  6. I don't think this is so much a problem with supporting roles. If one or some of the supporting char are children or of ethnic origin, I think they can work around that.

    It's when you write the protag(s) as a 70 yr old blind Sri Lankan woman... or twin Black teens that you really run into trouble.

    The reality is HW movies are very WHITE (and MALE). Even Will Smith's roles are originally written as white guys.

  7. Stand by me starred kids that were what? 13? Much easier to cast than 6 years old.
    My son has a knack for acting, but heavy drama as discussed in the blog is hard to get across at that age. I agree you are pushing it if your script calls for more than one child in that age group.
    Even if you find the actors, it would be so labor intensive to get all the shots that the expense may be prohibitive.
    If you have a story like that, why not write a book, see if you can get some interest, then adapt it to the screen?

  8. I agree with the idea of writing with a cast in mind (and not stating the names in the script of course).

    It sucks that most roles go to non-diverse people, but unfortunately that's the way the celebrity culture is.

    Your best bet is to write a script that could easily go to a dozen or so actors that fit in the top 1,000 in the IMDbpro star-meter.

    And that has little to almost no kids under 16 listed.

  9. I also gave this same note to a bunch of MFA students, who don't ever seem to think about commercial viability. It's not that there aren't good kids out there; it's that studio execs would be (understandably) afraid to make a movie that rested on a kid's shoulders. And if there aren't solid adult roles, then the movie won't attract any stars who can open it.