What I Learned Moving From Casting Director To Film Director

Jennifer Cram, writer-director of the new comedy Sick Girl, on how her first role in cinema made her the filmmaker she is today.

Some dreams feel so big and seem so outlandish that you can’t even admit them to yourself, let alone say them out loud to other people. So when I sat down to meet with Cassidy Lunnen, the woman who would end up producing my script for Sick Girl, and she suggested I be the one to direct the film, I was momentarily speechless. But I didn’t say no. I voiced my hesitations (namely that I had never directed so much as a student film) and asked for reassurance (“Do you really think I can do this? Am I allowed to do this? Will you still be able to raise the money?”), but I didn’t say no.

I did, however, ask for time to think about it. There’s nothing I like better than thinking something to death. But in my heart, I had already made up my mind – there was nothing in the world I wanted to do more than direct this film. It was my own fear that was holding me back. And I kept asking myself the same question: “What makes you think you are qualified to do this?” And although I indignantly retorted with a list of qualifications, some ridiculous and some legit, for the purpose of this article and your sanity, I will talk about only one – casting. I was confident that I could direct Sick Girl because of what I had learned when I was in casting.

I didn’t go to school to study film, so casting became my film school … and what a school it was. Over the years, mostly spent working with the spectacular casting director John Papsidera, I was lucky enough to cast films and television shows for directors like Sam Raimi, Ruben Fleischer and Christopher Nolan, among many others. I have acted in scenes (for audition purposes) opposite Oscar, Emmy and Tony nominees … and winners! I have done improv with some of the greatest comedians in the business. I have cast babies and I have cast actors in nursing homes. I have cast wrestlers, mimes, musicians, dancers, cops, ex-convicts, students, teachers – the list goes on and on. I’ve comforted actors who burst into tears in front of me because of terrible things going on in their personal lives, I’ve held babies while their parents auditioned, because they didn’t have time to find a sitter, I’ve had a (fake) gun held to my head more times than I can count, I’ve read romantic scenes with actors so talented I was fully convinced they were in love with me (until someone called “Cut!” and reality came crashing back in). And although I didn’t realize it at the time, while all of this wonderful insanity was going on, I was also learning.

Jennifer Cram on the set of Sick Girl. (Photo courtesy Jennifer Cram.)

First off, I was learning how to write. Script after script passed through our offices, and after a while I was surprised to find I sometimes learned just as much from the scripts that didn’t work as I did from the ones that did. Some of that knowledge was technical (like learning how to space text out on a page to make reading easier), some was creative (like learning how to write compelling characters), and I’m sure much of it was unconscious. But one thing I can say for sure is reading, breaking down and dissecting scripts – both good and bad – will make you a better and more confident writer and director.

I was also learning how to work with a crew, and how important successful collaboration between all the departments is for a happy and healthy working environment. I observed how the very best directors communicate clearly and effectively what they need from their crew. If the director isn’t vocal about what they want and expect, no one can do their job effectively. This has a ripple effect that trickles down through all the departments and leads to frustration, a lot of finger pointing and, in the worst-case scenarios, chaos. There have been times where we were casting a role and the director was not responding clearly to the auditions they were seeing, but were simply saying, “No, they’re not right.” This turns into a frustrating guessing game and eats up valuable time.

And yes, the creative process is ever-evolving and things often change, but the best directors make sure they are having ongoing conversations with the department heads to communicate these changes.

Great directors also communicate their passion for what they are doing. This isn’t a necessity, but it is a huge bonus. There is nothing more inspiring than watching a director’s eyes light up while talking about their project, and nothing will remind the crew more quickly that they are part of a team working to create something bigger than themselves … art!

Dan Bakkedahl, Nina Dobrev and Wendi McLendon-Covey in Jennifer Cram’s Sick Girl. (Photo courtesy Lionsgate.)

I observed how the best directors stay open. They ask questions and listen to the answers. They’re curious, enthusiastic and flexible, and they admit when they’re wrong or don’t have all the answers. It’s an amazing experience to have a director you admire and respect acknowledge your hard work by asking for your opinion and truly listening to your response. It only makes you want to work harder for them.

Great directors also hire people whose talents they admire, tell them what they want, and then trust them to do the job they were hired for without micromanaging every aspect of the process.

But of all the skills I gained throughout my years in casting, the most important was learning how to work with actors.

I’ve learned not to greet every actor coming in to audition with a list of requirements on how to play the role, but instead to let them first present you with their interpretation. I’ve watched directors do this and learn things about their characters that they weren’t even aware of. Or it has inspired them with exciting new ideas. Or, at the very least, it has helped them articulate what they want from that character or what purpose the character should serve. The more a director discusses a role and sees different actors’ interpretations, the sharper and more in focus the role seems to become.

I’ve learned how to listen and watch actors for clues about the roles they’re auditioning for. If numerous actors are stumbling over the same line or are unable to make the dialogue sound natural, the problem is probably with the writing and not the actor. If numerous actors are passing on a role, you might want to take a look at that role and see if the problem lies there.

Jennifer Cram during the making of Sick Girl. (Photo courtesy Jennifer Cram.)

I’ve learned that every audition is just that particular actor’s interpretation of the scene, and since we are all humans with unique experiences and points of view, it can never be “wrong,” just different. Instead of shutting them down or writing them off completely, try offering the actor a new interpretation and then see if they are able to translate that into the scene in a way that works for the character and the story you’re trying to tell.

I’ve learned to keep my notes as concise and simple as possible.

I’ve learned most actors love notes … as long as they’re interesting. I once sat in a casting session with a very prominent actor-turned-director and the notes he was giving utterly delighted the actors. Spur of the moment, he would say something like, “This is really weird and I probably won’t do it on the day, but I just had a thought … would you be interested in trying this scene again as if the character (a mature, older woman) was younger and not as mature? Just for fun, because I want to see what you would do with it.” The actors were having a blast. The session was only supposed to be two hours long and lasted nearly four, but instead of fielding calls later from a lot of irate agents, I was receiving call after call from agents gushing about how their clients said it was the most fun they’d had in ages. Obviously, we don’t always have the luxury to play and experiment like this, but there are ways to have a bit more fun with a role if you’re willing to be a little creative, and the actors will adore you for it.

I’ve learned that acting is incredibly brave and we should honor and protect an actor’s willingness to be vulnerable, often with strangers. We all build up walls, especially as we get older, to protect ourselves from the harsh realities of life. Actors have to be willing to completely rip down those walls and expose themselves, usually in rooms full of people staring at them while cameras capture their every move. On top of this, they are putting their performance in the hands of you, the director, and trusting that you will do right by them. What a massive responsibility that is … and what an enormous privilege.

Featured image shows (left) Jennifer Cram as photographed by Kevin Scanlon and (right) Nina Dobrev in Sick Girl, written and directed by Jennifer Cram.

Jennifer Cram makes her directorial and writing debut with the new comedy Sick Girl, starring Nina Dobrev, Wendi McLendon-Covey, Sherry Cola and Stephanie Koenig, about a woman who lies about having cancer in a misguided attempt to reconnect with her old friend group. Cram got her start in the industry as a casting associate for award-winning casting director John Papsidera, working on productions such as Casual, The Expanse, Zombieland, Inception, The Grey, The Dark Knight Rises, 22 Jump Street and Chaos Walking. She currently lives in Los Angeles, where she’s prepping her next project, a romantic comedy she wrote and will direct entitled One Big Love. (Photo by Kevin Scanlon.)