Making a comedic commercial can live or die by the casting choices you make. Station Film director Brendan Gibbons is no stranger to finding the funny in people and, here, reveals his thoughts on the casting process, why working with celebrities and sports stars needs a different approach, and the importance of a casting director.

Q>  What are the best strategies for finding the talent to bring to a comedy casting?

BG>  Start with finding your voice as a director. The point is, having a voice. This relates to everything you do as a director. And, to my mind, the way characters exist in the universe you create is the ultimate fingerprint of your voice. So, find a voice. Or at least a whisper. Because, until it exists, your casting director is just gonna be calling up agents and asking them to send whoever fits the spec. And that’s a recipe for spots that are just… fine.

Q>  How crucial is a sympathetic casting director to the process?

BG>  If your casting director understands your vibe, you’re gonna see the kind of people who fit your vibe. I’ve worked with two amazing people for my whole career – Stacy Gallo in New York, and Shane Liem in Los Angeles. They understand who I am as a director as well as anyone I’ve worked with over the years.
They also know what every actor I’ve cast has had to say about our experience on set, and I don’t care who you are, every day on set is a learning experience. Those actors have as much to teach you about this thing we’re doing as you have to teach them. So, find a casting director who feels like a partner and figure out whatever you can do to make their job easier. Because their job is to help you.

Q>  How do you ‘test’ for comedy chops in a casting, and how long will you spend in a casting session for principal talent?

BG>  What’s funny on screen isn’t always the joke on the page. Just as often it’s the reaction to the joke – the eyes, the breath, the body language, the seemingly thrown-off line. Every spot needs a punctuating moment. I’m looking for people who can help us find those magic beats that are hiding out in the white spaces of the script.

A good way to do that is to surprise the actor with a new take on what we’re doing. I want to see how they respond to something new. If they can surprise the room and make the people who might be paying more attention to their laptops take notice and laugh, we’re getting somewhere.

As for timing, if we’re having fun, we might spend 20 minutes riffing. This is why I don’t like to overload the callback with people. It’s unfair to the actors and unfair to the process. As for people who clearly are not in the running, they get two shots through the scene. I’ll focus intently on what they’re doing and give them the best direction I can. I will give the actor my full focus. Even if they stink, hopefully they at least get something out of the experience that will help them down the line. This is why callbacks are the most exhausting part of the production process for me.

Q>  What do you look out for when casting for supporting roles?

BG>  Are you intriguing or funny when all you do is give a look? And does it feel authentic? I’m looking for the most unique, vibrant, eye-catching character possible. Next time you sit down on a plane, spend some time watching the amazing cast of characters walking down the aisle when boarding. People are incredible. Their choices are spectacularly odd. Their faces carry so much. Their vulnerabilities are right there for the world to see. Of course, if you put most of them in front of a camera, that would all vanish.

That’s what happens to a lot of actors. Most actors who come in for a commercial casting are not going to be great. But some of them are stunningly wonderful – the ones who are able to reveal their vulnerabilities and still feel like authentic characters.

I say ‘characters’ because that’s what they are. When they’re on screen, they’re not people. They are inhabiting characters in a universe that is different from the one we live in. Do I believe that this character would do or say these things in this universe? If the answer is yes, then that’s a great beginning. Now… are you making us laugh?

Q>  What are the comedy casting pitfalls you need to look out for?

BG>  The overplay. My most repeated direction is; “Smaller”. Then; “Okay, smaller”. Then; “Okay… a tenth of that”. What I love is when an actor invites the audience to see what’s going on behind his or her eyes despite what the character is showing to the world.

An actor who shows us she’s nervous isn’t very compelling. An actor who shows us that she’s confident, but we see that she’s nervous… that’s where the magic is. The audience feels like they found the truth on their own. And they feel something. Or they laugh. Or both.

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See Brendan’s work HERE.