TV Insights, Observations and Obsessions from the NYTVF
Check out our Q&A series with Fest Founder Terence Gray (and others), designed to provide submitting artists and TV fans with insight to the current development landscape. If you're thinking about submitting to the NYTVF, this is for you.
With the HISTORY Unscripted Development Pipeline deadline fast approaching, the question we keep getting back to is "How do I find the next great television character?" For this development Q&A, we moved from behind the camera to the casting office, talking to casting director Jodi Friedman. Ms. Friedman is an NYC-based casting producer and director who specializes in reality and docu-series television, working on such shows as elimiDATE (WB), Wife Swap (ABC), Rachael Ray (CBS), Millionaire Matchmaker (Bravo), and currently American Pickers (HISTORY Channel). We spoke with her about finding great characters, what goes into making a successful tape, and more:
When it comes to developing unscripted shows and docu-series, just how important is casting?
Casting is EVERYTHING! Casting is the process that finds real people who have some sort of story to tell. These people aren’t attending casting calls and they aren’t paid actors. They are naturally great characters who are engaging when they speak and wonderfully entertaining to watch. The casting process not only finds these diamonds in the rough but recognizes what’s going on in their lives that would be fun for others to observe. Without casting, there may be ideas of what would make a great show, but there still needs to be the right sort of people who will star in the show, and you can’t fake or create incredible characters. They must be “discovered” in their natural environment. It all starts with casting!
Can you tell us a little about casting in general? Where does your process start?
It starts with an idea, for example, sisters who own and operate a high-end nail salon on the West Coast where there is drama within the staff and clientele. Boom! Now casters can begin the outreach process: Researching nail salons in the west and discovering if any articles have been written about sister owners, visiting salon websites to see if such sisters exist, reaching out to local businesses and individuals about the show idea, providing write-ups and contact info so folks on the West Coast can start spreading the word. There are endless ways to conduct outreach (local press/media, cold-calling organizations, reaching out to local government, posting online, social media, etc.) The casting process starts by “casting” a wide net to filter in the most results.
In a nutshell, once leads start coming in, interviews are conducted. If the story and character(s) are compelling, the next step is conducting on-camera, in-depth interviews. All of the best leads will be edited and pitched to the network, along with paperwork detailing the personalities, story, and conflict.
It’s also important to note that sometimes the show idea itself can be altered if great characters are discovered in the outreach process, but their story is not identical to the original idea. For example, a male and female set of best friends who own and operate a low-brow nail salon but the drama surrounding the staff and clientele are dynamite!
In a previous interview, one element that we kept coming back to was 'character'. If you don't have a great character, you don't have a show. To you, what makes a great character?
A+ characters have strong personalities and don’t hesitate to speak their minds. They are interesting, outspoken, and even extreme. It’s all about energy (not the bouncing off the walls kind) but there’s just an enthralling quality about them. For example, they are fascinating to watch, easy to love, fun to despise, etc. The best characters are people who can fully be themselves in front of a camera or when talking to complete strangers. They don’t change an ounce of who they are, how they feel, or how they express their views in any situation.
What advice do you have for producers looking to find characters on a budget and with a short amount of time? Any tips on finding those needle-in-a-haystack characters?
Again, it’s about casting a wide net. Outreach every imaginable angle, talk to as many people as possible, spread the word like crazy, and let everyone know that time is of the essence. (“We’re hoping to get some great leads in by yesterday!”) And this can be done without giving away the show’s secrets. Keep the show premise simple and let people know you’re only seeking those with huge personalities. Once leads start coming in and the interviewing process begins, trust your instinct as a producer and a story-teller. Don’t waste your time on dead-end leads or boring characters.
As for finding those needle-in-a-haystack characters, word-of-mouth is king. Cast that wide net and flat-out ask “Do you know anyone who you’ve always thought needed their own show?”
What makes a great casting tape stand out from the rest?
- Engaging personalities who draw you in when they speak and have innate energy
- Looks: unique/different, stand-out, extreme, or just plain easy-on-the-eyes
- Keeping it real! Not camera-shy, not afraid to speak their views, not afraid to be themselves
During the interview process, how do you make sure that you're getting good sound bites and a workable performance from your interviewee? Any tips on working with regular folks as opposed to actors?
It’s all about making your interviewee comfortable. Always offer to answer interviewees’ questions before you begin. Let them know that there is no right or wrong answer, and the best tapes are when people are themselves. Remind them to show big energy and personality! Assure them that if they don’t like the way they say something or if they stumble over their words, they can say it as many times as they’d like because this will be edited down and you will choose their “best-of,” because your job is to make them look good. If a certain question or line of questioning seems to make them uncomfortable, share a bit about yourself and normalize with them. Don’t be afraid to give compliments! Most importantly, just show them that you are a nice, trustworthy person who is there to listen to them and are interested in what they have to say, but you’re not judging them. (People sometimes assume if you’re in the TV industry, you will be some hot shot, manipulative sleazy type like Ari Gold from Entourage, so they’re usually thrilled to find out the opposite.)
One thing we've heard again and again is that characters are great, but executives also need to see them in the world that they're living in. When putting a reel together, how do you showcase that element effectively without compromising the length of the tape? What do you focus on outside of the character?
Reels should foreshadow what will happen with this character or set of characters over the course of a series. What problem will each individual episode solve? What is the overall story arc of the series? Who are the supporting characters? What are the conflicts? After introducing your main characters, answer those questions by showing these characters in vérité.
As for length of reels, edits should be short and concise to keep the viewer wanting to more. Don’t show too much of any one thing and stay focused on an overall theme. Less is more.
Check out previous downloads here:
The Network Development Process - 1/29/14 | History Development - 1/15/14 | Comedy Formats - 3/18/13 | A&E Pipeline - 4/3/13| Fox Script Contest - 4/10/13 | From Film to TV - 5/17/13 | Lifetime Unscripted - 9/4/13