Casting Meme: Indie Film Diversity

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Still from Meme with Chaz Cleveland, Kitty Ostapowicz, Sarah Schoofs, and Shivantha Wijesinha

 

There’s been a lot in the media about diversity in film and specifically about diversity in Hollywood. A lot of that conversation has centered around the Academy Awards this Sunday and #OscarsSoWhite a controversy from last year’s awards show that has come up again for this year’s awards. To sum it up: the nominees for awards in major categories, particularly acting, are exclusively white people.

I’m not going to argue about whether or not this is valid criticism. I stand firmly on the side that it is a concern and we should be talking about it, because, while I don’t personally care much about the Academy Awards, the industry does and who/what wins or even just gets nominated has an impact on the industry going forward at least as far as what projects get money and resources invested in them. It matters. Instead, I want to address positive action that people like myself, a low/no budget indie filmmaker, can take.

We indie filmmakers are in a position to provide an alternative and I we have a responsibility to try and provide that alternative. This year’s Independent Spirit Awards with trans and people of color as nominees shows that our community is making the effort to celebrate more diversity.  It’s also fair to say that as a community it’s a topic we are concerned about and are trying to be better at than the Hollywood Mainstream. There are a variety of reasons for it, including more diversity among writers, directors, and producers, but when it comes down to it independent film offers more opportunities to a wider range of actors. That’s as it should be and we should be striving to do it more. Particularly white males like myself. Change needs to come from “the bottom” (I mean that on a scale where we’re looking at budgets/distribution not quality) and rise from there. Casting in independent film is key to improving diversity throughout the industry.

The casting process for my first feature, Meme, shows my own efforts to be better on the matter of diverse casting. My approach evolved over the course of production. Meme is hardly a model for how to do it right but it serves as an example of the benefits of being mindful of diverse casting.

I did not really have diversity in mind when I started the first round of casting for Meme in 2013. I put out the casting notices for the characters and I marked them as I often do: “Any Ethnicity.” That was my way of trying to be diverse. Saying to myself “oh, I’m going to look at whoever submits.” And I did, mostly, but in the end the results of that first round of casting were pretty white. I didn’t even meet with all that many people who weren’t. The one that sticks out in my mind is our male lead, Tommy, for the film Shivantha Wijesinha (pictured above on the far right). We met with a few people for Tommy and Shivantha really stood out among the people who auditioned.

After the first round of casting we pursued a Kickstarter campaign and it wasn’t successful. So, I back-burnered the project for a year. During that year the script was significantly re-written. It was scaled down in certain ways so as to allow it to be easier to shoot on no budget. Some characters were written out and new characters were written in. Once we returned to Meme a new round of casting needed to be started. The big difference between this round of casting and the first one was that I’d spent a lot more time paying attention to issues of diversity in film. I looked at the results of the first round of casting and decided that I should really try harder. Meme takes place in New York City, which is very diverse. We needed to embrace that.

The main difference in my approach this time was that I figured a decision had to be made on the roles as far as race. No more “Any Ethnicity.” I needed to at least narrow that down to just a few ethnicities. A couple of roles that weren’t written with any particular race in mind I just made the call on and decided they would be posted looking exclusively for persons of color.

There were three roles in particular I was focused on for this process VHS Collector Kyle, Andrea the wife of main character Jennifer’s best friend Lesley, and one of the people who appears on “Meme” the tape at the center of the film Craig. I met a lot of good people for the roles. I’m thrilled to have been able to bring Rory Lipede on to play Andrea. She is excellent on screen and a delight to have on set. Chaz Cleveland, who plays Kyle (pictured above on the far left), I met on set for a project by Meme Art Director Nicole Solomon. So, it wasn’t part of the normal casting process, but if i hadn’t been focusing on casting a person of color in the role, it’s possible I would never have thought to approach Chaz for it, and I would have missed out, because he was perfect for Kyle. For Craig we brought back Matt Addison who had a brief role in my short film Time Signature as Jake. Other than those roles which had started without a particular ethnicity in mind we also have Carlos played by Phillip M. Andry a role I specifically wrote to be performed by a Latino and Hispanic actor. He was only with us for one scene but he was fantastic. In working on editing the film I can see it was the right decision to be more active in pursuing diversity in our casting. Everyone did a wonderful job and I feel very fortunate to have had the opportunity to work with them

Did we do a good job in trying to push diversity in casting for the film? I don’t know. We tried to take positive action. We tried to step up and do what we criticize the big budget kids in Hollywood for not doing. We got some great people we might have missed, if we hadn’t put that effort in. The biggest takeaway for me from the process was not to fall back on “Any Ethnicity” but to be more actively engaged casting people of color by making the decision that a character must be portrayed by someone of color. When we as independent filmmakers set the example our successes will ultimately push Hollywood to improve. While we’re criticizing the mainstream on the issue we at “the bottom” (again when we’re talking budgets not quality) can push those at “the top” to be better by being better.

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