ONUS PRE-PRODUCTION: CASTING
Through this series I’ll be discussing the process of making ONUS, from writing, pre-production, production and post-production. I’ll be touching on the hurdles we’ve had to overcome and the general experiences making this film.
When it came to cast ONUS the process was somewhat staggered. When I began writing I had no idea who was going to be appearing in it or who was going to take on each role. As a result, the characters were, in large part at least, in the earlier drafts based on more well-known names.
I sometimes find this is helpful when I write, it helps give each character a distinct voice before I’ve started fully fleshing them out when I first start writing. As part of my writing process I often begin with two-dimensional characters and then build upon them later. It means people say things that feel in keeping with their personality when I’m starting off.
When Follow the Crows came along and ONUS took a backseat as a result the idea of casting it seemed like a really distant thought.
Sometimes when I write I like to write for actors I know. This has been something I’ve often applied when working on short films as there are a core group of people I can trust, and I know are capable of doing the work. For the most part with Follow the Crows this was the case as well.
We had a fairly strong idea about who were casting in each role and so the roles were mostly written to actors with exception of Daniella Faircloth’s character, The Woman, and Stu Jackson’s character, Survivor #2. With Daniella we held an audition, met with her and discussed the part before offering it to her after I had seen her work while helping a friend of mine on his own short. With Stu he was cast out of necessity more than anything else when the previous actor dropped out, but with his work on the character the part became more nuanced and a lot more interesting.
While I’d been writing ONUS I wasn’t as involved in the local film scene as I am now, and so I didn’t know an awful lot of actors who I could cast, but once Follow the Crows had finished and I had worked with a lot more people through that film and the shorts I made after, I found myself looking at the screenplay for ONUS in a new light and seeing people who could fit in.
The most obvious choice to begin with was Daniella. She had been absolutely incredible to work with on Follow the Crows and her performance is genuinely one of my favourite things about the film. She brings a feistiness and a vulnerability to a character that is actually quite difficult to play.
I knew straight away that she was who I wanted for the lead, Anna, and so while we were working on my stage-play The Door together I approached her about the role and she responded positively.
Daniella’s involvement is something I’m really pleased to have, and she is so great in the role. Because she was cast early the subsequent rewrites of the script were done with her in mind and so the character is uniquely her own. I never worry much about Daniella in a part as I know she is more the capable and she will always find a way to bring it to life.
Marc (Starr, the producer) and I sat down to go through the script and discuss the other roles. We weren’t sure what it was entirely we were looking for with the part of Vincent, the drunkard son, given that the character is just so dislikeable.
We knew he had to have a certain look and we knew he had to behave in a certain way, but we weren’t sure who we could find to bring him to the screen in a way that didn’t make him seem two-dimensional and uninteresting. We initially considered Alex Pitcher, who had worked with us on Follow the Crows in a smaller role, but he had recently moved to London and so we opted against asking him.
Luck struck when I was forced to recast a part in The Door due to scheduling conflicts and Olly Webb came onboard in the role of Dan. Olly has a certain quality to him that I think is really watchable and likeable and I saw Vincent in him immediately. I knew he would be able to bring something to the role that no one else I could think of would, and so I approached him about it.
He seemed interested and came on board and the part was moulded into his shape almost perfectly. He had a way about delivering lines that made them funny and wretched at the same time. Unfortunately, he dropped out as we were nearing our final pass of the script after being unable to make several of the table reads and we found ourselves without a Vincent.
The nature of low to no budget filmmaking means that often you’re forced to work around actors and this was something we couldn’t really do anything about. So we headed back to the drawing board to see who else we could potentially cast in his place.
During the conversation about potential Vincent’s Alex Pitcher’s name continued to crop up again. Despite our concern over distance we decided the best thing to do would be to send him a message and see if he was interested, after all, he had already expressed an interest in working with us again anyway.
To our relief he agreed to come and meet us and, once we’d pitched the film to him and explained the character, he signed on, ready to get to work.
Alex’s Vincent is different to the one we had worked into the script with Olly on board, but I think he brings a terrific edge and cynicism to the part. He has a look about him that just oozes disinterest in the best possible way, and as a result the character has transformed into something drastically different but incredibly exciting.
Isobel Redferne is another character who has been a lot of trouble to cast. Initially we met with a young actress by the name of Verity Dams who seemed perfect for the role. She brought a weight to her that wasn’t in the script and she had a real coldness about her.
Unfortunately, she was unable to commit to the shooting times given her work and distance (she was working in Australia at the time) and so we amicably parted way.
With no idea who to cast in her place we decided auditions was the best way to go, and so we put out a call in the hopes that we would find someone who would bring something new and interesting to the character.
The audition process was hard (I actually wrote about it here) and we wound up three exceptional talents vying for the role. We really struggled to pick on and ultimately the choice was put to Daniella. Since she was the one who was going to be working with her who did she feel was best for the role. And still we couldn’t come up with an answer.
But we spent the evening discussing what each of these wonderful actresses would bring to the part and eventually we settled on the brilliant Erin Leighton.
With Erin the character has undergone some drastic changes. She is no longer as cold and calculating, at least at first, but there is an added layer now that wasn’t there when I first wrote the film. Together with Erin we’ve essentially workshopped the part into the shape it now stands, and I’m really happy with who she is now.
In fact, with Erin in the role I think I’d go so far as to say Isobel is the most interesting of all the Redfernes. She’s certainly the one with the most going on. I’m really pleased to have Erin on board and I can’t wait for you all to see her in the part.
The character of Lucy has been an interesting one. In the script she comes across as nothing more than a quiet side-character. She spends most of her time standing on the edge of scenes not doing much and so we knew we’d need to cast someone who would be able to get across a lot without much in the way of dialogue.
Shaniece Williams was someone Daniella suggested we meet with and so we set up a meeting to discuss the role and see what she could do.
The minute she sat down and started talking I knew she was perfect for the role. She has a quality that is somehow both adorable and yet awkward. She is truly fantastic, and I think audiences are really going to be drawn to her through the film.
Casting Elizabeth was a similar experience. One evening, while searching through acting talent databases and watching showreel after showreel I stumbled upon Karen Payne’s and knew she would be ideal for the role. There was something about her mannerisms and the way she held herself that, to me at least, just screamed Elizabeth.
Under Karen the role of Elizabeth has become more than it was on the page. She has taken a somewhat distant but polite character and turned into a cold, harsh monster. She might not seem like the villain of the piece but there is no doubt she is. And that’s all Karen, I didn’t write that. She’s fantastic and no one else could play that part the way she does.
Perhaps the easiest role to cast and yet the most difficult role to create was David, the father of the Redferne family. He features in the script the least by far and so, as a result, was somewhat difficult to pin down.
Early on in discussion we considered Tony Manders, who has feature in Follow the Crows, but I was reluctant to bring him onboard because I didn’t want to fill the film up with Follow the Crows alumni, instead hoping to find some new actors to join.
Theatre actor Peter Hynds was cast after we met with him to briefly discuss the role, but scheduling conflicts meant he was unable to attend most of the table reads and so we had to unfortunately let him go.
We didn’t even entertain anyone else, instead going to straight to Tony with the part in the hopes that he would say yes. I’m so glad he did. I call the entire experience a silver lining, because I wouldn’t want anyone else in that role now. Tony is a wonderful actor and he’s incredibly versatile. He can jump from kind and friendly to sinister and downright nasty with great ease and his David is a fascinating and incredibly layered character.
It’s been an unusual casting process with ONUS and I feel I’ve learned a lot, but I’m so proud of the cast I have. When we did our first full table read I couldn’t help but look around at everyone in awe at the sheer talent I was surrounded with. All of them have brought something to their roles and the film is all the better for it. I can’t thank them enough for agreeing to be a part of this with me.