This is shaping up to be a big year for the cast of Beneath The Harvest Sky. Key talent in the film will be making a name for themselves in some highly anticipated movies, leading up to the release of Beneath The Harvest Sky later this year… Callan McAuliffe plays the young Jay Gatsby to Leonardo DiCaprio’s older Gatsby in The Great Gatsby, Emory Cohen‘s performance in The Place Beyond the Pines is already generating buzz following the film’s Toronto premiere last September, Zoe Levin stars as Steve Carell’s daughter in the recent Sundance hit The Way, Way Back and Sarah Sutherland is taking on an expanded role as Julia Louis-Dreyfus’s daughter in the second season of the hit HBO show Veep.
Allison Jones is a Hollywood casting director who has built her career (and company, Allison Jones Casting) by discovering talent and finding the perfect actors for key roles in major television shows and successful studio films.
Beneath The Harvest Sky Directors Aron Gaudet and Gita Pullapilly join Casting Director Allison Jones to talk about the critical role of casting for an independent feature film.
Q: How did you find a casting director?
ARON: Once we had a script that we were happy with, we really wanted to do our homework in finding a casting director who not only liked the script, but also understood the kind of actors we really wanted for the film and knew how to find them. We wanted a casting director with a proven track record for discovering young talent– knowing our two leads would be playing 17-year-old best friends.
GITA: Yeah, we started by researching some of our favorite television shows and films that had really talented young actors. Many were actually cast by Allison. So she became sort of our dream casting director— who might cast our film in a perfect world. When we started calling our friends at other production companies, we realized pretty quickly that Allison is not only considered one of the best casting directors in the business, she also only takes on projects where she thinks she can truly find the best cast to fit the film.
ARON: Discovering talented teen actors that can carry a film is really hard. We had heard stories about filmmakers looking at thousands of auditions just to find their one young actor.
GITA: When we reached out to Allison and she agreed to read the script for Beneath The Harvest Sky, we knew it was still a long shot that she would come on board and cast the film. She had really only cast high profile projects and had never cast anything on such a small scale. We had our fingers crossed, but we had no idea she had any connection to Maine— and even northern Maine! When she came back and said she was interested in casting the film for us, we were blown away.
ARON: We were actually really fortunate to connect with Allison. When she came on to cast for us everything changed. And the fear we had of searching through hundreds of auditions went away. We were incredibly lucky— Allison and her team filtered through all of that for us. We were just sent the best of the best and in there, we found some incredibly talented actors. It still amazes us that one of our leads, Emory Cohen, was the first actor to read for the role that Allison sent us. We kept thinking that we needed to see more actors read for the part, but at some point Gita and I just looked at each other and said ‘What are we doing? Emory is so great.’ and we just cast him. It was the best decision we could have ever made.
Q: What about the script drew you to the project?
ALLISON: Northern Maine and potato farming— mostly just the Maine part. My ancestors are all from Maine and my brother-in-laws’ entire family is from Aroostook County, and was in the potato business. Plus the script was so original, and beautifully written. And relevant.
Q: What was the strategy you used to cast for Beneath The Harvest Sky, considering this is a smaller budget indie film?
ALLISON: I sent out the script to a lot of agents, so they could read it and know how good it was. I also targeted specific younger actors who I knew would find it appealing and challenging.
ARON: Allison just knows the business so well. She very quickly would know which actors would do a small independent film in northern Maine without a lot of money or frills and which ones would probably not be interested. So in creating a wish list of potential actors, she could give insight into the process. When actors would express interest, we would then do a Skype call with each potential actor. We really wanted to make sure they understood what the film was about and the limited resources we were working with.
GITA: We were amazed by how quickly Allison was able to narrow down each character to specific actors who she thought would be the right fit for the role. Before long, we started developing a significant cast list that was even better, and stronger, than we had envisioned. And having cast many successful comedies, she would have ideas for actors in certain roles that might be a surprise to some people, but they were great fits and they often were excited at the opportunity to work on something dramatic.
Q: How was it similar or different from the approach you use to cast for a studio film or major TV series?
ALLISON: I was more selective— I felt it would appeal to very serious and good actors, so mostly targeted agents with clients we were already interested in– and agents who I knew respected good material no matter how small the budget.
ARON: Also, there was a lot of talk about finding actors who looked like they belonged in northern Maine. Not just going for the biggest name, but somebody that really embodied the role and looked the part beyond being a terrific actor.
Q: What reactions to the script and project did you receive from agents and cast as you were casting for Beneath The Harvest Sky?
ALLISON: Agents loved it. Actors loved it. I got unsolicited calls from various people who somehow got a hold of the script and were from Maine, and wanted to do anything they could to help out.
ARON: When actors were excited to be in the film, we knew it wasn’t for the money— we didn’t have any! And we knew it wasn’t for the location because, for most, it meant coming from Los Angeles or New York to a tiny rural town tucked away in northern Maine for months of production. We knew it was because they responded to the material and wanted to be a part of what we were trying to do.
GITA: It was so great to hear the feedback from actors and agents to the script for Beneath The Harvest Sky. When you’ve been in a bubble writing it for so long, you’re kind of unsure what you have exactly. When they reacted so positively it gave us confidence that we really had something.
Q: What ultimately do you think attracted the cast to the project?
ALLISON: Good writing, good story. Uniquely American characters, almost archetypal.
GITA: It was a big cast as well. To find so many great actors to come on to the film was amazing. But we really did try to find moments for each character while writing the script. To us, even the smaller supporting characters had their moments when the movie was all theirs—when, in that moment, it could have been a film entirely about them. I think that resonated with actors when they read the script.
ARON: And we really did try to capture the world of northern Maine. We worked so hard to make Van Buren another character in the film. When actors would say how they could really envision the location the story takes place in and could see it, we knew we did our job.
Q: What are some key elements to finding actors that you feel you can work with and garner strong performances from?
ARON: Gita and I did take the time to review a lot of past work from each actor. Many of them we were already fans of their past work. Some actors had more experience, and there were a few that we were willing to take a shot on because we just thought they were talented and would be great in the role.
GITA: Early on, we asked each actor about his or her method. We asked them how they liked to work with their directors, and what we could do to help them through their performances. The biggest factor for us in the casting process was really talking to the actors and getting a sense of if we could really work with them—at a professional level—but also talk to them personally, because in order to create strong performances, both the directors and actors need to have the same vision.