The Dark Side: Horror Film Casting 101

Let’s face it. The art of auditioning can sometimes be daunting. Especially when you’re challenged with a role that is really character driven. Like a snowflake, no two roles are alike. But you’ve done your homework. You know your type. You’ve even worked to broaden your emotional range. Some of you can even cry on cue. Brava!

Now let’s take it a step further. Time to think outside the box. A new challenge, a genre that could bump up your resume: HORROR. Oh boy. What now? A million things are running through your head. Suddenly you’re practicing your screams and faces of terror in front of the mirror. How the heck does anyone prepare for this stuff?

You’re not alone. With the increased number of horror and suspense films being produced these days, and TV shows like “American Horror Story” gaining popularity, there are workshops and classes to specifically prep actors for the ultimate in Horror 101. (Cue: Vincent Price laughing).

Filmmaker David Spaltro knows first hand what it takes to cast a horror movie. His recent film “…In the Dark” started production just this month. For a guy who has a number of films under his belt, he’s seen a lot of actors walk through his casting room door. But when it comes to horror, Spaltro shares what challenged him as a director, what he looks for during auditions and how you can…prepare to scare.

David Spaltro is Casting Horror Films

David Spaltro

HILARY: You just started shooting a new horror film “In the Dark” this October in NYC. How does casting a horror movie differ from other types of films you have cast?

DAVID: My previous two features “…Around” and “Things I Don’t Understand” were dramatic comedies where I looked for actors who could bring a consistent reality to every scene, and who had the versatility to go from humor to pathos effortlessly throughout the film or even in a scene. I think the same rules apply in a genre film, even more so, as you need honest performances to center and ground the more supernatural or horrific aspects, and keep the audience interested and invested in your story and characters. You need actors who don’t just give good reads of performances, but who have a technical ability to stay consistent in heightened emotions through several different set-ups, and over long periods of times as special make-up and other effects are introduced or shot.

HILARY: Do you look for the ultimate scream queen?

DAVID: Having a strong set of lungs is a definite plus for any kind of traditional horror film. What I was looking for most in both casting, and now in my work with the actors on set, were actors who could allow themselves to really play, and drop themselves into the strangest and darkest of places and happenings, and go through the arc of the character as they were besieged by all kind of supernatural events. Lynn Justinger is an actress I had worked with on “Things I Don’t Understand” in a smaller supporting role, and who I’d been dying to collaborate with since we wrapped that film. I had written one of the leads with her in mind, and when she came in to read she just brought so much depth and gravitas to the character. The camera loves her, and her positive energy, consistency, work ethic, and technique is just so helpful on a quickly moving independently produced genre film. She’s a director’s dream in her ability to bring so much, and then take any adjustments or changes, big and small, in subsequent takes. There’s also a genuine quality, that was needed for the character of “Veronica” that she plays in the film, and inner strength, that Lynn posses in spades.


Actress Lynn Justinger and director of photography Gus Sacks “…In the Dark” PHOTO BY: Brian Hotaling

HILARY:Some horror flicks can be pretty campy or go over the top with blood and gore. As a director, how are you bringing more of an authenticity to your filmmaking?

DAVID: I actually forgot how much I really loved horror, having been raised on a steady diet of EC comic books, horror films, and Stephen King books. A lo of the horror films in the indie film world, or scripts I had been offered were extraordinarily exploitive in violence and sexuality, but had no story, and quite frankly were NOT SCARY. When I was given the opportunity to write and direct my own horror film, I decided to go back to what made me love and be haunted by certain stories or films, and make it more about the characters, about mood. King is a great example of creating characters you care about, very detailed, that you become painfully attached to , and just when you forget you’re reading a horror novel, he promptly takes them and sends them to Hell. In some more modern and exploitive slasher horror films the audience watches and roots for the kills and the killers, but I wanted to actually build dread, and make the audience squirm in the seats. I wanted them to shake their heads, cover their eyes, and hope the horrific thing they know is about to happen, the thing they fear the most, may still not—then do it anyway!

HILARY: You mentioned that your usual method of working is bringing back actors you’ve collaborated with previously and giving them larger or more difficult roles. How do you find new talent to add to your troupe?

DAVID: I’ve been continually blessed with finding great talent in New York City. I write a lot of solid female roles because I think there’s a definite dearth in work that is out there now for women, but also because there is just an almost endless supply of talented actresses in all age and ethnic ranges in the city, and all of them have stories to tell. I try to bring back actors I’ve worked with in smaller capacities, give them something bigger and different to do, but am always scouting out talent through classes and workshops I teach, other filmmaker’s work that I come across, and plays that I see. I think a healthy dose of the familiar and the new keeps things interesting, and a lto of the praise I’ve gotten for my work is a direct result of that kind of casting, but also the ability of he performers to constantly elevate my material.

HILARY: Can you share one audition that really blew you away?

DAVID: Grace Folsom constantly inspires and amazes me. I cast Grace in my last film “Things I Don’t Understand”, which was her first feature film after graduating NYU, and she played a young, terminally ill woman with such passion, humanity, and experience it was haunting and painful. Her audition in the room was great, but it was how strong her video taped submission was, done on a simple laptop webcam, that blew me away and got her in the room. I must have gone through a dozen or so taped submissions, multi-tasking and eating, but stopped everything and re-watched a dozen times after hers came on. Grace is the lead in “…In the Dark”, and again, since she had relocated to LA, sent in an audition tape for myself and the producers, and just…. I had chills and déjà vu. She’s just such a strong actress who grounds all the other performers she works with in a scene, and lights up the room. You’re instantly connected to her and the reality of the scene, even in a tiny, grainy HD taped audition. That’s a gift that I don’t even know if it’s possible to teach or learn.

Spaltro and Folsom

Spaltro with actress Grace Folsom.

HILARY: What do you look for when an actor walks in the room?

DAVID: Auditioning can be nerve wracking for those behind and in front of the camera, and I’ve always tried to tell actors in workshops I’ve taught, to try and relax, and not over think every line, or every movement into the room. If you’re already in the audition room that means we’re interested in you, or have faith in your work. We WANT YOU to be good (it makes our job easier!). Auditioning for actors can sometimes be like standardized testing, as some of the best actors are terrible in the casting room, and sometimes a person can give a great auditioning or read, and not be able to do much more, or be consistent on set. What I most look for in an actor is their ability to prepare the scene, to have a basic independent understanding of the character, but then also to be able to take adjustments. I’ll even go so far as to give a completely different and off adjustment to an actor who’s did a great job, just to see how, or if they can, take my adjustment.. Versatility goes a long way with me.

HILARY: What about demo reels? Is there something that really catches your eye on an actors reel?

DAVID: Again, I go with versatility. I like to see what an actor’s strengths are, or “type”—but I’m a huge fan of seeing what kind of complexity or depth beyond that they can do. A lot of my work is taking an actors who’s known for one thing, and then flipping it, as I guide them through rehearsals and set adjustments, letting the unpredictability and unfamiliarity of the type of character or scene add some energy to the performance. 

HILARY: What’s the biggest mistake you think an actor can make when they audition?

DAVID: Fear is something that can’t always be controlled, so I wouldn’t call that a mistake. I think the biggest mistake is just being unprepared, and not really having thought about the characters or having any ideas to bring to the table. I often will give my actors full script drafts to read before having them come in, rather than cold sides, to see if they can bring some elements or understanding to the character in the audition room, and how they break things down. I’m also not a fan of actors playing it to safe, or not taking a risk, or being ready to change things up. Especially so early in the process, ore even after being cast and going through rehearsals, I think it’s healthy to stretch a scene out and explore possibilities, even if they’re researched and specific, to see what gels and what can be added. Then when you’re on set we’re all on the same page, and it’s about getting the scene technically.

HILARY: Are there any horror movies that have inspired to direct a film in this genre? How about actors? Any favs?

DAVID: After being hired to write and direct an original horror script I dove into some old favorites, and also binge watched some newer indie horror films to see what had been done, and what was possible. I gravitated more towards the understanding that the best horror films were mood pieces, with great characters and primal scares, but that also had something more to say underneath the macabre. George Romero’s “Living Dead” trilogy were all social commentaries of the decades they were made in, John Carpenter’s “The Thing” and other films were about questioning the status quo and authority, and Wes Craven’s work had a lot to with human nature, reality, and the nature of evil. I think tonally I tried to go to films like Friedkin’s “Exorcist” (which is always going to be tops) in creating a kind of realistic horror that drags and audience through the ringer, putting substance and style together, and of course great performances by an ensemble cast that the audience can relate to and fear for.

HILARY: What have you learned during the process of casting a horror flick vs other genres?

DAVID: I learn something new every time I take on a new project, and I’m having a lot of fun playing with practical special effects, heightened lighting and more kinds of coverage then if it was a straight indie rom com where people are simply walking and talking in different rooms. I love storytelling first and foremost, so whatever the genre I get ot play in, I want my characters and story to come shining through and keep the audience involved and interested.

HILARY: Final thoughts. If you could share one bit of advice with actors, what would it be?

DAVID: I’d say my best advice for actors is to constantly work on their craft even during slow audition or work periods, to keep pushing and sharpening their range. They can work on scene with other actors, volunteer to read at writing workshop ensembles, practice and master new voice dialects… keep the instrument sharp and show as much versatility as possible. It’s a tough business with a lot of uncertainty and downtimes, but there’s still a great community of artists in NYC to band together and keep that energy and momentum. Build a creative family, because it really takes the best kind to create a great piece of art.

David Spaltro is a bi-coastal filmmaker based in in NYC. His first feature “…Around” (2009), found critical acclaim on the festival circuit, and eventually, distribution through Cinetic Media via VOD/Online and even PBS in 2010. His second feature, “Things I Don’t Understand” (2012), has garnered even more positive reviews, playing at over 40 film festivals and winning 13 Best Features, 5 Audience awards, and a host of acting honors, as is currently available ONLINE/VOD. Spaltro also directed the short film “The Cat’s Cradle”, currently on the fest circuit, and just started shooting and directing “…In the Dark”, a horror feature he wrote, for Seven Oaks Films. Additionally, Spaltro is in pre-production on his fourth feature “Wake Up In New York” and is collaborating with the Emmy-winning team at Judy Henderson Casting. He’s also optioned and is working on an adaptation of the existential horror novel “A Short Stay In Hell” by Phd. and author Steven L. Peck , an “Untitled Horror Project” financed and in pre-production and is working on a TV pilot “Welcome to Hockey Town”.

About Hilary Russo

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