Could fixing the casting process be a first step to more diverse production?

Why a group of directors is calling for racial descriptions to be removed from briefs.

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Hire Higher is a group started by six BIPOC with a wealth of experience as commercial directors under their belts. After coming together to speak on a panel, the group realized they had similar experiences working in commercial production, and had an opportunity to address the diversity problem in production by coming together as a united front.

They realized something else: they all had a casting story.

Because of that, Hire Higher is calling for those in production to sign a new pledge.

The pledge states that unless ethnicity or race is absolutely necessary to a creative concept, coded language like “ethnically ambiguous,” “exotic,” and “urban” should be removed from all casting briefs. This aims to avoid pigeon-holing actors from the start, and give them a more equal opportunity at roles.

“If the language isn’t coded, it’s overtly race-based,” says Aleysa Young, one of Hire Higher’s co-founders who has directed Public Mobile and Dempster’s spots for Untitled Films. “You see so many times [briefs] specifically asking for an Asian mom and a white dad. Why not just open it up so you can consider that maybe someone of a race you didn’t have in mind could be the right fit?”

The idea of improving diversity by making things more open seems to run counter to the idea behind a lot of other diversity and inclusion efforts; namely, that diversity needs dedicated action, and companies need to specifically seek out BIPOC in order to help them overcome the systemic issues that might otherwise shut them out.

But Duane Crichton – a director for Revolver Films who has been behind spots for CIBC, Volkswagen and Beats and one of the groups co-founders – says things are slightly different and more complicated when it comes to casting. For one, it creates unnecessary competition between BIPOC when they are fighting to fill the one or two roles that the casting call says is specifically open to their race. But, if they are at least given the opportunity to be in the room, even if they don’t get the role that day, they might get in front of a person that will consider them for something else.

“We’re not just coming at this in terms of representation on screen, we want to develop new talent with this,” he says. “As directors, we’re expected to come into a room with new ideas and thoughts when we pitch, so let’s give actors the same chance to change minds and get people to consider different people for a role.”

Young adds that there is the tendency in casting to think that if race or ethnicity isn’t specified, that white is the default; by actively and vocally removing racial signifiers, the hope is to correct that assumption.

Jigsaw Casting and Mann Casting are among those that have already signed the pledge, which also includes directors and executive producers from production houses like Untitled, Skin & Bones, Soft Citizen and Revolver Films.

One hope is that this will help ladder up to Hire Higher’s bigger goals of improving diversity in Canadian commercial production, in which BIPOC have struggled to be represented, even compared to other sectors of advertising or non-commercial filmmaking.

“If you’re a director of colour, you’re bringing more insight into it,” Young says. “Instead of just casting Black because it makes you look good, bringing in BIPOC directors ensure those actors are infused with character and story instead of just being there to check a box.”

duanecAdds Crichton: “It’s not just the amount of people you have in your spot, it’s about the sincerity behind it. Someone like me, who grew up in Toronto with a really multicultural group of friends, can make everyone feel like they are real friends or a real family.”

Part of the issue is the “see it, be it” hurdle that has come up in other segments of the industry, where young people do not see other people who look like them and internalize it, thinking there isn’t a place for them and that they should apply their talents elsewhere.

“My first time on a commercial set, I was blown away by how white of a space it was,” Crichton says. “You have to be comfortable in a space if you are going to be confident enough to get into a leadership position or really show off your talent. I don’t think many BIPOC feel comfortable enough to really be themselves.”

But the working arrangement in production creates a unique wrinkle compared to other parts of the industry.

BIPOC working at agencies have said they have often found themselves as the only non-white person in a meeting or even a whole company – but for people on sets, who your co-workers are can change from shoot to shoot, making harder to build relationships and figure out who is a supportive ally. And for singular roles like directors, they are usually the only ones on set, and rarely get the opportunity to network or interact with other BIPOC who know what it’s like.

“We gravitate towards each other, because connections and support are so important,” Young says. “I’ve seen PAs be way more comfortable coming up to me than they are white directors. But if you can’t see someone like you who might be in your network, we try to blend in with everybody else. You learn that to network, you have to put on a face and go with the flow. And as a woman, there’s an added layer of being able to be one of the guys and show you’re not different. But how do you do that and also try to stand out and define your work?”

Aside from casting, Hire Higher has some other initiatives to reach its first goal of 30% of crew, staff, production heads and apprentices on a shoot being BIPOC. It has launched a progress report for commercial production, the results of which will be published semi-annually based on reports filled upon a shoot’s completion. The group is asking directors, executive producers and production managers to consider filing the report as a step in the production process, and treat it the same way they would other reports and paperwork.

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