17 Feb People Shopping | Lynne Spillman
How did you become a casting director?
I got very lucky! I was in the right place at the right time, with just enough work experience and confidence to know that I would be good at finding people, who would make good TV. I was in sales since I was 15 years old, the first television show that I worked on was not even on the air yet. It was in the early development stages. I had to find 50 people, three nights a week to drive deep into Burbank for “run throughs” as the producers and writers worked out a new dating show for MTV. Since I was doing most of my recruiting in Santa Monica and Westwood, that was not easy. I worked on MTV’s “Singled Out” and various other dating shows for four years before landing at CBS.
How many people are involved in the casting process?
For Survivor, there are 5 permanent casting producers, coordinators and an editor who work full time during the casting seasons. There are many other production assistants and recruiters at different parts of the cycle. Mark Burnett, Jeff Probst and all of the shows producers have a big part in casting as well. CBS is ultimately who has to sign off on the cast, so the executives there are involved almost daily. We have doctors for screening and lawyers who help out with contracts. It’s a big collaborative process that keeps evolving over the years. We are constantly looking for tweaks and improvements.
Which shows do you cast for and how long have you been doing it?
I’ve been casting Survivor for 15 years (since season one). I also cast the Amazing Race. I’ve been the casting director for that show for about 14 years, since season one. I’ve been in the business of casting “real people” since the day I moved to LA (well, a week in) – so I’ve been “people shopping” for almost 20 years.
What are some of the important characteristics that makes someone an ideal candidate to be cast?
They have to have no filters, meaning they have to be comfortable in their own skin and not care what others think of them. We look for people who really want to win! They need to know the show. We are on high alert for people who are wanting to do it for the fame, and not the win or the experience of really getting into it. People are surprised when I say that we are not looking for the most athletic or well traveled person. Survivor, especially has always been a social experiment. What makes it work is that everyone comes in with different life experiences and baggage, yet they are all equals once they hit the beaches. On The Amazing Race, if couples have already traveled the world together, they’ve already had the experience, they know how it’s going to turn out, we like people who have not had that type of challenge on the relationship or travel experiences.
Can you explain the process that one goes through to get on the show, from application to interview?
People can apply a few ways to get on the show. They can apply to cbs.com/casting and fill out some questions and upload a short video. That gives us enough information to know if we want to move forward with a phone interview, Skype interview and eventually fly to LA to meet in person. We also hold open calls throughout the country. People line up and have 2-3 minutes to tell us why they would win Survivor, or anything they want us to know about them. After that the process is the same. We watch all videos that come into the system. Most submissions get looked at twice.
Once a person is cast, do you have any further contact with them prior to the show airing or after the show is over in person or by correspondence?
I do keep in touch with almost all of the people who have played, not on a weekly basis, but I try to stay up to date on what’s going on with them. It could just be through Facebook – or another casting person will update me. I consider all of them friends. I have received very nice letters from many of them over the years. They usually make my day when I get good feedback about their experiences.
Are you close with any casting directors from other shows?
Yes!! I am very close with the other casting directors! When I started in this business there weren’t many shows. All of the great ones have worked for me at one point or another. They spread their wings and have all made amazing careers for themselves. …I’ve been called everything from the “queen of casting” (which, of course, I love – to “the mom” which is pretty accurate.
I’m friends with Robyn Kass who does many shows notably Big Brother, Michelle McNulty from The Voice and Michelle Mock, who has done Top Model and other CW reality shows for years. We are all very supportive of each other and swap stories all of the time. We also use each other as resources for filing systems and tech developments that we have tried, that work or don’t work. And yes, we share network horror stories!
Approximately how many people have you cast?
I’ve cast too many to count for Survivor – around 520 people, and The Amazing Race, about 550 people (or 275 teams) over 15 years. Besides those two shows, there have been pilots and short run series where I’ve met hundreds and hundreds of people from all walks of life. I love people and hearing their stories!
What are the big changes in the cast process that you have experienced over the years?
Because of technology, the process has changed considerably over the years. We started with thousands of FedEx packages being delivered, containing the application and a 3 minute VHS tape. The VHS tv/video cassette player combos were not built great, after about 100 tapes they would start to overheat and chew the videos. We were constantly having to go out an purchase new VHS players each season. We had thousands of videos to watch. Storing these VHS tapes was also a big endeavor. They take up a lot of space. We had storage units all over the city. We had to take flashlights and a team of three to the storage units, just to locate one video. The offices didn’t have the space for a tape library to handle 50,000 VHS tapes. Sometimes it took two 3 full days. Then we switched to DVDs. And now it’s all done online. It used to be a big hassle for people to apply because they didn’t all have a video camera. Creative people would go to Best Buy and “borrow” the camera right there in the store and shoot a video and send it in. Others went to local TV stations to ask for favors. Now everyone has a video camera on their phone and you can just upload from that. It’s so easy! Sometimes I wonder if we make it too easy. Also, the casting team would have to fly to 16-18 different cities to meet people in person. Now with Skype, we can do just as many interviews without getting on a plane. It allows us to cast in a shorter window and meet more people. As technology keeps changing we have to keep tweaking our systems.