2024 Shore Scripts TV Pilot Grand Prize Mentors: Interview with John Papsidera & Henry Russell Bergstein

By: Laura Huie


Our TV Pilot Contest is for screenwriters looking to get staffed on TV shows and have their pilots picked up by production companies. This contest has a proven track record of helping emerging writers achieve their goals of becoming full-time working TV writers in the US and abroad. Writers through our TV Pilot Contest have gained representation and gone on to write and get staffed on shows for Netflix, HBO, HULU, Universal, SYFY, FOX, Sony, SkyTV, Peacock, and others.


This year, the prize packages include industry mentorship with John Papsidera CSA (OPPENHEIMER, YELLOWSTONE) for our 1-Hour Grand Prize Winner, and Henry Russell Bergstein CSA (SUCCESSION, BLACK MIRROR) for the Half-Hour Grand Prize Winner.


Both are experienced casting directors who are deeply involved with scripts from the outset of a film’s production to its later stages. They not only understand how great actors can elevate a script but also what makes a script successful in its entirety.


We chatted with John and Henry to get their thoughts on characterization, the casting process, and why a solid script matters.


Question: How does a script get used as a launch pad into the casting process?


John: The script is really the basis of where all things begin. Not only descriptions of characters but all the subtleties that you draw upon when you start to think about characters and the variety of actors that could play them. I often say that I feel like I’m much more of a dramaturg than I am a casting director at times because you’re using that as the sole basis of every thought that goes into the process after that.


Henry: It depends on the script. Sometimes people tell you about the kind of actors or characters they’re looking for beforehand. Sometimes there are big character descriptions. Sometimes they’re very short but clear descriptions. Typically, I’ll read a script and have a sense of the characters in my mind and map to actors I know, but then I’ll talk to the team and I’ll ask what they think. I come from more of an acting and directing-trained background, so text and script analysis are part of what I do. I think that comes in handy when I’m reading a script.


Question: When it comes to the character descriptions within the script, do you think it’s more beneficial to have more or less to go off of?


John: Probably less — only in that when I read a script, I try not to think of actors in specific terms about who would be right for something, but to take in the entirety of the script, to take in all the nuances that might show up on even the last page of a script about a character and what they might do in those moments. So I try not to get locked in too much.



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Question: For casting, is there a difference between thinking about characters in a long format like television versus in a feature?


Henry: For a series regular, you want to leave a scene wanting them to be in the next scene. They have to be so appealing in the role even if they’re a horrible villain, and you want to follow their journey. There are some actors that you want to watch their journey from the first episode, all the way to the hundredth episode. It’s that ineffable quality where your personality and a role meet.



Question: How do you balance the need for actors who fit the characters as described or bigger names in the script, with the potential for other actors to bring more unique interpretations and nuances to a role?


John: I think a lot of things go into that. As a casting director, you’re not only worried about your own creativity and the palette that you’re trying to create in the film, but there’s always a studio financier aspect to it. There are producers that need a budget and hopes of attracting an audience. There’s a director that’s trying to tell the story that they envision. So a lot of those elements go into many decisions and thoughts of what the cast ends up being because you have to amalgamate all those different needs and try and find common ground amongst them.


Question: What do you think writers need to put into a script to attract actors?


Henry: In general, what actors are looking for is the same thing I’m looking for. Are the characters all the same person with a different name or are there specific traits? I think it goes back to script analysis and what is their function in the role? What do they want, what do they need? How do they usually go about getting things? And some characters are more fleshed out on the page and some actors really respond to that. Other actors want more room to breathe, so a character that can have different takes might be appealing to them.


Also, it’s important to know what the character’s arc is. The bigger characters should have a clear arc of what happens to them throughout a script, be it an episode of television or the entirety of a film.


Question: How do you approach the process of translating a script onto the screen through casting through actors?


John: Casting is a discovery process, and people who don’t allow themselves that process are really robbing themselves of discoveries that are made along the way, and the surprises that can happen. A writer or director might have a very specific thing in mind as the script is being read and auditioned with different actors bringing different interpretations. I think those are some of the most interesting and valuable lessons that you can have in not only how your script plays, and how the dialogue works, but also different interpretations of those moments. I think really smart directors use that not as a workshop, but as an opportunity to see it differently than what’s in their head and how they’ve seen it.



Question: How does the casting process evolve from earlier drafts of the script to the final selection of actors?


Henry: If we’re talking about TV specifically, the process starts with a casting director who reads and likes a script. Then you meet with the development execs, potentially the heads of the studio network, and then the creative team and producers on the piece. These meetings are important for me to hear the creative team talk about what they’re looking for and who their prototypes are. We all align and make sure we’re on the same page.


In the old days, auditions were done live, and then the network would decide on the casting. Nowadays, a lot of it happens on tape. You aren’t often all in the room with the executives, or the team may watch the tapes that they made with the executives, but the actors won’t be. But the deal is usually in place before that final round of taping.


John: It starts with me coming up with idea lists of who might be right for certain roles. And because of all these filters that you go through availability, who’s interested in the process, who you can afford — it’s a long-simmering of all these different details to get down to what you have at the end. It’s a little bit like making liquor. You start with raw materials and put it through a still and by distilling it over and over again, you get a product at the end.


Submit to our 2024 TV Pilot Contest!


We understand the importance of mentorship, which is why we’ve made it an integral part of our TV Pilot contest prize packages. So, if you’re an aspiring screenwriter with dreams of seeing your work on the small screen, now is the time to take action. Don’t miss out on this incredible opportunity to elevate your writing career and learn from the best in the business.


Submit your TV pilot to Shore Script’s TV Pilot Contest today and take the first step towards making your television writing dreams a reality!


Laura Huie is a writer and editor involved in comedy-drama screenwriting, fiction editing, and full-time marketing copy. Laura is also a freelance article writer for Shore Scripts and has worked with Script Pipeline on their live Symposium series. She is one-half of the screenwriting duo, Bloom & Huie. Together, they have written multiple television series as well as a feature-length film. Their mission is to write honest and witty female stories wrapped up in unbelievable worlds.


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