After the writing and preparation of the script, casting is the most important part of the filmmaking process. Cast well and you'll have a shot at making something decent. Cast not so well and it won't matter how good the script or the photography is, your picture probably won't play. And I don't mean just casting actors who turn out to be no good; you can cast tremendously talented actors—hell, famous actors, stars—but if they're wrong for the parts they're playing, it won't matter how talented they are. You're multiplying by zero. But Hollywood studios, more often than not, don't cast based on the criteria of who's right for the part. They cast based on who can get the project a green light at that particular moment in time. How the movie will turn out is beside the point.
If you've seen The Substitute, you know that as the battle-scarred, world-weary, middle-aged mercenary Shale, Tom Berenger was a great choice. And when asked at the time of the film's release, Live Entertainment studio executives, to a man, all said he was their first choice, their only choice.
Of course, they were lying.
Here's how it really went. And remember, this is a typical Hollywood casting story, the only exceptional element being that it has a reasonably happy ending.
Let's look at the character of Shale again, read the description above: battle-scarred, world-weary, middle-aged. Want to know who Live Entertainment approached first?
You read that right: Denis Leary. This was 1995, and Leary was the flavor of the moment, hot off his one-man stage and HBO show No Cure for Cancer, and his well-received performances in Demolition Man and The Ref. A talented guy, no doubt, but what could he have been at the time? In his thirties? And he looked twenty-five. But as I said, he was hot at the moment. So, who cared if he was completely wrong for the part? He might have been effective in the teaching scenes, but the rest of it? I think it would have been a disaster. In any case, they offered him a million bucks. No one had offered him that much before.
And he turned it down. Which meant he was not only talented, but smart, too. A lot of others in his position would have jumped at the payday and not worried about being wrong for the part.
Fine, you might say. A casting disaster averted. Given a second chance, they chose more wisely, right?
The next actor they went after was Kevin Bacon. Another brilliantly talented guy, but as a battle-scarred, world-weary, middle-aged mercenary? Please. But again, he was hot off a lot of movies that had done good box office. All I could see was the image I had of him in Footloose. What was he going to do to the bad guys in The Substitute—dance them to death? He was an even more ridiculous choice than Leary. But he was a name, he meant a green light. So, they offered him a million and a half.
Huzzahs from Live Entertainment. Deals began to be worked out, and papers drawn up. It would take a couple of days at least.
And in that couple of days, he changed his mind.
I don't know exactly what happened, but I can guess. Why had he accepted the role in the first place, one that was so wrong for him? Precisely for that reason. I can imagine him reading the script and thinking, wow, this is a ballsy part, a kick-ass action part, I never get offered parts like this, I've got to do it. Then a few days passed and he had time to think: Why don't I ever get offered a part like this?
Because I'm all wrong for it, that's why.
Thanks, but no thanks. Another smart guy.
Choice number three, and this was one of our suggestions: David Caruso.
Remember, this was 1995, and Caruso, like Leary, was a flavor of the moment. But unlike Leary, we felt Caruso brought more weight and gravity with him from his role on the hit series NYPD Blue. He looked older and somewhat world-weary. His face suggested a past, one that hadn't always been rosy. And no matter what anybody may say about him now, he was and still remains a terrific actor. If Live Entertainment had to have a flavor of the moment, David Caruso was one we could live with. He read the script, and liked it. So, they offered him $2 million. More than he'd gotten for Kiss of Death or for Jade.
And he passed. Why?
We knew him a little, had worked with him on a short film called Swirlee, which, over the years, has become something of a cult item. So we called him. He told us, yes, he did like the script, a lot, the script wasn't the problem. Nor was the money they were offering. But Kiss of Death and Jade had been perceived as failures. More importantly, they had been perceived as David Caruso failures. He felt he only had one more big screen shot, and he did not believe that Live Entertainment, which, at this point, had never fully financed a picture and was known only as a video distribution company, possessed the clout to get the movie in enough theaters. So he passed. (His concerns were legitimate at the time, but would prove to be wrong. The Substitute opened in April of 1996 on 1,800 screens across the country.)
And so finally, FINALLY, they came to Berenger. The guy most right for the part. A great actor, the correct age, with some box-office clout, who, for the audience, brought with him the echoes of all his past military roles in The Dogs of War, Platoon, and Sniper. This was a guy you could believe as a battle-scarred, world-weary, middle-aged mercenary. And, for $2.5 million, they got him.
Thus, the reasonably happy ending I mentioned earlier. However, if Leary or Bacon or Caruso had made their decisions based on greed (usually the most common motivating factor in Hollywood) rather than good sense about their own limitations or concerns about Live Entertainment's, it could easily have been otherwise.
When we first began the process of casting The Sweet Life, Roy and I were of slightly different minds as to how it would go. We'd raised the money ourselves to make the film, so we didn't need stars to get a green light; we were our own green light. All we needed to concern ourselves with was casting the best and most appropriate actors for the roles that we could find. Of course, our tiny budget meant we would have to use mostly nonunion actors. In spite of my inherent propensity to worry about everything, this didn't concern me very much. I was excited at the prospect of "discovering" people, and felt a little like Santa Claus in that I was of the belief that we had a variety of really good roles to offer. Roy, however, wasn't so sure of our being able to find all the actors we needed from among the deep pool of nonunion talent making the rounds of casting offices all over Manhattan, and conveyed his uncertainty to me about it on a number of occasions. Now, if you're wondering which of us turned out to be right, the answer is: We both were.
But I'm getting ahead of myself.
In May of 2001, the following ad appeared in Backstage Magazine:
Casting for a low-budget non-SAG digital feature, shooting July/Aug. Transportation, meals, slight pay provided. No nudity. Romantic triangle involving two brothers, mid-30s, and a feisty female bartender, 28-38. Also seeking several other smaller roles, biker chicks and guys, various participants at gaudy wedding (the jaded parents, etc.).
Seeking—MICHAEL: 30s, sensitive, attractive, but insecure and self-deprecating; LILA: late 20s-early 30s, tough, sexy, attractive-but-hard-looking bartender; YOUNG MICHAEL: 10, sensitive; YOUNG FRANKIE: 11, outgoing; SHERRY: 20s-30s, loud, kinky biker chick; MIRANDA: late 20s-early 30s, appears and acts perfectly sane, but isn't; ER DOCTOR: 40s, dry and professional; DEBORAH: stepsister of the bride, early 30s, attractive, sweet and subdued.
Send pix & resume to Sweet Life Productions, LLC, Box 925, Planetarium Station, NYC 10024-0546. NON-SAG PERFORMERS.
What were the two key pieces of information we'd included in this ad of which actors would take particular notice?
Number One: Transportation, meals, slight pay provided. We'd read the ads for other digital and/or low-budget features shooting around New York that were soliciting nonunion actors, and none of them were offering any of these. As many of the actors we ended up casting would tell me later, most low-budget productions expect you to find a way to get to the set on your own and to then shut up and just be grateful for the opportunity. But Roy believes (and I agree with him) that when you pay people, even if it's a small amount, and decently feed them, you create more of an atmosphere of mutual respect and professionalism. In short, people show up, and work harder, when you pay them.
Number Two: No nudity.
So much of what actors find themselves auditioning for, so much of what they're asked to do in front of a camera, is gratuitous crap. Actors want to work, desperately; but even more than this they want to do work they feel is worthwhile, or, at the very least, not demeaning. Talk to any aspiring actress and ask her how many times she's gone to an audition and found herself being asked to bare her breasts, or worse. We wanted actors who wanted to be a part of what we were doing not just because it meant an acting job but because our project might turn out to be something they could be proud of having participated in and helped to make better. We wanted good actors, talented actors, enthusiastic actors, but if we were to have any hope of luring them, we first needed to get them to respond to our ad. No nudity, I think, along with the prospect of actually being paid and fed, sent a message, created a hope in some of the more talented but struggling individuals we were reaching out to that maybe, just maybe, this Sweet Life project could be something worth getting involved with.
So how'd we do with the ad?
Here's how: Within a matter of weeks, my apartment was littered with over fifteen hundred head shots and resumes. Now, on a studio film, or a larger-budgeted independent feature, a casting director would have pored through this mountain of photographs and narrowed down the selections before presenting them to me. But we had no money to pay for a casting director, and so I had to do it.
It was a daunting and sometimes depressing task. Every time I glanced at a photo and then rejected it, I felt guilty. But there was also the excitement, the anticipation that perhaps inside this next envelope I'd discover a face that spoke to me, that made me think, yes, yes, this could be my Lila, or my Deborah. But each time I spotted one of those faces, new anxieties would immediately set in: Sure, she looks perfect, but can she act?
Well, that's what auditions are for. I'd go through the photos, separate my selections into their appropriate piles—here are the Lilas, here are the Mirandas, et cetera—then I would run them by Roy and he would narrow them down further. Then we scheduled a few days in a room at the School of Visual Arts and began making phone calls to the actors we'd selected.
How do you run an audition? I didn't know. So, I approached Nicole Potter, a friend of ours who had experience on both sides of the table— as an actress who'd been on countless auditions, as well as a director of numerous stage productions—and asked her, how does it normally go? How much time is allotted for each actor? How are they generally treated?
Like cattle usually, came the reply. Maybe five minutes a slot, reading with someone who often doesn't even look you in the eye.
It didn't seem necessary to us, or even productive, to be so rushed and cold. We decided on ten-minute slots, and, rather than hand the actors script pages when they arrived, if we were considering them for one of the four main roles, we arranged to have them pick up the pages
(or "sides," as they are called) in advance, so they'd have a few days to familiarize themselves with the material. In some cases, we faxed or e-mailed the pages. Some would call me back and ask questions about the characters, and I always tried to oblige their queries with as much detail as I could. With actors we were considering for the smaller supporting roles, we went with a process we'd learned about from a filmmaker Roy had interviewed named Sal Ciavarello. He'd directed a digital feature called Hardcore Poisoned Eyes, and told Roy that when he was auditioning actors, he'd dispensed with having them read scenes from the script and had instructed them instead to come in with a prepared monologue. What he was interested in gleaning from the first go-round was whether they were talented or not, and whether he liked their look and voice in person. This seemed like a useful process for us, since we had any number of parts that called for only a few lines, or just one. How much could you tell from a person coming in and reading one line? We adopted this process, and it worked out well for us.
Something Roy liked to do if we were intrigued by a particular performer was to ask for an adjustment of some kind, to see if the actor could respond to direction and alter his or her performance on the fly. This was of paramount importance to me. I possessed neither the skills nor the background to manipulate or intimidate a performance out of anyone. I'm not an actor. I've never taken an acting course. I was clearly not going to be the kind of director who could teach anyone how to act. I knew the script and I knew the characters. Most importantly, I knew what I wanted. Beyond that, they were going to be on their own. We needed to see if they could handle that.
Many of them couldn't. It's a strange thing to watch when, after you've made a suggestion to, say, play it bigger, or smaller, or happier, or angrier, the actor comes back with . . . the very same reading he or she just gave. Over and over again. There's nothing for you to do then but thank them and move on.
But the good ones, they respond to the challenge. Thrive on it, actually. They enjoy the exploration. They surprise you by finding things in the text you didn't know were there. And those are the ones you have to hang on to.
Now, remember when I said I wasn't worried about finding enough talented nonunion actors to fill all the roles we needed to fill, while Roy was concerned we might not? And that, in the end, we both turned out to be right?
A contradictory statement, I know, but accurate. You see, we didn't have any trouble finding talented actors—from among the women. But the men, well, that was a different story. And I have no definitive answer as to why this should have been the case.
Here's one theory: Of the 1,500 head shots we received, over 1,000 of them were women. A two-to-one ratio. (True, we had more women's parts available than men's, which might have contributed somewhat to the disparity of the response, but I can't believe that was the entire reason.) There just seem to be more female actors than males. Maybe the women feel the increased competition, and so they work harder, train more, and come in more thoroughly prepared. All I know is this: the women to whom we provided sides in advance generally did not need to read from them when they came in to audition. They'd learned the lines and mapped out a performance. The men, on the other hand, more often than not had not learned the lines and did need to read from the pages. There was a discernible gender gap when it came to preparation.
Here's another theory: Women are more connected to their emotions than men, and less reserved about exposing them. While men have to overcome their natures to act well, a woman's nature serves the process of acting.
I don't know if either one of these theories holds any water in fact, so don't get steamed at me for being gender-biased or any other politically incorrect label these statements might prompt you to pin on me. I'm just conveying what we experienced in casting The Sweet Life. What can I tell you? The women were better. That's just the way it was. Thankfully, there were more female characters in the script than male. If it had been the other way around, I'm not sure what we would have done. As it was, most of the male characters we were forced to cast with SAG actors—union actors. It stretched the limits of our budget, but we had no choice.
Still, for the most part, I enjoyed the process, and think Roy and I did a good job choosing our cast. I loved hearing all these varied and marvelously talented people performing dialogue I'd written, and doing so helped me in rewriting lines that proved difficult, and in cutting others I now realized were unnecessary or too on the nose.
So with the movie cast, only one thing remained: to shoot the damn thing. All this preproduction work—the rewriting and the storyboard-ing, the hiring of the crew and the casting of the actors—you can liken to the long slow climb up a steep hill a roller coaster makes just after you've been strapped in. Now we'd reached the top, and the real ride was about to begin.
Or so I thought. To use another Godfather III reference, at this point, just days away from principal photography, our true enemies had yet to reveal themselves. But they were about to . . .
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