1 * The Call
It began, as it usually does, with a phone call—this time, from Louisa Velis, Ron Howard’s longtime associate producer at Imagine Entertainment.
“Russell Crowe’s deal for A Beautiful Mind is done, so we’re ready to go ahead. The budget is going to be tight, but of course there are great parts, and I’m sure you’ll come up with great actors, as always. Can you start putting a list together and meet with Ron on Friday? The wife and the roommate are especially important to him.”
Whether it’s a big film, a small one, or something in between, our job always begins with the Call. Sometimes the Call comes from a director we know well— Chris Columbus, Ron Howard, Wolfgang Petersen, Rob Reiner. With such long-standing relationships, the Call is almost a formality, a confirmation that it’s once again time for us to get to work.
When the Call comes from a director we’ve never worked with, his first step is usually to schedule a meeting. (The director is so rarely a “she” that in this book, we’re just going to say “he,” with apologies to Hollywood’s female filmmakers. Although there are now lots of powerful women in Hollywood—producers, top agents, even the heads of several major studios—it’s still unusual for women to direct films. We’ve never been able to figure out why—surely if a woman has life-or-death power over someone else’s movie, she ought to be able to make her own—but with a handful of exceptions such as Nancy Meyers, most directors are men.)
At this point in our career, we don’t exactly go on job interviews. But this initial meeting with the director—and, perhaps, his producer—pretty much serves that function, as we all figure out whether or not we want to work together. The director already knows that Jane and I have a long string of successful movies to our credit—but so do lots of our colleagues. So should he choose us, or one of Hollywood’s many other casting directors?
Sometimes this decision is based on the type of film that is being planned. Perhaps the director is looking for someone to solve a particular problem— finding 300-pound jugglers for his circus movie, or getting access to the Latvian community for all those folk-dance scenes he’s planning. Most likely, though, he’s looking for the “vibe,” trying to feel out what our relationship will be like for the long, arduous months that casting a movie usually takes. I once heard of a producer who described filmmaking as a long road trip—he didn’t want to work with anyone with whom he wouldn’t enjoy traveling for eight, ten, twelve hours a day, week after week after week. This initial meeting is the director’s chance to find out what sharing that journey might be like.
Such meetings usually start with the director describing his vision, with maybe a few additional words about the movie’s overall budget. Then Jane and I toss out some ideas, almost as though we already had the job. All of us are trying to act as though we actually are working together, to see what a real relationship might be like.
At these types of meetings, we try to walk a fine line. We don’t want to give away too many good ideas—that’s what we do for a living—but we do want to let the director know that we have good ideas, suggestions that go beyond the obvious. After all, you don’t need to be a casting director to think of Harrison Ford or Julia Roberts—stars that many movies can’t even afford. On the other hand, we don’t want to give away our best alternate ideas until we know we’ve got the job.
Even though this isn’t really a job interview, Jane and I still get nervous about these meetings. Sometimes it’s simply because we need a job. A couple of years ago, Jane had just finished casting A Beautiful Mind and I’d just come off Harry Potter—two of the year’s most high-profile movies. But a possible actors’ strike was looming and production had ground to a virtual standstill. Clearly, the phrase “job security” isn’t in the showbiz dictionary.
Sometimes we’re eager to work with a particular director, and we want to be chosen. Or maybe we just can’t wait to get our hands on a delicious script. Like actors, though, we try to do our best and then leave everything at the door, hoping that our past work speaks for us.
Of course, we don’t always come out of these meetings with a job. I remember two meetings that were especially disappointing—not to say mystifying. One was with Peter Howitt, director of Sliding Doors, which we’d both loved. Peter seemed equally fond of us, since he was nice enough to announce that we had cast five of his all-time favorite films, which he then proceeded to list. When we didn’t get the job, we had to laugh. Maybe whomever he finally hired had cast six of his favorite films?
The other was for a movie called Mr. Wonderful, which was to be Anthony Minghella’s first American movie. You’ll recall that Minghella later became known for directing The English Patient, but at this point, his only U.S. release was a terrific but relatively obscure British film called Truly, Madly, Deeply.
His British producer called our office. “Is it possible,” she asked in her impeccable accent, “that the truly legendary casting directors, Jane Jenkins and Janet Hirshenson, are available for a meeting?”
As it happened, Jane had seen Truly, Madly, Deeply at Sundance, before its U.S. theatrical release, which made her one of the few Americans at the time who actually knew the director’s work. She loved it, I loved the sound of it, and the whole meeting dissolved into a love fest. Surely this time we were in. We were “the legendary Jane and Janet,” after all.
Then weeks went by with nary a word, until finally the terribly polite British producer sent us an awfully nice note saying that they’d absolutely loved meeting with us—and had decided to go in a different direction.
Jane gave me a sardonic look across the office. “Going with someone less legendary, no doubt?” You can never fall too deeply in love in these meetings. Like actors, you never know why you don’t get a job.
Meanwhile, we, too, are trying to figure out whether this is a trip we want to take. Can we deliver what the director needs? Does he envision the movie in a way we can understand? If our idea of cute and perky is Reese Witherspoon and his is Paris Hilton, we’re clearly not speaking the same language. That’s okay—as long as we can learn his. If his vision remains mysterious to us, even after a long discussion, we’re probably the wrong match. We might also turn down a job if we think the director’s expectations of casting don’t match the reality we know. You always want to reach high, but if the director thinks he can get Brad Pitt for a one-page cameo as the waiter, or if a first-time director expects us to guarantee the latest hot commodity for his low-budget film, we may wish him luck with somebody else. Certainly if someone wants us to go through personal channels to convince a well-known actor to consider a script—contacting a performer by any means other than through an agent or manager—we’ll say no to that job.
We’re also reluctant to take scripts that are full of extreme violence or that seem particularly degrading to women. Sex is fine, violence is fine, even sexual violence is fine—up to a point. But if we can’t stomach the thought of working on a script for months at a time, if we can’t imagine talking about it enthusiastically with the director and the actors, then we’ve got to pass.
Sometimes we simply can’t face the demands that a particular script will involve. If I had it to do over again, I’d say “yes” to Witness, which I think is a wonderful movie. But the script came to me right after I finished The Outsiders and Rumble Fish, which had kept me on location in Oklahoma for several months, and the thought of spending a big chunk of time in Lancaster, Pennsylvania, was just too much. What a mistake that was!
Likewise, we’ve never gotten over our “no” on Risky Business. But Jane had just finished doing Ron Howard’s Night Shift and auditioning yet another round of hookers didn’t appeal to her. When we saw Risky Business, we knew we’d made the wrong choice. It was a terrific movie—without our name on it.
Copyright © 2006 by The Casting Company, Inc.
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