Casting About For Legitimacy
Wanna be a movie director? All you have to do is direct something. But first, you have to cast it.
By Dan Tobin
MAY 15, 2000: Hollywood is built on bullshit. At the top of the industry, this consists of convincing Adam Sandler he's creating art, not just fart. Further down the totem pole, it's convincing the guy on the barstool next to you that everyone else is playing around but you're on your way to punching out paparazzi. The mentality out here is: talk the talk well enough, and maybe you'll actually start walking.
Admitting failure here is not only extremely gauche, but also the cause of self-doubt. So you find a way to feign legitimacy -- not only to impress others, but to reassure yourself. Every actor has come "this close" to a major part; every aspiring director is "still in preproduction" for his opus.
Lacking a perfectly cut jaw line and rippling pecs, I came to Hollywood to be a screenwriter. In a way, this is easy: as soon as you write something, boom, you can call yourself a writer. And you're not actually lying. It's different for my roommate Jay, who wants to be an actor. You can't just ham it up around the house and call yourself an actor. You have to wait for somebody to allow you the chance to act. It's part of the collaborative side of filmmaking -- without a script, director, crew, or wad of cash, there's no point in Jay standing around chewing scenery. There's not even a point in having scenery.
But at some point, whether you're a waiter "who really wants to act" or a writer "who really wants to eat," you start to get the itch to have an actual project in the works. For Jay and me, the odds of a studio writing us a blank check -- or any check at all -- convinced us that the best way to jump-start our careers was to make our own short film. I wrote the script (because I'm a writer) and would also direct it (because I saved my bar mitzvah money). Jay would star in it, and our friends would serve as production staff and crew.
We almost cast Jay's friends as the actors, but I soon realized most weren't yet ready for prime time -- or any time at all, really. I also decided there was a certain air of legitimacy to be gained by casting actors neither of us had seen doing keg stands. So we set out to cast our film with real live professionals. Unpaid professionals, but real and live nonetheless.
Thanks to us, nine lucky hopefuls would have the chance to call themselves actors. We would be the givers of life, the bestowers of opportunity. No longer would we be the guys who were going to do something "wicked soon." We would be legitimate, real -- we'd be producers.
Because really, all it takes to be a producer is to produce something.
Wanted: SWF to be next It GirlEveryone I know who's been in Los Angeles for more than two years has dabbled in self-producing, from the script supervisor who directed a 15-minute short last summer to the dialogue coach trying to attach talent to his direct-to-video project (he wants either Erik Estrada or Tom Bosley; I'd love to know what kind of role fits both). Everyone gave us the same advice for finding actors: place a free classified in Back Stage West/Drama-Logue, an LA actors' weekly.
Dan Tobin is accepting submissions for The Cool, a 16mm short film comedy. No pay, but copy, credit, and meals. Breakdown: Trey Smooth, 25-35, super slick, "professional cool guy"; Bulldog, an intimidating bouncer; Tabitha, a saucy temptress. Please submit headshot and résumé.
Man, did that look legitimate. Sure, the phrasing felt pretentious, especially the part about me "accepting submissions," but that's how you're supposed to do it. I giggled with excitement seeing it in print, and we sat back to await responses.
We didn't have to wait long -- our first photo arrived in the mail the day the ad came out. Her name was Jen, and I fell in love immediately. After all, you never forget your first. I couldn't believe she worked connections and pulled strings just to get a picture to me, hoping I'd find it in my heart to call her in for an audition. Well, I absolutely would, just because she was first. In fact, I was so grateful for an actual response that I vowed to call in everyone who'd been kind enough to send us a photo.
We got another 75 over the weekend, and another 250 in the weeks that followed, and my attitude started to change. Jen quickly fell by the wayside as Jay and I began the rigorous process of making fun of the headshots we'd received.
Headshots are the calling card of talent in the entertainment industry -- 8x10 glossies, professionally shot, which theoretically give you the first glimpse of what an actor might look like on celluloid. Actors order these things by the hundreds, and fire them off at the slightest hint of potential work. We got so many ridiculous photos that we created a Headshot Hall of Fame. The guy who enclosed an introduction to Buddhism landed there, as did the 19-year-old showing off his nipple rings. There was a woman named Kat Hare, a few folks with rhyming names, and a batch of artistes with no last names (Monica, Rodgrigo, and Bogdan spring to mind). There were so many photos of guys with cleft chins, thick eyelashes, and frosted hair that we assembled candidates for a boy band. My favorite submission came from a guy hailing from "Bohemia," who grossly misspelled my name two different ways, enclosed a 3x5 color photo of himself, and listed his favorite directors as part of his résumé. He was a charter member of the Hall of Fame.
I found myself becoming increasingly crass with each round of decision-making. What began as "Wow, I'm so grateful she actually sent us something!" quickly descended into "His forehead's too big and that shirt says, 'I smell like a gorilla.' Toss him." Boy, did I feel like a producer. I couldn't wait to tell some poor schlep he'd never work in this town again.
Any questions about the material?We eventually narrowed down the list and used Jay's work connections to score real casting facilities -- just an ordinary room with a desk out front, but at the address of a successful commercial production company. Sure, we looked like a couple of Gen X dorks, but so do Spike Jonze and Rushmore director Wes Anderson. The room was nice and intimidating, complete with video camera, couches, and one-way mirror. I desperately wanted to sit behind the mirror and bark out nasty comments through the intercom, but there's a fine line between being legitimate and just being a jerk. (I did it to a couple of Jay's friends anyway.)
Jay and I had long discussed how to discreetly signal when we'd seen enough of an auditioner: "If I raise my pen and touch my ear . . . " But by the beginning of our second hour, we'd found a rhythm and a subtle language not unlike the one honeybees use to direct each other to the pollen. We kept people when we wanted more, dismissed them when they were wrong. We feigned laughter at all the right times, we thanked people profusely for coming in, we told them don't call us, we'll call you. We reeked of legitimacy.
There were occasional monkey wrenches, of course. One guy we finished with quickly came back and asked us for a second chance. Afterward, Jay and I felt horrible, and tried to make up for it by gushing about how much better his second try was. It was a bit better, but he still sounded like Macy Gray by way of Latka Gravas. Another guy improvised his own lines, adding in all sorts of obscenities, and then apologized profusely to Jay's girlfriend, who was sitting on the couch. Then there was the agent who mysteriously showed up at Jay's office to pitch his clients -- "She's hot; she's a great actress; when she walks in the room, you're gonna say, 'There's our star' " -- then called us during the audition to complain that the part wasn't beefy enough. "It's four lines!" he hissed on Jay's voice mail. "I can't send my actresses out on four-line reads! I have a reputation to uphold!"
Meanwhile, I was so involved in analyzing performances and flashing my phony producer smile that I didn't even realize how surreal this all was. People I'd never even seen before were toiling over my words, trying to become characters I'd created, hoping to impress me. Some were actual grown-ups, with spouses and kids. It was almost too much for me to handle, and I was glad it didn't hit me until later, during a cleansing fifth of Jack. I recalled interviewing the author Tom Perrotta a few years ago, and his description of visiting the set of Election: "I felt like all these people there converged in one place to make some imagined dream of mine real. It was kind of spooky." I meditated on how these words now applied to me, then passed out.
Director, meet cast. Cast, meet director.Jay and I took a meeting in our kitchen and came up with a cast list. This was the most legitimate step yet. With strangers on board, the project couldn't get "hung up in development limbo" just because we felt like playing pool instead of pricing liability insurance. Bailing now meant letting down a lot of people, including our "intimidating bouncer." It forced us to be serious. But when the cast came to my house to read through the script together, the bizarreness was almost unbearable.
Every time we'd sifted through the piles of photos, each person became a bit more real. By the time we chose our cast, I'd clocked some serious time looking at these people, between their pictures, the videotapes of their auditions, and the movie I'd filmed in my mind. So when they walked into my living room, it was like a weird kind of celebrity sighting. I felt like I knew these people, much as I felt like I knew Corey Feldman when I saw him in a West Hollywood bar.
Except I didn't. I had no idea how old they were, or where they'd moved to LA from, or what fillings they liked in their burritos. They probably barely remembered me -- I'd spent months looking at them, but they'd seen me for a maximum of seven minutes, during which they were too focused on themselves and their performances to notice the chubby guy on the couch. All this contributed to a really comfortable atmosphere in my living room.
Our lead actor asked what exactly we'd been looking for. I think he was confused because he was black -- one of two black actors among a field of 15 we'd auditioned for the lead character. "Usually when I go on auditions, everyone looks like . . . well, they look like . . . me." This was strange for me, too -- I'd been writing the character, Trey Smooth, for almost two years, and I'd always imagined him as a Baldwinesque Italian guy. But this actor gave such a great reading and brought so many new dimensions to the character that we had to cast him. Thanks, let's do lunch.
In fact, everyone was great except for the saucy temptress, and that was because we hadn't cast one. We made the mistake of thinking our women would look like their headshots, so we expected knockouts. In person, they were . . . they were using very talented photographers. I was really upset at one woman whose headshot made her look like a twentysomething Kathleen Turner. After meeting her, I saw how they'd done that photo, but resented being misled. If one synthetically enhanced woman hadn't improvised on her sauciness and stuck Jay's hand down her shirt during the audition, the female auditions would have been a total, um, bust.
Not being especially impressed with any of our would-be leading ladies, we decided to try for a celebrity cameo. I gave the script to an Emmy-nominated actress I'd become chummy with in my Hollywood travels, and she promised to read it. Two days later, she called my house, which I immediately interpreted as a good sign. She wished me luck on the project, declined the role, and recommended the new Steely Dan album. I felt pretty amateurish again.
It only got worse as I put out feelers for accessible celebrities. My friend Freddy talked about it like he was trading actors in some rotisserie league. "I can get you Janeane Garofalo, I can get you Christina Ricci, I can get you Slash -- Slash'll do anything. I'm friends with his father." Of course, once I tried getting Freddy to make the actual phone calls to secure one of these stars, the contacts fell through. (Except for Slash -- I still have a good shot at getting the Guns N' Roses guitarist as my saucy temptress.) The red flag really went up when Freddy promised me Angelina Jolie less than a week after she won her Oscar. I'm sure she's just dying to parlay that win into an unpaid short film with a first-time director. But you had to hand it to Freddy -- until I called his bluff, he was the most legitimate guy I knew.
Pulp versus fictionThere's a great story about a young Steven Spielberg squatting in an empty office on a studio lot and saying hi to people until everyone just assumed he was a big deal. Eventually he became a big deal. Even if this story isn't true, it underscores the idea that in Hollywood, it doesn't matter who you trick so long as you get in that door. So if I feed my cast a little bullshit to make them respect me as a director, who's it really hurting? The end justifies the meanness.
In my living room, the actors and I began sniffing each other out. They talked about the parts they'd been "in contention for," the prior "film work" they'd listed on their résumés. I rattled off the names of actresses we were "in negotiations with," described the locations we were "in the process of securing." We each talked the talk at each other, none of us knowing who was truly legit and who was doing the Hollywood Shuffle. I was getting so used to it, I almost forgot where my own talk crossed the line from pulp to fiction.
As I write this, we've just begun rehearsals with our shiny new cast, and now I don't know where I'm at. When I hear our cinematographer talk about the "hot young director" he's working with, I feel guilty, like I've tricked a real cinematographer into working without pay on my pretend movie. But he's just talking his talk, like I talk mine. It's how anything gets done here -- you really can't make a movie unless everyone's willing to sacrifice a lot of time to make the project a reality. And if you can't pay them, you'd better make them believe they're participating in something truly great, the next El Mariachi, the next Blair Witch Project.
So you bluster, you inflate, you set up shop at Warner Bros., and before you know it, you're chatting with Charlie Rose about who makes a good martini. Or you're flat broke with lots of people mad at you. One or the other.
Personally, I'm aiming for the former scenario. I mean, what better place is there to talk than on a talk show?
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