Saturday, June 27, 2009

A Boston day-Night Doubleheader

Funny, this business. If you hang around long enough, things have a way of circling back.

I'm sent a copy of "THE TOWN," Ben Affleck's follow-up to Gone Baby Gone (and a Hot Script in LA, at the time), to read for my client Eliza.

"Oh, for CHRISSAKES," I think as I start reading, "another Boston Guys Doin' Crime script-- will these things never stop coming?"

I'm serious. Is there something in the water up there? Some friggin' Artesian well in Dorcherster or Saugus or someplace that produces, in anyone who drinks from it, an insatiable desire to write about 'these guys from the neighborhood who plan to steal some (drugs guns money)'? I can tell you without exaggeration that in the 20 years I've been doing this I am sent about one of these scripts a month, and most of them are God-awful.

But not The Town. The Town is wonderful.

Crime thrillers have a self-imposed challenge: they must quickly succeed on both plot and character levels, and the Town does so on both counts, beautifully. I opened the file sitting in bed at the Mondrian hotel, on that first, jet-lagged night in LA, but kept clicking through the pages until after two AM (actually five AM, since I'm on east coast time). Let's see what we can do with this one, I tell Eliza, and go to bed.

I'm sent another script: VALEDICTION, a small, finely observed family drama with a supernatural layer that gives it a nice, twisty feel. Better, this is an offer for Eliza, not an audition.
Better still, I very much like the script.
So even though the role is not large --and it's the "home-wrecker" role in the script-- I urge Eliza to take it. I always urge clients to pick the project, not the role-- and Oh how some agents hate this. In limited cases I see their point-- Leading Men are Leading Men, for example, and should only consider leading roles. But still-- were there any insignificant roles in No Country for Old Men? Would any actor's career have been hurt appearing anywhere in that film? In the case of Valediction, I'm 'validated' (get it?) when I hear of the wonderful Brits that are in the cast-- ends up that Eliza is one of the only Americans in the film.
Ends up, also, that it films in Boston. July, they say, so that's that. It's on.

Out of the blue, I get an email from an old acquaintance: Frank Corache, a fine director best known for helming some of Adam Sandler's best films. Ends up Frank's directing ZOOKEEPER, a Kevin James film shooting in Boston, and do I still do any casting up there? I tell him that I do, in tandem with my good friend and casting director Carolyn Pickman. So, another script. I read it, offer some thoughts, and Frank tells me we'll be in touch.

So now it's JUNE...
...we got the Zookeeper job, Carolyn's gearing up on The Town... and, at the eleventh hour, a call from Eliza:
"Pete, can you be in Boston THIS WEEK?"
Ends up VALEDICTION got pushed-- up, not back. That NEVER happens. Suddenly, a temporary relocation to Boston seems inevitable-- and since my personal life's been in something of a freefall, it sounds like a welcome diversion. The Universe Conspiring, all that.
Back to Boston I go.

Ends up Eliza's days are mostly nights, so I manage to manage my time pretty well. But on Tuesday, I finally end up with a double header: Casting Zookeeper from 10 to 3, then moving onto the Valediction set from 4 to... well, late. As you might imagine, I have a couple of thoughts from that looong day.


...which, it ends up, hasn't changed all that much. I'd forgotten how challenging these day-player days can be: it's a numbers game, and the session can feel as much like a commercial job as a feature job. But before I go any further,

LET ME EXPLAIN SOMETHING ABOUT CASTING. By observing something about falling in love.

In acting class, I sometimes ask: who here's single? This being an acting class (and New York City, after all), it's not surprising that most hands go up. (on a side note, it's always surprising who's single, and who isn't, but that's a subject for another time.)

So then I ask the single folk: "let's say you go to a party, or a bar-- how long does it take for you to know whether there's anyone there you're remotely interested in?"

The consensus: about five seconds.

And as for "The Click", that magical connection you feel with someone who might be The One? Well, that takes almost no time at all.

Which is precisely what casting for a film is like. For even the smallest of roles, there's this undefined ideal that just sort of walks in the room (for the record, "we'll know it when we see it" is true, and not at all a blow-off excuse). An actor who's not right for a role can give a lovely audition, but if there was no initial 'click' when they walked in the door, it matters not.
(But PLEASE don't despair, actors, and don't let off the gas, because "Terrific actor, wrong for this" is one of the best notes we can make about you-- and, honestly, sometimes better then getting called back. There are other projects. What's important is that we remember you as good.)

And here's what feels counter-intuitive for many actors: this holds even more true for smaller roles. Zookeeper is a Disney comedy, so if we see you onscreen for FOUR LINES we kinda need to know who you are the minute you appear in the story . Which is why it breaks our heart when actors who've been called in for the one-line Security Guard role walk in, eyes filled with hope... because they're also clutching the sides for the larger, three-scene, 'Best Friend ' role in their hands.

"Can I also read for...?" Sorry, but no. No Click. It's as simple as that.

But what of the actors for whom we feel the click?

It's equally heartbreaking when they haven't done the work to follow through on that initial promise. (I tell women it's like finally talking to the hot guy and finding out that he's dumb as a post. Oh, how you want him to be smarter, more sensitive, more insightful-- and, sure, you can choose to delude yourself that he is, for a while. Six weeks, tops. But he ain't, and you know it. But I digress.)

I can tell you now that at least this one thing about casting hasn't changed: in film and TV, you gotta bring the performance in the audition. And to do that, you must create an entire world. I like to tell actors it's a matter of going temporarily insane: for a minute or two, you actually see, quite clearly, people and things that just happen not to be there. And if you believe in this fantasy world, if you commit to it fully, then we'll see it too, in you and through you.

And Zookeeper? I'm guessing that everyone who Clicked --and who Did The Work-- will get called back (if there are callbacks)(ahem). We'll see.


Which is Whiskey friggin' Park, of all places, and I'm late-- but not nearly as late as the production.

I have no way of knowing, when I arrive at five, that the first shot will not go off til after eight PM, a full five hours after crew call. Mostly this has to do with the complex setup of the first shot-- which is a gutsy thing for a director to do.

Orson Wells was known for doing it, as was Coppola: composing a long, challenging opening shot that takes a while to set up but will, once in the can, cover a page or more. You're five hours late-- then suddenly, a half hour later, you're back on track. Suri, the director (a Brit whom I get to know rather well, and who becomes a friend partially becuase I may be one of the only Americans who saw his film "A Man of No Importance" several years back), is setting up a travelling master, a stedicam shot that will follow Ben Barnes, the lead, down a flight of stairs, where he'll discover Eliza; we'll roll that two-shot all the way though the scene, right up until Ben's character is hauled back up the stars by Security Guards.

Since this is only the second day of shooting, though, the crew hasn't yet coalesced as a team. This shot shouldn't be this hard to set up, and Suri's professional, but a little tense-- and when the director's tense, everyone's tense. And as the minutes slip away one hears (with increasing frequency) from the AD: "People, we need QUIET!"
(Side note: at this moment the director in me instinctively looks up at the ceiling-- polished metal-- then down: concrete floors. Cool-looking, but an accoustical nightmare.)

And the quiet is needed, for the most part, from the extras. So, those who do extra work, take a breath. I'm gonna beat you up a little.

To some of you, being an extra feels like being invited to a cool party: I'm in wardrobe! I'm right next to the stars! Plus, for most of the day, you're not really a necessary part of things. Add to the fact that you folks are not, by and large, a quiet lot... and what you have is a perfect storm of chatter.

I speak for directors everywhere when I beg of you: Please Don't.

Even under the best of circumstances, production is tense, and often a grind (personally, I don't have a problem with that, as it reminds us of how challenging the making of good movies really is). Everyone on set is focused, and the "keys" walk around with that buzz-tired that most of us only remember from college finals.

But not the extras.I should tell you this is why so many directors (myself included) prefer to have extras holding far away from the set: everyone else on the set, even that forlorn PA over at craft services, is working-- and, probably, feeling lucky to have the job and focused on not getting fired. They stay quiet when they're asked. But to some extras, I gotta ask: what are you thinking??

Many of you are cater-waiters as well, and I can offer you this comparison: the set is like one of those parties you cater-- except that you, the waiter, are the crew; those guests are the extras. And when you're dead tired and trying to get back with that tray full of empty shrimp plates before you get screamed at or your arm falls off... don't you want those loud guests, who are apparently oblivious to the job you have to do, to simply WORK WITH YOU AND GET OUT OF YOUR WAY!?

Welcome to our world, people.

Again, I know this sounds harsh. Apologies. And, of course, not all extras are like this-- that night, I caught site of an elderly gent, nattily attired in a Brooks Brothers blazer and crisp khakis ( Whisky Park??), sitting quietly, chipping away at a book full of sudoku puzzles. Because he was far from the action, he had an entire comfy sofa to himself, and seemed perfectly content to while the evening away, out-puzzling the puzzles, waiting for a call to action which, if it never came, was fine with him.

My kind of extra. (And don't worry about not being seen-- we know who you are. We'll find you.)

As for me? I chat with my other new "BFF," Ben Barnes (the male lead) who's quite passionate about the craft (my experience? The good ones, especially the Brits, usually are). I watch a few takes... I offer a few notes to Eliza, and give a few observations to Suri. I think they help.

And, at about eleven or so, after a few hours of watching the monitior.... I know my work here is done. I head out into a damp Boston night.

I reach my rental car, parked on Boylston Street in a 'Meter Parking 'til 8PM' spot. I bought one of those hated "muni meter" slips that was good until 7:54--

--and there, on my windshield, is an orange love letter from my old, old friends at the Boston Transportation Department. Meter Expired-- as of 7:55.

Ahh, Boston. Love you too. You never change.


  1. Thanks for the update. If you have anything else on Valediction, please send the info our way. Samuntha, OHG Staff Writer

  2. Really nice blog Peter. Very entertaining insight.

    William DeCoff

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