Friday, November 16, 2012

Who pays for stunt casting?

Last Friday Questions before Thanksgiving.

Derek (in Calgary) starts us off:

My question relates to stunt-casting and the fee paid to the stunt-casted actors.

Suppose you are running Modern Family and for whatever reason you decide to offer a small one-episode cameo role to (say) a well-known baseball player. How is it determined how much the baseball player is paid? Is it the same rate as any other guest actor would get for comparable screen-time? Is this the "scale" rate we sometimes hear about?

Do things change for higher-profile stunt casting? Suppose you now learn than Mick Jagger will do a small role on your show, for two or three episodes. And suppose you are keen to have him. Is it a written or unwritten rule that he would have to be paid scale? Or, if he and his agent demand a high fee, could he potentially be paid whatever amount the network and his agent can agree upon?

Stunt cast guest stars usually receive what’s called “top of the show” (the highest salary a studio is willing to go). Often these guest stars are friends of one of the cast members or someone on the production staff so they do the appearance for “top of the show” as a favor although it’s way less than they usually get.   Or if the show if super hot and they want the prestige or exposure. 

Many stars, however, want more than “top of the show.” In those cases the producer usually goes to the network and says, “How much do you want this clown? And if he’s that important, will you pick up the difference?” If the star is big enough and promotable enough the network will sometimes give in.

Lisa Muldrin has a question about multi-camera shows:

How can you, as a director, can keep track of four cameras at once? and how many takes you usually make on average?

I have what’s known as a quad-split – four monitors – and I can see what every camera is shooting. Generally, I do two passes of each scene and often modify the camera assignments in the second pass. In other words, if in the first pass I have Camera A give me a two-shot, in the second pass I might have him open up and give me a three-shot.

When two characters are talking to each other you often see the back of one of their heads in the shot. This ties the two actors together. It’s called an “over” (for over-the shoulder). So in one pass I’ll ask for the “over” and in the other I’ll ask for the “single” which is just a close up of the actor speaking. When cut together this gives me a little variety.

So for every scene there are four cameras so eight possible angles. And still there may be shots you don’t get – generally reaction shots. In those cases we do “pick-ups”.

Think Rubix Cube.

Now those are just passes for cameras. Producers sometimes want additional takes if they’re not satisfied with the performances. Or if they want to substitute jokes for lines that didn’t get a laugh.

So to answer your question on the number of takes:  generally two, but as high as seven or eight.

YEKIMI asks:

How often do personal matters of an actor derail a show, maybe something the general public doesn't know about. I'm thinking more along the lines if a popular actor came to you and said "I'm gay and I'm thinking of announcing it publicly". Would you say "For the love of all the TV gods in history, don't do it, you'll destroy the show!"

No. Never. I personally feel very strongly that people should come out and be who they are. Were that to happen on one of my shows I would just deal with it. Today there seems to be less of a stigma attached (thank goodness) to someone declaring he’s gay, but regardless – it’s not my place to tell an actor (or anyone for that matter) how to conduct his personal life.

Andrew Kamphey wonders:

In retrospect the names of characters are very unique. For any of your shows, have you had any interesting battles over names?

When we were doing the pilot for MARY (Mary Tyler Moore’s third failed comeback attempt (3 of 5), the co-star was James Farentino. He played an editor of a tabloid newspaper in Chicago. His name was printed on his frosted office door. For whatever reason, we couldn’t clear a last name. Everyday we’d come up with something new. Everyday they would paint a new door, and everyday the name would get kicked back. This went on for about a week until we finally landed on DeMarco. But there must’ve been five wasted doors. It was like Groundhog Day for those poor painters. And I'm sure they were thinking, "These idiot producers can't make up their fucking minds!"

I’ve spoken on this topic before but I’ve used the names of former girlfriends from time to time in scripts. Yes, it is a nerdy thing to do.

What’s your question? Leave it the comments section. Thanks and gobble gobble.


Bill Jones said...

Hi Ken. I have a question about "imitator" shows--you know, the shows that appear in the wake of a hit show, where it's clear that everyone else is trying to copy the success of the previous show. Examples include all the FRIENDS knockoffs in the mid-90s (remember TWO GUYS, A GIRL, AND A PIZZA PLACE?) or, more recently, NEW NORMAL, which is so clearly a knockoff of MODERN FAMILY.

How do these knockoffs come about? Do the networks go out and find a production/writing team that can put together a pilot? Or do they make more of an effort to find scripts that are already out there and fit the desired mold--i.e., the supply is there, but the networks have more of a demand for it? And which type of show, in your experience, has the better chance of succeeding?

chalmers said...

I remember reading how the producers of "Taxi" had to cajole ABC to kick in $5,000 to land Ruth Gordon to guest star on an episode. If you've seen the episode, you'll probably agree that it was well worth it.

Carson said...

When an actor exits a scene or they are not in a particular scene, where are they? Do they go out and watch the scene? I'm of course referring to a show shot with an audience.

PolyWogg said...

I saw a recent episode of Big Bang Theory where it's a series of really short unconnected scenes where they're playing a series of games against each other to see if Sheldon could win anything. The last contest is a pie-eating contest with faces planted deep in pie plates,so huge mess for everyone. Just before they face plant, Kaley Cuoco has a very self-conscious look out at producers or audience, the fourth wall essentially. Not a blooper per se, but I've never seen such an obvious slip make it the screen. Would you let it go or make them reshoot the face plant?


Cap'n Bob said...

If an athlete, politician, or other non-actor appears on a show (one involving acting), do they have to join SAG or a similar union or do they get a temporary pass? Do people like Judge Judy have to join a performer's union?

Thanks for a great blog.

Michael Stoffel said...

Did you ever get to work with Gordon Jump?

Max Clarke said...


About actor names, did the Charles brothers get it that their good name "Sam Malone" was also "Sam Alone" when they wrote the pilot? Considering the end of the series and that last shot of Sam alone, it was perfect.

Unknown said...

Ken, Thanks for answering my question!

Here's another for you:
Digital technology for films has come a long way (and is still going). There's now famous examples of bringing a dead actor back to play a role. Or making old actors look young.

(Marlon Brando for Superman Returns, and Patrick Stweart/Ian Mckellen for X-Men 3)

If the technology progresses could you imagine a sort of "perfect sitcom"? Wherein you can put together a dream cast and have them speak any kinds of lines you'd like? What would be your story line and actors in their roles?

Would it be:
A head strong, Mary Tyler Moore and a young brash Ted Danson, fight for work and fight for love where they work as puppeteers behind the scenes of Shari Lewis' kid's tv show.

Imagine: The News Room meets Lamb Chop meets Larry Sanders Show.

Anonymous said...

I was going to write with my congratulations after seeing the headline "Levine Lead People's Choices" in the LA Times this morning. But then I realized it was pronounced Levine and not Levine.

Dbenson said...

Favorite examples of old-school stunt casting: Bring in a celebrity to play his/herself; then the episode has the cast reacting as if said celebrity is way bigger than in real life: A lesser Jackson brother is as big as Michael at his peak; a game show host causes old ladies to scream at the supermarket; and suddenly the most important thing in a sitcom cast's life it watching another sitcom, so a visit from The Actor Who Plays the Star's Sidekick is a huge deal.

Matthew said...

Some of your readers may be interested in this blog entry from the creator of the Dane Cook show that was just cancelled before it ever aired.

YEKIMI said...

Thanks for answering my question. I was hoping that would be the answer you'd give.

Mac said...

Hey Ken , you might enjoy this from the UK's Daily Telegraph - Cheers' Funniest Lines.

D. McEwan said...

"Today there seems to be less of a stigma attached (thank goodness) to someone declaring he’s gay"

Or she's gay, as it was a well-loved comedienne doing just exactly that 15 years ago that made that change happen.

I've never used a old boy friend's name for a character name, though I did use an old girl friend's name (35 years ago, I still shagged girls too) for a minor character's name in My Lush Life, but it was affectionate as I still like her. I have, however, quite deliberately, used the name of an aunt of mine (Dad's big sister, and I do mean big) whom I loathed (now dead) for the name of the psychotic, serial-killer villainess of the book I have coming out next year. Only a handful of my cousins will get it, and only two of them will be offended by it, but it amused me.

My favorite version of this was a gay porn star I know of who took as his porn name the name of a bully who used to beat him up in high school. Now that is a sublime revenge.

Matthew Broderick's appearance on Modern Family this week ended forever the crush I used to have on him. Wow, have his looks gone! The doughy body was not the worst, it was the plump, doughy face. Matt, what happened? You were still beautiful as recently as The Producers.

Johnny Walker said...

@Matthew, Thanks for sharing that link. A very interesting read!

RyderDA said...

Wow! There's at least two guys named Derek in Calgary who read Ken's Blog. Whoda thiunk it?

jbryant said...

Dbenson: My favorite such stunt casting was in an episode of the short-lived 1979 CBS series CALIFORNIA FEVER. The gang got word that a certain popular singer was going to be coming around. I can still hear Eric Laneuville enthusiastically exclaiming, "Wow! Rex Smith on OUR beach?"

Lisa Muldrin said...

Thanks a lot Ken for your answer of my friday question!! Very helpful!


Kirk said...

Wow, it's been 15 years since Ellen came out? Time flies. Leaving aside all the cultural ramifications of that decision, I personally think the show itself improved artistically when she did that. It gave the show, and her character, a focus, which it didn't have up to that point. I've heard people say the show got less funny, but I don't recall it being all that funny before she made that decision. And I found the Emma Thompson episode truly hilarious.

Kirk said...

As for stunt casting, my favorite is Betty Ford's double-take when she finds out she's talking on the phone to "Mary...Queen of Scots."

Jim said...


A submission for Friday questions:

What would you do to turn around NBC's fortunes?

Ler's say you've been tapped to be the network's head programmer. What would you change? What would you keep? What would you do that the other networks aren't doing that would set your network apart?

Love the blog, and I'm really interested in what you have to say.


cadavra said...

Poly: I've noticed BIG BANG occasionally leaves break-ups in if they're not too "big." Most recently, Mayim Bialik inadvertently chuckled mid-sentence (might have been that same episode; she was talking about playing "Operation") and then unsuccessfully tried to suppress a grin. I like it, as it gives the show a small sense of "real."

Unknown said...

Question: what do you think about Up All Night switching from single camera to multi camera? Has anything like this been done before? As a fan, I can't help but think it will be a disaster. As an aspiring writer, I'm curious to see how they pull it off.

Stephen said...

Joss Whedon tells writers, "Cut what you love", the idea being that when a story runs into trouble, be willing to remove your favourite scene for the good of the piece as a whole. Do you have any examples of when you have found this to be a useful approach?