Thursday, August 15, 2013

The unsung heroes of Hollywood

HBO is currently running a terrific documentary called “Casting By.” It’s primarily about the dean of casting directors, Marion Dougherty, but features a lot of other highly influential casting directors and quite a few major stars along with film directors. I highly recommend it.

Casting Directors are the unsung heroes of Hollywood (and New York). I’ve always said that the most important decisions producers and directors will ever have to make is casting. Everything else can be changed. Everything else can be fixed. But if you have the wrong people you’re dead. Period.  You could write the greatest screenplay in history and if there’s no chemistry between the leads your movie will suck.

And the decisions are totally subjective. Someone thought Lindsay Lohan as Elizabeth Taylor was a good idea. William Devane has been in comedies. So has Vin Diesel.

Not only is it hard to find the actor with the perfect quality, even if that actor is out there, he may not be available for your project. Timing and good fortune are major factors.  What if Shelley Long and Ted Danson were both doing movies and couldn’t sign on for CHEERS? How long do you think the show would’ve lasted with Fred Dryer as Sam? (And yes, he was a finalist.)

The planets pretty much have to line up.

A good casting director must scour the landscape, discover new faces, glean talent from inexperienced performers, satisfy a producer’s or director’s vision when often times that vision is hazy, and essentially shoot at a moving target.

Then you often don’t make the final choices – the producer or director (or network or studio) does.  But they only see who you bring them.  That's a huge responsibility.  And your reputation hangs in the balance of someone else’s performance. An actor tanks in front of a live studio audience and even though the producer chose him, you get the blame.

And rarely get any credit.

There is no Oscar category for casting directors. When numerous stars and studio heads tried to get Marion Dougherty an honorary Oscar for fifty years of service and basically redefining the position, the request was denied.

Film director Taylor Hackford is interviewed in the documentary and comes off like a fucking asshole. He claims that no one other than the director should receive a director title. A casting director is not a director. The Director of Photography is not a director. There’s only one director. The DGA has successfully gotten casting credits to read “casting by” instead of “casting director.” Like it’s such a big important thing.

Hackford also believes that casting directors are not entitled to Oscars. Ultimately, he says, HE makes the decision, HE is the director and so the casting director doesn’t really contribute. He had no answer when the questioner asked, “Well isn’t that true about make up and production designers? Ultimately the director makes the final decision. And yet these craftsmen are recognized."  As a director myself, and a proud member of the DGA, I’m appalled and ashamed by his pompous selfish misguided stance. Yeah, it’s all YOU, Taylor. No one else deserves any credit for LOVE RANCH.

I hope this documentary will expose people to the monumental contribution casting directors make. And maybe the Motion Picture Academy will someday give them their proper due. (But the reality is they don’t want to add any more categories because they weigh down the show and the whole point of the Academy is to get ratings for the Oscarcast. So instead of honoring the dedicated people who actually make the movies, they set aside time to expand the Best Picture category to ten even though seven have no fucking shot and are only there to attract younger viewers. Like TOY STORY 3 was ever going to beat THE KING’S SPEECH and THE SOCIAL NETWORK.)

I’ve had the honor to work with some amazing casting directors. Lynn Stalmaster, Lea Stalmaster, David Rubin, Molly Lopata, Sheila Guthrie, Steven Kolzak, Jeff Greenberg, Sally Stiner & Barbie Block. For our last pilot, Sally & Barbie found us Aaron Paul and Kat Dennings. For the MARY show Molly Lopata discovered Katey Sagal. Sheila Guthrie brought us unknown actress, Jenna Elfmann. For FRASIER, she discovered David Hyde Pierce. And the list goes on and on.

The TV Academy awards Emmys for casting. The Motion Picture Academy stages production numbers about women’s boobs.

The documentary is called “Casting By.” I’m sure HBO will be airing it throughout the next couple of weeks. It’s also on HBO ON DEMAND and HBO GO if you can access either of those. Trust me, it’s a much better film and far more enlightening than LOVE RANCH.

UPDATE: Comment from reader Wayne --

Don't mess with Taylor Hackford. He's so powerful, Washington did away with the title CIA Director. It's now Intelligence By...


Anonymous said...

From Jan:

I certainly agreed about what you said about Taylor Hackford. What a pompous ass! Great documentary, and half the fun is watching the early clips of a lot of now famous actors. I thought it was interesting that you have that little golden age after the studio system and before the current system where people just want bankable names where you had casting directors who concentrated mostly on New York ACTORS (as opposed to "movie stars") who didn't necessarily have the prettiest faces but who actually had stage training and could really act. I'm not saying it's true in every case, but that's one reason I like British films better than big, blockbuster American ones. As Imelda Staunton said when she was up for best actress, she was glad she lived in a country where it was okay to "have a bit of a bum" and not worry about it.

Thanks for writing about this film; it's terrific, and I highly recommend it. How sad that the efforts to give a casting Oscar have come to nothing--even with a lot of big name support.

Baylink said...

Proud to say I recognized some of those names... even the ones that don't end in Stalmaster. :-)

Anonymous said...

So there is an emmy for casting? I hope whoever cast all the fabusous newcomers in "Orange is the New Black" for Netflix is eligible.

Hamid said...

Casting directors do a great job 99% of the time. The 1% was the decision to cast Kate Bosworth as Lois Lane, probably the most egregious miscasting ever. I'll give the casting director on that the benefit of the doubt, as it was most likely Bryan Singer's decision. He's a terrific director but he dropped the ball on that one.

As for the Director of Photography credit, I personally prefer the use of Photographed By. It just sounds so much better, like when Spielberg gave Janusz Kaminski a Photographed By credit on his brilliant A.I., instead of his usual D of P.

With regards to Hackford, who I do like as a director, where would he draw the line? What about Assistant Directors? They have Director in their title! Should that be changed to Assistance By instead?!

Hollywoodaholic said...

All I'm thinking while listening to Hackford make an even greater ass of himself on this film was... how the fuck did he land Helen Mirren?

Anonymous said...

The misuse of power is always repulsive be it in movie directing, politics or personal relationships and it is seldom done by self-aware or kind people. In that vein, Taylor Hackford is exactly who he portrays himself to be, a repulsive horse's ass.

Wayne said...

Don't mess with Taylor Hackford. He's so powerful, Washington did away with the title CIA Director. It's now Intelligence By...

Murray said...

I've always had a gripe with some Casting Directors, but Mr. Hackford has shown me that it is, in fact, strictly his fault.

In some TV shows, the casting boss has a bias for a height/weight/build/hair colour/etc combination that borders on a true fetish. All the speaking roles, and many of the extras in the background, look like they could be siblings. "Was that the cop's brother?" "No, that's the mobster's lawyer." "Isn't that the hooker?" "I think it's the mayor." "I wish they'd quit changing clothes. I was just getting a handle on who is who."

I always thought some sort of "exchange program" could be arranged, just so casting folk can inject their biases in each other's show and suddenly there's variety on the screen.

Ron Rettig said...

My dad, H Earl Rettig, cast Alan Ladd in a bit part in "Captain Caution' at RKO in 1940 and at Disney in a larger part in "The Reluctant Dragon" in 1941. They remained friends until Ladd's untimely death in 1964.

Max Clarke said...

The first casting director who caught my eye was Mali Finn.

It got to the point that if I knew she cast a film, that was an indicator of its quality. She did work on L.A. Confidential, where all the actors were interesting to watch. Mali's credit flashed as a newsreel showed two people walking near a shoreline fence. She also did the Matrix movies and Titanic.

Anonymous said...

From Jan:

"All I'm thinking while listening to Hackford make an even greater ass of himself on this film was... how the fuck did he land Helen Mirren?"

My thoughts exactly! Too funny.

Mel Ryane said...

Taylor Hackford's best cred has been Helen Mirren...even she can't erase his pompous and ungenerous A-hole comments.

Paul Duca said...

What about Mildred Gusse?

Pete Grossman said...

My Marion Dougherty Story:

Circa the early 80s: The Warner Bros. temp pool in NYC. If you could type well and be trusted, one of the things you got to do was work for directors and producers who needed assistants when they were in town. One of those people was Marion Dougherty.

I didn't really know who she was when I first met her but found out pretty quickly when she told me she was doing some quickly needed casting for "Garp" which was already in production. My first task? Get George Roy Hill out of the shower to take her call.

At the end of the week when worked wrapped, I asked Marion if she would help me get on Garp as a PA, (my reason for being in the WB Temp Pool in the first place was to make connections to get onto a movie and learn how to become a director.)

"Garp is almost wrapped,” she said. "It's not going to help you to be on that picture. But you keep doing what you're doing and you'll make it." She gave me the impetus to carry on and keep commuting from the 'burbs for an hour and forty-five minutes each way (which was starting to get old after 24 months, especially when as freelancers we didn't always know day to day if there was a gig or not).

I worked for Marion several more times after Garp as she cast pictures that were in pre-production. Then, a few months later, against countless odds, and without an assist from Marion, I got my first job on "The Verdict." If you can be higher than cloud nine, I was. The talent on this team was in the stratosphere.

When the movie came out in December '82, I smarted because my name didn't appear on the credits. I worked the full length of the film. Seeing this documentary revealing the what Marion and other casting directors have gone through to receive recognition, being left off the credits for The Verdict doesn’t even come close. RIP Marion. You were generous, gifted and loved.

cadavra said...

Well, I haven't seen the film yet--though I certainly intend to--but I feel I need to speak out on the subject of Taylor Hackford.

I've known Taylor for almost 20 years, and he's never been anything but gracious, charming and generous. When I was helping out on a documentary about our mutual friend Budd Boetticher, he was incredibly lavish with his time and home movie footage. On more than one occasion, he came to my office instead of the other way around. One evening, after introducing one of his pictures, he came and sat with me rather than the people he came with. (And I hasten to add here that I am a relative nobody.) And as noted, he's been with The World's Sexiest Great Actress for the better part of three decades.

(And Ken, I know you were going for the joke with LOVE RANCH, but really, that's like attacking Hitchcock as "the guy who made TOPAZ.")

Now as I said, I haven't seen the doc yet. It's possible he was in a bad mood that day. Perhaps the questions were phrased in a rude or condescending way. Maybe he has a burr up his butt about this particular topic. I don't know. All I can say is that the Taylor Hackford I know is the complete opposite of a fucking asshole. And if it turns out he is one, then he's a much better actor than his wife.

DBenson said...

Recalling the backstage tour at the Oregon Shakespeare Festival. The actor leading the tour was talking about the pluses and minuses of living and working so far from LA and NY, and noted that the actors pooled their resources to sponsor visits by casting directors.

Wendy M. Grossman said...

Ken, sometime like last week you did your annual poll of readers, and I didn't bother answering because I had nothing to say that I didn't say last year or the year before.

But now I have something new to say about why I read this blog every single day - and look forward to it (except for the baseball): you attract such great commenters. Several times this week I've marveled at how lucky I am to be able to read not only your knowledgeable take on things, but responses from others in the industry who have their own points of view on the same things.

Thank you.


Stu Shostak said...

Let's not forget the grandfather of all current casting DIRECTORS (and I don't care what anybody says), Marvin Paige. Marvin is the only link we have left to "classic" Hollywood, his first film assignment being "Breakfast at Tiffany's". He went on to cast all of Woody Allen's films when they shot here in Hollywood, as well as the first "Star Trek" feature, "General Hospital", and many more. I had Marvin as a guest on my show last year, and he was charming, funny, and extremely entertaining. Another unsung Hollywood hero.

mdv1959 said...

As a practical matter it seems to me it would be impossible to judge who deserved an Academy Award for casting. You could easily have the most brilliant, hardworking CD in the business losing out because, in spite of lining up five people the equal of Marlon Brando, the idiot director is going with Kevin James because they play golf together.

Plus, with one exception, you are the seeing the product of everyone else eligible for an award on the screen; make-up, costume design, writers, editors. The one exception is the producer, but I guess they're eligible because they know where the money is.

Still, what would it have hurt to recognize her historic contributions with a special Oscar?

Mike said...

What's the collective noun for American actors?
A forest.

Liggie said...

Or perhaps they could create an award for Best Ensemble Performance. "Short Cuts" would've been a runaway winner.

Harkaway said...

This terrific documentary is also screening in the UK on SkyArts. There are two more showings at 9:30 on Sunday morning and at 15:00 on Monday afternoon.

Catch it if you can.

gottacook said...

mdv1959: The producer(s) are the winners of the Best Picture award. But you're right, it would be difficult to judge Best Casting in the same way that what's on the screen or soundtrack can be judged (sound editing, film editing, makeup, etc.). Even if voters were to assume that a movie's director had no role in casting, there are still the vagaries of actor availability, etc.

Moreover, in those other award categories, the director or producer can still affect what ends up in the picture - sometimes in a positive way, of course, such as when the director of the first Star Trek picture, Robert Wise, rejected Jerry Goldsmith's original version of the main title music, and the revised score went on to win an Oscar nomination (and should have won the award itself).

chalmers said...

Taylor Hackford's appearance riled me too, but he ostensibly was being interviewed in his capacity as president of the Directors' Guild.

It seems like a petty point to us, but it's apparently important to the people he's representing, so he's bound to defend it even if it doesn't matter so much to him personally.

This was an excellent documentary, but the Hackford interview seemed out of place. You could have had anyone explain this persnickety issue and perhaps add a little context by mentioning the dozens of other credit disputes that occur.

But this seemed liked Hackford was being set up to look like a jerk, and he certainly obliged them. There's nothing stopping the other major directors interviewed for the film from persuading their guild to be a bit more generous with the title.

Or maybe I'm bending over backwards to see it from Hackford's perspective because of the Helen factor.

Mark P. said...

Ken, if a guest star gets sick or is otherwise unable to appear at the taping, what do you do? Did the casting director who chose them also choose an understudy?

Anonymous said...

I had the good fortune to spend a number of evenings with Marion after her retirement from casting. A lovely, gracious, unassuming woman. Can't wait to see the documentary...

Anonymous said...

Taylor Hackford comes across as a total dick in this documentary. It's hard to see how this could have been taken out of context. He's been in Hollywood so long that he seems to have no concept of how petty and churlish he sounds in his insistence that the word "director" can't be used, even as an adjective, for any other title in film credits.

Urban Rant Rap said...

"In this [unfortunately!] Politically Correct World that we now live in, everyone must be seen as 'Having A Talent', 'Everybody Can Be A Winner!', yada yada yada, all the way down the line! ... Now Casting Directors want Academy Awards! ... Well, Why Not? ... Let's not stop there though! ... Let's give Academy Awards to Everybody on a Film Production, right down to the Caterers! ... Well, They Are Important Too! ... Let's face it, a Film Production's Cast & Crew are like an Army, and an Army Marches On It's Stomach, so why not reward the people who Keep The Whole Team Goin'!? It makes total sense. ... Now the Award Ceremony can be 3 Times as Long as it is already! ... All that said, let's not paint CD's as Total Saints. They can be Extremely Nice, Yes. And Extremely Brutal! ... I know of several actors who have had their careers 'damaged' along the way by comments made by Casting Directors to the 'Cartel' at large. ... Some of them* - [*Casting Directors] - who I have been introduced to have seemed genuine and nice human beings. Others have come across as extremely egotistical & nasty! So although Taylor Hackford may come across to some of you as an 'Asshole' for his views on this subject, he does speak from a place in the film business, as A Director, where his points must be given a certain amount of respect, whether you like them or not. ... A Casting Director is An Assistant of a sort. They don't Call The Shots. If Tom Cruise or Meryl Streep are hired, the casting director has not 'picked them'. In fact, I would be very surprised if there are not more than a few Top Actors & Actresses out there with a specific 'Casting Director Approval Clause' written into their contracts. Very few people criticize Casting Directors, especially among the 'Acting Fraternity', because they are gatekeepers, and of course if you go around cutting off your nose to spite your face, it doesn't smoothly pave the way to your next role. Perhaps this is why a lot of Actors come across as 'Ass Kissers of the 1st Magnitude'!? ... And perhaps that lack of criticism has led the Casting Directors to having an inflated sense of Self Importance & Entitlement within the Entertainment Business? ... Something to think about. ... 'There's No Business Like Show Business!'" /;-)

Unknown said...

The last person to comment comes off about as well as Taylor Hackford did in the documentary. By the tone, it may actually be him "defending" himself. And regardless of what you think of casting directors (I hope I didn't deeply offend Hackford by calling them "director," the ultimate achievement for a human being) in general and whether they deserve one every year, the film shows why Marion Dougherty definitely deserved one for the positive impact she had on the industry.

Nicarroway said...

Taylor Hackford makes Donald Trump took like a humble, kind, compassionate human being.