Sunday, June 22, 2014

All in the Family: The Making of Town Diary - A Cast of Walter Brennans

"I'm not a glamour boy and I never get the girl. I like to play old people because there's something to them.  Did you ever see anyone under 30 who had any character or expression in their face." - Walter Brennan, Oscar Best Supporting Actor Winner in 1936, 1938 and 1940

In preparing this post on casting Town Diary, I realized that a previous post on Casting in general - Priorities - Casting - had discussed a lot of what happened during the casting process for the film. Rather than repeating most of a rather long post here, let me elaborate a little more on what our process was, and what it wasn't. I highly recommend checking out that post if you are newer to the blog or have forgotten it.

If Town Diary was going to succeed,  it needed a great ensemble of character actors.  That meant finding a Casting Director who understood that and was not just interested in casting names.

Low budget indies tend to thrive when they find people, especially staff and crew,  who are happy to be there. With our budget, we would not be able to afford an established Casting Director, but we did better. We got an enthusiastic, experienced casting assistant who worked for some time in Georgianne Walken's office. The wife of actor Christopher Walken was not only established,  but known for understanding how to cast indies.

With Susan, our Casting Director,  we had someone excited about the job with access to the type of actors we were seeking.  One meeting with her and we knew she got it. At the time, we still did things like solicit headshots on Backstage and put notices up in the Hollywood Reporter. Now, both of those are unnecessary - at least for a SAG feature - but we were at the cusp of the old ways of doing things meeting the newer, online Breakdown Services.

Our offices would be half of a full-floor loft space in Greenwich Village, with me living in the other half. A past partner of mine sublet the space to me while he was out of the country, and it was working out of the office here with him that I remembered the disaster that was our previous casting experience on another film.

It was standard to request headshots and resumes, and to have them sent to your office address. Regardless of the disclaimer you would always add about "No Dropoffs," inevitably, headshots would appear under your door the Thursday the ad hit Backstage. A day or two later, the bags of headshots would come - and I do mean bags. The mailman would show up and an entire mail bag - sometimes more.

While you ran only one ad, the headshots would come long after you had gone into production, in fact, they would still trickle in six months and more later. When this was also your home, it could be overwhelming.

Susan and my assistant, Christine, who was involved with the casting, went through these mountains of pictures, and from a few of them, and more from her files from Georgeanne Walken's office  and agent submissions, we set up appointments at a casting facility where we rented a room for a few days.

What I was not going to do was have an open call. To this day, there are folks that still feel it is a good idea. For those who have never experienced it, by the time you show up - usually a half hour BEFORE the announced start time - there is already a sign-up sheet started by the actors who are have been waiting on line, some for hours.

It's sad and inspiring, and reminds you that for every actor who goes on to be rich and famous, they, like most others, have to go through the grueling and often humiliating experience of appropriately-named "cattle calls." Actors wait for hours to be seen for a few minutes. In the case of Broadway shows, for example, where Actors' Equity would insist that productions see any union member, actors were "auditioning" for roles that were already cast.

We were determined not to do this. Even going through the mind-numbing amount of headshots we received was difficult enough, and then there were the actual auditions.

Jack was still in Chicago at first, so I did the first stage, and some of those roles we filled without Jack having to see the folks.  As I said in the "Castings" post linked earlier, we got really lucky with some great character actors, like Bob Hogan as the town gossip, and the actor who would eventually play the main supporting role of Frank Ryan, the lead's childhood friend, an actor named Luke Reilly. He is one of those guys who was on a number of Law and Orders, had a recurring character on soaps, and was just wonderful. He was never a star, before or since, but he was great in every scene.

I mentioned that Terry O'Quinn (I believe he was billed as Terrance Quinn in our film), who was already a well-known actor from shows like X-Files and Millenium, and who would reach star status after Lost, was one of our better finds.  

Television has a way of making stars out of character actors like Terry, James Gandolfini, William Peterson, Steve Buschemi et al. Their experience filling in the background on smaller roles that were not as fully written as the leads meant that when they were a lead, they created characters that came across the home screen and stuck.

Terry was amazing. He had a military background, which made him a natural for roles as high-ranking military in television and film. The role we wanted him for was the ex-sheriff who was somewhat crooked, and we wanted the character to be menacing.

Terry was well-known enough to us that we would have been happy with offer-only (meaning he would not have to audition and would only take the role if we offered it to him) or, at the most, having him send us a tape through his agent. Terry lived in Pittsburgh, and he insisted on coming in to audition, driving all the way for his short audition and driving right back.

Usually, people stand or sit in a chair. I usually frown on actors stepping up and playing right to us in front of the table, but that is exactly what Terry did. The sides (part of scene chosen for audition) for his scene were where he threatens the lead and warns him to drop his investigation. When Terry looked into our eyes with the threat, there was no actor there, just the character. It was chilling. He would finish, flash that wonderful warm, smile, and Terry, the very nice actor, would come back.

He auditioned for me, then came back to read for Jack and I. We never saw a second person for the role.

One thing no one tells you about auditions is that they are a great way to see where your script needs work. We had done readings, and I thought I had trimmed the dialogue sufficiently. I had not. One character had almost a full-page monologue (it was part of dialogue with another character - but it was mostly him). It was the stage-writer in me that had not gone away.

By the time the third actor came in and went  through this agonizingly long speech, I knew it had to be cut. I was bored hearing it about halfway through - and I had written it. No viewer would be able to bear it. Of course, we had distributed this long speech as sides for the character, and, as my Casting Director Susan kept reminding me, it would be unfair to ask actors to only do a short part of it, or to cut them short, even if it was no fault of their own.

It was instant karma. I had over-written the scene, and now I was to pay the price by having to listen to ALL of it over and over and over again, actor after actor. Mea Culpa.

It was Susan who also first got on me about not being as good as I could be about making believe I was still interested when I knew an actor was wrong. I took her scolding to heart, and from then up until today, I have tricks to keep it seeming like I am glued to even the worst performance. It's only fair to the actor.

 I remember other small moments, like when the actor who originated the role of Judge Turpin in Sweeney Todd, Edwin Lyndeck, came in to audition. He was there for a role that was not quite perfect for him, but when his headshot came in from agent submissions, I could not resist bringing him in.

I remember seeing him on stage with the original cast of Sweeney on Broadway. A good friend of mine, Mary Pat Green , herself a now popular character actress ( a lovely woman, her broad shoulders and ability to create a hard look have often found her in "bulldog" roles- she is much prettier than you have ever seen her on screen) was in the show and got me great tickets. Over twenty years after seeing it, Lyndeck's performance of "Pretty Women" with Sweeney (Len Cariou in that production ) stuck with me. An old man singing lustfully about his attraction to a nubile teen, as written by Steven Sondheim, was at once lecherous and melodic. It was a mean trick to get both across, and Lyndeck had done that.

Unfortunately, he was still wrong for the role. Over the years, there are times I've brought in people who had previously impressed me, even if they they were not exactly what the role required. It's frankly something I need to stop doing, because too many times, the audition confirms what I knew in my gut, but my desire to work with that talent made me hope it could work. When Edwin finished, I took a moment to tell him how much he had thrilled me all those years earlier. He deserved to hear that.

Jack and I were both in our forties, and so it was not surprising that many of the roles were men and women who were forty and up. It worked for the type of character actors I liked, actors like Walter Brennan.

When you look up character actor in the dictionary (or, more likely now, Wiki) there should be a picture of Walter Brennan. While that is not the case, Brennan's Wiki immediately points out that only three men have won three Oscars, and only Brennan won all three for Best Supporting Actor. He easily could have won more.

The picture at the top of this post is how most people think of Brennan, both for his numerous cowboy sidekick roles with John Wayne (most notably for me, the iconic Stumpy in Rio Bravo) not to mention his roles on television later as Grandpa on The Real McCoys, and, to a lesser extent, a show I watched as a kid, The Guns of Will Sonnet.

It seemed Brennan was born old, and that is not a coincidence. As someone who trained horses on film sets early in his career, he got his teeth knocked out, so he was able to play older roles even when he was younger just by removing his dentures. However, old and/or drunken characters (his Eddie in To Have and Have Not opposite Bogart is pretty much an updated of Stumpy to John Wayne in Rio Bravo) is not all he could play. He also could look like the characters below.

We did a great job with the supporting roles. What was left was the lead role of Brian McCauley and his assistant, Veronica, as well as the role of Brian's friend's younger brother, Jimmy. Here, we would have differences of opinion, as well as mixed results with dipping into the pool of actors I had worked with in the past.

Until then, some fun with Walter Brennan. Below, Brennan as Eddie in To Have And Have Not. Eddie, much like Stumpy in Rio Bravo, is the sidekick who never stops talking, usually nonsense. Here, the fun is a very young Lauren Bacall repeating back to Eddie a story he told earlier in the film. (Unfortunately, none of Stumpy's better scenes are available on Youtube).

1 comment:

Kangas said...

You ain't talking BS about open calls. I did them for three of my films, and they are one of the WORST parts of movie making. Time-consuming, mind-numbing, and they make you begin to doubt your script is any good(when you hear the lines over and over)...