The Velvet Café

A room for thoughts about movies

Let’s talk about casting directors for a moment

with 12 comments


Some actors don’t seem to act. They ARE their role figures. And we praise them, saying it’s a “match made in heaven”, which is a ridiculous thing to say. The perfect casting doesn’t come out of nowhere, by divine intervention or by chance.

Someone came up with the idea. We rarely know her name (it’s often a woman). It might appear quickly among the text credits alongside with all the other workers in the film factory of lesser importance. But regardless what impact her work had on the movie, regardless what a different creature the film would have been with a different cast, no sparkles of glamour will fall on her name and no Oscar statuette will end up in her hands. There is no Academy award for this category of film workers.

They’re called “casting directors”. Until recently I barely knew they existed. I vaguely remembered Juliet Taylor, Woody Allen’s long time casting director who I think appeared briefly in a documentary about him. But that was as far as my knowledge went. Then I watched Casting By, and from now on I’ll never think of casting in the same way. Or rather: from now on I’ll think about it, which I never did before.

This is a documentary where we get to learn a lot about this profession and about some of its leading stars and particularly one: Marion Dougherty. You’ve probably never heard of her, but you’ve heard of the movies she worked on. She did the casting for Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid, The Sting, Midnight Cowboy, The World According to Garp, Slaughterhouse Five and Lethal Weapon, just to mention a few.

Marion Dougherty is also one of the reasons why many of our most successful actors were given a chance to make a career in the first place. She spotted talented actors who until then only had made smaller parts or played live theatre and picked them for roles where they might chance. Jon Voight, Dustin Hoffman, Al Pacino, John Travolta, Mel Gibson, Jeff Bridges and Bette Midler are just a few of those who she pushed for early in their careers. In this film they all give her the credit that she and her colleagues deserve.

Love and sadness
“Hollywood-celebrating-Hollywood” films are often rather bland and forgettable, with too much of generic praising from too many people and too little of substance that sticks with you. However this documentary is a great deal better than that. You can sense that the love that is pronounced is for real and not just politeness and that the ones who have made it are serious and engaged in the topic.

You also get some insight into the development of the film industry in this area. Casting nowadays is much more of a corporate decision than it used to be. Outside of the indie territory, actors are picked for strictly commercial reasons, rather than out of an artistic vision. Inevitably you get a bit sad watching all those testimonials about how things used to be better back in the days and about how some essential contributors in the film industry never get recognition but are consumed, spit out and then forgotten. But you also get to hear a lot of inside stories about the casting of various films, stories that are fun and interesting to hear and in some cases even inspirational.

One of my favourite moments is when the director Richard Donner talks about when Marion Dougherty casted Danny Glover for Lethal Weapon, and how shocked everyone was because the script didn’t say anything about the character being black. So they all took for granted it would be a white person, as always. “The script said Riggs and Murtaugh. It didn’t say colour”, Dougherty argued. And this, says Richard Donner, “was like a nail in his heart. It made me think I’m bigoted and narrow. It was on the paper and I didn’t see it. It changed my life in casting and more important it changed my life in reality. This is a casting director who really changed my life.”

A change of perspective
I know that some film fans don’t care the slightest about the production side of movies. They don’t want to hear about what happened on the set or about the people who make it happen. They just want to enjoy the film. There’s nothing wrong about that, but if you’re one of them, this film isn’t for you. But if you share my curiosity for the machinery as it looks behind the curtain, I would recommend you to see it. It brings a great change of perspective, and for once it’s not about how the special effects were made. It’s about something that is a lot more exciting: the people.

Casting By (Tom Donahue, US 2012) My rating: 4/5

Written by Jessica

July 20, 2014 at 2:45 pm

Posted in Casting By

12 Responses

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  1. Fascinating stuff. I’d never heard of this documentary, but must look out for it.


    July 20, 2014 at 4:21 pm

    • Please do! It’s available right now in Sweden where you can watch it for free at the site of the public television, but I’m afraid that only works within Sweden. It’s possible it’s been picked up some other international channel.


      July 20, 2014 at 11:25 pm

  2. Great to learn about casting, I had no idea. I always read the credits and look at the carpenters and the lighting assistance and what have you. I always wait to see that no animals were harmed during filming and since this is towards the end there are a lot of names scrolling by. I will look in particular for the casting director in the future. Just wondering how biased they can be. Do they have their particular favourites?

    food science guru

    July 20, 2014 at 5:42 pm

    • Oh, I assume that a certain favourism will develop over time. But still – there is – or at least used to be – a lot of craftmanship in this. I had never thought of it before watching this.


      July 20, 2014 at 11:26 pm

  3. It’s one of those things that people do rarely think about because there’s often times when they hear stories about how a part was written with a certain actor in mind, or a director got the actor that was the first choice in their own mind. I’m mainly a bit more familiar with animation casting director Andrea Romano who does a lot of the casting for Warner Brothers animation, both their TV and home video work, which I mainly learned about through Rob Paulsen’s podcast Talkin’ Toons.


    July 21, 2014 at 6:32 am

    • Animation casting… that’s another area that I hadn’t thought of. And that podcast is nothing I’m familiar with either. Perhaps something I should seek out.


      July 21, 2014 at 11:46 pm

      • It’s a very fun podcast if you’re curious about voice acting or enjoy cartoons. He and his guests often slip into character voices, but there’s a lot of behind the scenes info too.


        July 22, 2014 at 3:39 am

  4. Never heard of this documentary, but will surely try to check this one out. Thanks Jessica!


    July 21, 2014 at 11:41 am

  5. Thank you, Jessica!

    Gabrielle Evans Fields

    July 23, 2014 at 6:22 am

    • Thank you! I’m so glad the post found its way to one of those who deserve attention!


      July 23, 2014 at 3:47 pm

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