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Let’s talk about casting directors for a moment

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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