How I Made My First Feature Film
CHAPTER NINE - Actors and Casting
The sum total of all my experience as a director consisted of briefly working with a few actors in a couple of documentary films I’d made. What little I may have learned in film school was a distant memory. That was it. I felt SO inadequate.
I had my star already, but that left another 20 or so slots to fill. With my slim budget, I had to cut many of the smaller speaking parts out of the script and give those lines to another character. This is actually beneficial because any film improves when you reduce the number of speaking parts. Too many characters burden and confuse your audience. It limits their empathy for your main actors who must ultimately drive the story forward. Unless a character has an important function directly related to the progression of the plot, they are nothing but distracting “noise.” You’ve got a limited amount of money and 90-100 minutes to tell your story so focus on the entrée and forget about the side dishes.
Just 90 minutes North of L. A., Santa Barbara was home to myself and many full-time, professional actors. If I had a part that fit, I used them. Local actor Richard Stahl, had been starring in a popular television series and aptly played the part of the bad guy, “Tyson.” A local model agency supplied all of the bit parts. I was surprised that such a small town would have so many people who considered themselves actors. Even the VP at my local bank was an amateur thespian!
I placed notices in the L. A. casting journals like Drama-Logue. Like my call for screenplays, I received thousands of submissions. Several very good actors were selected from this group. For the main parts, I finally contracted with a Los Angeles casting director. A good casting director is an extremely important resource. It should be a creative collaboration with a lot of give and take. It’s their job to know the creative ability of every actor they propose, because you don’t. The good one’s are well-respected and often have long-time close relationships with powerful agents. A word of advice: if a prospective casting director ever says, “I can get you so and so big name star,” don’t believe them.
I was fortunate to snag John Phillip Law who was fairly well-known as the angel in “Barbarella,” with Jane Fonda. I even unearthed Troy Donahue as the female lead’s rejected lover. The female lead became my biggest problem of all. I could never find the right actress no matter how many I met. I vividly remember a casting session with the current Miss Universe, one of the most stunningly beautiful women I’d ever seen in my life. She’d been taking acting lessons with hopes to leverage her notoriety into a movie career, but her deep South Carolina accent got in the way. She told me she could get rid of it, but suppose we were on the set and she couldn’t? What would I do then? In hindsight, it was actually the weakness of the written character in the script that made this such a big problem from a casting standpoint.
With only a week or two before we started shooting, a William Morris agent proposed the attractive young daughter of Curt Jurgens, Deana Jurgens. Running out of time, I selected this well-trained, energetic, but emotionally immature actress for the female lead, “Marcia.” Deana was very promising and from a distinguished acting family, but this wasn’t enough to prepare her for the physical and emotional stress of her first feature film shoot. Of course, I wasn’t well prepared either and this diminished my ability to help her when she needed it most. Her omnipresent, meddling stage mom made things worse. Although I didn’t understand it at the time, the emotional and psychological state of the actors is a principal responsibility of the director. They’re in the same environment you are, only they’re much more fragile. In order to assume the part of the character they must play, the real person inside becomes naked and vulnerable. You would do well to regard your actors as delicate pieces of rare crystal which are easily shattered. So, I must accept the blame for any weakness in her performance. I consider this oversight to be my biggest failure in the making of Tin Man.
Unfortunately, with just one week left it seemed as though everything was beginning to unravel before my eyes. The challenge I faced was dealing with a group of organized thugs known as the Screen Actors Guild.
Next Article: How I Made My First Feature Film - Chapter Ten (The Truth about SAG)
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