Archive for Friday, February 24, 2006

Casting calls

Area filmmakers take innovative approaches to luring acting talent

February 24, 2006

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Larry Holden has worked with hundreds of actors over the years, both as a performer and a director of independent movies.

But during the last few weeks he has embarked on a unique way to cast his latest filmmaking project: He's been auctioning a role in the film on eBay.

"We felt kind of weird, like, 'What if we get horrible people, horrible actors?' But all it did was make us re-evaluate the whole casting process," Holden says.

Best known as a character actor who often appears in director Christopher Nolan's films (that's him as Katie Holmes' doomed boss in "Batman Begins"), Holden first dabbled with the eBay concept in 2004 - both as a means to find new talent and as a way to help creatively finance his film.

More than 50,000 visitors perused the online site. Ultimately, a woman who bid $4,500 netted the part.

It is on his upcoming picture, "All Sun and Little White Flowers," that she will experience what the purchase entails. The movie will be shot on the island of Malta. And she may be acting opposite some famous faces ... or she may not.

"My first film has someone like Cameron Diaz next to a guy who never acted before in his life," he says. "Little by little I've pulled away from people that I know or famous people."

Holden's approach is one that can be appreciated by Kansas filmmakers, who don't have the luxury of exotic locations with which to woo established actors. Most of the time, they are trying to coax Hollywood folks to spend a few weeks in Kansas - which often can be a tough sell.

But when it comes to casting, is it always the right idea for a small production to go after a name actor? And what are the criteria that indie filmmakers use when casting a project in general?

The name game

"The big question typically is if you should try and get a name or not," says Lawrence-based filmmaker Kevin Willmott. "The determining factors are, 'Can we afford it?' Then the question becomes, 'Can you afford NOT to have a name?'"

Willmott's faux documentary, "C.S.A.: The Confederate States of America," opens nationally today in 28 cities.

Casting calls

Casting calls

"There are movies that don't need a name," he says. "'C.S.A.,' for instance, I think it would have hurt us to have names. People would have been like, 'I don't believe any of this.'"

However, for Willmott's first feature, "Ninth Street," the fledgling writer-director recruited some big-time players that served his period drama well.

"If you decide to get a name, money helps a great deal," he says. "But most guys around here are not going to have a lot of money, so the script becomes the key factor. In 'Ninth Street' we got both Martin Sheen and Isaac Hayes because of the script."

Willmott says Hayes responded favorably to the screenplay because it reminded him of growing up on Beale Street in Memphis, Tenn. The musician ended up doing it for a small fee, and he volunteered to compose the score.

Recruiting Sheen proved more difficult. Fortunately, the actor was in town shooting a made-for-TV effort. Willmott arranged a meeting through a mutual acquaintance and showed him a clip of "Ninth Street." The Emmy winner ended up staying an extra day in Kansas just to work on the project.

"It was a beautiful gift," Willmott says. "It was probably why we sold the film."

Reasonable strategies

Sometimes, though, acquiring name actors can unleash a whole new set of problems.

Writer-director Steve Balderson almost immediately began altering his Wamego-based movie "Firecracker" once Hollywood stars became part of the casting process.

"When Dennis Hopper said he wanted to be in the movie, I was sort of floored," Balderson says. "So I scrapped my original idea and brought him on for about a year and a half. When it came to our attention that his name was not going to help us get financing, that's when I started going back and rethinking, 'Am I doing this the way I should?'"

He fired Hopper and returned to making the hallucinatory murder mystery he originally had intended. Ultimately, "Firecracker" featured Oscar nominee Karen Black and Faith No More singer Mike Patton in the lead roles, along with a mixture of semi-recognizable character actors and novice Kansans.

Balderson already is in the casting process for his next production, a screwball holiday comedy. He flew to Los Angeles last week to meet with actors such as Margaret Cho, Edie McClurg, Marion Ross and Christian Campbell.

"I always refrain from calling up agents and managers because they aren't helpful," he says. "Usually, I try to cast movies based on who I know I can reach personally, whether this is through friends or people I've worked with prior."

His strategy is to first send letters explaining who he is and why he remains in Kansas. Then he meets them in person after they have read the script to determine whether their skills will be compatible with his concept.

He says, "My two items of advice to anyone casting a project that they intend on filming in Kansas are, one, use the Internet. Locate artists who have official Web sites and send them an e-mail. Two, Be reasonable. Just because Kevin Costner has an official Web site, or Jake Gyllenhaal, for instance, chances are you won't be able to get their attention. There's a time to dream, and there's a time to dream sensibly."

Casting pitfalls

"Casting is one of those things that filmmakers are kind of scared of," says Lawrence writer-director Patrick Rea.

"I get excited about it now. Before, it almost seemed like work."

Although a veteran of dozens of award-winning short films, Rea just completed his first feature, a psychological thriller called "The Empty Acre."

"The first thing I do is I want to cast age-appropriate people," he says. "We don't like to dress up our 25-year-old friend and make her look like she's 45."

While there are no stars in "Acre," he hopes his next projects will attract more recognizable figures. But he has reservations about this as well.

"If you bring a bigger-name actor to the table, it almost becomes their project at that point," he says. "They can maybe force you to make some changes that you don't want to do."

Rea says the worst trap freshman movie-makers fall into is rushing through casting.

"You can change things in the editing process, but you can't change the actors," he says. "If the acting doesn't work, then you're done."

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