Thursday, 18 July 2013

CASTING BY - Review By Greg Klymkiw - What would movies be without Casting Directors?

We can thank the art of Casting Direction for discovering new, raw talent. This, believe it or not, would even include the item pictured above.

Casting By (2013) ***1/2
Dir. Tom Donahue

Review By Greg Klymkiw

Documentary films that look in on the art and business of film have focused on virtually every aspect of the process, but Tom Donahue's Casting By is the first feature to point a detailed lens towards the unsung work of the Casting Director - a position that gains a head credit spot along with writers, producera, directors, stars and all the other key creative elements collaboratively contributing to a movie.

Though directors and producers must possess both a skill and intuition with respect to casting the right actors for their films, there are so many aspects of the moviemaking process commanding their attention that the intricacies of casting are as complex and creative as, among others, cinematography, art direction, special visual effects and music composition, etc. As we learn in Donahue's picture, casting is the only key creative element of the filmmaking process not recognized by the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences within their annual back-slapping orgy, the Oscars. This omission extends to virtually every country's major tributes.

From personal experience, I'm happy to toss my perspective in the mix here as far as the Canadian experience goes. When I've worn my filmmaking hat over the past few decades, I've both witnessed and/or directly collaborated with some truly astounding casting directors. One of Canada's finest film directors Shelagh (Passionflower) Carter, as a lifetime member of the Actors' Studio in New York used to do some amazing work in the casting field during the burgeoning days of Winnipeg's prairie post-modernist period. Her discovery of a fine young actress Katya Gardner for a lead role in Careful, a feature I produced for Guy Maddin, led not only to a role being filled by the perfect embodiment of it, but essentially launched the career of Ms. Gardner who is one of Canada's finest and most prolific working actors.

What I learned from this early experience was paramount. Nobody knows and understands on-screen talent like Casting Directors. So many great casting choices would have never been made without them. I have witnessed this personally time and time again - experiencing firsthand the genius of these unsung heroes of our industry in Canada: great creative minds like John Buchan or Jenny Lewis have left me jaw-agape with their astounding discoveries and just plain savvy artistic instincts. I even had the pleasure to see casting whiz-bangs-turned-producers like Larissa Giroux and Nicole Hilliard-Ford bring their eagle-eyes for onscreen talent into the very work they ended up producing.

My experiences with casting directors was both confirmed and enhanced by Donahue's film. It's more than just coming up with lists of appropriate stars (as traditional casting executives would do in the old studio system) - they truly know who the talent is. They know who's out there, they have great instincts about these talents, they have an innate understanding of what actors go through, they can sense what actors will bring to specific roles, they understand on (and off) screen chemistry and they are pitbulls when it comes to forcing a director and producer's faces into the perfect talents. (A very funny and typically self-deprecating comment in the film comes from Woody Allen who says, "If left up to me, I'd settle for anything.")

Donahue's movie is a virtual who's who of Hollywood. The film features one great interview after another with the likes of Martin Scorsese, Woody Allen, Norman Jewison, Jon Voight, Robert DeNiro, Mel Gibson, Paul Haggis, Robert Redford, Al Pacino and Glenn Close - just the tip of the iceberg of those represented in this bright, breezy, informative and eye-opening documentary.

Every single one of the interviewees give great stories and examples of how casting directors made and continue to make a huge difference to the art of cinema in general, but also to them personally and professionally. The interviews are actually so well conducted and selected that movie geeks like me are going to salivate like the drooliest doggies over the prospect of seeing footage that ended up on the cutting room floor - which, one assumes, will all end up in the eventual super-deluxe Blu-Ray/DVD releases of the film.

Most importantly, Donahue has crafted a work that is of supreme importance to the cinematic scholarship of motion picture history. He literally gives us - through the interviews and first-rate selections of clips and archival materials - a pleasing and sweeping history of casting in general as well as its artistic merits.

As part of this historical perspective, Casting By delivers a Mount Everest-sized helping of maraschino cherries on the ice cream sundae by anchoring itself in a fascinating and touching portrait of the Grand Earth Mother of Casting Directors, the late, great Marion Dougherty. Dougherty is interviewed extensively here and her observations are corroborated and illuminated by her fellow interviewees.

The fact of the matter is that Dougherty invented the much-needed role of the Casting Director. Working in New York during the Golden Age of television, Dougherty became a denizen of every off-off-off-Broadway theatre and discovered, collected, presented and cast a whole new generation of talented actors who might otherwise never seen the light of day. She also broke many rules and barriers in her work - most significantly contributing to the notion of "colour-blind" casting with the movie Lethal Weapon and insisting upon Danny Glover to take on the role of Mel Gibson's foil.

Casting By is so well directed and edited that the end result is a movie so damn entertaining that it will please movie industry insiders as much as straight up movie buffs and, most importantly, pretty much anyone who loves the movies (meaning, of course...uh, pretty much, everybody).

I do, however, have two nitpicking quibbles - one that's a genuine flaw and the other strictly personal. I think there's a bit too much emphasis on the whole Oscar snub business. It's an important element to touch upon, but occasionally it feels like the movie is veering into an extended PSA-styled plea to the Academy and detracts from the important history Donahue gives us.

My personal quibble with the picture is the inclusion of Bette Midler. I will grudgingly concede her tale is ultimately important with respect to the proceedings, but I have always found her so repulsive a screen presence, that after years of working on suppressing my gag reflex, these endeavours, largely achieved by suppressing the very existence of The Divine Miss M became, sadly, all for nought.

"Casting By" is currently in theatrical release. In Canada, it is playing at the Bloor Hot Docs Cinema via FilmsWeLike. It will premiere next month on HBO, though its scope and subject matter is such that a big screen experience will be an ideal way to see the movie. I also assume that in the coming months it will be available in super-deluxe, extras-heavy Blu-Ray/DVD editions.