Monday, November 17, 2008

"Story of a Writer - Part Twenty D"

Casting.

Again.

I’ve mentioned elsewhere how uncomfortable the casting process is for me. To me, the casting process feels like a endless series of blind dates. Strangers come in who really want you to like them, and way more often than not, you don’t. Not “don’t like them” personally, you don’t like their acting, or at least their acting in the role they’re auditioning for. And the most excruciating part is, you have to pretend they were okay.

I know they know I’m lying. I can read their faces reading my face. And their face is telling me my face is full of sh…well…lying. I’m not good at lying. That’s why I try hard not to lie. It’s not because I’m a good person. It’s because I’m a terrible liar.

During auditions, I noticed this reflexive response I had. As an actor whose performance had been unimpressive headed for the door, I’d call out, “Good luck.” It just blurted out. It was disgusting. I was saying, “Good luck”, but what I was really saying, and what I’m sure the auditioner was hearing was, “Good luck somewhere else.”

Besides the excruciating awkwardness issue, there was also the matter of the message each failed audition transmitted to the insecurity-riddled writer, sitting there in the room, hearing no laughs, or, worse, forced chuckles, where he’d anticipated big “ha-ha.”

The message?

“It’s not the actors….

It’s the words.”


It’s a worrisome message. A nightmarish “What if…?” What if the words that you put so much time and effort into, words you thought were smart and funny and sharp and touching…

…aren’t?

What does a Jew from Canada know about Marines? People trained to inflict grievous harm on the bodies of their enemies and go “Ooh-rah!” when they’re finished? What do I know about that?

Your mind suddenly flies into “Question Overload.” Have I messed up? Do I not have it anymore? Is it too late to go back to law school?

And yet…wait a minute. I knew what I was doing. I’d done some comedy writing before, and with considerable success. I felt confident that I’d “gotten” the Marine mentality, at least on some level. I understood their basic qualities: honor, courage, loyalty, respect…

That was familiar to me. It rang a bell.

Honor, courage, loyalty, respect. What did that remind me of?

Cowboys.

I was home.

In time, as invariably happens, the tide eventually turned. Actors “in sync” with the writing brought joy to my heart when they walked in and knocked the material out of the park. It’s good when that happens. For openers, you don’t have to tell them, “Good luck.” It also means the material’s doing the job. But most importantly, it means we can stop looking for the actor.

We had multiple actor options for each of the kids’ roles, and the “Camp Hollister” office staff, which included a lieutenant character I named Holowachuk, after a name I remembered from high school. (Running for student council president, his campaign slogan read: “Don’t be a duck. Vote Holowachuk.” That kind of thing stays with you.)

(The reason you needed multiple actor options was because the network had the final say about casting. Even though you had, sometimes by far, a favorite candidate, you were expected to offer them alternate choices. Don’t get me started.)

The most important role, aside from the major, who was already cast, was the part of “Polly”, the reporter-slash-wife-to-be. We needed a woman with qualities exceptional enough to propel our bachelor Marine’s perception of her from “intriguing but irritating” to “Will you marry me?” That takes quite a woman.

As usual, we saw many “not right for the parts”, but there were a number of solid contenders. The clear standout, however, was an actress named Shanna Reed, a raven-haired beauty with a winning simplicity to her acting. Our second choice was an actress with glitzier credits (she’d been in movies) but her “chemistry” with McRaney was noticeably less intense.

Having McRaney as an Executive Producer proved a definite plus in this regard. Serving in his role as one of the show runners, McRaney made himself available to read with all the “Polly” finalists. Because of this, we could quickly determine which woman was best suited to play opposite him. It was unquestionably Shanna

Our next step was to present all our finalists to the Universal executives for their approval. The studio enthusiastically agreed with our selections, and they were particularly excited about Shanna. Now, there was one final step.

The network.

You gather in a small theater in the basement of the network’s headquarters. The stage is at ground level, and you walk up to a dozen or so rows of seats. Rather than in a real theater, where you look up at the actors, here, you looked down at them. Read into that any symbolism you desire.

The network expects to see at least three actor candidates for every part. We were free to express a preference, but CBS was not obligated to go along. As I mentioned, the network has the final say.

Though agreeable to our “favorites” in all the other roles, CBS was less than enthusiastic about Shanna Reed. Especially the CBS president, Kim (a man). Kim strongly favored the actress with the glitzier resume.

The network – as per the law at that time – did not own the show – Universal owned the show – but they did own the schedule. They alone decided which pilots would be picked up as series for the following season. We knew CBS wasn’t thrilled with the pilot story I’d insisted upon. They may not have been that sold on doing a comedy series about a Marine. Now, they were balking at our selection for “leading lady.”

Hmph. Meaning, it’s a tricky situation.

At that point, the Universal contingent, writers and executives, got up, congregated at the top of the theater, and had a meeting. It was decided we would take a vote.

“How many people want Kim’s selection (the actress with the glitzier resume)?”

Rick’s (my writing partner on the project) hand immediately shot up. Rick wanted to be an Executive Producer. And he knew you couldn’t be an Executive Producer if the network didn’t pick up your show, and they were considerably less likely (bordering on “dream on”) to pick up your show, if they hated your selection for “leading lady.” More than anything, Rick wanted the show to have a chance. So he ignored his actual preference and voted with the network.

I voted with Rick. For the same reason.

It was a shameful decision, and I regret it to this day.

The Universal executives, who outnumbered us, voted to stick with Shanna.

And it was done.

The decision was announced to the network. Kim wearily shook his head, but conceded our right to have whoever we wanted. He did not look happy.

So there you have it. We had hired a director, the sets were in place, the production staff had been put together, and we had our cast.

Next stop:

Showtime.

-----------------------------

Reader Alert: I’ve received several questions concerning my posts about Major Dad. I plan to respond to those questions on Wednesday. If you wish to add any questions of your own on the subject, today and tomorrow are the days to get them in.

Answering reader’s questions will be a pleasant change for me. I’ll finally be certain I’m writing something that at least one person wants to know about.

5 comments:

angel said...

Earl:After the better part of a year's posts to go by, I am pretty sure that you always are writing something that someone wants to read.
No worries there. :-)

growingupartists said...

Ditto!

Gary Mugford said...

Earl,

I'm readin' what you're writin'... daily. Your rate of success is extraordinarily high. Maybe a half-dozen meh's in the last year. Wish I was so good.

Now, the pertinent question. Was Shanna aware of her controversial status? As an aside, I've had a life-long crush on the woman since the day I watched the first episode of Major Dad. You made the right choice.

Max Clarke said...

Shanna Reed was good, she was in the episode of Cheers when Sam swears off sex to thank God for not having him be the father of a baby.

Shanna actually delivered one of the smartest lines in Cheers, in terms of mental stimulation. Sam left the bar to see if he was the father of the infant. Shanna asked where he was headed, since Sam had all but promised they would be hitting the sack together. Sam said his niece's grandmother was sick, he had to check on her. Shanna asked, if the niece's grandmother was sick, wouldn't that be Sam's mother?

emily said...

Earl,
All of us are still out here reading your stories with quiet amazement...