Friday, March 14, 2008

Casting Part Seven: The Don

When Darren and I set out to cast the part of Professor Hadley in Humboldt County we had one specific goal in mind: find an actor who could make a potentially completely unlikable character, likable. It was a challenging goal because, on the page, we didn’t do the actor who would play the role any favors. Still, we always knew that the right actor could make the audience feel sympathy for the character even as he sought to crush the spirit of our plucky young protagonist.

What we ended up getting for the role was much much more than simply an amazing actor who could bring the character to life. We got perhaps the most knowledgeable cinephile on the planet and a direct connection to the American 70s cinema that has so influenced us as filmmakers. We got Peter Bogdanovich.

As we were writing and conceiving of HC, Darren and I were watching, repeatedly and endlessly, any number of seventies films including Five Easy Pieces, Harold and Maude, The King of Marvin Gardens and Bogdanovich’s own The Last Picture Show. Bogdanovich not only made some of the seminal films of the 70s, but he also has a foundation of knowledge regarding cinema that is perhaps unmatched. Orson Welles, a good friend of his, stayed in his guest house, he interviewed and befriended Howard Hawkes, John Huston and Alfred Hitchcock among many others, he has won Oscars and his Last Picture Show has been lauded as the second coming of Citizen Kane.

To say that Darren and I were excited to be meeting him would be an understatement. We had sent him the script on a lark. We knew he was an excellent actor – having watched him through the years beginning in his own, superb film Targets all the way up to his psychiatrist role on The Sopranos. So when we heard he was interested and wanted to meet us, we put on our best jeans and headed over to a swanky hotel in Beverly Hills where, apparently, Mr. Bogdanovich lives.

We headed up to his suite to find him, ascot around his neck as always, eating a shrimp salad in front of a grand window overlooking Hollywood some twenty floors below. It was one of the more surreal moments for a couple of dummies from the suburbs of St. Louis, MO. Soon, it would get even more surreal as Pbogs (as we affectionately call him) finished his salad and had his assistant wheel away his tray to reveal that he was, indeed, still in his pajamas. Awesome.

Within a few minutes, Pbogs was fully doing a spot on impression of Hitchock and telling us about the time he visited the set of a Hitchcock film and the plump sized director poked fun at Paul Newman. We were in heaven.

In addition to bringing him on board as an actor, Darren and I also told him to feel comfortable making any suggestions throughout the filmmaking process. We wanted to take advantage of his vast mental resources. And indeed, throughout the filmmaking process, he was a godsend. In addition to his superb acting, he would sometimes call Darren and I over and whisper a particular idea or concern. And 95% of the time, his suggestions were absolutely amazing.

After Darren and I finished editing we had one of the most unbelievable experiences of our entire lives. When we moved to LA we made concerted efforts to procure mentors in the industry, people we could meet with periodically and gleam wisdom for their vaulted perches. One of those people was Laszlo Kovacs. If you don’t know who Laszlo Kovacs is you should 1) Be incredibly ashamed and 2) Be incredibly ashamed. He’s one of the greatest cinematographers who has ever lived and the list of classic films he has shot over the years is too long to mention here. Laszlo also happened to be a common collaborator of PBogs himself. In fact, Laszlo shot most of Pbogs library of films. So when we finished editing, we managed to get Laszlo and Pbogs together and screened Humboldt County for them. They hadn’t seen each other in years and before we started the movie, Darren and I just sat back and listened to them reconnect. They talked about shooting the highway sequence in Pbogs’ first film, Targets and how they didn’t have any permits to shoot on LA’s famed 405 freeway. Laszlo recounted how the cops eventually showed up and he ran. It was amazing to simply be in the room as these two cinematic giants talked craft.

Three days later, Laszlo Kovacs was dead. He wasn’t in very good health and, apparently, his various injuries and illnesses got the best of him. I couldn’t believe it when I heard it. Darren and I had seen him on Wednesday and by Saturday we were listening to Pbogs on NPR talking about what Laszlo meant to him and to filmmaking in general. It was a terrible loss but we felt happy that we were responsible for Laszlo and Pbogs seeing each other one last time. And it is surreal, but probably true to say that the last film Laszlo ever saw was Humboldt County.

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