Ever wonder how local extras are chosen to appear in a film, and who picks them--even the animals? As the Tallahassee Film Fest prepares for this year’s extravaganza April 6 - 11, Veteran Locations Casting Director Beth Cavano talks about her work on the funny, exciting Something Wild (and others) in an exclusive interview for BRINK.
How did you get the job on Something Wild?
I had just moved to Tallahassee, and heard about the auditions for actors and extras for Something Wild. I knew nothing about Jonathan Demme at the time, and very little about the script. I was just looking for work on film projects, either as a crew member or actor. I had experience both acting on camera and working in film and video production. I grew up in the industry, my father being an independent filmmaker in Birmingham, and I had experience acting in three feature films.
I went to the auditions with two resumes in hand, my acting resume and my production resume. Jonathan was interviewing people himself. He perked up when he saw on my resume that I had worked with Bob Rafaelson on a film, a director he knew and respected. He asked if I knew anything about casting. I answered that I had cast many of my own commercial projects, and he offered me the job on the spot doing location casting. Little did I know just what I was getting myself into, but needless to say, I was thrilled to have the opportunity.
Do you work locally? If so, where do you live/usually work? And what films did you help cast before SW?
I work wherever there are projects that pay me for my services. Before working on SW, I had cast actors, models and voice talent, mostly for my own commercial projects and for big-budget ad agency commercials. But I also helped cast a couple film projects. I have performed in two feature films, in the first I was an extra at 15 years old (The Heart is a Lonely Hunter starring Alan Arkin, Cecily Tyson and Sondra Locke), the second as a day player when I was 24 (Stay Hungry – starring Jeff Bridges, Sally Field and Arnold Schwarzenegger) and numerous stage plays. I was familiar with the casting process, but had never been in charge of something on the scale of Something Wild.
How many extras head shots did you have to wade thru for SW and what criteria were you looking for when you had to eliminate those which wouldn’t work for the film?
I had hundreds of head shots, people of all ages and ethnicities, but most casting decisions were made from the current snap shots we took when they came to audition. In casting, head shots are misleading, rarely representing what the person really looks like. Besides, most of the extras Jonathan cast were just regular people who had the look he wanted.
Jonathan was admirably hands-on during the selection of actors and extras. He went through every photo and application that came in. He hand selected every single person in that film, making specific choices for extras for each scene in the movie. He felt so strongly about each person he chose, he would often check in with me throughout the production making certain I had confirmed their availability as the day of their scene approached.
Clearly, the faces and very persona of each extra he cast were a part of Jonathan’s pallet for the overall look and feel of the film. For this, I admired him most. It made my job challenging when people would cancel. I would explain to them how important it was to Jonathan that they be there, that they were hand selected by him, which was true!
If I couldn’t convince them, or they just couldn’t get off work to be there, we would scan the files again to find an alternate, and I would be up ‘til midnight trying to track down the alternate for a shoot the next day. He never once told me to just pick someone else for the scene myself, although I believe he did come to trust my judgment and would ask for recommendations.
What’s the difference between an extra and a day player?
A Day Player has a speaking role, and the Extras do not. A speaking role means they sign a contract, earn more money, and in some cases, become SAG-eligible. A Featured Extra who winds up having a lot of screen time or is particularly prominent in the background, may be eligible for an upgrade in pay, but their voice has to be heard with a scripted speaking role to be considered a Day Player. (Caveat: The Screen Actors Guild rules may have changed on this, but that is my understanding of the difference.)
Could you provide a couple examples of what it was like working with the director Jonathan Demme.
Working with Jonathan Demme taught me a great deal about filmmaking. He had a clear vision for this film, a consistent creative intensity that kept a fire under the entire crew and cast. He inspired and required everyone to remain true to that vision. He was certainly demanding, but he also made it fun. On film shoots, time is money, so sticking to the shooting schedule was always looming over us. Yes, we worked our buns off. There were long hours, early morning calls and very little sleep for anyone, but the camaraderie of the cast and crew kept our energy up. As the production progressed, a sense of pride enveloped us all. Watching the dailies (the scenes that were shot the day before) it was clear we were involved in a great project.
It was an all around fabulous experience working with Jonathan Demme. In fact, “fabulous” was one of his favorite words. You knew you had done something right when, after shooting a scene, and “Cut!” was declared, he said, “Fabulous, that was fabulous!”
I will be ever grateful to Jonathan for giving me that opportunity. I became known as the North Florida casting person, and went on to work on projects, nationally, regionally and locally, including feature films, television episodes, national TV commercials, documentaries, commercial photo shoots and one music video.
Did you need to cast any dogs or cats for this film? I love animals so, if not, please cite a film on which you had to cast dogs/cats and do you have any funny stories to tell about animals on your productions?
We did cast animals in this film, although I only participated in the cattle call for English Bull Dogs. The dog was an integral character in the SW liquor store scene, which was hilarious. I didn’t have any real involvement when he was on set during the scene, but I do remember how funny it was to have all these bull dogs standing in line with their owners waiting for their audition.
The only time I worked with animals was for a Canadian show called “News From Zoos” for which I filmed stories about animals from the Birmingham Zoo.
Any funny production stories involving Jeff, Melanie and/or Ray?
I was not always close to the featured actors when their scenes were being shot. So I didn’t witness much along those lines. However, there is a great story that took place on the first day of the film…
The scene takes place outside Bill Terrell’s Liquor Store. Having just stolen an expensive bottle of scotch from the unsuspecting store clerk (played by character actor, Tracey Walters,) Melanie Griffith’s character, Lulu, dashes out to make her getaway expecting to find Jeff Daniel’s character, Charlie, waiting in the car. She spots him at a free-standing pay phone close to the road, trying to make a call to his office. As Charlie dials the number, Lulu, hot for Charlie, and impatient to get to a motel, saunters up and grabs the phone just as his boss answers. With her crimson lipstick-saturated mouth, she sticks her tongue down his throat, denying his efforts to come up for air until Charlie goes limp under her spell.
This was all happening on a week-day during 8 o’clock traffic when the road was wet from a cloud burst earlier that morning. One of the busiest intersections in town was right in front of the store. As the cars approaching the intersection slowed for the red light, those who spotted this unlikely public display of passion began slamming on their brakes trying to catch a glimpse of the smoking hot Melanie, and the fender benders began to pile up. Before the phone scene was over there must have been a dozen pile ups that morning, keeping the off-duty cops who were working security for the film with their hands full. After a while, it was hard not to laugh. In retrospect, maybe we should have used the crashing cars in the scene!
After you cast, are you ever asked to work on set during the production?
Yes, in fact it is essential that I be there. It was my responsibility to “wrangle” the extras during the shoot, any time extras were involved in a scene. This meant I had to ply them with food and keep them in a holding area away from the set so they wouldn’t cause any distractions. When I wasn’t doing that, I was back in the casting office calling and confirming people for the next day’s shoot.
The extras, who were only paid $30 a day for being there, were under the erroneous impression they would be able to hob-knob with the stars. Their bubbles burst by mid-day, when they realized movie-making involved a lot of “hurry up and wait,” so they had to come up with various ways to entertain themselves until they were called. Some remained disgruntled, asking me repeatedly “when is my scene,” but most would settle in, being content with the novelty of the experience. And of course, when they were finally called to report to the set for their scene, they were thrilled.
What other casting gigs have you had after SW and why were they memorable to you?
Here are examples of a few: Grand Isle - A Turner Entertainment feature starring Kelly McGillis and Ellen Burstyn based on the Kate Chopin novella, The Awakening. It took place in the late 1800’s. The film was ultimately called Grand Isle to avoid confusion with the Robin Williams film Awakenings and was shown on the Turner Movie Channel. It was filmed on one of the only remaining stretches of pristine beach in the state in the Florida Panhandle.
The challenges for this project were matching featured extras that were cast in New Orleans where most of the film was shot. They not only had to look like the extras in New Orleans, they had to fit into the same period costumes, which were vintage turn of the century. The ultimate challenge was finding a body double for Kelly McGillis who had to match her body exactly, especially her breasts, and was willing to swim nude in the ocean in December.
Miller Genuine Draft Light – A national commercial shot in Panama City and Seaside. It required a sea of oiled bronze bodies sunbathing on the beach. We held casting sessions in Tallahassee, Fort Walton and Panama City. I think we wound up with 100 people or so. The actors were called for 3 days in a row, earning $250 a day. They earned it, though, as they had to wear bathing suits in 20-degree weather, were regularly sprayed with water to make them shine in the sun, and most of them wound up with a terrible sunburn and a cold. I felt terrible that they had endured such hardship for a beer commercial, but they were all thrilled to have had the experience, and earned the money.
Unsolved Mysteries Episodes – Finding actors who match the victim for a show like this is challenging, but possible. An episode of this show featured a young woman who had been kidnapped from a hotel room in Panama City and was never found. The person I cast to re-enact the scene so closely resembled the girl that her father burst into tears when he met her at the casting session. The person they chose for her abductor, out of all the serious actors who auditioned for the part, was my Volvo mechanic, Dan the Volvo Man, who only went to the casting session to see what it was like. All of the actors who were cast for these Unsolved Mysteries episodes were not only paid $2500 for their initial performance, but each person received several residual checks for $1000 each every time there was a re-run of the show.
George Washington in Barbados Historical docudrama for which I had to find a young George Washington who really looked like GW would have at the age of 18, including red hair, prominent nose, more than 6’ tall, and he had to be an expert equestrian. Miraculously, I found him at the FSU Theater Dept. The film was shot in Barbados and Williamsburg, and is now shown at the George Washington House Museum in Barbados and at Mt. Vernon.
A Japanese Version of Unsolved Mysteries – one of the most bizarre experiences I’ve had because the crew didn’t speak English except for one person who only spoke a little. After extensive auditions for the first episode, the Director insisted on casting me in the lead role, which doesn’t usually happen.
Would you ever work with Demme again?
In a heartbeat! I almost had that opportunity a few years back when I was asked to scout locations for a new film called The Stop Watch Gang. It turned out the project was put on a back-burner when the shooting of Beloved lasted longer than anticipated. Hopefully Jonathan will return to Tallahassee for another project in the future. I know he likes Tallahassee, and comes here from time to time to visit friends. Currently, I think his passion runs more toward documentary filmmaking. In truth, he is a masterful filmmaker whatever the genre.
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