This is Rob Long with Martini Shot on KCRW.
You can make a good movie from a bad script. You can make a good television show from a bad script, too, though it's slightly trickier. And of course, the reverse is true, too: a lot of wonderful scripts have turned pretty awful when they got to the screen.
What you can't do, no matter how hard you try, is make a good movie or television show with a bad cast. Casting is everything.
I've been thinking about casting these days, not because I'm casting anything -- well, I am, I'm producing a small independent film right now, and I'm trying to raise the money -- not much, it's a small picture, anyone out there interested? -- and there's really only one part left to cast (the younger male romantic lead) and I'd like to nail it down, but the whole SAG strike issue has delayed things a lot. Apparently, this is happening all over town: people have been reluctant to commit -- either on the actors' side or the producers' side -- until we all know there's a deal in place.
But just because Hollywood is unable to make some big casting decisions, there's no reason why everyone else can't.
Barack Obama, for instance, is busy with a casting problem of his own. He's looking for a…well, not a lead, but a strong supporting player. Someone with real chops of his -- or her -- own, who could maybe handle a spinoff in a few years, who knows how to deliver a joke, and who isn't supposed to be the star. Obama is the star. He's where the heat is. He's looking for the best friend character, the anchor.
It's actually a tricky casting issue, because usually it's the star who's the anchor, sort of bland and likable, unthreatening and middle-of-the-road. And so when you cast the sidekick, you go edge, go for character stuff, maybe a little more ethnic and sharp, someone to walk into the apartment without knocking and someone to get into odd scrapes and someone to be needy and emotional and zany for the more stable, bland star to interact with. “Oh, you,” says the star, “I can't stay mad at you!” And maybe the co-star is unlucky in love or has a stupid job, which gives you a lot of great B stories, and every other episode they're dragging the star to the swing set -- “You've got to come with me,” they beg the star of the show. “I'm scared to break up, get married, go to the doctor, see my mother, go on a date, whatever, alone!”
See Barack Obama's casting problem? For a crucial part of his important, must-view demographic, he's the edgy choice, the wacky neighbor. They preferred the show that his show cancelled, the one with the older gal star, the Bea Arthur character. So what's he looking for, basically, is the other half a buddy picture -- he's the unpredictable, passionate do-anything cop, he's looking for the by-the-book, too-old-for-this-stuff partner to round out the cast. The right piece of casting for this project is going to be hard, because you want people to be excited about the choice, but you don't want the choice itself to be exciting. You've already got exciting. You're looking for a good, solid, establishment, well-trained, soothing sidekick.
And so you make a list. It's a casting list, so you put everybody on it, every name you can think of. You brainstorm and mine IMDB listings, you generate a lot of names, and you don't worry too much about availability or even whether the person you're putting on the list is even, technically, still alive. The point is to get a big pile of names, and each name gets you closer to the right person.
So you start out thinking, a younger Dick van Patten. Hey, maybe Donald Moffat. You know who I like for this role? Hal Holbrook. And then it hits you. Who you want is Sam Waterston. Sam Waterston should be Obama's supporting actor, his vice president, if you will. Seriously. Call his agent. Make a four year deal with an option for another four. Guarantee him the standard perks. Tell him that in year six he'll get a bonus -- his own production company, based at the studio, in case he wants to do a spinoff.
Wasn't hard, was it?
McCain's even easier. Remember that old show, Chico and the Man? With a crusty, cranky, slightly nuts Jack Albertson playing the old man? He was paired with a younger, hipper new Latino comic named Freddie Prinz -- Freddie Prinz, Jr.'s father, for those of you under 30 -- and the show was a big big hit. His costar softened him a bit, made the duo seem balanced: you had Chico for sass, you had The Man for the steady hand on the tiller. So why reinvent the wheel? Find a young comic to pair with the old guy. Better yet, why not actually cast Freddie Prinze Jr. and call it a day?
See? They're making this so hard. A good casting director could get this thing done before lunch.
That's it for this week. Next week, we'll fly coach. For KCRW, this is Rob Long with Martini Shot.