Red State Of Mind - Part Two
Posted on Friday December 10, 2010, 17:29 by James White in Empire States
Empire attends Kevin Smith’s filmmaking Q&A series - Part Two: Deborah Aquila
Casting director Deb Aquila might not be the biggest household name in the film industry, but after working on more than 119 movies, her fingerprints are all over some of the most successful titles, ones that certainly appear on many cinemagoers’ favourite lists. The Shawshank Redemption? Primal Fear? Sex, Lies and Videotape? And she’s the woman who helped Catherine Hardwicke lock down the leads for Twilight.
For Red State, she wasn’t just a key component behind the camera, locking in the likes of Michael Angarano, Melissa Leo and Kyle Gallner, but also in front of it, making her first ever film appearance as an actress.
Aquila proved to be a hilarious and honest interviewee, spinning stories about her time in the industry and telling the true story about how she discovered Edward Norton for Primal Fear, and championing his casting in the film.
Smith kicked off the session describing Aquila as "a well-honed acting artist machine who can act her f****g ass off because she's been casting movies for the last few decades. Deb was the godmother of the movie, the fifth Beatle - or even the third Beatle - because she was such a crucial lynch pin on the flick. She has faith and kept it going even when people were saying no or weren't interesting in the least and talent would pass left and right.”
But when it came time to cast a relatively small role – that of a teacher who fills both her class and the audience in on the notorious Cooper clan that will become important later in the movie, Aquila was hesitant. “We thought she'd be, like, ‘Great, oh my god, that's so cool!’ laughs Smith. “But she was, like ‘Oh no. Oh, I can't do that! I couldn't take a job away from a real actor...’ Her name is on some huge movies, but she's never acted before. But I've heard her voice a lot and I've acted with her because she cast Catch and Release. Rather than some casting people who read with you very flatly and give you the lines to bounce off, Deb's in a scene with you, you forget you're auditioning because she's so damn good.”
Turning to his interviewee, Smith probes for details on her background.
“I was an actor at NYU. I studied acting at university,” says Aquila. I realised very quickly that I was not comfortable - can you tell? - in front of an arena, I was much more comfortable behind the stage. I was blessed to be with a teacher for almost seven years who was such a giant in New York, her name was Stella Adler, and she was my mentor. So when I left performance, I was able to concentrate on script analysis and really taking a script apart, really analysing it and doing a direct application for the actor. It's crucial, and it does sound artsy fartsy. She studied with Stanislavski, spoke to him in Russian and she developed a system, based on his teachings, where you take a script and you do a complete back-story for each character. Based on the author's intent, always keeping in mind which play or screenplay you're in, you don't want to veer off into fantasyland and not be in Red State. So what an actor does for one part, I do for 30. You're blessed to do a search and you find an actor who walks in the room and you know that's the actor, there is no one else who can play the role. You just see it and know it. You've done the work, you've read hundreds of people. If it's a difficult search, you know it.
While Aquila came on after Morgan Freeman and Tim Robbins had signed up for Shawshank, she got a call from Frank Darabont who she clicked with from the first interview while he was still looking for a casting director. "We seemed to like the same kinds of actors and tonally, phonetically, we were on the right wavelength. So he said, ‘Let's do this, come on out to work on the film. You've got two weeks to move.’ I had a baby, a mother, and apartment to unpack. Thank goodness my husband was in the Israeli army. Out we came to LA.”
Aquila recalls the biggest challenge of Shawshank was filling the ranks of the supporting cast. “There were so many parts and we had to get each category right. The sisters, the prisoners and the guards and the warden. So that took a long time. And then I had to go down to Mansfield, Ohio with Frank and we cast from the prison there. We shot in the beautiful prison that you see in the film, that's abandoned and behind it is the newly built prison. They refurbished the part they could afford to and what they needed to shoot in. They had a riot in the prison the week before we arrived. We started interviewing prisoners as extras, before the insurance company said, ‘really?’ That didn't fly, but we did cast a lot of the guards. Frank and I went back to LA and spent long hours into the night with a library ladder and hundreds of pictures on a wall.”
Red State had the advantage of having locked up its funding before the casting process began, which meant Smith and producer Jon Gordon didn’t have to “cast someone who can get on the Tonight Show or who will play overseas.” According to the director, he left a lot of the responsibility of choosing the final candidates for each part up to Aquila, asking for her top three choices, which she was initially hesitant to do, but ended up with her top choices in each role. The casting of the high schoolers that are a pivotal part of the film took a long time, since they are the focus of the opening scenes. Aquila delivered three actors who not only got Smith's seal of approval for Red State, but are also being cast in his next pic, Hit Somebody: Nicholas Braun, Kyle Gallner and Michael Angarano. Fun fact: Braun is so tall, that when Smith hugs him, the director's face is in his balls. It’s Kevin Smith. Did you really expect him to let that joke slide?
Smith then talked about how he changed his attitude to writing for this film, shying away from the stylised dialogue that was his trademark for many years and looking for actors who would suit the more naturalistic style of Red State's script. Aquila and he discussed how she had to deal with a few lines in the script that were holdovers from an earlier draft and how they figured out the problem.
Back in the world of casting, and with regard to the older players in the film, Smith talked about how he was looking for actors whose work he'd liked in the past. Cash was an issue a lot of the time, as some actors wouldn't even consider the script after seeing the thrifty budget. Others, such as Dermot Mulroney, had to take themselves out of the running after the shooting dates changed. One of the biggest names considered is the focus of a long, typically rambling story Smith tells about running into Samuel L Jackson at this year's San Diego Comic-Con. The pair discussed Red State, with the director admitting that they had no money to pay people big salaries. "They ain't got no money either," Jackson snarks, talking about Marvel, which had shipped him to San Diego to promote The Avengers. "None that they give me, anyway..." Smith and Gordon approached Jackson's agent, knowing that few handlers would rush to recommend their client do something that carries little money. The agent replied that they'd want a hefty chunk of the back end, but that was also not an option. Seeking a compromise, Smith came up with the idea of offering two Disney-themed Gottfried Helnwein that are worth close to a couple of million dollars. Figuring that they could trade the pictures for Jackson's services, they made the call. The agent's dismissive attitude to it - particularly when Jackson read the script and sent a message saying how much he liked - it soured Smith's attitudes to middleman types. Aquila, staying diplomatic (Smith recalled that she rarely, if ever yelled and compared her getting angry to "seeing Jesus slap a child") and out of what Smith describes as his need to "burn the whole s**t down," urged him to focus on those they could get, including John Goodman who had suddenly become available after State's shoot moved again.
For a chance to hear everything, point your browsers and your ears towards the Red State Of The Union podcast.