On accents

We’re in the middle of casting the two lead roles for Ops. As I predicted, the audition scenes have now become gibberish to me. The only advantage to having them so fully etched in my brain is that when an actor makes an interesting choice for a line reading, I suddenly snap back and pay attention.

The two roles are written as Americans, but Jordan and I are both more than willing to change the backstories to accommodate Britons, Australians or other nationalities. After all, almost every country has soldiers. So in addition to hiring on New York and Los Angeles casting agents, Fox was generous enough to bring on casting directors in Sydney and London. We’re getting in new tapes every few days.

Unfortunately, the overseas casting agents aren’t taking us at our word. Almost every actor is trying an American accent.

Almost every attempt fails.

Here’s the thing: If you’re an Australian actor, you can probably suppress your give-away twang, just like most Canadians can — with a lot of effort — distinguish between “about” and “a boot.” But just because you don’t sound Australian, doesn’t mean you necessarily sound American. Often, this lack of accent is worse. We can hear that something’s not quite right, but we don’t know what it is. And while we’re wondering what’s wrong, we’ve lost track of your performance.

Now, obviously, there are some cases where an international actor will simply have to try for a specific American accent, just as an American actor may need to hit a certain British dialect. But if a producer or director tells you to use your natural accent, trust him. It’s not because you suck. It’s because you’re better when you can use every part of who you are.

As a side note, two actors we met with yesterday were Americans whom I’ve only seen play British. James Marsters and Alexis Denisof both come from the Buffy/Angel universe. It was jarring hearing them speak, because I kept expecting the same voices I’d heard for eight seasons or so. But even more interesting was recognizing the actors’ own cadences that were the same even without the accent; on a fundamental level, Spike sounds like James Marsters.

To me, it’s further proof that actors shouldn’t dwell so much on accents, but rather focus on giving the words meaning.

About the Store

Over in the right-hand column, you’ll see a link for the Store. The link has been there for a couple of weeks now, but I neglected to mention it — originally because I didn’t want to seem gross and commercial, and later because I forgot. But if you’re reading this site strictly through the Feeds, you wouldn’t even know it’s there.

So, hey. There’s a Store.

No, I’m not selling bent-brad t-shirts. Rather, the Store is a buncha Amazon links to the stuff I’ve written: the DVDs of the various movies, along with soundtracks and the original books. While some people actually make a living off of Amazon (and Google) referral fees, I certainly don’t expect to make, well, anything. Rather, the joy of the Amazon Associates system is tracking who clicked through to what, and trying to figure out why somebody bought both the Big Fish DVD and XXX2: State of the Union.

Armageddon is bad. Near-Armageddon? Damn entertaining.

Today is Thanksgiving in the U.S., a refreshingly under-commercialized holiday set aside to acknowledge the many things in life for which we’re grateful. I’m home in Colorado with my family, doing the traditional activities: stuffing a turkey, setting a table, and wondering how many minor celebrities they can squeeze into one Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade.

At the same time, I’m doing research for a movie I may be writing soon, which involves a Very Bad Thing happening to the planet, and its aftermath. You’d think it would be hard to find scholarly (i.e. non-religious) books on the subject, but it’s not. Go into any bookstore and you find whole shelves of hardcovers that chart with considerable detail just how the world will end. Call it Pessimism Porn.

These doom-saying books tend to be bleak. What’s interesting is that movies based on the same ideas tend to have one extra element: hope.

Consider War of the Worlds, or Armageddon, or The Day After Tomorrow. In all three, Very Bad Things happen to the good people of Earth. Cities are destroyed; people are vaporized. Just like we seem hard-wired to love puppies and fear snakes, we want to see the Eiffel tower melt.

For up to 100 minutes of a movie, the entire world and everyone on it can be blown to smithereens. Even in a PG-13 movie, things can get really, really bleak — as long as by the end, things are okay again. Even Deep Impact, which had the balls to actually let the comet hit, still found ways to reassure us that civilization would bounce right back.

Just like a roller-coaster ride, we want the world to spin deliriously out of control, before coming to a safe landing right where we started. Whee! That was fun. Let’s do it again.

Anyone who has read the aforementioned Pessimism Porn recognizes the danger of these movies: most of the things that would destroy us can’t be solved by a courageous hero, a team of dedicated scientists, or a whiz-kid hacker who got beat up in school. Just like we’re more likely to die of heart disease than terrorism, the Very Bad Things that may do us in as a planet tend to be quiet and slow.

So that’s what I’m wrestling with as I think about this movie I may or may not write. How do you dramatize a situation that in real life would end pretty bleakly, but still make a movie that people want to see on a Friday night?

Anyway. I’m thankful to have a job that lets me think about stuff like that.

Shake for less

shakeI recently learned Final Cut Pro, Apple’s editing system, which is complicated but incredibly intuitive. That got me anxious to experiment with the other pro film tools. The full Final Cut Pro Studio package is fairly inexpensive, especially with an educational discount.

Unfortunately, Apple’s Shake 4 compositing software costs $2700 or more, which would tend to discourage anyone from picking up a copy just to learn about it.

However, the Apple Pro Training Series book is only $34 on Amazon, and it includes a 30-day demo version of Shake. It’s a great deal for anyone who wants to learn Shake, which has one of the most bizarrely un-Mac like interfaces of any Apple product.

If you’re a tech-savvy screenwriter looking for a day job in Hollywood, I can’t imagine a much better choice than doing visual effects. Even at the low-end, such as wire removal, I suspect there’s always a need. One $34 course-book won’t teach you all that much, but would let you see if it’s something you enjoy.

And yes, for the record, I realize that I don’t have time to be learning Shake. I haven’t started my 30 days yet.

Two sides to the story

Right now, we’re starting casting for Ops, the Fox pilot we’ll hopefully shoot after the holidays. Since most readers out there have never been through network casting — or any casting — I thought I’d talk you through the process. Or at least, the start of the process.

The first thing we had to do was hire a casting director. That was easy; I picked Robert Ulrich, who did the casting for my last pilot. He put together a master list of every name-brand actor to consider for the two lead roles.

Last week, we had a “casting concept” meeting with the network and the studio (both Fox, but different divisions), and talked through the list. I’m always amazed at (a) how many of the names I recognize, and (b) how few of the shows I’ve even heard of.

  • THEM
  • Tom Cavanagh is unavailable. He’s a series regular on Love Monkey.
  • ME
  • What the hell is ‘Love Monkey?’
  • THEM
  • It’s on CBS.
  • ME
  • Is it on now?
  • THEM
  • Maybe?

So, barring unforeseen circumstances, don’t count on Tom Cavanagh being in the show. (Although he is apparently in How to Eat Fried Worms, which was one of my old projects. God bless you, IMDb.)

The two lead roles in the show are Joe McGinty and Theo Vanowen. Ideally, one or both roles would go to bigger name actors who are “offer only.” That means that they don’t audition. You call their agents and ask, “Hey, does [fill in the name] want to be in the show?” If they say yes, boom, you’re done.

At the casting concept meeting, we decided to go after one actor who was offer-only. We also talked through all of the actors with which Fox has special holding deals. That’s the dream: you have the guys you want, and you haven’t gone through a lot of auditions/meetings/aggravation to get there.

But in case it doesn’t happen so easily, we decided to begin auditions.

The first step is sending out the breakdown, which describes the roles that are up for audition. The form itself is copyrighted; a company called Breakdown Services handles the process, and given how often they mark “CONFIDENTIAL” on everything, I won’t include the real form so as to avoid pissing them off.

But here’s what we wrote about the characters in the script:

  • The driver is an American: THEO VANOWEN (mid-30’s to 40’s). Effortlessly intimidating, he’s fought on four continents and killed many men — but not one more than he had to. He keeps both eyes scanning the road.
  • His business partner, JOE MCGINTY (late 20’s to 30’s), is more MBA than Marine. Much better with words than weapons, he’s an expert negotiator who could talk his way past St. Peter. Both men wear body armor.

Both roles are marked “PLEASE SUBMIT ALL ETHNICITIES.” From experience, I can tell you that if you don’t do that, you only end up with white people.

Once a part hits Breakdown, every talent agent in Los Angeles, New York and elsewhere has access to the information. A related service called Screenplay Online lets actors, agents and managers download .pdf versions of the script, along with the sides.

Ah, the sides.

First, a definition: “Sides” are the scenes from the script that actors read for their auditions. It’s up to the showrunners (me and Jordan) to pick which scenes we want to hear read. For Ops, we’re focussing on casting the two lead roles, so we picked scenes that have both guys in them, and showed a range of emotions, from jovial to pissed off. (That’s pretty much the full range of emotion for this particular show.)

When picking the sides, you want to pick your best scenes, since these are the moments that the studio, the network, and everyone else will see when they watch casting tapes. Every time they hear your clever dialogue, you want them to fall more and more in love with your show, so they’ll give it a plum spot on the fall schedule.

But in many ways, you really don’t want to use your best scenes in the sides, because of one horrible truth: you will hear the exact same scene 5,000 times. You will hear it read by great actors, decent actors, and people you can’t believe have the nerve to call themselves actors. The words will blur together into a meaningless mush.

You will hate these scenes so much that you will rewrite them before you shoot the actual show, just so you can stand to hear them.

But I’m getting ahead of myself. The first casting session is tomorrow. The actors will be talented. The words will be fresh. And casting will proceed apace.