Tuesday, September 18, 2012

“Innocence of Muslims”: A Casting Session from Hell

In an era when a no-budget movie can create a furor halfway around the globe, my chief concern is for those who’ve died at the hands of angry mobs. But a front-page L.A. Times story reminds me that there are other (if undeniably lesser) victims: the actors who were duped into playing roles in this fiasco, thinking that they were being cast in a sword-and-sandal adventure drama, rather than an inflammatory attack on the fundamentals of Islam.

The bottom-of-the-barrel actors in Innocence of Muslims insist they had no knowledge of the filmmakers’ intent, that their lines were re-dubbed in the editing room to insert scurrilous anti-Muslim propaganda. But it was clear to them from the start that this was no high-class venture. Why did they sign on? Because actors are always on the look-out for ways to advance their careers. Even if the film they knew as Desert Warrior had vanished without a trace, at least they’d have another credit for their résumés, as well as some clips to pad out their demo reels.

I never worked on a film as tacky (or as scurrilous) as Desert Warrior, but I do know something about casting low-budget pictures. In fact, one of ours (filmed by the inevitable Cirio Santiago) was called Dune Warriors, and the official New Horizons synopsis tells the tale: “After the end of the world, Earth is a thirsty planet ruled by vicious warlords. One woman is brave enough to fight back; she bands together five warriors to save her town and their precious water.” A deathless premise, right? But you can be sure that a goodly number of young actors flocked to our offices, ready and eager to fly to Manila and show off some kung fu moves for the camera.

It sounds like fun to participate in a casting session: you’re sitting in a room with like-minded colleagues, hearing the words of your script approached in many different ways, waiting for that one special performer who can bring your vision (such as it is) to life. But casting is grueling, and not just for those who are looking to land a role. I realized at the end of one long day why I felt so tired. It seems that audition spaces are permeated by an air of desperation. Everyone wants work so badly that those in a position to grant it feel weighted down by the hopes and fears the actors are trying to conceal beneath an air of bravado or a pasted-on smile.

It’s not only newcomers who can feel desperate. Years ago, I was helping indie director Monte Hellman on the New World film Cockfighter. Monte requested that I bring in a certain New York stage actor to audition for a major role. The actor’s name was very close to that of an L.A.-based TV performer, and I made the honest mistake of getting in touch with the wrong guy. He arrived at the office looking thrilled: although he’d enjoyed a modest career of his own, he happened to be married to an actress who’d just hit it big on a popular sitcom, and I’m sure his morale was in the toilet. Of course when he learned he was not the man on Monte Hellman’s radar, his spirit sunk lower than ever. I’ve felt guilty about that goof ever since.

To all the actors who show up for auditions eager to be cast as bikers, or businessmen, or librarians or Latin lovers, I tip my hat –- and hope they can manage to stay out of films that become famous for all the wrong reasons.


  1. Boy howdy! The story of that wretched movie and its effect on world events is staggering. I'm still trying to process that one.

    That's a sobering tale too from the New World Pictures/Concorde-New Horizons Pictures era of your career. I can only imagine the psychic toll all of that desperate energy can take on those doing the casting. Across that - did you ever cast anyone in some small role who went on to much bigger success in subsequent productions?

    I think I might know who the LA guy was that you brought in, though for the life of me I can't figure out who the NY guy was. Hmmm....

  2. Honestly, I didn't help with casting all that often, so it's no surprise I don't know anyone from those sessions who went on to fame and fortune. (I certainly knew writers and directors who made it big -- in the Concorde era, Paul Haggis was one.)