I just watched a film called “Casting By”, about the legendary casting director Marion Dougherty and her influence on the next generation of casting directors, as well as the history of the art. It’s true that casting is a kind of art– without the right casting, a part is ruined, the story is derailed, and you can never have that chance again. The casting director is the person who culls the actors and brings the director the best choices for the role, after which the discussion begins and ultimately the director decides–but with much advice from the casting director, whose instinct the director relies on. Cindy Tolan is my long-term casting partner. She is probably my most intimate collaborator. My dread of miscasting is why I walk around with fear in my belly for months when I am trying to cast a film. Each day I try to fight off the senseless lists of actors who “mean something” in terms of their “numbers”. In other words, it is very hard to cast an actor or actress in a lead role who has not been in some kind of hit in Europe, because the investors want to know that even if your film flops here, it will make money over there. Naturally it makes sense that many people go to films because of the stars that are in them, but ultimately the predictions of success are just voodoo. Star vehicles can fail; unknown actors can rise to stardom overnight. That is in part what’s thrilling about casting.
To me the most important quality in an actor is something I perceive as transparency. The great actors are not imposing themselves on the viewer, they are not playing at anything. There is a kind of stillness in the best acting; the actor is allowing himself or herself to be infused by the spirit of the character. Even if the character’s rhthm is frenetic, there is some point of stillness deep inside, a clear pool of truth. To me, this quality is embodied in very few actors at any one moment in history.
I have been thinking about how much not to say. Explaining to my students that directing is different from conversation. A friend said the other day, “Just framing and casting is already a lot of directing.” That is a brilliant thought. That casting the actor, and then framing them, you have already made huge decisions and don’t necessarily need to “direct” the actor unless the scene needs to shift.
Just watched “Lust, Caution”. I think that Ang Lee is precise, emotional. He is a great artist. However I found the extreme graphic nature of the sex scenes a little distracting because all I could think of was whether they were really having sex. Sex scenes are hard. You go too far or you don’t go far enough. Either way unless it’s porn it’s fakery and even then it’s fakery. My favorite sex scene I ever shot is in “Angela”. I shot it from pretty far away and did no coverage. I felt like I shouldn’t be there at the time.
I wrote a screenplay based on an as-yet unfinished novel by my dear friend Karen Rinaldi. I am currently calling the screenplay “Maggie’s Plan”. Julianne Moore is attached to play one of the three main parts but I am still trying to figure out who will play Maggie herself. It has been a liberating experience in some ways, working from someone else’s book. I got the premise for free and so I saved a huge amount of time, and was able to spend time just creating characters and embellishing plot. Both Personal Velocity and The Private Lives of Pippa Lee were books and films, so each project took between five and seven years to write the book, write the screenplay, produce the film, make the film. And since my last novel, Jacob’s Folly, took five years just to write, I feel I need a lighter writing experience. And something closer to a pure directorial experience. I can’t seem to expunge writing totally from the directing experience, and I don’t want to, yet there is something wonderful about this letting go.
I am so happy to read the latest blog post from an observant Jewish woman who says that I got the details of strictly observant Jewish life right in Jacob’s Folly. I was obsessive about this aspect of the book, having rabbis, scholars, and, perhaps most importantly, a real, observant, frum mother as consultants. For me, this was an alternate universe, a magic realm of sorts. Once I truly entered it, I was able to perceive the logic therein and to imagine the suffering that leaving the community would cause–as well as the impossibility, for Masha, of staying within its confines. It was so important to me not to blithely say, ‘assimilation is right, our modern way is the better way, freedom is all’. That is just as blind a way of looking at the world as a strictly religious way. Looked at from outside, any culture seems strange. Our own culture will seem absurd to people in two hundred years.
I got a text from an endocrinologist I know who happens to be a member of a book club in the Bronx and she asked me to come up there one night and talk to her book club. I’m going. I don’t know what’s gotten into me but with this book, I feel ready to read in every living room in the tristate area and beyond. About a hundred and twenty or more people came to the auditorium at the Boston Public Library last night to hear a conversation between me and Doris Kearns Goodwin. I couldn’t believe there were so many people there–thanks to Doris largely. I read a lot, passages that we had discussed. There were a lot of laughs and I just felt so amazed that people still care about books so much. It’s gotten me thinking about what reading actually is. It’s passive, in a sense, yet essentially active. It is an action of opening the mind. Without the reader’s participation, the words lie dead on the page. The reader turns the words into images and ideas. Anyway, I am just thinking about it. When you perform a book (whether the writer admits it to herself or not, reading aloud is performance) you go back to the more elemental form of writing and reading, like Homer traipsing from one village to another, singing his stories…
I’m on my way back from a week of readings and signings on the West Coast. Book peddling. It’s a release to perform the book now after years of being locked away with it. It’s easier to read outloud than my other books, maybe because I enjoy being Jacob so much. His joyful amorality, his wickedness, feel liberating. I really like connecting with the readers in person, but I still worry about going on too long and boring people. Yet I think in this time, when actual objects and face to face encounters are rarer, when our ideas are transmitted electronically much of the time, and our books are read off of tablets, the presence of an actual author turning paper pages is more valuable; it reminds people of the connection to the writer as they read, the cord that binds the two minds.
I am nervous. It seems so strange to have this story, which has been twisting around inside me for years, belonging to strangers now. That’s the beauty of it I suppose. Publishing is a balm to the loneliness of the writer.
One of you has expressed disbelief about the moment in the subway. I promise, it happened. People do kind things every day, and I actually think in the balance people do more kind things than evil things, but the evil eclipses the good. The most surprising thing about humans, to me, is our goodness, not our selfishness or destructiveness. The struggle is endless for us. I use a quote by the Ba’al Shem Tov, the great 18th century Jewish tzaddik, or holy man, in the front of my new book:
“Evil is the chair of the good”.
Something to think about.
I was in the subway going uptown two days ago and a young woman stood up and raised her voice. “This is the first time I have spoken on the subway,” she said. I assumed she would be asking for money, but then I noticed that she had two large shopping bags with her, filled with toys. She continued: “I just went to Toys Are Us to pay for my layaway toys for my childrens’ Christmas presents, and I was told that my layaway had been payed for. And I was given this card.” She read out the card. A stranger had payed for her layaway in memory of Dylan, one of the children killed in the Sandyhook massacre. “I just had to tell someone about this,” the woman said. Many people on the subway wept. I wept. I told a friend who lives near Newtown about this, and she said people are committing random acts of kindness all over the country. It’s the goodness of people that astonishes me.