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Friday, March 13, 2009

The pain of replacing an actor

An excerpt from the journal I wrote in 2006 during the making of GIRL DISCONNECTED, my student short film.

Few days before shooting commenced, we were horrified to know that Mr. C, the intended actor for Wiler, was actually moving to England FOR GOOD on October instead of for just a vacation as we initially thought.

This left us with only two weeks to complete the entire shoot AND post-production just before C could leave. Since there were schedule clashes, and location difficulties, and also because of the ambitious scope of the project, it was impossible. The most logical solution to this, suggested by Brian the Cinematographer, was to recast the role.

C had displayed a lot of enthusiasm for the project that I thought would have been conducive for the film. I wanted an actor who could put in some emotional investment into his role (as opposed to viewing it as merely a 'job' or an 'exercise' to put in their showreels), someone who could internalize.

However, the rehearsal sessions, which he had attended without fail, and worked with very diligently, allowed me to know his working style more, and I had a growing worry that C's total confidence towards his own acting skills and himself might be a little disruptive towards the team chemistry. He was constantly repeating the acting theories he had learnt from acting classes and workshops to other cast members, which was helpful to some, patronizing to some. I noted some uneasiness in the other cast members' faces. I felt a little uncomfortable as well.

He wouldn't be an easy person to work with. In addition to focusing on the acting aspects and the characterization (which I had appreciated, I didn't mind having an actor going into an in-depth discussion with me about the character he or she is playing, I welcome it, even), he began to show concern towards other aspects of the production. Making an effort to call me almost everyday just to give me suggestions on how a scene would be directed, or telling me to tell Brian the Cinematographer how a scene should be shot (C had some interest in cinematography).

It also had to do with my own ego. I started feeling uncomfortable when he constantly compared our film to the previous productions he was involved in (C liked telling me how things were done by the production team of 'Qipao', a 3rd year production he was involved in the year before, a role that got him an award nomination at Murdoch University's awards night that year). C's suggestions and ideas of cinematography weren't entirely disregarded, I made an attempt to evaluate them, but didn't think that they fitted what I wanted to do.

I had always attempted to be civil and attempt to forge a friendly and jovial working relationship with C (something I did with every single other cast member) regardless of my personal doubts, hoping that this would serve well as a motivation for him to excel in his performance. (My personal belief was that if they feel special enough about their role in my production, which I also worked hard to make them believe was something special, they would be more motivated to give a good performance) Although this may have worked with most, I wondered sometimes whether my actions were misinterpreted by C as deference.

I had to make a phone call to C (the day before a supposed shoot with him), telling him the bad news, that it was impossible for any of us, both the cast and the crew, to wrap up the shoot AND complete post-production in 2-3 weeks. We had to replace him with another actor, even though we felt bad about it. C, understandably, was furious with our decision, saying that after so much he had given up for the film (insisting that he did some of his own location hunting for the film too), it was preposterous for us to do this to him. I said that the only thing I could do was to let him do the voice for 'Jaric', the supercomputer whom Maya had been chasing after in the film.

“No. I only do Wiler.” C challenged.

Angry words were exchanged, with him declaring that if he had compromised so much for the film, everyone else should have done the same for him.

I wasn't happy. "Do you think that I'm so stupid that I'm incapable of appreciating a person's dedication to the film? And that I did all these in purpose?".

While it was inadvisable for me to lose my temper as well, snapping at him like that (I remember my lines were more profanity-laced). I felt that this may be necessary to stand my ground. Not that it helped.

C refused to relent, demanding to go to the shoot on the next day.

After the phone exchange with C, I told Brian and Yun Chin our predicament, that we may have to cancel the shoot to speak to him, to convince him of our position.

The entire crew arrived at the shooting location early. Brian the Cinematographer, Yun Chin the Producer/ Assistant Director/ Boom Operator and I, along with Crystal, friend of mine and Yun Chin's, who was supposed to be there that day to help out with the make-up. We waited for him and Sarah (actress of Maya) to arrive, so we could discuss this matter properly in person.

C came, apologetic for the night before, shaking hands with me, attempting to discuss this situation with us all as calmly as possible. We made it clear to him that we had exhausted all possibilities that we could come up with if we had to work with him. The risk was too high, we couldn't do any re-shoots, or have him around during postproduction, not all cast members were free on September, everyone had different commitments (Sarah having her own mid-semester tests).

C was hurt. He asked whether we were doubting his skills (we said no). Why not use two cameras so that shooting sessions could be accelerated (Brian reminded him that there is only ONE camera operator for the production... Brian himself), why Sarah cannot just bring her own books over to study during a shoot (I said I didn't want my production to be blamed for affecting someone's academic grades, especially when they were helping me for free)

I felt guilty that I had to do this to C, I promised him that his name would remain in the credits (either under special thanks, or casting coach, in recognition to the 'acting tips' he had so kindly dispensed to the other cast members).

C then said he would make his sacrifice for the 'good of the production', even though he 'knew clearly well that it would be impossible for me to find a better actor in Perth to do the Wiler role'. And that merely having his name in the credits wouldn't be enough, he wanted the script to be rewritten so that he could be either the narrator of the film (“I have a good voice!” C said. I frowned), or a Greek chorus of sorts ("just let me appear in those important scenes, I don't need any lines, I'll just sit there and look mysterious, a little like Giovanni Ribisi in The Virgin Suicides” C said. I frowned).

"I'll think about it." I said.

I never did.

"Why do you think C had acted this way?" Mel (my lecturer) had asked me during a meeting a week or two later. C's early dedication and enthusiasm to the project should never be questioned. I knew he would have given his all for the film, even if he would've been a very difficult person to work with, not only with the crew (Yun Chin had complained that C had been less than polite every time she called him to inform something about the production, making it clear that he was interested only in hearing from me than from her, Yun Chin found difficult to bear). One can say that he tried too hard to gain the favour of the director in most productions he was in (an observation made by a friend of Brian's, who was the crew member of a production C was in), thus making any disappointment too much to swallow. Hence being removed from the production became something personal instead of something entirely professional.

Picking C was, in truth, solely my mistake, and my fault. Instead of truly choosing him based on his merits, I picked him as a foolish attempt to 'challenge myself'. I thought that by casting an actor against-type, and drawing a good performance from him, it could be a testament of my own glorious directing skills. Even though he didn't 'look right' for the role, an observation made by the crew, I thought this could have been rectified by asking Brian to think of something that could make Chau look 'more sympathetic' through the camera lens and lighting. Or that my own creativity in directing his acting would yield some interesting results. I disregarded Yun Chin's early objections towards his casting (she wasn't impressed with his audition), and for that, I paid dearly.

Recent incidents in the past two days made me dig out my long-ago filmmaking memoirs of my student film (more on that incident later).

Looking at it again, I am bemused by how defensive I was when it came to justifying my actions. It's almost as if I had resorted to character assassination to make what I did more acceptable.

It's also highly ridiculous that I deemed 3 weeks too short for the making of a short film. Especially when my subsequent works were shot in a matter of days (CHICKEN RICE MYSTERY needed 2.5 days, LOVE SUICIDES needed 1.5 days, KINGYO took only 4 days). But then, student productions were different. I was less experienced then, much less efficient.

Regardless of what sort of person C was, being cut out of a production just before principal photography, and especially after having gone through so many strenuous rehearsing sessions, is a cruel thing to do. After getting yourself mentally and physically prepared for the production, after possibly taking leave from your day job, and after people who know you knew that you had a leading role in a production, how is it possible for you to handle this calmly?

Back in secondary school, when I was president of this English Club, I tried to push for a comedic sketch for some school event. I can't remember it clearly but it was a riff on DR JEKYLL AND MR HYDE. The skit was originally a duet play that two friends of mine did for an inter-school competition, but it was modified so I could join in the fun, instead of having one guy play both DR JEKYLL and MR HYDE, I would play MR HYDE instead. So we went through a rehearsal or two, went for auditions, got a slot for the performance, and then, just a night before performance, the teacher-advisor of my club called and asked me NOT to do it because it was meant to be a DUET. After being so excited, and after preparing myself so much for the role, I ended up getting shafted by the teacher advisor of a school club I presided over... for a performancce supposed to be put up by my school club. A memorable way to end my year in secondary school.

In retrospect, I probably brought the whole performance down, I probably overacted the crap out of things, I was probably a lousy actor. But the me of the past never really had the chance to mull over all these possibilities, I was merely shellshocked and disgusted by the phone call.

(And I'm still writing about it in my blog even though 8 years have passed since the incident, whoa...)

Something similar happened with WOMAN ON FIRE LOOKING FOR WATER in the past few days. Less than a week before we begin the shoot, after three rehearsing sessions, we came to the unfortunate conclusion that we had to replace our actor. The chemistry, the dynamics he had with the co-stars just weren't right, despite how hard he tried. To recast his role was a cruel thing to do, but necessary.

While seeking his replacement at such short notice was tough, breaking the bad news to him was even tougher. Ming Jin and I, along with Gan the Production Manager, met him at a nearby restaurant for dinner.

As we waited for his arrival, I mentioned to Ming Jin about the whole incident with C nearly three years ago. How ugly things ended then, because I didn't have the maturity nor the experience to settle things amiably. C had all the rights to be ugly, just like how Stuart Townsend was pissed about being replaced by Viggo Mortensen as Aragorn just before LORD OF THE RINGS started shooting.

This was his quote:

I was there rehearsing and training for two months, then was fired the day before filming began. After that I was told they wouldn't pay me because I was in breach of contract due to not having worked long enough. I had been having a rough time with them, so I was almost relieved to be leaving until they told me I wouldn't be paid. I have no good feelings for those people in charge, I really don't. The director wanted me and then apparently thought better of it because he really wanted someone 20 years older than me and completely different.

All right, it was messier with Stuart because they wouldn't even pay him.

When our original actor arrived, and when we told him the news, he accepted it gracefully and calmly despite the disappointment on his face. Ming Jin apologized, but he said he understood. He asked whether he wasn't good enough for the role. Or whether he looked wrong, and I just came out with another one of those weird analogies of my own.

"There's nothing wrong, but acting is like a ballgame between two sides. Your co-stars are great badminton players, while you're a great tennis player. No matter how good all of you are at your own individual skills, you are all still playing different games, and there's still something wrong, especially when this is a badminton tournament." I said.

But the guy was a true gentleman, we had dinner, we chatted, we laughed, and he then went off to catch Jack Neo's new film. Ming Jin apologized again, he shrugged it off and wished us luck with the shoot.

Gan later told us that when both of them went off for a smoke (while Ming Jin and I ordered more drinks), he had wept.

That's what filmmaking is like. Not everything is beautiful, not every step is a step towards eternal glory on the annals of film history, towards cinematic immortality, towards box-office success, towards the embrace of film festivals, towards awards, towards the love of audiences. Some steps that are taken can be ugly, resulting in the shattering of hearts, the shedding of tears, the crushing of dreams, all for the sake of wanting to make the one right film in mind.

I can only hope that this will be a great film.