Tuesday, January 27, 2009

Stunt Casting

A friend was describing the making of the French film The Class which predominately revolved around the casting of 'regular' students in the roles of the students who were then given a more or less improvisational structure to tell the story with. This got me thinking about the nature and value of stunt-casting in general.

For this I'm going to use a broad definition of stunt casting which would include any casting decision where the actor casted or method of casting plays to the audience as part of the experience/narrative in what the audience brings to how they view that character. Granted, that's broad enough to say that any casting is stunt casting, but I'm talking about a specific relation and I'll give some examples.

This goes back as far, if not further, as Jean-Luc Godard who would do things like casting Fritz Lang as the director of Odyssey, the movie within the movie in Contempt. Lang brings his reputation and history as a legendary director to the role of director. Contrast stunt casting works as well, notably in Sergio Leone's Once Upon a Time in the West with Henry Fonda in the unremorsfully evil Frank, countering his white hat good guy image and certainly a stark contrast to roles like Juror #8 in Twelve Angry Men. In a single casting decision, before the audience has seen a frame of the film (presuming they know about the casting) it has actively rebuked the Western as it stands.

Then there is the casting mentioned at the beginning, for lack of a better term 'outsider stunt-casting.' This often comes in the flavor of casting so-called 'regular people' in the roles of regular people. Harmony Korine, director of Gummo and Julien Donkey Boy is notorious for this. Or for more extreme examples there's Werner Herzog's Even Dwarfs Started Small or casting Bruno S. in movies like Stroszeck.

Lastly there is casting where the story of the actor reflects the story of the character, such as Joe Joe Dancer, Your Life is Calling (can it really be called stunt casting when the actor is also the writer?) or most recently The Wrestler, where as a friend pointed out, the final monologue could just as well have been about Rourke as it was about the character he was playing.

I'm less interested in cameo stunt casting, Sean Connery appearing as King Richard at the end of Robin Hood, etc. The exception of this would be when cameo casting an integral part of how the movie is shaped, the master thesis of this would be Kill Bill, where every casting decision outside of the main cast is a reference or nod to the movies that Tarantino was homaging.

I'm ambivalent about stunt casting. On one hand, the story should tell the story. But such a 'purist' attitude ignores one of the more unique tools of film (and to the same degree theater, though limited to high profile theater). For better or worse, film creates a sea of regular faces who carry with them not only the roles that they have taken before them but the lives they lead between the movies. Is it possible to watch an Angelina Joile movie without in some way making some sort of connection with her public persona, her marriage, etc?

More, would Once Upon a Time in the West's Frank been as sinister if it hadn't been held in contrast to the roles that Fonda had been famous for before?

Likewise, when the story of the film is overlaid on the story of the making of the film, is the audience perception different when they know that the film uses 'outsider' casting instead of professional actors, and if it's different then certainly it's a valid tool.

Is the industry of film making part of the art of filmmaking, or more to the point why shouldn't it be?

I have to admit that most of the time I react negatively to it. Improvisation is a disaster far more often than it isn't when it's experienced improvisers, when it is not it can be down right painful (see:Blair Witch Project). I tend to think of it remarkable when it's actually pulled off more than simply when it's done, so outsider casting is always a sketchy proposition for me. I tend to view it less like watching a movie and more like watching someone tip toe across a minefield.

As usual, I don't have a conclusion. To search for a point, I'm defining terms for that post I keep referring to and swear I'll write someday.

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