My journey to the dark side.. and other casting woes

In April 2018 I had a conversation with Terence Anderson, where he confirmed the date he’d be traveling to Los Angeles for good to start his new life. He had told me he’d be leaving for a while now so I was theoretically prepared, or so I thought, yet I distinctly remember this news being kind of bitter sweet.

Happy that he’d set a date and made it real, but panicked as to what the hell I was gonna do next, as The Urban Stranger, which Terence played so well, was the one piece of the Urban Chronicles puzzle I felt I couldn’t afford to lose.

If screenings and feedback confirmed anything, it was that the Urban Stanger, as played by Terence, was a real inspired bit of casting that made the whole thing click. Not only that, but I really had no idea how best to proceed without an Urban Stranger; do I cast multiple actors to play the same role, as one of my friends suggested, or simply recast with one guy? Or do I cut my losses and abandon the project altogether, as it was still pretty early days having ‘only’ filmed two episodes at that point.

Dan to Cam: taking a brief respite from the gruelling two day shoot

I have to admit it kind of took the wind out of my sales for a minute there, and it became ironic that as episode 1 of the Urban Chronicles was thankfully being pretty well received at festivals and screenings around the country, with the promise of the character and concept really appealing to people, inside I was pretty seriously confused about its future.

It was within these circumstances that I slowly started thinking about perhaps taking on the mantle myself. I started out as a trained actor after all, I told myself. And I would come cheap... free, even. Which, when you’re making and funding something all on your lonesome, becomes a seriously attractive proposition.

It would also be the best way of guaranteeing consistency, I deduced, as at that point I had four more episodes I wanted to make, which might be a pretty big ask of an actor over the course of a year and maybe more. Someone could get a better paying job (which wouldn’t be hard!) at any point within said timeframe and leave me back to square one. 

Thankfully Terence and I had a similar-ish look; tallish and dark skinned. Terence in person though has a very unique, some might say intimidating, presence, that lends itself extremely well to the character of Urban Stranger. He also possesses a deep resonating voice that has seen him do pretty well as a V.O. artist over the years. This, on top of him being really pretty good at the acting thing, all conspired to make filling his shoes feel like quite the task.

Directors confer: 1st AD Tony De Gale and I discuss shots between set ups

And so I set about the process of trying to become The Urban Stranger; the first step, I thought, would be trying to find the character’s voice. My initial attempts were literally laughable, or so friend and 1st AD Tony De Gale would proclaim. “You sound like there’s something wrong with your voice; like you’ve got a really sore throat”, or words to this effect, was his reaction the first time he heard me in ‘character’.

This, as one might imagine, did not fill me with confidence and served to fuel my desire to find the right Ammi, as I figured the dynamic would be even more imperative than past episodes. And, at the very least, there’d be one well cast performer to carry the story through.

On paper this episode seemed like it would be a literal cakewalk compared to the task that was episode 2! Ep 2 (which has been documented in a previous blog) was initially (and it has to be said, conservatively) set to be a two day shoot, that quickly ballooned to three, four then five.

For episode 3 we actually had a two day shoot schedule that would actually be TWO days! On top of which, the nature of this episode meant we’d only be in need of three relatively simple locations (a hallway, a kitchen and a living room), all of which were inside. This, coming off the back of freezing cold snow filled nights spent hopping on and off trains, very much felt like the dream episode.

But, of course, with filmmaking I've learned the cardinal rule is whatever can go wrong, will go wrong, and so should have at least guessed upon some of the challenges that were to come episode 3’s way.. and so it proved.

Kitchen sink drama: Vanessa, Rachel and I share a moment on day 1

This time around the one thing that had traditionally gone pretty smoothly turned out to be a thoroughly challenging and exhaustive process that went all the way down to the wire.

Again it seemed easy enough on paper: find two actresses to play flatmates and best friends. The lead character of Ammi would require an actress with a certain amount of range, skill and charisma, but I felt there’d be enough options out there, based off of past experiences, for it not to be of major concern.

This initially proved to be the case with my inbox inundated with actresses for both parts.

It felt important, as they’d be playing longtime roommates, to pair the actresses up and hold what was essentially a chemistry reading for them. This worked well and there was initially an abundance of talent to choose from. By the time we got down to the recalls it became evident that there were three Ammis who were above of the rest, who really ‘got’ the part as written.

After the recall one of the three favoured Ammis immediately dropped out, giving no further explanation; the second was a good actress, though I had a few niggling reservations; and the last of the three, the clear front runner, (though perhaps not aesthetically so much), knocked the audition out of the park on all fronts.

Though significantly smaller in role size I also came away with two strong Jem options, also.

Rare spotting: Prod. head Thomas Young makes rare appearance on camera

Excited, I called front runner Ammi and offered her the part. She came back excited but there was a sticking point: She observed Sabbath, which begins Friday evening and ends Saturday afternoon/evening, every weekend. As most film people at this level work during the week to make ends meet, not filming on the weekend was simply not an option, so I had to regrettably pass on my first choice, which she thankfully totally got.

I got in touch with the second Ammi – the one I had some niggling reservations about – and offered her the part. This young lady was a good actress and looked very much like a version of Ammi I saw in my mind’s eye, so all was good. We met and had a get-to-know-you type meeting that went well, followed days later by a rehearsal. And it was here where those niggling issues I had felt back in the audition stage, became more precise and glaring.

I came away from that first rehearsal feeling like something was seriously wrong. I couldn’t quite put my finger on what, or even if this was just me overthinking as I was playing the Urban Stranger for the first time opposite her.

It’s really hard to put into words just how baffled I was, especially seeing as all I really had to go by was a ‘feeling’. The actress, who was very committed as well as being a nice person, was not doing anything overly overly wrong per se.. except I felt deep down inside that something simply wasn’t meshing.

Game-boy: Sound Recordist Ben Adams takes one of many game breaks between set ups

In the week that I had before the second rehearsal something inside prompted me to look again for actresses, and I came across an actress whose show reel I really liked and who physically fit the bill. I found myself making a mental note, just in case.

I attended the second rehearsal with less than two weeks to go before the shoot, and I went in determined to somehow make it (myself and the actress) work. I was at this point fully off book and felt I was getting closer to making the Urban Stranger work for me, at least to the point that I didn’t feel stupid. But the rehearsal, instead of thrusting the preparation I had done forward, felt strangely like it was holding it back.

Now admittedly This is a hard one to accept as, even to my mind, it sounds like blame-placing; as if I’m putting everything that doesn’t work about my own performance at the doorstep of the actress playing Ammi. And all I can really say to that is that chemistry is a really weird thing sometimes, and it either clicks, or it doesn’t.

By the end of the second rehearsal I was in a legitimate panick. Though I still had doubts about my own performance I felt the dynamic between myself and the actress may be insufficient in unlocking our shared performance, and thus the scripts full potential.

Creative connection: Rachel and I on day two of episode 3

With about a week and two days remaining I found myself really feeling like the script, which I felt decent about up until that point, would, due to the performances – my own maybe particularly – be literally undermined.

There was one other option left available to me, which was to get in touch with the actress who’s showreel I viewed, see if she could meet in the limited timeframe left to do a reading with me. We met in a quiet pub of a Friday afternoon. I told her that even though I was the director what I also needed was an acting partner, someone to chime in with suggestions about my performance as well as hers.

What became clear to me was that the actress in question, Rachel, was an actors actor – someone very serious and commited to her ‘craft’. It became clear within our reading as well as the subsequent questions that she asked about all things episode 3, that there was something substantial to build off of. And even though the script was only eight pages long, it became apparent to us both straight away that the part, in order to really, fully fly, required a genuine commited effort; something that I had probably not entirely fully appreciated initially heading into casting.

Attention to direction: Vanessa and Rachel on day one of episode 3

In the end it seemed that Rachel was the partner I was looking for all along. And though super-grateful at finding someone who could help make the material fly, there were still two significant tasks ahead, even before the shoot got underway. The first, and toughest, was to inform the hired actress that, despite all the effort she’d put in, it hadn’t worked out and I’d have to regrettably let her go; an extremely tough conversation to have, to be certain.

The second was to spend the five days myself and Rachel had remaining before the shoot, rehearsing as much as possible. In the time that we had we really went after it, giving it all we had; proving again that Rachel, for this project at least, was the perfect pick. To her absolute credit Rachel really, really stepped up, transforming Ammi, in my opinion, into something really tangible, relatable and real.

You would maybe think that this would be all I’d have to contend with casting wise, but no! There was also the small matter of sucuring Ammi’s flatmate, Jem. My first choice dropped out at the last minute, and my second would be out of the country on the weekend of the shoot. I found myself again scratching my head, wandering what to do, barring in mind there was now only four days left before the shoot.

Dan to cam 2: a focused DOP at work

I wracked my brain for solutions, and in doing so remembered an actress who had come in to read for Ammi but who, I had thought, had a much closer energy to Jem in person. I reached out and thankfully the actress in question, Vanessa, was available at such short notice and came aboard.  

By Friday, one day before the shoot, I was pretty exhausted. The nature in which Rachel came aboard meant we’d crammed in weeks worth of rehearsal into five days. And this on top of the other duties a producer and director has to sort out heading into production.

As a result the two day shoot turned out to be personally gruelling for me. Sorting out catering, locations, call sheets (with the assistance of Thomas Young) and travel, and not to mention directing and, new to this episode, acting, was, in hindsight, probably one or two jobs too many. And though we got through it, in most ways more successfully than any previous episode, there was a physical toll I felt I certainly paid the price for.. But that is Filmmaking.

Killer look: Rachel Summers [seemingly] strikes down a crew member with a single glare

And of course there are always things to be grateful for, things that always override the tiredness you might feel in a given moment in time: I was grateful to have found Rachel in the final hour; grateful that Rachel and Vanessa, who had never met before, [but who] hit it off instantaneously, making their dynamic on screen feel super authentic. I was grateful for the effort Dan made, valiantly doing the job of two men, as well as bringing on his new Blackmagic 4K movie camera, which gave the episode a quality I do not believe we’ve achieved to date. I was grateful to Tashan, my caterer, who was up doing double duties for his friends event as well as ep 3. I was grateful to Tom young for his constant humility and love of film, to Ben for his breezy, unaffected nature (he was never too far from gaming on his phone between shots), and off course I was grateful for Tony DeGale just being Tony De Gale.

And mostly I was grateful that we found a way, with the lack of resourses and constant obstacles, to make another one; to do the thing that is my true passion, one more time.

Strike a pose: Sound recordist Ben Adams gurns lovingly to camera