Sep 16

It’s All In The Casting

The importance of good or great casting can’t be overstated. This is not only true in both stage and screen productions, but it absolutely applies to the writing process. When it comes to the reality of able actors, it is often possible to switch performers on stage for a long running stage production — but that casting change makes it a different show.

Look at the remakes of any of several dozen movies over the years. Each Batman with a different lead has made the character of the “Dark Knight” significantly different from the others. The same is true in the James Bond franchise. Look at the difference made in TWO AND A HALF MEN on TV when Charlie Sheen was replaced with Aston Kutcher? Okay they changed the names of the characters and tried to make the Kutcher character a different person than the one Sheen, played but it’s obvious that each actor essentially served the same purpose in the series.

I’m going to be dating myself in some of my references here, but I’m not trying to fool anyone anyway.

In BUTCH CASSIDY AND THE SUNDANCE KID, the producers originally sent Paul Newman the script trying to interest him in playing the part of Sundance. Instead, Newman wanted to play Butch. What a different movie that would have been with Newman as the ace gunfighter.

In the TV series, THE DICK VAN DYKE SHOW, Carl Reiner created the show as a vehicle for himself in the lead role. But after a couple of weeks of rehearsals, Reiner called a halt to the proceedings and said, in effect, “Folks this isn’t working.” He understood the elusive element of chemistry simply was not there. So they brought in Van Dyke and everything clicked. The show which was supposed to be called THE CARL REINER SHOW became the VAN DYKE SHOW and Reiner moved up to play the character of Alan Brady, a character who was never intended to be seen.

Another example of a wise director knowing when he wasn’t the best for the part was in the casting of YOUNG FRANKENSTINE. Mel Brooks who got the original idea from material from Gene Wilder, co-wrote the script with Wilder, and Brooks directed the picture intending to play the part of Igor, the hunchback helper for Dr. Frankenstein. But in the casting Marty Feldman came in and just knocked everyone out with his interpretation of the Igor character. Brooks supposedly told everyone, “That’s it. He’s got the part. I can’t do it that well.”

You may know that Michael J. Fox was not originally cast as Marty McFly in BACK TO THE FUTURE. Erick Stoltz, a fine actor who won the Golden Globe Award for Best Supporting Actor for his role in the 1985 movie MASK with Cher and Sam Elliot (not to be confused with the 1984 picture THE MASK with Jim Carrey). Depending on whose version of the story you choose, it was either director Robert Zemeckis or Eric Stoltz who decided his performance in the role wasn’t working after a couple of days or two weeks of filming. When Stoltz was replaced by Michael J. Fox, the magic seemed to work.

All of this is to point out that in writing the characters you create are the cast of-your story. Fascinating, unique, engaging characters with muilti-dimentions make for better reading and a more arresting tale no matter your genre.

In their textbook Play Directing : Analysis, Communication, and Style, Francis Hodge and Michael McLain make the point that if you, “…pick a good script and choose a good cast, you’ll be a good director.” The same truth holds for writers. If you write a good story with a good cast of characters, you’ll be a good writer.

You want characters with their own inner conflicts which will impact not only their actions but their reactions to other characters and the world. As I have pointed out before, perfect people are boring. They have no challenges, no conflicts — everything is too easy for them. Of course, they will always win — against any adversary and they will also always win the love of their lives. Who cares? Such characters are not at all like the rest of us and they are not engaging.

Have you ever noticed how often in a love story the main characters meet and immediately dislike each other or seemingly at odds about something important in their lives? We all know they belong together, but it takes the whole story for these characters to figure it out.

The hero and the villain are obviously on different sides and will clash. It’s that struggle what keeps us reading. Part of it is the “bad boy” attraction, the “anti-hero” draw that engages the reader. Yet, even for minor and briefly appearing characters, complicated or deeper characters with built-in conflicts make it easier to write their dialogue. It’s also a hell of a lot more fun to describe a unique character than it is to have “Cop # 2” or a typical used car salesman.

Cast your story well and the readers will stay with you — interesting characters are like that “spoonful of sugar” that makes the medicine go down.

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