When you need to shoot a scene in a local bait and tackle shop on a small island off the Carolinas and you’re location-scouting the perfect spot and the owner is a total ham with the right twang… do you really want to cast a professional actor to replace him and play the shopkeeper in the scene?
Nah. You say, “Hey, Buddy,” because that’s his name. “How ’bout you be in our movie?”
“Really?” His voice rises with excitement. “Why, sure I will! My ole lady always said one day I’d be in pictures!”
Buddy plays Buddy perfectly. He stumbles over his words like real people do and drops his props and misses his marks. But these mistakes seem on purpose and those lines he mangles sound so much better his way. It’s almost like you’re watching a documentary unfold, and that’s exactly what you had hoped for and why you were willing to risk it.
To work with non-actors is to say, “OK, Lord, we are in your hands now.” The very honest results acted as anchors in our otherwise dreamy movie. Their charming realism helped us to shore up the decks of our fantasy.
When I saw Steven Soderbergh’s Bubble I had my filmmaking mind blown. The idea of working with a local community as the cast of the film dovetailed wonderfully with my own discovery of the “non-actor” while working on my student films as a grad film student at New York University. I moved to New York City from rural North Carolina, where I loved to go crayfish hunting. Turning over stones searching for crayfish in the cool creeks on hot summer days was one of my favorite childhood activities. When I first moved to Manhattan I was awestruck by the streaming streets and it wasn’t long before I was searching them for talent for my projects. I had gotten it in my head that the best way to find my actors was to literally go out and find them. Discovery was too much fun to leave to others to try to do it for me. This side-hustle turned into a business when my partner Drew Dasent came on board and formed our casting company, The Secret Gallery. Rooted in “street scouting,” The Secret Gallery now focuses on the fashion industry, creating distinctive model castings for an international clientele. We search agencies the world over but still take it to the streets when we need to.
My whole life I have been an artist. At an early age I was particularly proud of my portrait works. I loved the thrill of studying someone’s face: understanding it as a landscape, how it pinched and dipped. What it told me when it was quiet. Every face has its own beauty if you know how to look. As a filmmaker, casting is a chance to make art. To fully explore a character as one would in a portrait but then some. It’s also not just about the outcome for me; it’s about the people’s lives I am affecting by making the film. I want to truly collaborate and weave together our real selves into the fabric of the fiction.
New and non-actors don’t put up a lot of walls and barriers in their performances. I like to say, “Do this the way you would do it.” This technique yielded the most fantastic results in my new film, Moss. Our young star, first-timer Mitchell Slaggert, plays the titular character. We started the film with him shaving his head in the first scene. It was a symbolic gesture for Mitch—now he was becoming this character, Moss. His instincts took over from that moment on and his performance was pure and raw and fascinating. He would do things that just floored me, such as making a PB&J sandwich in the most kooky, cinematic way. I could have never ever thought something like that up. I went into the scene just thinking we’d get a good insert and came out with gold!
The story of how I met Mitch is a good one. I was at the Cucalorus Film Festival in Wilmington, NC with Sunset Edge, my first narrative. My nephew, Jacob Ingle, was one of the stars of that film and he happened to be going to the local Cape Fear Community College. He was taking me on a quick tour of the campus. Out of the corner of my eye I see this good-looking guy pass me leaving class. A few blocks later, I get this overwhelming sense. It was like the universe tapped me on the shoulder and said, “Hurry! Go get that guy!” So I turned around and ran back. He was already in his car pulling off when I banged on his window. He rolled it down just enough for me to slip him my card… it all happened so quickly. I guess he Googled me and the next day called and we met up. He let me take some pictures and I had him do a “runway” walk on video in an alley. I kept thinking, this guy’s got something special.
I sent the shots off to an agent friend and within a few weeks, Mitch was debuting for Calvin Klein as an exclusive model for their men’s show in Milan. This was his first trip abroad, a baptismal by fire into the crazy world of fashion. I was a bit worried if he’d clam up and look like a deer in headlights. My fears were allayed, however, a few days later when I see Mitch on Donatella Versace’s personal Instagram in nothing but his Calvins, dancing in the middle of the street, grinning ear to ear. Seems he might be a natural performer after all…
Discovery is a thrilling process. It’s not just about me finding talent, it’s about that person discovering something inside they didn’t know they had. When I found Jennifer Lawrence years ago, she was only 14 and on vacation in New York City with her mom. She looked straight out of a Norman Rockwell painting, shiny and freckled. I took her Polaroids right there in Union Square and cast her in her first job in front of a camera a few weeks later. She flew back to do the job and after the shoot, her mother called me and said, “Jennifer loved it! She thinks she’s found her passion!” Maybe I saw something in her baby face that she didn’t know yet was there. Maybe me seeing it helped her see it.
All the agencies I sent her to said, “No, thank you.” I remember trying to convince them otherwise: “She’s got something special, I’m telling you!” But Jennifer didn’t need me or anyone else anymore, she had found that gift now and it was just a matter of time before she’d share it with the world.
When Mitch got back from Milan I asked him if he had ever considered acting. “No sir,” he said “but I sure would like to try it!” His first cold reading sent a chill up my spine. I stopped him after page one. “How about we make a film together, Mitch? We’ll go back down to North Carolina and do something to get your feet wet?” “Yes, sir, let’s do it!”
Little did either of us know exactly how wet Mitch’s feet would be getting. Twenty-five days knee deep in swamps, marshlands, the freezing ocean and the moody Cape Fear River was a transformative experience I’m sure he will never forget. Mitch started as a novice and finished as a pro. (He also made an excellent grip and took orders like a marine.) When I screened footage for Mitch months later, he had started acting school, hired a coach and already shot two other films and a miniseries. Just before the room went dark he said, “Damn, I could probably do it so much better now.” This was proof for me Mitch will have a solid career. Here was a young man with bragging rights well earned, yet he was having that self-doubt that fuels an artist to perfect their craft. When the lights went up, I could tell Mitch was overwhelmed with emotion. He just said, “I did good, didn’t I?”
To me Moss is a beautiful document of an actor coming of age—an unencumbered and uninhibited performance. Mitch never questioned his instincts and I made him promise me he would not lose this trust in his gut. Surely he will face a cacophony of direction, feedback and “grooming” on his way to becoming a working actor. But it’s this quiet inner voice that will always be his best director.
I have plenty more tales from casting newcomers for Moss: from the incredible Billy Ray Suggs who plays Moss’s dad (cast from Instagram) and is Mitch’s actual childhood mentor; to Dorian Cobb as Blaze, whom I found in Brooklyn when he was just a kid and whose been modeling and acting ever since. But I think the key decision I made was to choose an actual professional actress for the romantic lead of Mary. I met Christine Marzano over a decade ago when she was a student at Princeton through her model boyfriend whom I had discovered. I helped her get her first agent in L.A. when she moved there to take up acting as a full-time profession. It had been years since we had seen each other but her unforgettable manners, striking beauty and lanky body kept popping into my head when I was writing the script. I wanted a strong woman who could take this strapping 6’2” man on a journey. Christine had the presence and chutzpah—a certain power. She was my muse for the role. When she agreed to take it on, I knew the casting family was complete.
Christine flew in on break from a big-budget film shooting in Bulgaria. As fate would have it, the one week she had off was the week we needed her. I am not sure what she imagined she was getting herself into, but when she arrived to our scrappy crew holed up in the backwoods of an overgrown island, she said, “I cannot go back covered in bug bites.” I just gulped. Alas, her only interior scene was in a tent! She proved to be a trouper and never complained about running around the chilly woods in nothing but a slip-dress. And her nuanced performance really raised the bar for all the newbies on deck. She kind of whipped the cast into shape through osmosis. Suddenly between takes everyone was studying their lines and not on their phones. Mitch especially was asking her lots of questions and Christine was so generous with advice and patient with the results. In the film, Mary takes Moss’s virginity. In real life Christine definitely helped Mitch over a kind of threshold. As fun as it is to see what the inexperienced will do with a scene, sometimes you don’t have time for experimenting. You need a pro to come in and get the job done. When Christine left, everyone’s game was more on point. We also had to restock our bug repellent!
My first two films, The Aggressives, and Trail Angels, were documentary features and I met both sets of subjects through my casting journeys. I learned working with these subjects that, subtly, you could direct them and I also developed a penchant for the unpredictable. On my third feature documentary, Garden of the Peaceful Dragon, the incredible subject, Burley Luvell Benford, seemed to have been rehearsing his whole life for this film. He would often ask if he could “say that again.” I started to realize that this whole business of truth vs. fiction is not quite as clear as one imagines. There is a bewitching limen between the two, and in my narrative films I try to explore this sketchy terrain.
What this requires is faith. Just like I told Mitch, I remind myself too: Always trust my instinct. You have to stay open, remain flexible and strive to collaborate with accident. Back at NYU, my peers would ask me why I was using real people in my films. I would say, “Why would I use fake people?” What I look for is talent—people who can engage you, draw you in and tell you a story you want to listen to. Maybe it’s a seasoned award-winning pro and maybe it’s the owner of the local bait and tackle shop. Or maybe it’s your nephew or his fellow student at a community college.
A few weeks ago, I went to visit Buddy in the old bait and tackle shop and get his real name for the credits of Moss. His sassy wife was there too. “He thinks he’s a movie star now,” she quipped. “He waited his whole life for that dang camera.” We reminisced about the crazy experience and I almost forgot why I came.
“So what’s your real name anyway, Buddy?”
“Erby Dalmus Burton III,” he tells me.
“The Third? Geez, is your son the Fourth?”
“Oh no!” his wife pipes up. “Three of them was enough.” MM
Moss world-premieres at the 2017 LA Film Festival on Wednesday, June 21, 2017 at 8:30 p.m. Purchase tickets here.