Following an impromptu shoot related to ‘The Devil’s Plantation’ I’m keen to resume work on this film. After my recent trip to England I have almost all the shots needed barring a few local pickups. After months of tortuous editing I also have a final draft of the script. The next stage is to secure the actress who will bring the entire project to life, a delicate process involving negotiations with agents.
As I write I have no idea who the chosen actress will be but I’m aiming high. In narrowing my search to older English actresses I’m struck by how many women enjoyed a brief blaze of fame in the 1960s, almost certainly cast for their looks but most of whom disappeared. Several of the names on my list have found a late career flowering, usually in TV roles whenever the need arises for an elder matriarch, a grandmother, say, or in rare exceptions, such as Alan Bennett’s ‘Talking Heads’ – with older women in substantial solo performances.
Scouring a list of several hundred candidates I admit a certain guilt. Casting involves hard decisions where very able and accomplished actors are ruled out on the smallest pretext. For instance, do I contact X’s agent, whose credits extend to a minor part in a 1960s Bond film and a couple of unremarkable British horror movies but with no credits at all since 1974? It’s hard to say whether or not my prejudice is justified, knowing that for the want of a decent role many actresses retreat from the business. How many times has the cry gone up for better parts for older women?
Of course there’s a calculation to be made. For instance, do I choose an actress based on their box office ranking? Even the highest-profile actresses that could fit the role of Erica come low on the list of the most bankable film talent. Currently Judy Dench is ranked as 795th, with Helen Mirren clocking in at 663rd. That’s not to assume I can attract a star name. ‘Voyageuse’ is a hard sell, having none of the obvious elements such as backers, a sales company or a distributor to reassure agents. Or me, for that matter, so below the radar as a writer and director as to be almost invisible. One advantage I do have is a script that offers a challenge to any actress looking for a decent role that doesn’t require being on set at some ungodly hour or spending weeks on location.
As part of my overture to potential actresses last week I wrote a one-page synopsis to articulate what and who the proposed film is about. As an exercise it’s hard to summarise the premise and story because essentially it’s a character, not a plot-driven piece. Erica is complex, even unfathomable due to her apparent lack of motive. Screenwriting wisdom dictates that in order to to succeed the protagonist of a story requires a want/need question. What does Erica want that will set her on a quest? But what does she really need to attain her goal? The trouble with Erica is not her age – in the script it’s never explicitly stated she is 70 years old – but rather, the nature she was born with.
Reviewing the archive footage I sense Erica’s character was already fixed. One shot from 1933 shows her as a tiny baby reaching up for a small leafy twig. Her expression is one of dazed wonder, an incomprehension of the world that she carried into adulthood. Certainly she was a product of her generation and the social conditioning that shapes us all. No doubt when she arrived to England in 1938 she was affected by the class structure, raised as she was with the advantages of the middle class, albeit at a time of war. Yet for all her privilege it can’t have been easy to arrive in Derby with German – the enemy’s tongue – as a first language (she was Hungarian by birth).
When I first met Erica, she spoke in accentless English RP, due to her Perse schooling and Oxbridge education. As a native working-class Glaswegian and all that implies, whenever we talked I was aware of a cultural and class cringe though I’d like to think Erica never judged me as a lesser being purely on the basis of my accent. I’m reminded here of Tom Leonard’s poem ‘The Six A Clock News‘ and the problem of perception based on language, of how one’s accent can elevate or condemn – or as Leonard wrote, ‘wan a yoo scruff.’
Which returns me to the business of casting. Obviously I’m looking for an old posh English bird to give the performance of a lifetime. However, reaching agents might prove tricksy. When it comes to phone calls to London I often have problems getting past the receptionist – in fact I find making calls to the US more congenial because at least I know I’m a foreigner. Of course, there’s an argument for enlisting the services of a casting director but for now I’ll take my chance, knowing that any decent agent will always welcome a script regardless of its origin. Over the next few weeks it’ll be interesting to see what kind of response I get, if any.
The above image is of Erica as a baby, taken as a frame grab from archive film shot by her father, Josef ‘Bob’ Eisner in 1933.