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Tag: Joyce Hshieh

"My Adopted Little Baby From China"

September 5, 2013 / Ryan Elainska

This is part of Ryan’s series of posts telling the story of how the film came to be. If you missed them, you can still go back and read the earlier posts in the series.

Having received and reviewed all the audition videos and reels from actors in round one of casting, I made a series of not-so-tough decisions about whom to invite to callbacks. As I’ve mentioned before, this part of the process is probably harder with a budget, but in the absence of money far fewer actors submit themselves for parts, so most of the roles only had a few quality actors to consider. These all got invited to callbacks, which I now had to schedule. Hampered once again by my unwillingness to part unnecessarily with any of the movie’s extremely sparse budget, I at first tried calling Chicago-area colleges and universities on the advice of my friend Shawn Victa, who used to produce a lot of TV series and commercials but now works in the orthopedic industry, and who guided me through most of the pre-production process.

Having struck out at all the local schools, which either had no space available in the near future or reserved the use of their open rooms for students only, I eventually stumbled upon Gorilla Tango Theatre, a small, scrappy, independent theatre focused on helping even smaller playwrights and companies mount their still tinier (but much scrappier) productions.[1] The theatre rents out rehearsal rooms for, if I remember correctly, $12 per two hours, and they don’t care what you do with those rooms as long it doesn’t involve drums or amplified sound. I booked a six-hour block one Saturday and planned to drive up with Sally early in the morning, heading back to Warsaw in the evening so as to avoid paying for a hotel. I also asked my friend Jon Wilson, a seasoned actor from the Chicago theatre scene, to join us and give me the benefit of his experience on both sides of the casting table.

Meanwhile, Joyce had struck out in all her attempts to entice older Asian talent into auditioning for the part of Maria. In one of my frequent meetings with Shawn, while going over all the outstanding tasks remaining in pre-production and prioritizing the most immediate, I mentioned the dilemma I faced in trying to cast Joyce, and he said, “It’d be great if you could get Ivy.”

Ivy was the wife of Greg Francis, Shawn’s best friend and the only other member of my on-again, off-again writing “group”. The Francises lived in Los Angeles, where Greg was also in the process of putting together his own first film after over a decade of writing, producing, and directing TV content.[2] Ivy had never acted professionally, but Shawn had always praised her natural ability, and as Greg’s longtime producing partner, he would know better than most. Even if I could get Ivy to the other side of the country, though, persuading her to agree to the part would be much harder, as she rarely performs publicly in any way. On the other hand, the character of Maria, who manifests all her emotions through the screen of a deadpan snark, was partially inspired by Ivy’s interactions with her own children and husband—so the mere idea of being able to actually cast her seemed almost too thrilling. And, crucially, Ivy is Filipina, which means a person with a liberal imagination could engage in sufficient suspension of disbelief to accept that she might have given birth to someone who looks like Joyce[3].

Shawn and his wife, Laurie, decided that their contribution to the film’s budget (ignoring the copious amounts of time Shawn had already poured into baby-stepping me through pre-production) would be to fly Ivy out for the shoot, if she would agree to the role. Shawn even called Ivy for me, since he knew her better, and talked her into at least reading the script and thinking about accepting our offer.

I had some dialogue with Ivy over Facebook a day or so later, at about 1 a.m., which is when she tends to be awake and in a chatty mood. After I had steamrolled her objections about lack of experience, she eventually agreed to do the movie if I decided to cast Joyce—which at that point became almost a foregone conclusion. I sent her Joyce’s headshot, and she responded, in her usual tone: “My adopted little baby from… China?” I laughed this off, but it did make me nervous—and still does. While even large-scale Hollywood productions frequently cast East-Asian people in parts for which their ethnicity is incorrect, they don’t usually cast two of such disparate backgrounds as members of the same family. Even apart from the afore-mentioned question of suspension of disbelief, such a move might smack of “they all look the same, anyway”, which is not what you want anyone thinking about your production, or while watching your movie. After talking it over with Joyce and Ivy, though, neither seemed troubled by the issue, so I made my peace with it. (I really, really wanted to cast both of them.)

Callbacks went off quite well, but none of the other women auditioning for the part of Amy presented much of a challenge to Joyce, talented though they were. She had, by this time, spent so long dialoging with me about the character and incorporating that research into her rehearsal that she had a clear advantage over everyone else in the room. I asked her to come back later in the day and read with the men auditioning for the part of JJ, just to see which of them meshed better with her. By this time she had more or less guessed that I was going to cast her, so she didn’t balk at the additional time commitment. At the end of the day I was able to tell her the part was hers, and I messaged Ivy to give her the news shortly thereafter. Satisfied that I had at least two important roles filled, I drove back home with Sally and Jon to watch callback footage and choose the rest of the cast.

Next time: rounding out the cast and starting rehearsals.

  1. Gorilla Tango’s most frequent productions are from a series of comedic burlesque/striptease adaptations of pop-culture properties that nearly always include the word “BOOBS” in the title. Current examples as of this writing: BOOBS and GOOMBAS: A Super Mario Burlesque, TEMPLE OF BOOBS: An Indiana Jones Burlesque, and A Nude Hope: A Star Wars Burlesque. No one said indepedent production was pretty.  ↩

  2. Poker Night, which had a much bigger budget, much more high-profile cast, much longer shoot, and most importantly, a much more talented director at the helm than this movie, is currently in post-production and will hopefully be finding its way into theatres in late 2013 or early 2014.  ↩

  3. (More or less)  ↩

categories / Production Process

tags / Gorilla Tango Theatre, Poker Night, Sally Stauffer, Sally Elainska, Joyce Hshieh, casting, Shawn Victa, Greg Francis, Story of the Film, Ivy Francis, Jon Wilson

Finding Amy

August 25, 2013 / Ryan Elainska

This is the fourth part of my series of posts telling the story of how this film came to be. If you missed it, you may want to begin over at Part 1.

Getting my Documentation in Order

As soon as I had locked the location, I started casting. By this time, I only had a few months left in which to do pre-production, and finding good actors, more than any other project, made me incredibly nervous. Shooting a no-budget movie in the middle of Northern Indiana doesn’t give you access to the biggest talent pool in the world. I had already planned to search nearby Ft. Wayne and South Bend for actors, and the more I thought about the number of important roles I had to fill, the more I suspected I would eventually have to look as far afield as Chicago.

While attending the River Bend Film Festival I had met a young actor and producer named Stephen Bailey, who proposed taking on some of the pre-production responsibilities for the film. Although we didn’t end up working together for very long because Stephen accelerated his plans to move to Los Angeles, he helped me get the casting process started and suggested using Actors Access to solicit reels and organize casting calls. Actors Access offers producers the ability to accept auditions via video submitted by the actors. Since driving to Chicago costs time and money—both of which I had in only very limited supply—knocking out one round of auditions without ever leaving town sounded like a great idea. First, though, I had to write some sides.

“Sides” is what Merlin Mann refers to as “a term of art”. Sides are short scenes given to actors—either in advance or at the start of the audition—to read for the producer, director, and casting director, often with another actor, but usually alone, while one of the production team reads the other parts in the scene. Some independent productions just steal scenes from the actual screenplay for the film to use for auditions, but John August recommends against this. As he points out, the regular scenes may not be particularly useful for the purpose of evaluating actors, and hearing the same lines read over and over increases the likelihood that you, the director, will eventually tire of hearing them and be incapable of imbuing them with any actual meaning.

Anyway, I spent one night at my boring third-shift job pounding out a few quick scenes that covered all the speaking roles in the movie. It was fun; writing scenes whose only purpose is to give actors something to read that resembles the characters in question—and therefore don’t have to contribute to moving the story forward or making it more coherent—relieves most of the pressure from the creative process.[1] I also had to provide Actors Access with a casting breakdown: a list of all the parts I was auditioning and some basic data about the requirements for those actors. If you’re curious about what a casting breakdown looks like, I’ve included a link below, along with a link to the sides (SPOILERS).

Casting Breakdown

Auditions: Round One

Once I uploaded these documents, I was ready to accept video auditions through Actors Access. I gave pretty specific instructions in my casting call: I asked the actors to read the sides for the part they wanted, using a friend or fellow actor to read the other part for that scene. Some people, as I suppose always happens, ignored this and read the lines on their own, just leaving small pauses where the other character’s lines should have been. Unsurprisingly, none of those people were any good[2], so I didn’t have to decide whether to reject them because of this technicality.

Submissions varied pretty widely. Most came through Actor’s Access, and many submitted not only their reading of the sides but links to their resumes and reels, so I had more material to use in evaluating their acting chops. I had also posted casting calls through Mandy, on the Indiana Film Commission Website, and at some local and regional theatres, so I got a few submissions through YouTube as well, and a few people even sent in DVDs and hard-copy headshots, including an actual high-school girl who was also a director of short films. One actress turned out to be from North Carolina, and expressed herself willing to bear the cost of driving to and from her hometown in order to play the part. She was good, too, and I might have considered her if someone else hadn’t pretty much blown me away.

Before I get to that, though, a word about Casting360, for anyone who might find themselves casting a film soon.

Casting360 claims to provide a service to actors similar to that offered by Actors Access: the ability to view and respond to casting calls and upload headshots, resumes, reels, and video auditions. You’ll notice I don’t link to them, though, and that’s because they scam actors by accepting their credit card information as payment for submitting to casting calls, then add spurious charges to those credit cards which they will consistently refuse to remove, forcing their victims to register complaints with their credit card companies. They prey on the desperation of inexperienced actors, and they list auditions by scraping genuine sites, such the ones I mentioned above. When I spontaneously began receiving emails through their service, I at first watched some of the auditions, but I quickly grew curious about how they had even found me. A little Googling confirmed that Casting360 should be avoided by anyone hoping to run an ethical production, so I requested that they remove my casting call from their site. This was eventually done (I think), but I feel bad for all those actors, who could have paid Actors Access’s very reasonable $2.00 fee to submit their audition through a legitimate and helpful service.

Anyway, many of the auditions I used were pretty terrible, but a few stood out, and one audition in particular caught my attention: an actress by the name of Joyce Hshieh.

If you’ve heard anything about the movie or have read the rest of this site, you already know that I ended up casting Joyce in the lead role, but almost no one knows that she essentially had the part in my head from day one. More than anyone else who read for the part, she “got” the character almost immediately, partly, I’m guessing, because she was just a good fit for the role, but also because she asked questions about the part in advance.

Now, usually auditions don’t work like this (as far as I know) but Joyce emailed the single-purpose gmail address Stephen and I had set up to cast the movie, asking me to elucidate certain lines in the sides. I suppose if I had been casting a movie with an actual budget and thousands of actors clamoring to audition, I would have ignored this as an unnecessary drain on my time, but she was literally the only person who tried it, and it didn’t take long for me to write quick responses to her questions. Because of this, watching her audition was only a couple steps away from watching the character of Amy actually come to life. She went on the callback list immediately, along with most of the other actors who eventually made it into the movie. While a few other women who auditioned for the part of Amy also turned in good performances on their audition videos—and received an invitation to the callbacks, just in case—I had to constantly resist just handing the part to Joyce.

The one drawback about Joyce, of course, was that she was Taiwanese, and one of the other major characters in the story is her birth mother, so casting her meant I needed to find an Asian actress to play Maria. I felt comfortable enough with Joyce, after our exchange of emails, to tell her that I was considering her for the part, and that it would make it easier to cast her if she encouraged all the middle-aged Asian actresses she knew to audition for the part of Maria. She promised to do her best, but I was already worried that the talent pool was so small I wouldn’t be able to find a competent actress of any ethnicity for Maria; what were the odds that I could find one who would pass for Joyce’s mother?

Next: Callbacks, and how I found Joyce’s Filipina mom.

  1. If anyone finds out about a job that exclusively involves writing disparate scenes that never have to make sense together or in any other larger narrative, please let me know.  ↩

  2. It’s not a universal rule, but I’m a pretty big believer in the idea that if someone can’t be bothered to read and follow simple instructions, odds are high they’ll cause some other kind of trouble further down the line.  ↩

categories / Production Process

tags / auditions, Merlin Mann, John August, Casting360 scam, casting, Joyce Hshieh, Story of the Film