Director's Blog
The Casting Process
November 1st, 2011

Independent films are difficult to cast, for a number of reasons: The project might have a small budget (you can’t pay the actors very much), a first-time director (big stars won’t be clamoring to work with you), or a script that studios aren’t drooling over because it isn’t an adaptation, sequel, or 3-D extravaganza.

On SHANGHAI CALLING we were faced with all of these hurdles, on top of which:

  1. The movie takes place in Shanghai, so we needed our US-based actors to move to China for two months
  2. “Amanda,” our female lead, is a blonde woman who has to speak fluent Chinese
  3. “Sam,” our male lead, is Asian American, and there aren’t a lot of well-known Asian American actors out there.

Because our Chinese partners wanted us to find a big star for the role of Sam, producer JANET YANG and I first tried to tackle hurdle #3 by going to China and Hong Kong to meet some of the biggest stars in Asia.  This didn’t work out. In Hollywood, a huge movie star might do a tiny movie for pocket change because he or she loves the material — not so in China, where the big stars expect big paychecks, no matter what.

So Janet and I returned to LA, where we both got excited about meeting DANIEL HENNEY — me because he was in X-MEN ORIGINS: WOLVERINE, and Janet because he’s one of the most gorgeous human beings on the planet.  I had one concern: having spent a few years working in television sitcoms, I’d seen firsthand how unfunny a pretty actor can be, so I was worried that Daniel might not have the comedy chops for the part.  I was dead wrong — Daniel came in and nailed every joke and comedic moment, and we knew we’d found our “Sam.”

Soon after that we found out that BILL PAXTON had read the script and was eager to meet me.  I’ve always been a huge Paxton fan, so I was pretty nervous when I saw him walk into the room, but Bill turned out to be an extremely friendly guy.  Plus, he was coming off of his series “BIG LOVE” so he was eager to do some travelling.  I don’t quite remember how I described my vision for the movie that afternoon, but his agent called us soon afterward and said that Bill wanted to be in the movie.

I started feeling cocky.  Bill Paxton — THE Bill Paxton! — wanted to do our movie and he wasn’t at all nervous about going to China.  Finding an “Amanda” would be easy now, right?

Err… no.  While two very well-known actresses were interested in the part, one of them was, by bizarre coincidence, developing her own film about an expat living in Asia and didn’t want to do two expat movies in a row.  The other actress was about to sign on with us when she got offered a huge Tom Cruise movie.

So here we were, in Shanghai, in the middle of pre-production for a movie that was about to start shooting, and we didn’t have a female lead.  I called up our U.S. casting director LESLIE WOO, who leaped into action and started getting me actress names and avails.  One name caught my eye immediately: ELIZA COUPE, a very pretty and side-splittingly funny actress who was in FLIGHT OF THE CONCHORDS and COMMUNITY, not to mention big roles on SCRUBS and the new series HAPPY ENDINGS.  We sent Eliza the script, and the next day we were booking her flight to Shanghai.

I was more than a little nervous that we never had a chance to read Daniel and Eliza together in LA, but the moment they met in Shanghai they hit it off.  Their chemistry together started to shine from the very first rehearsal, and it strongly influenced the way we shot and edited the film, mainly by focusing less on the main legal plot and more on the human story between “Sam” and “Amanda”.

Amazing how things just seem to work out, isn’t it?

Next week: How we got one of the most gorgeous shots of the movie.

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Americatown, Shanghai