Of course, miniatures and monsters do not make a movie (though sometimes it’s tempting to wish they did). Actors are required to at least
provide someone to stomp on, eat, or rend with talons and teeth.
Kidding aside, without a cast of competent actors, there was no one to
tell the story. So we needed a casting agent and fortunately, I
lived with one! My girlfriend Susan Papa, who is also an actress, took
on the enormous challenge of finding actors to play the normal
American Haskin family, the abnormal in-bred Crawford clan, and the
manically obsessed cryptozoologist Roger Eagleton Patterson.
Susan first got help from casting associates Susan Baker, a friend of mine
whom I met many years ago when we were freshmen at Ohio University,
and Jason Bowers, an art student Susan Papa knew from her day job at
an art college in Santa Monica. She secured studio space in a Hollywood acting workshop, placed the casting call in the local call sheets, and scheduled each actor to come in and read. At this point, neither Jim nor I was involved as the casting team did their jobs. Susan knew what I wanted in particular, which was an ethnically diverse Haskin family. The Crawfords were likely going to be anglo, and I wanted Rip – the most deformed and
monstrous of them all – to be BIG.
After a few weeks, Team Cast-the-Bug was ready for call-backs, and
Jim and I sat in chairs far from the stage while Susan, Susan,
and Jason brought each actor in. Each actor was good in his or her own way, but the one thing that I found so frustrating was a lack of competent,
ethnically diverse actors. I know I might get lambasted for this,
because Los Angeles is a VERY ethnically diverse city, but where in
the hell were all the Asian, African-American, Latino/a, Indian, Native
American, Inuit actors? We did get a few, but for the most part, it
was an all-white casting session. I wrote Haskin family characters specifically so that we could have a step-mother who was racially/ethnically different from her new family. If that meant that Byron and Clarissa were
African American, and new-wife Joany was white or Asian, so be it. But
that didn’t happen because we simply never got the actors into the
casting room. Granted, we were not offering much in the way of
compensation, but shouldn’t art trump commerce at the mini-budget
level? Perhaps I’m still idealistic… or just naive.
Anyway, there were some interesting/humorous/WTF moments during the second round. First and foremost, one actor came in to read for alpha male hillbilly Billa Crawford, and he just knocked my socks off. I told Susan Papa not to bother with any more Billas because this actor was my man. Susan was diplomatic enough to say “that’s fine, but just see everyone else before you make your final FINAL decision.” I shrugged, said okay, and patronized her. Toward the end of the day, the last Billa came in and it was John Charles Meyer.
If the earlier actor had knocked my socks off, John Charles blew away my legs. He was totally different from what I had envisioned…he was better. He nailed Billa right away, playing him like a Looney Tunes character, just full of energy and humor while still creepy and threatening. I had my second, even more perfect Billa, and I changed my mind. John was offered the part the next day.
One of the most bizarre moments came while an actress was reading for the role of teenage daughter Clarissa. Specifically, it was scene in which her mother screams for her to reach the plunger…
The dynamite plunger.
The actress clearly did not read the stage direction in the sides,
which indicated that the plunger would detonate the dynamite. So what
happened? The actress cried and screamed while miming the
plunging of a toilet! As I sat watching, I felt like I was in some bizarro world I didn’t understand. That is, until I put the pieces together. It was all I could do to keep from busting out in uncontrolled laughter. From then on, we made clear to the actors in the scene just what kind of plunger it was.
Another actress rose my ire, and as it turned out, she did us a favor with her surprising demand. When all was said and done, we thought we had found our sexy-weird hillbilly Pearlene Crawford in the form of a young (21 or 22 year-old) actress. The script had Pearlene the same age as Clarissa, (about 17 or 18), so that’s what we wanted to cast. It’s important to note that Pearlene had a brief topless scene. Now, the debate about nudity in movies is not one I want to go into, but it was in the script, we notified all potential actresses about it, and we offered a body double if they felt uncomfortable with it. We hid nothing.
But when we invited this particular actress to play the role of Pearlene, she readily accepted it, under one condition: no topless scene. Fine, we agreed, we’ll get a body double. But this actress was adamant that the CHARACTER should not have a topless scene! Her reasoning was that the audience would think (rightly so) that those were her breasts on the screen, which was the whole point. She did not want anyone to think that she would do a topless scene, period. There was no way I was going to debate with her the idea that it wasn’t for her to dictate to us how to make our movie, so I respectfully thanked her for her time and dis-invited her from the role.
As I said, this turned out to be a fortuitous turn of events because
we had already seen a talented, beautiful actress in the form of
Ginger Pullman, whose audition was terrific. She was smoldering, sexy
and edgy, but she wasn’t the age the script called for. When casting
director Susan reminded me that Pearlene’s brother Billa was in his
late twenties/early thirties, and that Pearlene could be similar in
age, it made sense. Of course! We invited Ginger to play Pearlene, and
she accepted. Now that the film is finished, I cannot imagine anyone
else playing her.
One other thing regarding nudity and sex in the movies: American
audiences have no problem with graphic violence, but we sure are
uncomfortable with nudity and sex in movies. The Millennium Bug has no
gratuitous sex or nudity in it, and the topless scene is far from sexy
and titillating. When you see the movie, you’ll understand what I
Audiences had to like the Haskins, and hopefully, with the cute and innocent-looking Christine Haeberman as 18 year-old Clarissa Haskin, they would. Incidentally, Christine could easily go on to play teenagers while well into her 30’s. This genetic gift is something many here in Los Angeles would give their first born to have.
Rounding out the hillbilly Crawfords, Adam Brooks set the outrageous
and over-the-top tone as comic relief Fij, and Sandi Steinberg was
an easy choice as Granny Willow. Ken McFarlane – whose cryptozoologist
audition was twitchy and nervous while maintaining an educated
dignity – was also an easy choice to play Roger Patterson. Surprisingly, the character of hulking, monstrous Rip Crawford changed once we saw Benjamin Seton. Ben was smaller in stature than I had imagined Rip to be, but he showed such sympathy that I changed the character to match him.
Ian Pfister, our Game Warden, was the last actor cast, long after the majority of the film had been shot. Trek Loneman, an amazing actor I’ve tried to use in everything I’ve done since meeting him in film school, was the only actor I would accept for Uncle Hibby, the aged leader of the Crawfords. Fortunately, Trek accepted.
Of course, The Millennium Bug would not be monster movie without a
monster. But how do you go about casting an actor to play a monster?
First, you do not do a casting call in the traditional sense. Producer
Jim wrote up an ad that said something like “we need someone crazy enough to put on a hot foam and latex rubber monster suit to smash miniatures in a steamy warehouse in North Hollywood.” Not surprisingly, we didn’t get many responses. Of those that we got, Benjamin Watts was clearly the one sent down from Olympus to help us mere mortals. Before donning the arm extensions and showing us his moves, Ben came across at once as an amiable, enthusiastic, and introspective performer. When he mentioned Guillermo Del Toro’s favorite suit actor, Doug Jones (who played Abe Sapien in Hellboy and the Faun in Pan’s Labyrinth, among others), I knew we had our man!
Ben proceeded to put on the bug suit’s arm extensions and give us
his take on how the creature would come out of the ground. When I saw
what he was doing, it all made sense to me. I’d been having a hard time
imagining the details of this particular scene, but when Ben mimed it,
it was epiphanic. Sure, I had designed the bug suit, built it, done some tests with a student inside it. But for the first time, I was seeing just how it would act. And that was all the brilliant performance of Ben Watts. I would, of course, put him through hell for the next four months. But in my defense, he asked for it!