A Maker of Dreams

Apr 022003
Authors: Eric Todd Patton

If you have ever wanted to be a part of films, you will be interviewed relentlessly before any auditions, and the person you are trying to impress in that interview is the casting director. The casting director is the person in charge of keeping the director of the film in line during casting, trying hard to make sure the writer’s vision is achieved.

The most legendary of these casting directors is Michael Fenton, the man responsible for the casts of “Chinatown,” “One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest,” “The Godfather II,” “Chaplin,” and dozens more. I had the opportunity to talk with Fenton in a phone interview this past Monday and ask him questions ranging from how to get your foot in the door to his reaction to the Oscars and Michael Moore’s acceptance speech.

To begin with, I had no idea what to ask a man who has been a part of most of my favorite films. My head was spinning as I dialed the phone and to calm myself as well as start a healthy dialogue, I started simply with “With the recent Oscars, did you feel surprised by any of the wins?”

“Absolutely,” he responded. “Adrien Brody… Roman Polanski, because of him being in exile. But he is a wonderful director and I’m very happy that he won. He made a beautiful film.”

That is simple enough, but what about the politics that were voiced during the ceremony? Especially, what is Fenton’s reaction to Michael Moore’s comments? “Ha!” he laughed, “that is my reaction. That (the Academy Awards) is not the forum for those politics. It was wrong. It is just plain wrong!”

But does that mean these entertainers should not be voicing their political opinions? “While knowing most of them (the entertainers), it’s upsetting that the public looks up to them as gods. Of course they are entitled to their opinions, though.”

This is not to be a political interview, though. I did not call the most famous of casting directors to talk current events.

“When you graduated from UCLA film school, did you expect to go in the direction you did?” I asked.

“Oh, no. I was hopeful of being a cinematographer or a director. But the industry didn’t accept college graduates they way they do now. It has completely changed, I mean, most of our best directors are film school graduates now.”

Do not take that the wrong way. Fenton is very happy with the era he has been a part of and would not change it for anything. He continues with his work, “waiting for people to catch on” that he is loving his job and getting paid a great amount of money and then pull the plug on him. “But they haven’t caught on yet,” he says, “And I hope they won’t.”

Having worked on some of the most famous of our modern classics, like the “Indiana Jones” trilogy, I was wondering if he had ever known they would be monster successes. “I almost never know,” he told me.

An interesting story about a monster success emerging almost accidentally is his story about “E.T.”

“Prior (to anything happening) Steven (Spielberg) and I were on the sand in Hawaii talking about future ideas, like “Schidler’s List” came up, and then he mentioned “E.T” before he tackles other projects. So he gave me five sentences on it … it sounded good but we didn’t know how to cast it or how to make a doll fall in love with a human, and make it so the audience would love him, so we didn’t think much of making the film. When we returned to L.A., Michael Caan called us to see what a studio had filmed with a doll and after watching it, we knew we could make a doll love a human.”

Now “E.T” is one of the largest-grossing films of all time. But when does a casting director know he is working on a hit? Can he tell from the cast?

“No,” Fenton said. “Nobody knows in this business until the audience responds to it.”

Fenton also told me of a time he recalls when critics bashed a film, but when the audience flocked to see it week after week, the critics’ minds were changed. “So it always depends on the audience,” he said.

Very quickly I had to ask if there is any one actor that he would cast in every film or would want to work with regularly. “Absolutely,” he began. “I would want to cast Robert Downey Jr. in everything if I could … we weren’t going to cast him in “Chaplin” but as he exited he did a front flip, landed it, and walked like Chaplin off the stage. We just knew then … now he is just an unbelievable talent.”

Why is Michael Fenton news now? Not only should anybody who is interested in the Hollywood industry know his name, but also he recently helped in a collaborative effort to bring a new DVD to aspiring actors.

He has been giving lectures all across the country, in Canada and in England for years, trying to let actors know the way of Hollywood. So when this opportunity came up he was eager to host the set of videos that lets those coming to Hollywood with dreams skip many of the steps people claim you will need to go through.

“I’ve had people who have been actors for ten years tell me that they wish they would’ve had this ten years ago. They say it would’ve saved them a lot of time if they’d had known what I talk about in these DVDs.”

There isn’t one thing young actors waste the most time with. He did tell that most of them come to Hollywood with a headshot and a r/sum/, and that is not going to get them the roles. He would not go over exactly what they should be doing instead, all he said was to buy his DVD and you will be ahead of the game.

His DVD, which most actors and producers are calling an “Actor’s Bible,” is available on mikefenton.com or amazon.com for $69.95. If you want to know more about Mike Fenton, visit his Web site.

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