|Film Director Tom Donahue Explores The World of Casting Film & TV
If you’re an actor or casting professional, or aspire to be one, then you should get to know Tom
Why? Because his latest documentary film, “Casting By,” is going to give you an in depth look at
the history of the Casting profession.
IAE caught up with Tom to not only discuss “Casting By,” but also to learn more about his awesome
journey as a filmmaker.
IAE: Please tell us where you’re from and what inspired you to pursue a career in entertainment?
TD: I was born in the Hudson River Valley of Upstate New York, in a town called Rhinebeck, but grew up about
six miles north of there in a place called Red Hook. What inspired me was when I saw the movie ‘Jaws,’ in 1975
at a drive-in, and then two years later ‘Star Wars’ came out. Those two films sort of put me on the road to
becoming a filmmaker, and in junior high and high school I would make super 8 movies, which helped me sort
of get my feet wet.
IAE: Many people will say, “If you have a dream, then go for it…” but they hardly ever share a plan
to survive the early struggles of pursuing that dream. As you were building your film career, how
did you survive the tough times?
TD: I learned the craft early on, so while I was in film school I realized I had a knack for editing and when I got
out of (film) school, I took up an apprenticeship as an editor. I could have made a lot more money as a
commercial editor had I fallen back on that skill set, but that type of work also consumes your life, and I didn’t
learn my craft so that I could make commercials. The question that I had to ask myself was, “Do I want to just
make money, or do I want to do what I really love?” So I worked around the clock balancing what I wanted to
do, with making a living in advertising. Four years after school, while working on commercials as a junior editor,
I decided to take the leap and I began to freelance. Eventually, I phased out commercial editing and went into
production, then directing.
IAE: What was your first job and how did it come about?
TD: My first job outside of commercials was editing a long form documentary for HBO called, “Naked States.” It
was about the artist/photographer, Spencer Tunick, who gets thousands of people naked across the U.S. and
shoots really big photographs of them.
IAE: You edit, produce, and direct; how does that play to your advantage?
TD: In LA it’s much more stratified that, someone like me who has developed a number of skill sets, would end
up falling into a certain expertise. For example, you’ll hear people in LA say, “I edit trailers; I edit EPKs; I edit
features; I edit narratives; I edit documentaries” and so on. Whereas in New York, I think you have the freedom
to go from using one skill to another. Ultimately (in New York), you have less money, but more opportunity to
experiment in all the different aspects of filmmaking.
IAE: What projects are you currently working on?
TD: The documentary that I’m working on right now is called “Casting By.” Initially, it started out being about the
pioneer Casting Director, Marion Dougherty, and how she almost single-handedly created the profession. I’ve
done over 65 interviews thus far and I’m almost there. Some of the folks we’ve interviewed are Norman Lear,
Robert Redford, Robert Duvall, Channing Tatum, Richard Donner, George Lucas, Diane Lane, Brooke
Shields, Glenn Close, and a whole bunch more (check the IMBD for “Casting By”). I realize that there are other
prominent and important Casting Directors like Lynn Stalmaster and Fred Roos, who have done a lot to define
the profession, because before these individuals were doing it, there was no casting profession.
Under the “studio system” of old, actors were under contract so producers and/or directors basically picked
from a menu [column A and Column B] and then decide who they were going to put in their movies. In the 50’s
and 60’s, with the emergence of TV and the decline of the studio system, things started to really change.
These people [Marion, William, Fred] were in the right place at the right time. The Studios needed people who
knew how to find and bring the actors to each project. Marion discovered James Dean, Gene Hackman,
Warren Beatty, Jon Voight, Bette Midler, Glenn Close, and so many of the great actors that are working in
Hollywood today. I’m so lucky that I get to have an hour or two with these people and ask them whatever I want.
It’s such an amazing learning experience.
My last documentary was called “Guest of Cindy Sherman” and it’s coming out on DVD and iTunes soon. It’s a
romance between a really famous artist named Cindy Sherman and my co-director Paul Hasegawa-Overacker
and how their relationship goes wrong over 6 years. In addition, it takes a look at the crazy New York art world.
IAE: What would you say is the most challenging as well as the most rewarding aspect of your job?
TD: The most challenging is the constant worry about raising money for your project. You always have to
cultivate investors and always worrying about closing deals; it’s a real pain in the butt sometimes, because all
you want to do is be creative and make your film. Truthfully, half of your time is spent chasing money, and it
happens at every level in the business.
I love the process of filmmaking, doing the interviews, staging the scenes, going to festivals, etc. But I would
say that the most rewarding part is screening at a film festival and talking to the audience afterwards. When
you have audience members who are really moved by your work and a dialogue is created as a result of that,
or you read the blogs of people talking about your film and it (film) starts to become a part of a cultural
conversation, it’s very rewarding.
IAE: As the director of ‘Casting By,’ what advice would you give to actors about auditioning?
TD: After doing a lot of interviews with a lot of casting directors, I would say training is extremely important!
There is so much time between jobs that can lead to an actor getting rusty. An actor always needs to be
working on his/her craft, whether it’s staging a play, taking workshops, or attending a reputable acting school. I
know it can get expensive but you have to balance the job that’s making you money with the job you love and
want to do for a living. You have to go out there and keep doing it and don’t worry about making money,
because if you work hard, stay focused, and make smart decisions, soon the money will follow.
IAE: Where do you see the film business going?
TD: Hollywood has a trend going on right now where they continue to make these $200Million comic book
productions. There was an article I read recently which stated that, maybe audiences are getting “sequel-it is,”
because the sequels haven’t been performing as well as they had done in previous years. As the audience
grows tired of that trend, I feel bad for the Studios because I don’t know what they have lined up to replace that
because as of now, that’s all there seems to be right now. Buying the rights to comic books and making them
into movies will eventually fizzle out. But this is happening because of the corporate mentality that exists with
studios, and they need to feed all of their different arms; from amusement parks, clothing lines and other
merchandising that are created to coincide off of these movie properties. They can no longer make ‘The
Graduate’ or ‘Deliverance’ – all these movies that my documentary (Casting By) is focusing on. Those movies
are not even made by independents now because that whole part of the industry has bottomed out.
I just started a company with my partner called, ‘Creative Chaos,’ and we have a small fund. We are putting
financing into multi-platform documentaries that can work on the web, as well as theatrical or television
releases. We aren’t sure where it’s going to go, but we sense that there is opportunity in that.
IAE: If you could change anything about the film business what would it be and why?
TD: It’s hard to say because there are so many things that I don’t like about it, and I have no idea of how to
change them for the better without causing further problems [laughs]. But if I had to pick one in particular, I
would start with the talent agents and managers who get in the way of progress. Things would run so much
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