Ensemble pics may not deliver big paydays, but they can polish a resume with shiny kudos
Call it the “Crash” effect. Due in part to the surprise success of “Crash” and its multilayered casting, ensemble-style films are showing plenty of traction during this awards season.
There’s a wide array of prestige projects that have come into play as contenders, including “Little Miss Sunshine,” “The Departed,” “Bobby,” “The Queen,” “Babel” and “Little Children.”
The initial upside and downside are obvious.
“Being in an ensemble reduces the pot from which actors get paid drastically,” notes one veteran agent. “But if you want to get an Oscar, or at least get nominated, it’s a good way to do it. And it’s a good way to class up your resume and show your versatility — particularly if you’ve been in a few recent films that didn’t perform.”
Often, the arrangement calls for actors to receive “favored nations” treatment — meaning everyone gets the same thing. “A lot of these you do for the love of acting,” one former studio president says.
“The Departed” is the most prominent contender of the lot this year, thanks to an array of major stars led by Jack Nicholson, Leonardo DiCaprio and Matt Damon, followed by such leading lights as Martin Sheen, Mark Wahlberg and Ray Winstone. For producer Graham King, scheduling was a huge element of making the production work over the 90-day shoot.
“It becomes very difficult when you have a movie of this size because the actors are in such demand,” he notes. “Ray Winstone did ours, went and did ‘Breaking and Entering,’ and then did ours again. One of the big factors in setting schedules was getting Matt Damon out so he could go shoot ‘The Good Shepherd.’ ”
King believes Scorsese’s stature as the director made potential problems disappear.
“In this case, the respect that
Marty gets from actors made this fairly easy, especially since this one was right in his wheelhouse,” he adds. “I think his genius is dealing with all the moving parts and making sure that everyone got the attention they needed.”
King also admits to being fortunate. “We got very lucky with the timing of this, partly from the fact that the actors came to us, so we did not have to wait for someone like CAA to package it
for us or get back to us on it,” he recalls. “Leo and Matt told Marty to cast them in whichever part he thought would work best.”
“The Departed,” with its searing portrayals of the inner workings of a Boston criminal gang and the police officers tracking it, would seem to have little in common with the other films on the list. But similarities abound, since the other projects center on bringing dysfunctional relationships to life.
“When you have a family, it’s very important that you cast it as a whole, so one piece of casting is going to affect every other piece of casting,” notes Ron Yerxa, who partnered with longtime associate Albert Berger on both “Little Miss Sunshine” and “Little Children.”
“Sunshine” needed five years of development to get to the screen and the casting of the four adult roles, played by Greg Kinnear, Toni Collette, Steve Carell and Paul Dano. Casting directors looked at more than 40 actors for each role; young star Abigail Breslin was chosen via a nationwide search.
“We needed them to look like a bit of a motley crew, but they also had to look like a credible family and not something that was just pieced together,” Yerxa notes. “It’s a delicate balance because you don’t want to gild the lily so you have too much of an ensemble with stars all over the place overwhelming the movie. In our case, Steve Carell was just starting to get into people’s consciousness.”
Since “Sunshine” was independently financed, that removed potential studio pressure to go with more recognizable faces. “We didn’t have to worry about market forces in making casting choices,” Yerxa says.
Prior to shooting, directors Jonathan Dayton and Valerie Faris arranged for the cast to hang out over several days, including going bowling together.
By contrast, director Todd Field opted for a more conventional approach for “Little Children,” which stars Kate Winslet, Patrick Wilson, Jennifer Connelly, Gregg Edelman, Jackie Earl Haley, Noah Emmerich and Phyllis Somerville.
“Todd was pretty traditional in how he prepped the cast,” Berger recalls. “There was lots of rehearsing. He knew exactly what he wanted, and he’s exceptional at explaining that to actors.”
Although “Children” is supposed to be set in the Boston suburbs, it was shot in Queens in order to accommodate Winslet. Berger was impressed at how quickly she picked up, from Field and her castmates, on the nuances of family life in the American suburbs.
“If you hadn’t seen her previous work, you would never guess she’s British,” he adds.
Exploring the intricacies of being British was the key driver behind “The Queen,” according to producer David Harries.
“The two leads were the building blocks for the juxtaposition of the monarchy staying in the past and the rise of the Labor Party,” he says. “There was a wonderful symmetry to it, so doing it through an ensemble seemed obvious.”
But the task at hand turned out to be especially daunting, because of the fame of the personalities and events from the period in 1997, along with shooting in three palaces. Director Stephen Frears opted for five days of rehearsals and used consultants who are experts on the royal family; he also arranged for the cast to watch the extensive footage of the events surrounding the death of Princess Diana.
“Several of the characters were very difficult to nail, particularly charting Tony Blair’s journey,” Harries says. “We tested the film a lot to make sure we were accurate. Doing the tests could have been horrendous, but it gave us confidence as the shoot went on.”
One of the gambles was to go with American thesp James Cromwell to portray Prince Philip.
“We liked Cromwell because he had the physique, but what was impressive was how he got Philip’s voice, which is very aristocratic,” Harries says. “With Charles and Philip, we were operating with both of them well known and caricatured by comedians, so we really had to get below the surface.”
Although the basic story line remained unchanged, Frears tweaked extensively.
“Some of the flippant lines had to be pulled out because, although they looked OK on paper, they just didn’t sound right,” Harries recalls. “What we were facing was getting the nuances of this right, so the parts other than the leads were really key, like Helen McCrory playing Cherie Blair. They couldn’t be there just for exposition.”