Chapter Nine: "I'm Looking for a Few Good Men..." (Miss Evers' Boys)
Of the nearly 75 shows I've cast, "Miss Evers' Boys" is a close second to my "Oldest Living Confederate Widow" as favorite show I cast. It was probably the most challenging of all of them.
The film took place in the 1930's and the 1970's and was a fictional account of the "Tuskegee Study of Untreated Syhlipis in the Negro Male."
The LOOK was excruciatingly important. The film was probably 85% African American men and they all had to be rail thin. They had to look period and they had to have great faces.
It was challenging because this was a look we had to go out and find on the streets. You can paper the town and hold all the open calls you want, but at the end of the day, you are going to have to get in your car and find these people.
When I worked at Central Casting, we had an amazing data base. The images were digital - taken of the talent when they register in the office. Information such as race, sex, height, weight, clothes sizes, phone numbers - everything you need to know are input into one main frame and it's searchable.
Back in 1996, we didn't have digital cameras. (That didn't cost the same as putting a man on the moon.) And with on location casting, you need up to date information. If someone wants to be an extra on a film, they send in their picture and staple their information to it. So you have everything from a headshot, to a graduation photo, circa 1974, to a group shot with all the other faces x-ed out.
And usually if you call someone from a photo used in a previous project, they have long forgotten about being an extra and could care less in the present moment.
And with on location casting, you don't have people that are professional background artists - and that this is all they do. They have day jobs.
The production office for "Miss Evers' Boys" was exactly one mile from the Turner campus on West Peachtree, directly across the street from the Arts CenterMARTA station. Because extras casting is the lowest on the totem pole, I was placed at a desk in the very front lobby. I became the unofficial receptionist for production, until shooting started. After principal photography started, I was allowed to move into the office of the director of photography.
I started with the open calls. We held a series of open calls in the office. I spoke to radio stations, newspapers. Soon, photographs and snapshots arrived at the office and I began filing them.
Cynthia's mother was very ill. She knew that it was only a matter of time. Cynthia drove back and forth to Savannah. I took the lead and recruited Cindy to be my partner, once again. It's like when Bill Paxton turns to the old lady in that movie about the sinking boat, "are you ready to go back to Titanic?"
The film starred amazing actors. Alfre Woodard, Laurence Fishburne, Ossie Davis, Obba Babatunde, E G Marshall, and Joe Morton. It was directed by Joseph Sargent, who is just about the best director for made for television and made for cable movies.
Our first order of business, aside from setting up the files, was the dance scene. In Los Angeles and New York, dancers are "contract" performers. In Georgia, a right to work state (meaning that performers can join the union, but production is not required to hire union performers), they are extras. We worked with the choreographer to find dancers, scouring all the dance studios in Atlanta.
We began shooting in Porterdale, which was just on the other side of Covington. I drove into Porterdale and put up posters all over town advertising for extras. I also stopped at the Department of Labor, which helps find jobs for people as well.
I stopped at a gas station and saw an old African American man sitting on a porch. I asked him if he wanted to be in the movie. He had no teeth and one eye. And he didn't say much.
"Well, do you have any friends or family that might want to be in the movie?"
He just stared at me.
Something about this man told me, he was a gatekeeper I needed.
"I think you'd be--" I started and he got up off the porch, walked over to my car and opened the passenger door of my new Saturn and got in.
I think the words, "oh, holy, crap" crossed my mind. I walked over and got in the drivers seat.
"Drive," he warbled, reeking of smoke.
I drove down the street and he told me to stop at a liquor store. We went in and he instructed me to buy a carton of Salems. At this point, I just thought, why the hell not. One day this will be an interesting story to tell and I would love to explain the twenty dollars for a carton of Salems on my petty cash report.
I did. He put them in his coat. We got back in the car.
"Drive. I'll tell you when to stop."
Figuring that I was now Driving Mr. Daisy and was going to end up in Panama City, I did. About three miles down the road he said, "turn here."
"Turn WHERE?" There was no road.
"There's not a road!"
I pulled off the road and down into the woods. Fantastic. He's taking me into the woods to kill me. I should have stopped and said, "get out," but in the distance I saw a bunch of trailers. As we got closer, I saw that these trailers were extremely run down and there were tool sheds serving as homes as well.
And this is how I'm going to die.
I stopped the car. He got out and walked into a trailer.
I sat in the car and watched as several children emerged. Then several women appeared.
I looked around my car for anything that could be used as a weapon, in the event I was going to have to fight my way out. I finally sighed and resigned my fate.
I got out. Yes, goofy, 6'2" white boy emerged and began his song and dance.
"Hi. I'm working on a movie and I was wondering if you guys wanted to be in it?"
They stared at me. I'm not sure who was more confused about my presence. Them or me.
They didn't say anything.
Then the men emerged.
And this is how I'm going to die.
"You a cop?"
I laughed. A little too high. "Me? Do I look like a cop? No, I'm a casting director. I'm working on a movie. We're shooting nearby. I'm looking for people to be in it."
A young boy, his name was LeRoy, came out holding a baby. A BABY! I needed a baby! I could use him and what I assumed was his baby brother!
No, the baby was LeRoy's. LeRoy was thirteen years old.
With a burst of confidence I talked to everyone. I arranged to cast all of them for the scene that would shoot the next day. I needed thirteen people and they would be the people.
As I was leaving, I told them to meet me down the street at the church at five in the morning.
"We don't have a car."
"You... NO ONE has a car?"
They all shook their heads.
"Uh, fine. I'll pick you up. But you HAVE to be ready."
On my way out of the woods, I stopped and tied a piece of tape to a tree, so I could find the road the next morning.
The next morning... now see, honestly, in hind sight, I don't know how I got away with this and how I didn't wind up in prison. It happened. I swear it did. But to this day, I'm not sure what possessed me and how I got away with it.
I found my way to the road and began driving in, when I saw police lights from a cruiser near the trailers. I pulled up and the police were just as surprised to see me, as I was them.
"What are you doing here?"
"I'm working on the movie and I'm taking these people to set." I saw LeRoy in the cruiser.
They were taking LeRoy.
But see, we had a problem. Cause I needed LeRoy and I needed LeRoy's baby. In my mind, if they took LeRoy, I couldn't have the baby.
"You can't have him," I said.
"I need him. I need him and his baby."
"We're taking him in for questioning on a murder."
"What!? LeRoy couldn't kill anyone."
They just stared at me like I was an alien. And I was playing character witness to someone I didn't know.
"Besides, LeRoy was with me yesterday afternoon."
The rest of tent city just stared at me like I was a Jesse James. I FELT LIKE Jesse James. More importantly... in three hours, cameras were going to be rolling and I NEEDED LEROY'S BABY.
"Look, I don't think you understand. I need LeRoy and I need his baby. Now you guys can follow us to set, but I need him in the first shot."
Seriously... no idea how I got away with this. I guess in the early days of casting, I took everything so seriously that it was life or death. MY life. MY death.
And when I need something, not even the arm of the law can stop me.
Six people climbed into my car and we drove to the church. The police cruiser followed me out. I assumed they were taking him to jail.
A woman in the backseat finally broke the silence. "You are one crazy bitch."
"Sister, you have no idea."
I pulled into crew parking and the cruiser followed me in.
Now I had another problem all together that I had not considered. I now have two cops attached to one of my extras. Try explaining THAT to a production. "Oh, those guys? Well, they are waiting for us to get the shot before they take him in to question him about a murder."
I dropped off the first group and then drove back to pick up the next group of six. The baby was taken by a neighbor. I had the baby. That was all that was important.
As it turns out, LeRoy talked to the cops and they left him alone. When one of the set PAs asked why the police were in crew parking, I just smiled and said, "they were nice enough to help me drive the extras to set."
If you go back and watch the movie, the scene I am referring to is the scene in which Alfre is talking to a group of people about the "good medicine" and the scene ends with her saying, "look at this beautiful baby."
It would also be THE clip used for every awards show, the show was nominated for.
After we shot our extras out - meaning, they were done for the day - craft service packed a large box of food and drinks for the extras and the transportation captain arranged for a van to drive everyone back home.
Once we returned to Atlanta to shoot, the number of extras working per day tripled. Problems grew. We got great pictures sent in - but no name or contact info on the pictures. They were mounted on the "wall of shame."
We got great faces. Unfortunately, they had enormous bodies that would never fit into the period wardrobe. We got great faces, but they had mutli-colored weaves. We got great faces, but they couldn't work all day.
I remember casting at two in the morning, trying to find people for a scene that would work in the early hours of the morning. And I called asking for "Tomeka."
Me: Is Tomeka there?
Man: No. She out.
Me: Will she be coming in tonight?
Man: Who this?
Me: My name is Chad Darnell. I'm casting the movie "Miss Evers' Boys."
Man: You doing what?
Me: Yes, casting.
Man: What does that mean? You going to put her in a mold?
Me: No, I put people in the movies. The people that don't talk.
Man: How did you get my number?
Me: Tomeka sent me her picture.
Man: So why do you want Tomeka?
Me: I want to put her in the movie!
Man: Tomeka going to be in a movie?!
At this point, I threw myself backwards in my chair, in frustration. The chair tipped over and I hit my head on the table behind me. I fell out of the chair. I couldn't do anything but laugh and cry.
"Tomeka going to be in a movie" became our catch phrase for moments of tension.
Then there was the "Princess of Unity." That was her name. She wouldn't allow us to print her real name on her check. She was the "Princess of Unity." She held up check-in with my coordinator for ten minutes, as I had people backed up. I walked over and asked what was the problem. "Honey, I don't care if you call yourself the Queen of England, but the tax forms must match whatever you report to."
Apparently, she is the "Princess of Unity."
During our third week of shooting, we moved into the city and began shooting the hospital scenes. These scenes required hundreds of men, mostly shirtless. It required the gauntest of the gaunt.
We shot in an area of town that a skinny white boy had no business being in. With production shooting at a school, I would spend my nights walking out to a well lit street corner and standing. Like Covington, first the children would come out. Then the women. Once the women asked me what I was doing there, the men would come out. Within thirty minutes, I was surrounded.
One night, one of Atlanta's finest cruised up with his search light pointing at my circle. He got out, walked over, jerked me aside, and everyone scattered.
"Just what in the hell do you think you are doing!? Trying to get yourself killed!?"
"No, I'm TRYING to cast my movie. And you just scared them all off!"
"Have you lost your mind!? You don't have ANY business being out here at this hour."
I, for some reason, had no fear whatsoever. I was offering these people jobs. Money. Plus, I had a feeling that I was being watched over.
Night after night, I would say a little prayer, and then wander out into the night, wandering the streets, waiting for the kids. Then the women. Then the men.
Of course, this was not a fool proof plan. For every ten men I talked to, three would show up the next day. That's why I had to talk to as many as possible. Every morning I would make an announcement in extras holding, "if anyone has a friend that wants to work, come see me and you can call from my cell phone."
And since we were filming in a neighborhood, they would often leave set, often in wardrobe and never come back. Wardrobe hated me. "Can't you find people that aren't going to steal our clothes?" Sadly, I don't do background checks when casting.
During our last week of filming, "the riot scene," which appeared in and out of the script pages during the shoot, was finally decided it would "in." Filming was expected to shoot on a Friday, but at the last minute, it was decided we would have to shoot a day early.
The riot scene involved a protest in which Alfre Woodard's character simply walked from a car, up the steps and into the capital building. A scene that would last a few seconds and involve two hundred extras. (A scene that would get cut from the final film).
This was cake. The protesters were all white. I had white people in droves. We began lining the white people up. Again, keep in mind, while it was easy to find them, it took close to ten minutes per person to explain wardrobe and give them directions. Assume one person books six to seven people an hour. You are looking at two people working 14 hours straight and doing nothing else.
Not terrible. Not fun.
At midnight the night before, just as we were wrapping up to go home - they added 75 people. 75 men to be exact.
It's one thing to sit down and start calling out men. It's another to find 75 in seven hours, who are not go to work the next day and make minimum wage.
I nearly had a stroke.
At this point, we had been working sixteen, eighteen hour days for weeks. In addition to finding 75 men, paperwork would have to be done.
I lost it. I closed the door and burst into sobs. Cindy came in, ever the cheerleader. "Come on! We can do this! Just start calling! You just need to focus!"
"Cindy! We are NOT sitting here and calling out to five hundred men in hopes of finding seventy five!" I went from loss to rage. "This is bullshit! Where in hell are we going to find seventy five men at midnight!"
If this were a movie, you would immediately hear the horns of The Village People and the beginning "YMCA."
I don't think Cindy and I even talked. I grabbed my coat, she grabbed hers. We got in my car and drove five blocks to Backstreet.
Backstreet, which is now closed, is a predominately gay club in Atlanta that used to be open 24 hours. There were three levels and it was always packed.
We arrived and I asked to speak to the manager. I explained my situation. He told me "good luck."
See, to me "good luck" means, "I'm giving you permission to do whatever you want."
I made my way to the DJ booth and spoke to the club kid inside. The music stopped and I took the microphone. There were screams and shouts from the men and women below.
"I'm looking for a few good men," I said. Screams, catcalls - I was a rock star. "Seventy five, good men to be exact." Screams, applause. Someone yelled show us your tits! At that point, I would have stripped naked and done a pole dance, I was so desperate.
"Do you think you could be my man?" Woo-hoo! "You want to come play with me?" Screams. "I... want... you... all... and when I'm done with you, I'll buy you breakfast."
The deal was closed. We told the men to meet us at the capital building the next morning at six. When they balked, I suggested they just stay out all night.
Six hours later, magically, I had 75 new men. Granted they looked like they had all been run over by a truck, but nothing a few barrels of coffee couldn't fix.
The days began to wind down on production. During the shoot, Cynthia's mother passed away and she remained in Savannah, dealing with her mother's estate.
For me, the show was exhausting. It nearly broke me me in half. But it was one of the most rewarding. I was very proud of my work. I wish I had taken pictures. But at least it lives on in DVD.
As I was wrapping out the office, I received a phone call for Cynthia from a production manager in Savannah. He wanted to talk to Cynthia about casting the film, "The Gingerbread Man." The movie sounded vaguely familiar. After doing a little bit of research, I discovered why.
It was to be directed by Robert Altman.
In film school, we were to pick one director and study that director intensively. The director I picked: Robert Altman.
I would have cut off on arm to work on that film. I called Cynthia. Relayed the message. The last thing in the world she wanted was to stay in Savannah any longer than necessary. She certainly didn't want to work on a movie in Savannah. I begged and pleaded for her to take the interview and pitch me as casting the movie, suggesting she go in for prep and I take it over.
She told me she would think about it.
A few days later, I was in a car, driving to Savannah to meet with production. Cynthia pitched to production that she would start and prep the film. Once production started, she would leave and I would take over.
They were not sold on me. Cynthia was the Savannah native. Cynthia knew the area. But they would at least meet with me.
"Miss Evers' Boys" would later go on to win tons of awards including the "Outstanding Casting."
Guess who's name was not on the award.