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Guest Post: Making Period Films on a Budget and the Importance of Authentic Casting

Guest Post: Making Period Films on a Budget and the Importance of Authentic Casting

As a feature-film writer-director, I’ve created a wide range of projects: a Western about a
woman who passes as a man, a neo-noir thriller about a bedridden gossip, a musical-drama
about an ethno-musicologist in Appalachia and now with “Sophie and the Rising Sun,” an interracial love story. Though
vastly different projects, they have one thing in common: all were inspired by
a single, interesting female protagonist, and, though set in the past, they
have themes that translate to the modern world: sexism, homophobia and racism.

Filmmakers may
be hesitant to take on a period film because it’s difficult to do on a low
budget, and they’re concerned about making films relevant to contemporary
audiences. For me, stories from the past say things about the present more
obliquely and more subtly, and in a way that resonates more truly and deeply
than if they were drawn from yesterday’s news. 

“Sophie and the Rising Sun” is set in a small Southern town in 1941. Sophie,
the town spinster, has her solitary life upended by the arrival of Mr. Ohta, a
mysterious Asian man, with whom she falls in love. When Pearl Harbor is bombed,
a wave of bigotry and violence sweeps through the town, threatening Mr. Ohta
and those who care for him. With courage and cunning, an unlikely trio of women
band together, defying the law and propriety to save him. 

Although the
crisis these characters face is from a different era, sadly, “Sophie and the Rising Sun” is
tragically modern regarding race relations and bigotry today. In fact, Nancy
Dickenson, our executive producer, was inspired to option Augusta Trobaugh’s book and turn it
into a film because she saw us doing the same thing to Arab-Americans after
9/11 as we did to Japanese-Americans after Pearl Harbor. Unfortunately, the film
relates even more strongly today regarding black-white relations in the US. These
ties between the past and the present are the reasons I am drawn to making
period films. We see parallels between events long ago and now and must question how
much — or how little — has changed.

When making a
period film, the essence of a time and place is in the details. Focusing on
what is essential to create the world of the story is the way I approach making
a period film on a modest budget. However, the most important aspect, always, is casting —
authentic casting. There are many wonderful actors who may not be believable in
a historic setting. For Sophie, the only
certainty from early on was that Margo Martindale had to play Anne, the lonely Sophie’s
only friend. Margo embodied our character. Full of life and humor, she fit
effortlessly into our pre-WWII world. And she is one of the greatest actresses
of our time. 

Margo suggested
Julianne Nicholson, with whom she made “August:
Osage County.” I fell in love with her immediately and knew she was my
Sophie. An extraordinary actor of incredible delicacy and depth and an
unconventional beauty, she would be perfectly believable as a small-town
spinster.

After Lorraine
Toussaint’s tour-de-force performance in Season 2 of “Orange
Is the New Black,” approaching her was a long shot I had to take. I knew the
character of Salome had to be powerful, even though she is supposed to be
subservient to the whites in the story. Lorraine, a truly great actress, is also
regal and magnificent.

And Diane Ladd was
the brilliant suggestion of our casting director, Donna Morong. One of the last
great movie stars, Diane’s record of awards and nominations speaks to her
extraordinary talent.

Casting the role
of Mr. Ohta was the most difficult. Originally, we thought we’d cast an
Asian-American actor. But as these men auditioned — and they were excellent
actors — they were, well, American. They had typical American swagger and
confidence and did not seem to be from another culture; they did not seem to be
“other.”

We felt strongly
about respecting the distinctiveness of the race and culture and committed to
casting a Japanese actor. I’m an American Ashkenazi Jew. I’ve seen lots of
films that cast, for instance, Italian-American actors as Jews, and I always
find it unbelievable and annoying. So we began a worldwide search for the
perfect Japanese actor to play Ohta. After auditioning many wonderful actors,
Takashi Yamaguchi was clearly our Ohta. He is a brilliant actor, sensitive,
handsome and was completely comfortable working with four powerful women. And
able to hold his own with each of them.

With each film
you, you learn to trust your instincts more and more and to make decisions
that are right for the material, for the story and for the characters. During
the financing process, a high-powered man in Hollywood suggested we add a
sequence of extremely violent retribution. I thought we should consider this
because we were having trouble raising the financing and I was concerned about
the film’s appeal. So, I went away and rewrote per his suggestions. We — our
executive producers and producer, all women — hated it. Not because of the
bloodshed, but because this was so horribly false for our characters. There was
no question for us, and we scrapped it.

That decision —
a hard one but the right one — was part of trusting our voices as women. And because
we had women in all key positions on this film, there was an understanding of
our characters that never needed explaining. There was never a moment when I
had to say, well, she wouldn’t do that because we all got it.

The exorbitant
demands of releasing a film theatrically have severely limited the creative
opportunities of feature filmmaking. And making period films on restricted
budgets adds to the challenges. But finding the present in the past makes for incredibly
rewarding storytelling that is completely relevant to contemporary audiences. Our
story, “Sophie and the Rising Sun,”
opens a window into the lives of oft-portrayed women in a way that I believe is
more truly how we see ourselves.

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