Not long ago, the idea of casting director David Rubin being president of the Academy of Motion Pictures Arts and Sciences would have fallen somewhere between pipe dream and delusional. It’s an unlikely story, and one that also could make him exactly the right person to lead at this moment: Just as he led casting directors out of the wilderness, he could do the same for the Academy.
It was only 14 years ago when casting directors were the only department heads who weren’t represented by a union. The producers and studios (AMPTP) refused to recognize them, labelling them independent contractors. The powerful Directors Guild turned them away, believing the path to unionization too steep and/or impossible. With Rubin as one of the movement’s many leaders, casting directors made a stand against the AMPTP in 2005 by forming an unlikely partnership with the Teamsters and threatening a work stoppage. That led to its first collectively bargained contract with Hollywood, along with healthcare, welfare, and pension benefits.
“There were others of us who were the more confrontational ones on the union fight than David,” said casting director Bernie Telsey, who spent last six years serving with Rubin and Lora Kennedy as the first Academy Governors of the newly formed Casting Directors Branch. “He was a voice of reason, which he always is. For him, it was just about making sure that people recognize that we are part of the collaboration and not just a hired hand.”
Rubin recognized that the industry didn’t wholly understand casting directors’ largely behind-the-scenes role. So he started working to ensure that people did, making it a mission to tell the story of how the modern-day concept of the casting director was invented in the ’50s and ’60s, in the wake of a crumbling studio system that saw actors becoming free agents. Two pioneers, Marion Dougherty and Lynn Stalmaster, set up independent casting shops, and Rubin was a Stalmaster disciple.
“As long as I’ve been in casting, David has been a beacon of gracious light,” said casting director Richard Hicks. “I think over the last 10-15 years we’ve come to understand how much more we are connected than we are separate and we are using that collective understanding to allow the industry to see what we do and the ways in which it should be valued. David’s role in that can’t be under-estimated.”
When Rubin became an Academy member, he started laying the groundwork for casting directors to have their own branch, like other below-the-line departments.
“It’s a testament to his leadership that we became a branch,” said Telsey. “He volunteered on every committee, he cared about everything the Academy was doing, even stuff that had nothing to do with casting. Beyond educating about crafts’ contribution to a film, he showed how much more our contribution could be to the Academy if we were our own branch.”
Tom Donahue’s documentary “Casting By” told the history of the craft through Dougherty’s story and made the full-throated argument that casting directors deserved Oscar recognition. It also shamed the Academy for failing to give Dougherty an honorary Oscar before her death in 2011, despite a campaign launched by heavyweights like Clint Eastwood and Al Pacino.
Meanwhile, the more nuanced and humble Rubin used the same history to lobby the Academy’s Board of Governors, even showing portions of the pre-released film, to make the case of the vital role casting directors play in Hollywood and the need for a seat at the table. The addition of the casting directors’ branch was approved by the Academy board just days before the film was set to premiere on HBO August 5, 2013.
“Before ‘Casting By,’ they didn’t have a myth they could hold onto and say, ‘This is us.’ David is someone who knows so well how to say, ‘This is us,’ and how to tell the story of casting directors,” said Donahue. “You need that external pressure, but you equally need someone on the inside like David who brilliantly manipulates the levers of power to make it happen.”
That ability — to build consensus behind-the-scenes, and make others feel like they came to the same conclusion — is a skill every casting director will tell you is essential to their job.
“You think about the job of a casting director, and all the egos they have to maneuver past,” said Casting Society of America president Russell Boast. “To get the right actors in front of the directors, producers, and studio executives, and convince them this is the right person for the part, that takes an incredible mastering of behind-the-scenes politics. David is the apotheosis of that to me.”
Once casting directors had their own branch, speculation turned to the fight for their own Oscar category. However, Rubin correctly saw the branch as a perch from which Hollywood could be educated about casting. In spring 2016, Telsey, Kennedy, and Rubin organized a lavish “Art of Casting” event that was almost like a staged live version of Donahue’s film. It set the table for the 88-year old Stalmaster to become the first casting director to receive an Oscar at the 2016 Governor Awards.
“David has always focused on our collaborative role, which is the approach he takes with everything in regards to the Academy as well,” said Telsey. “I’ve watched him on the board do the same thing. He is so collaborative in bringing in each branch, in bringing in each governor into decisions. Everything that everyone on that branch does, the film is the thing that we’re all collaborating on, so the Academy needs to run that way as well, and I think he’s thrived because he understands that consensus building.”
For the last two years Rubin has served as one of the Academy’s six officers, chairing the Membership and Administration committee. The hope is that Rubin’s intimate familiarity with his fellow Governors, Academy staff, and the institution’s internal politics, along with his consensus-building skills, will allow the Academy to avoid recent pitfalls like the “Spielberg vs Netflix” narrative, or Academy traditionalists campaigning for “Green Book” over Netflix’s “Roma” as last year’s Best Picture.
Similarly, it’s hard to imagine a comedy of errors like the one the Academy faced with the failed plan to cut half of the below-the-line craft awards from the Oscar broadcast. Outgoing Academy president John Bailey sincerely felt the changes would ultimately benefit the craft categories, but he failed to make the case to editors, costume designers, special effects artists, and other artisans. And while the Academy Museum seems to be mired in the mud, Rubin has a unique facility for demonstrating the importance of film history.
“Remembering the past to really highlight our future is what David has done in an incredibly successful way,” said Boast. Adds Tesley: “He’s going to be the perfect person to take us the finish line (with the museum) and getting everyone understanding why this is so important.”
As for how a behind-the-scenes operator will operate as the face of such scrutinized and famous institutions his casting friends and supporters take the question in stride.
“The thing about David is his passion,” said Boast. “When he stands up and he speaks, he always speaks from the heart and it’s why people listen. I think that the humility in the way that he presents himself is inspiring, and in terms of being the face of the Academy, he’s going to inspire all of us.”
Said Hicks, “Nuanced, gracious leadership has elevated the casting directors, and it’ll do the same for the Academy.”