The Composition of Career

Every so often we lose someone in Hollywood and a rush of emotion overtakes me. Reminds me of all the great many people – artists – I have been blessed to “work” with in my career.

Harris Savides died yesterday. I am not going to pretend here that we were friends, or that I even really knew him at all. If we are all merely just a collection of our own memories, then the best I can do to pay tribute to his passing is share my memories of time spent in his company. Memories that are mine and mine alone. The ones that overtake me and fill me with gratitude.

Back in 2004 I made the decision to put on the shelf my aspirations to direct films. Acting had been good to me since I showed up in L.A. in ’87, so why not give it everything and see what traction could be made. I had a wife and three boys by this time, so climbing up the tax bracket ladder seemed the wise play.

I signed with a mid level agency with the strategy we would build up my resume with all the hit shows on tv, re-introduce myself to the casting folks who might not be familiar with my “brand,” and get my mojo back in game form to go after the bigger, better, meatier roles.

Remember, fail to plan and you can plan on failing!

Kidding. But not really. I’m a firm believer in being specific when setting goals. So there.

Things immediately began to take form. Small roles on such shows as Desperate Housewives and the short-lived, but excellent, Steven Bochco show Over There turned in to sweet recurring gigs. Other bookings on Big Love and 24 proved to be great calling card credits on my resume and demo reel.

Then a call came out of the blue one day. Direct to my home, not to my agent. It was Laray Mayfield, a casting director whom I only knew from my work in commercials. Born and raised in Nashville, Laray is one of the straightest shooters you will find in LaLaLand. Known for a keen and prejudicial eye in casting, she has been David Fincher’s go-to gal for most of his career. The good directors know a keen and prejudicial casting eye when they meet one; and the smart ones – like Fincher – hang on tight as they progress.

The call went like this: “Hey John, it’s Laraaaay. (Southern twang music to mine ears!) Here’s what’s goin’ on. David’s doing Zodiac and he’s looking for a physical actor. Someone who can convey a lot with his body language. Cuz it’s a true story he needs a real specific type. I thought of you.”

My response went something like this: “Um, sounds really good, Laray. When do we start?”

Shocker, right?

“Well, here’s the thing, lemme send you the script. Take a look at it and tell me if you wanna do it, okaaaay?”

Moments later the pages scrolled through my fax machine. For those of you on twitter and instagram, fax machines were large, cumbersome telecommunication contraptions used by…ah, forget it. Google it under Smithsonian.

I snatched them up as quickly as they rolled out, reading the material swiftly and enthusiastically. Dang, I thought, I’m one of the Zodiac killer suspects! Wow, what a great opportunity.

But…why would Laray Mayfield think I might not want to do this?

I read it again. But this time I read all of the stage directions.

Upon closer examination, it was clear in the fine print that the viewer would never see the suspect’s face.

Made sense, after some thought. The infamous Zodiac serial killer case of the late 1960s was never solved. So…

Laray was being thoughtful and sensitive to the ego of all actors. What did Gloria Swanson say in Sunset Boulevard“Alright, Mr. Demille. I’m ready for my closeup.” Not many actors have been quoted saying: “Alright, Mr. Fincher. I’m ready to be cast in shadows and out of focus.”

Me being me, always anxious and eager to not only work on great projects, but work with the best directors in movies, I phoned her back immediately and said “I love this, Laray. Let’s do it!”

Enter my agent.

Suffice it to say, all that eagerness I mentioned two paragraphs ago was not shared by my peeps. “It only pays scale – and I don’t think you should take a role where you aren’t even seen.”

I calmly (ok, not so calmly) explained to her who David Fincher was, how long I had known Laray Mayfield, what a compliment it was to be considered for this role, and HOW NUTS SHE WAS TO NOT SEE THIS AS AN OUTSTANDING OPPORTUNITY!

I sometimes think the word “agent” is Latin for “job interceptor.”

Obviously, because ultimately an agent works for the actor, we took the job.

And I have thought about it almost every day since.

First, I remember going to the Warner Brothers costume department to be fitted. All my actor readers can relate. How great is it to go to fittings at the studios? Such a wonderfully specific feeling of anticipation and validation all rolled up in 30 minutes of trying on clothes to fit your character. And when it’s a period piece? Forget it. So much fun.

In the case of Zodiac I would be trying on distinctly period (mid ’60s) blue-collar, workmanlike trousers and button downs. The costumers worked from a collection of actual suspect photos from the crime file, and anyone who knows David Fincher knows the man is extremely specific in all aspects of his craft. My character’s “look” had to be perfect to convey what Fincher wanted from my scenes.

Finding the perfect eye glasses was our biggest challenge.

We found ’em. The young guy who propped me with them was simultaneously working with Spike Jonze on prepping Where the Wild Things Are. How cool was that? Very.

Then the details rolled in on the job.

I would work four days on Zodiac. The “days” would actually be very long “nights,” so I would stay in a hotel in Camarillo for three nights, basically so I could sleep all day and get ready for 8:00 P.M. call times.

My character, listed in the credits as ‘Zodiac 4,’ waves  a female driver to the shoulder and informs her that her back tire is loose. Being the good Samaritan, he offers to tighten the lug nuts for her. After doing so he sends her on her way only for her tire to come completely off, thus stranding her on the roadside, now in need of his further good will – a ride.

It is now we learn she is traveling with her young baby. The plot thickens.

It’s a tense, macabre scene – made more, when the viewer remembers the events in this film actually happened.

The lovely Ione Skye was wisely cast as the damsel in distress, ‘Kathleen Johns.’ Being a huge Say Anything fan, imagine my…excitement? to get to terrorize her on death highway.

It was an extremely challenging shoot. Working in the early A.M. hours, temperatures in the low 40s, sitting for long stretches in cramped vintage show cars, grappling with gruesome dialogue and circumstances – it was no walk in the park.

It came as no surprise to me that Fincher was top-notch in his direction. My interaction with him stuck to my ribs and not a day goes by when I don’t think about my experience on his set and what I learned from him. His direct nature and astute understanding of the process of acting and creating a character are second to none.

I could give a two-hour lecture on the deconstruction/construction direction I received from David Fincher. Direction given on the fly and between takes.

What did surprise is me is just how much he turned over artistic control to his cinematography team.

Fincher’s films consistently deliver rich, textured visuals. They are a big part of his signature as a filmmaker.

And like all good filmmakers, Fincher has surrounded himself with the best of the best. Like Harrison Savides.

Dead at age 55. What a shame.

Often, and I am not unique in this, actors take away with them from a job the little moments. The stuff that goes on in the down-time. The waiting and chatting and time spent with cast and crew that you grow to love and admire.

I remember so vividly huddling in the cold behind Fincher and Savides as they stared with sublime scrutiny at their giant flat screen monitor – setting their lighting and composition to “perfection.” They were the first to use the cutting edge Thomson Viper FilmStream digital camera, so there was an element of kids in candy store going on.

So happy to be a part of it. So happy to be seeing master craftsmen up close.

So happy to turn and see someone from craft service bringing hot bowls of chili to the set. It was obvious that Harris loved to eat. Don’t we all.

So happy to get back in the warmth of the transport vans, bonding together, knowing everyone is kicking butt to make yet another butt kicking David Fincher film.

So happy to hear the words “Moving on,” knowing you just put something good in the can.

So happy to be in the company of artists like David Fincher, Harris Savides and the many others who dig in on these projects and throw down the good stuff.

So sad now to know that Harris Savides’ resume is finit. But what a resume.

Thank you, Laray Mayfield. I’ll take your call any day of the week.

2 thoughts on “The Composition of Career

  1. Thank you. After nearly two years of blogging now, I have found that writing my tributes is the most rewarding. Gives me a chance to share some of my personal experiences while honoring those I have been blessed to work with. So glad you are reading. You might also enjoy my tribute to River Phoenix.

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