David Fincher’s work features a compelling cast of characters. Working alongside the filmmaker to give these characters life on the screen, by lifting them off the page and placing them into the hands of actors, has been casting director Laray Mayfield.
One of the many integral collaborative roles in the filmmaking process, casting can be lost in the shadows and wholly underappreciated. The right actor for the right part is as fundamentally important as walking onto set with a good idea, story and script. The masterpieces that comprise the cinematic heritage are rarely attributed to the talents of just one creative individual, and the casting director is invaluable in overseeing the creation of a character that will endure.
Film International’s Paul Risker had the privilege to speak with Laray Mayfield about her work with David Fincher, casting as part of the mechanism of the filmmaking process, and her thoughts on future producing credits.
Why a career as a casting director?
I was working with David as his assistant way back in the 80s when I first came to Los Angeles. After a couple of years of working with him he suggested that I look at casting a little more seriously, and so I did. I always liked actors; I am fascinated by them and I love to watch great acting. So it was something David suggested that was based on my interests.
So you knew David before you cast your first film for him, Fight Club (1999)?
Yes, long before. I met Dave in the spring of 1986.
So you’ve been in the privileged position to watch one of the great modern directors mature as a filmmaker. How would describe David Fincher and how would you assess his professional journey?
David is a rare and unique person, and I remember that about him when I first met him in 1986, but he’s still very much today like the person he was back then. He was focused, very clear on what he wanted to do and what was important to him, and he had an incredible work ethic. So with David it is just to see more of him, and to see all of those great qualities that he has had from the very beginning continue to grow.
Back in 2010 when The Social Network was released, one critical assessment suggested that it represented a point of maturity for David Fincher as a filmmaker. But from my point of view his films have always shown a technical and narrative maturity. As you say there is not that obvious maturing point in his career. Rather it is a natural ability formed from the outset.
It’s true, and I agree with that. He has incredible natural abilities and he works very hard to always do the best he can.
What is the spark that starts the casting process?
It usually starts pretty early on. You begin by reading the script and talking about the characters. Actor’s names come up throughout conversations and then you build from there.
You have worked with established directors such as David Fincher as well as young directors such as Gia Coppola. Could you talk a little about the collaborative process with the director, and how their input is influenced by their experience?
They have a great deal of say, and that’s why they’re there. I support that type of position for the director. Gia is a very young girl. Palo Alto (2013) is her first movie and she was fortunate to have the opportunity to do it with people looking over her who wanted her to do the film the way she wanted to do it.
I’m fortunate that people do seek me out. They seek me out because of the work I am lucky enough to do with David.
You are very much associated with David Fincher.
I have spoken with actors and directors who dislike associations. Speaking with Ryan Smith for who your son cast his debut feature After (2012) he introduced you as, “David Fincher’s casting director.”
[Laughs] Yeah, probably a lot of people do. I’m so grateful for that.
Considering the collaboration between David and yourself, one of the names that immediately come to mind is Brad Pitt. But ironically Brad hasn’t played such a significant role in Fincher’s films as say a Robert De Niro has for Martin Scorsese. When I think of Fincher’s filmography, I almost expect them to have worked together more times than they have in reality.
I don’t really know what to say about that – it’s an interesting observation. I don’t know if I have ever really thought about it. David and Brad love to work together and I think they do great things together.
How long does the casting process last? When do you step aside as casting director?
I don’t ever 100% step aside until the movie is finished.
So casting a film begins in pre-production and runs on through until the end of production?
It can, but different films are done in different ways, and the smaller films you do tend to get the casting done before shooting starts. But I like to be involved in what’s going on with the extras, and I like to hear from everybody how things are going during the shoot, so I do stay on top of everything that is going on. When it’s for the bigger films then the casting goes on for longer just because there are more characters to cast.
Of course, the casting process is an integral part of the collaborative nature of filmmaking?
Yes, it is a very collaborative aspect of filmmaking, and what I particularly appreciate is the collaboration with the director.
There is a guiding belief in the importance of the story or a good idea, without which a film is without its heart. Equally the same could be said about the casting. If the right actor is not cast in the part, then the words and the story will not gel together.
Well, I of course I tend to agree with that because of my casting perspective. I think it’s lovely when people recognise that casting is important on that level, but it is also a matter that some people may think one thing works great, while others think something else does. So you have to be true to what your own thoughts and feelings are about things, and just go with it [laughs].
I was talking with a creative writing lecturer and he was explaining that if you look at horror films in particular, so many have been ruined by or rather compromised by casting failures. Especially in a genre like horror where you are asked to suspend your belief, it is essential to believe in the performances.
I think that is certainly essential, and what I would take from that is that you get lost in the character and the characters world if the actor is the perfect fit.
My next question is a two pronged one. When you approach actors about a role do you encounter a lack of belief in their ability or suitability to play the part? Secondly, if you happen to think it is a good part for them and it’s just a case of they need to look at it from a different perspective, do you try and motivate them to see it from this alternative perspective?
Yeah, sometimes people certainly don’t feel comfortable with certain roles, and I respect that.
Truthfully, it is such a hypothetical question. I haven’t had that experience, but on a hypothetical level I’m sure it happens. I have been fortunate that the actors we have worked with have felt some sort of camaraderie or connection to the characters that they were to portray, and so it’s worked out pretty well.
You have cast both The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo (2011) and House of Cards (2013). Both are remakes of foreign originals. In regards to The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo Daniel Craig made the argument that it isn’t a remake, but rather it’s an adaptation. What are your feelings on this conflict between remake and adaptation?
It wasn’t a remake because we did not remake the Swedish movie. We made an American version of the movie from the Swedish book. But that being said of course there are going to be similar things in the storyline, because the base material was the same.
I have watched the films, but remain unfamiliar with the source material.
The Swedish films are lovely. But yes, we made a movie based on the source material. The British House of Cards (1990) series was incredible, and I would certainly say that was the inspiration of doing a series here. But again that would be making a story based on the material, and this is what they have in common.
Was the prospect of a television project something that interested both you and David Fincher prior to House of Cards?
Does casting a television show come with a unique set of challenges compared to casting a feature film, if only because of the expansive nature of television?
It would be more the expansive nature – how long it goes on. There is a slightly quicker turn around on things in television, but the process is very similar. You just look for the very best actors for the roles and then you spend as much quality time with them as you can, auditioning and taking that forward. But you do that the same way on every job.
I recall Andrew Stanton remarking that he wouldn’t know what to do with less than $5 million. One of the ongoing talking points in film is the level of film budgets and whether they need to be reduced. There are some accomplished films being turned out for as little as $1 million now.
After you have done things for a certain amount of time there are things where you go, “WOW, I have become so accustomed to this.” When you are just starting out you are not accustomed to those things. You don’t know what reality is, and so you don’t see it as a challenge or as an impossibility. You get into it and it’s, “What have I done?” But then you are committed – you have committed to taking people’s money, and you have committed to people being in jobs and getting paid. So you tell yourself that the only option is to work this out, and to work it out
So it’s more a case that filmmakers can become accustomed to a certain level of filmmaking.
Well, you just become accustomed to a certain way of doing things. I think it’s a matter of how your career grows over the years. Your style becomes much more defined over time, and with each job you learn what you need to do that, and the way you need to tell your stories. I don’t know… It’s one of these basic natures in life. As we get older we do things more; we just need more things to do it with. As long as it’s responsible though, and I think that’s the thing that so many people have a misconception about. Just because you have more money it doesn’t mean that you are frivolously spending the money. It means that is what it costs to bring the story to life and to put it onscreen – that is where the money goes. It’s not like everybody’s out flying private planes and cruising around in limousines. We are not going out to lavish dinners at night. We are working and this is what it costs to make the movies the way it needs to be made. It’s also a budget that has been created based on the script, which says this is what it would cost to do this properly. So it’s not like you take a story and go, “Well I had $800,000 to do it last year, but this year I want $5 million.” It doesn’t work like that. You have to be responsible, and A LOT of responsibility does come along with budgets.
Do you have one project that stands out as the happiest experience?
I know it sounds cliché and I don’t mean it like that, but each job is incredibly special for all types of reasons: what you might be experiencing in your life, where it was based or the actors you have the opportunity to work with – each is unique and special. At different times I’m sure that they are all the most popular, and the one I like the best, but as a group I am grateful and honoured to have been a part of all of these films.
You were an associate producer of Black Irish (2007). Would you look to expand your creative horizons and move outside of casting in the future?
On a certain level, I do have projects sent to me which are in the early stages. I have books ands scripts that I have optioned and other projects I am developing, so in that way I would like to produce, while also being a casting director. It is not something that I look to do – to not cast anymore, but I do have some projects that come to me in ways that it makes sense to produce.
It must be special to work so closely with your son Sabyn, and to see him follow in your footsteps?
Yeah, it’s cool. It’s really fun. He has cast projects and he’s very, very good at it, but that’s something I am synonymous with. Sabyn is a filmmaker. He’s a talented writer/director and a producer. He has an incredibly keen eye for actors. He has since he was really young. He would come home from films and say, “Hey I saw this movie last night; check out this guy.” Funny enough I’d go see the film for this person, and it would be someone amazing. I think the first person he ever told me I should go see in a movie was when he came home after seeing one of
The Grumpy Old Men movies. He said, “The movie was okay, but there was this woman in the movie and she was incredible, and I think her name was something like Sophia Loren.” I told him, “You have very good taste.” If she is not the most beautiful and talented woman in the world, she’s one of the most beautiful and talented women in the world.” That was his first actor encounter that he went, “WOW, she’s really special.” Honest to God he was probably seven or eight – nine maybe. It was hilarious!
Paul Risker is a critic and writer for a number of on-line and print publications, including Little White Lies, Flickering Myth, Starburst Magazine, and VideoScope. He is currently based in the United Kingdom.