This week, we’re celebrating the people who made some of the best films of the year possible from behind the scenes.
When Jennifer Venditti first started her casting company JV8INC in 1998, the film world might not have been ready for her yet. With an eye for great faces often weathered by the lives they lived, she was who fashion designers and ad campaigns would turn to in order to set their brands apart, as well as art photographers on the prowl for soulful portraits. Naturally, many of the people with the most interesting looks had the stories well beyond the 1000 words’ worth a picture could capture to accompany them, but Venditti was slightly wary of taking her talents into the movie business, where considerations of what an actor might be able to bring to a budget with the value of their name in international presales than what they can actually do on set and making lists based on résumé that can abstract the human qualities a filmmaker is actually looking for. Still, her friend Carter Smith, who first led her into this line of work by asking her populate photos he would take as a fashion photographer, asked her to look for intriguing teenagers to cast in his debut short “Bugcrush,” and she ended up being so taken with a boy named Billy, whose big beating heart might not always be heard over the KISS music he loves so much, that she decided to make a film about him herself.
Her stirring, sensitive profile of Billy coming of age, “Billy the Kid,” remains one of the best documentaries of the 21st century, and Venditti had plans to make another, putting her casting job on hold while pouring herself into research on a film set in Sicily that never came to be. But while many see the industry move away from them if they take too much time apart from it, Venditti experienced the opposite, first contacted by “Billy the Kid” fan Ryan Gosling to cast a dystopian Detroit for his directorial debut “Lost River” and then Andrea Arnold to give “American Honey” plenty of fascinating people to meet along the way in telling the story of a group of kids hawking magazines across the Midwest to escape their broken homes. Neither expected Venditti to sit behind a desk, combing through headshots.
“I was never interested in doing casting for films that are in a cattle call/list-making way, and all the offers that I had were that kind of casting, so it just seems like kismet that when Ryan came around, he wanted to do a different process,” says Venditti. “Now there seems to be a desire to have this mixture of nonprofessionals and professionals. And I love working with actors, but it’s more that I’m interested in creating a unique world and becoming a detective, whether it’s with finding the right actor in the professional world or going into communities or doing research. I want [the casting process] to be more like an immersive experience where we’re creating the world with them and not just intellectually putting lists together.”
That feeling of full-on immersion extends to the experience of watching the films Venditti has worked on where every person you see reveals the history of the places where they’ve been and the crackling sensation that you’ve actually dropped in on their lives, which started well before a camera arrives and will continue well after it leaves. This becomes a crucial component in “Good Time,” Josh and Benny Safdie’s electrifying thriller that sees Robert Pattinson as a low-level hood named Connie whose best laid plans for a bank robbery go awry after his brother Nick (Benny Safdie) is caught during the getaway, pushing Connie into various boroughs of New York City to figure out a way to get his brother out of the pen while being pursued by the police himself. The Safdies often find inspiration for the stories they tell in casting – their last film “Heaven Knows What” owes its existence to Arielle Holmes, a vagabond Josh came across in Manhattan’s Diamond District and ended up starring in the film based loosely on her own life and if Robert Pattinson hadn’t seen a still from it on IndieWire, the brothers wouldn’t have been inspired to conceive “Good Time” after learning some of the actor’s unexploited qualities after he asked to meet with them.
Yet while working with Pattinson meant that the Safdies could bring their vision to the screen on a grander scale than they had before, it also would entail more responsibilities than the usually self-reliant filmmakers might be able to handle by themselves, requiring someone with the same sensibilities as they had to make the world around Connie as rich as their previous productions. Alongside the Safdies’ frequent casting collaborator Eléonore Hendricks, Venditti sought out real people wherever she could to bring their experience to the screen, whether it was the bail bondsman who Connie pesters early on in the film, a court-appointed psychiatrist to tend to the mentally disabled Nick’s precarious psychological state, or the host of inmates Nick joins in prison. In addition to the many twists and turns the Safdies’ throw into Connie’s quest to break his brother out, every scene is infused with the surprise of who you’re seeing onscreen, particularly in the revelatory turns by Benny as Nick and Taliah Webster as Crystal, the vivacious 16-year-old who gives Connie shelter for a time while he attempts to lay low, that were recently acknowledged by Spirit Award nominations for Best Supporting Actor and Actress, respectively.
Before the end of 2017, we couldn’t help but reach out to Venditti to talk about one of the year’s finest films and her extraordinary work in general to learn how unconventional casting techniques have led to such unforgettable films.
How did you start working with the Safdies?
I met them at South By Southwest when I had “Billy the Kid” there and they had a short film [“We’re Going to the Zoo”] and then there was a whole kind of scene happening in New York with independent filmmakers — it wasn’t even filmmakers, but people in the community that are like-minded — and [the Safdies and I] were just friends. They’ve always been supportive and vice versa, and also Eléonore [Hendricks], who I’ve known forever and she’s one of the few other people that I know who has such a love of people and she has a vision for people who are cinematic — works with them as well, so it’s all like a family. They would call me on certain things that they needed help with, but they basically did everything themselves, and I would cast them in things as well. [When] they needed money for things, I would put them in commercial stuff. On “Heaven Knows What,” they based [it] on [the life of Arielle Holmes] a girl they had street cast and they needed some actors to play roles that they weren’t able to get, so they called me at the last minute and it just evolved from that.
It’s a dream [working with them] because they see the world similarly to how I do. Even before I worked with them, we just had a love of recognizing what we each see in humanity, so they’re similar to us in the way that even if someone doesn’t end up in the project, they’re delighted to meet people. They love the spectrum of humans and they enjoy the process of casting so much. Do you remember Red Bucket Films? They used to have this website [with] something called Buttons. I lived for that! It was little video moments of nuanced things that would happen on the street and this is before Snapchat, before Instagram stories, before any of that and I was always inspired by how they saw things. So then to work with them on something, they’re such collaborators and all the people around them are like that. They treat everyone so great too. They treat everyone as if they’re a sudden star, and it’s inspiring for me because it makes you want to find people because you just know how excited they’re going to get.
You don’t seem like someone who sits behind a desk and hold casting calls. I can remember reading about “American Honey” you and Lucy Pardee were spending a lot of time in strip clubs and country fairs in the Midwest…
“American Honey” was hell, let’s put it that way. [laughs] No, it wasn’t. I always get so upset because we did so much work on that movie that wasn’t seen. All the work and research that we did and all the stories and people that you don’t see, but were on the set, set the tone for the whole movie, so even though you didn’t get to really spend a lot of time with all the other characters besides Sasha [Lane], Shia [LaBeouf] and Riley [Keough], we lived in these places for months and months and [Andrea Arnold] changed the script so many times because of that research. Kids on magazine crews see that movie and say it’s so dead on to what their experience was because those kids were the real deal.
It was hard because the world we were in, those people don’t [necessarily] show up to things, so wrangling everyone, getting them to show up and stay interested was hard. That process was like a year, but that was the world Andrea was trying to explore, so if you talk to the producer, it was probably the hardest thing he’s ever done, and it’s hard for me because I feel there’s so much more that you don’t get to see, but I do think it lends itself to the authenticity and the depth that the other characters are able to go to because of the work we did. Riley [Keough] was amazing — she really put in a lot. She went to West Virginia with us and worked with kids as well. She did it for her own research.
With “Good Time,” was it a similar situation with Robert Pattinson or any of these traditional actors you’re immersing into those kinds of situations with non-actors?
We do do that…and I did it for Shia as well [on “American Honey”]. For Rob, we worked with this place called The Fortune Society that helps ex-cons get reassimilated into the world. We did a lot of interviews with people there [who] had interesting life stories that Rob then went to hang out with, or would shadow for a while. It helps the director and then if the actors are interested, it helps them as well, but through this kind of casting, there’s a lot that’s revealed that’s useful for all departments.
Are the conversations with non-actors different than what you’d have with someone from a more traditional professional background?
I approach all people the same. I think if you’ve talked to most actors if they’ve had an audition with me, they’d be like, “That was weird. I’ve never had that before.” A lot of times, it’s like an interview process and some actors act because they don’t want to be themselves, or they don’t want to tap into certain things. For Shia, the reason why I thought he was so right for “American Honey” was because I did so much research on how his upbringing was and it was similar to these kids [in the story]. So for me, it’s always a conversation to find out where there are similarities in the person [and the character] it doesn’t need to be exact. Even with Ryan Gosling [on “Lost River”], he was not interested in seeing someone read lines and do lines, so we’d do lots of different things from improvisation to interviews to conversations.
[For “Good Time”] we saw a lot of guys for the role of Nick, Connie’s [mentally disabled] brother, and we did a lot of research, not only actors, but like special needs guys as well. That informed [the Safdies] a lot and intentionally, we wanted to go with someone that was more authentic, but we felt in the end that the role was just too grueling and that it would be detrimental to their mental state for someone to play that part who might not understand what’s happening in some of those situations, like in the prison.
How did the conversation go that eventually got Benny to take on that role himself?
Benny and Ronnie Bronstein had been developing something years and years ago and there was this character that emerged out of it. Benny kept telling me about it and then at one point, he’s like, “Do you want to do an interview with me?” Because he had seen what I was doing with all these guys. It was really organic. I did this interview with Benny as this character that he had created with Ronnie and it was just amazing. He was so in it, you couldn’t get him to break once he was in this role, so that’s how it happened.
Another real discovery in the film is Taliah Webster, who’s remarkable in it – how did you find her?
I know! She’s such a little champ. We found her at an open call and I’m like Debbie Downer with the open calls because I always feel like the person you’re looking for doesn’t know you’re looking for them. In my career, I always find that the person that’s right is never the person that thinks they’re right. But Geraldine [Barón, one of my associates] loves open calls and [Taliah] came in and she was way younger than what we had intended. I think she was 14, but she was just sass. She went to a school in the Bronx [where] she had an acting class and her teacher told her about [the open call] and her grandmother brought her. She had a tough attitude and she was really matter of fact and I was doing the interview with her and she had a really hard life [but] she just told it like it was.
There was something about the mix of her looking really innocent, but this Teflon kind of presence about her and that character had to be that way — not easily impressed, but still had this desire to get out of her situation and a little nonchalant about it. Also, it couldn’t have been obvious that she could be a possible love interest. It goes against type a little bit. There were other girls that we looked at that had a little bit of a more sexy vibe or they were a little bit more charming in a way, but [Taliah] wasn’t trying to be those things.
In the casting description, it says Crystal should be “boy crazy,” which seems apt, but at the same time not what you get at all.
No, she didn’t play that card at all. The crazy thing is, and this will tell you exactly why she got the part, we did screen tests with Rob with three or four of the girls and [Taliah] came and did hers and it was the first time she met him. We didn’t tell everyone who the person was [they would act against] because we didn’t want the people to get all crazy and also if they knew they were meeting him, we didn’t want that to get out. So I don’t think we told her until she got there – and [when we did], she acted like you told her it was Joe Smith. There was just no reaction at all. And then the screen test, [the Safdies] had her just staring in [Rob’s] eyes, like how long they could hold a stare, and that was it.
She did it, it was fine, and a couple days after, she told me, that literally she had seen “Twilight” 500 times and she was exploding inside. She was obsessed with him. But she never showed it. And that’s hard to do – to contain that and be able to be that intimate with someone you’ve obsessed over. But she still isn’t impressed – [when] she went to Cannes, she’s not totally impressed by all that. She’s really smart and she wants to be a lawyer. I think she realizes she wants to be able to do her own deals and figure things out.
Gladys Mathon, the woman who plays her grandmother in the film is also quite striking. How did she come into the mix?
Oh Gladys! She’s our favorite. She’s such a character! That open call was a jackpot. She came to the open call and she’s from Haiti, she sees spirits and she called me everyday to tell me, I’m in her dreams. She’s definitely like operating on a different plane. But she’s an incredible improvisationalist and the scene where Rob tries to get in her house, we tried to do that as an improv at the open call and I was like, “Whatever this guy says, you’re not letting him into your house.” And they were getting so creative [with excuses], and she was so great. She’s like, “You know what? I’ll come outside.” Everything she said was so natural and she was so in the moment. And her face is incredible. I’ve been getting her a lot of print stuff, but I’m hoping there’s another movie for her. [For “Good Time”], more of this stuff came through the open call and Fortune Society and the organizations that we worked with with ex-cons whereas “American Honey” where it was more of like on the ground actually going and looking.
it sounds like a relationship with someone you cast, or even sometimes people you don’t, doesn’t end when a film does. Do you feel some responsibility towards them?
I try as much as we can. Taliah knows we’re always here for her and the same with Gladys. For some people, [acting in a movie is] just a fun experience and they have other things going on in their lives and some people have the opportunity for it to be a career. I don’t like to create false expectations because the way our culture is today, everybody thinks, “Oh, one opportunity and they’re going to be a millionaire and their life is going to be perfect,” which isn’t the case. It’s hard freakin’ work.
So we try to be realistic, like “this is a great opportunity for this experience” or “this is a great opportunity and this could take you further.” For Taliah, we hooked her up with these acting classes because she has to learn. Not everyone works like the Safdies. Some people might want you to hit every mark and every line and do things a certain way. If it looks like something that will be a career, we support them because we take it seriously that these people let us come into their lives, they get vulnerable, they take a risk and they try for something. Actors know that on a daily basis that can kill you. It’s very hard. So when you pull someone into that situation that hasn’t been groomed for that, I have a lot of respect for people that open themselves to that for us.
What was it like watching “Good Time” for the first time? Any performances you were particularly proud of?
Well, I worship Buddy [Duress], but I can’t take credit for that. Arielle [Holmes] found him from “Heaven Knows What,” and I’m upset that he didn’t get a Spirit Award [nomination] because he’s one of a kind. You don’t see someone like that. You know what I [also] said? I’m so pissed that I read the script because I wish I knew what this felt like to experience without knowing what the story was. The first time I saw it, I was like, “Oh my God! Like I can’t imagine if I walked into this and had no idea what this is about — what that ride must’ve felt like.” It was so intense, but I felt like floating on a cloud of love at the end of it. I just feel lucky that there are people to work with out there that want to work like this because like I said, I’m just interested in working in new, inventive ways and not just with non-actors, but actors too and I feel like right now it’s a moment where there’s more and more of those coming up. It’s really exciting.