“Location, location, location.” Ever heard that expression? It’s what people say in real estate. What it means is that you can scrutinize and haggle about the size of the bedrooms, the width of the driveway, the length of the patio in the house you’re buying, but in the end, there’s only one major thing that matters — the location. The same is true for selecting a spokesperson to appear on television representing your cause. You can bring in a team of gifted writers and agonize over whether to have your spokesperson say, “SOME species will suffer,” versus, “MANY species will suffer,” but in the end, if the words emerge from the mouth of the wrong spokesperson, you might as well have not bothered. Selecting the spokesperson isn’t one of many parts of communicating, it is the TOP THREE things that matter — just like location, location, location (the origin of which is explored here by the late William Safire of the NY Times).
CASTING AND SOWS EARS
When I emerged from USC film school in 1997 my classmates and I were greeted with a sad and frustrating situation. You need two main things to make great movies — great actors and great scripts. But you don’t get to have access to those things until you’ve already made a movie with great actors and a great script (unless you’re related to somebody important in Hollywood). It becomes an enormous “Catch 22″. Those of us in our class who were really ambitious ended up taking what we could get when we graduated — which ended up being bad scripts and bad actors — and did the best we could (I directed a low budget comedy feature film which was lots of fun with a lot of heart and soul, but in the end, it was mostly bad actors with a bad script meaning it was doomed).
Through a series of devastatingly painful experiences we were shown that you just can’t take bad actors and make good cinema. It leaves you thinking of silk purses and sows ears. And I’m telling you, as great and mighty as Steven Spielberg is as a director, even he can’t do it. Bad actors are bad actors. Pretty much end of story. What do you think “Citizen Kane” was about? The movie which most artsy film critics point to as the greatest work ever — much of it was about Hearst’s hopelessly bad actress mistress Marion Davies. Bad acting is the thing of legends.
So is there any reason to think that an expert appearing on a news talk show is any different than an actor in a movie? The general public is going to sit in their living room watching this person “performing,” and they are going to apply the same criteria they do to actors — “I like that guy, I trust him, he’s handsome, he’s got a lovely voice, he seems friendly, he’s got great hair …” (or conversely, “That guy’s balding, his nose is crooked, he’s got a stupid goatee, one eye’s more open than the other, he keeps saying, “absolutely,” …). I can’t say this enough — film and television are VISUAL MEDIA. The images are what are most important to the general public. What they are saying is secondary. Which is hard for academics to accept as they value their words soooo much.
It’s the same basic process. So the analysis of who is a “good spokesperson,” should involve the same dynamics as casting. And guess what, casting is a very sad, hurtful process.
When I cast my first film and held three days of auditions I seriously wanted to make follow up phone calls to every single eager-eyed actor who came in to read — which was probably about 200 people. I felt so bad for them and wanted to say, “You weren’t right for the part, but you’re very talented and will have a great career, I’m sure.”
But you know what you learn? You shouldn’t call them, and they actually don’t want you to call them. Because all the conversation turns into is, “Well, why didn’t you cast me?” and you say, “Because we were looking for someone taller,” (reaching for something that doesn’t involve their bad performance), and they say, “I can wear lifts in my shoes and wear vertical striped clothes that make me seem taller and thinner.” And you say, “The part calls for someone much taller than you,” and they reply, “Well, you should change that and make the actor shorter,” and … you realize it only leads to arguments and bad feelings and eventually just having to say, “I’m sorry, but you just weren’t right for the part,” which is what not calling them in the first place says, but with much less potential pain.
It’s a simple process in which the actors do lots of auditions and the only ones they hear back from are the ones that are successful. In fact, it would be a dirty trick to call and leave a message for an actor if it was anything other than, “You got the part,” because as soon as they hear your voice on the machine they would immediately assume that’s the news. They really don’t want to hear, “You were great, BUT …”
And then you get to know some actors well over the years and you watch how they deal with this dynamic of not just rejection but visual evaluation, day in and day out. It’s not a nice process. And I’m not sure that the hard working people of the science world are ready to delve into such horribly superficial dynamics. I’m not sure they’re ready to hear, “You’re fat, ugly and you talk funny, you’re not meant to be a spokesperson.” And yet … it appears to be coming to the world of science communication.
CASTING: ANOTHER NEW (AND PAINFUL) DIMENSION IN SCIENCE COMMUNICATION
We are in a new age of seeing mainstream working scientists emerge as media figures. It maybe started in the summer of 1988 when James Hansen testified to congress about global warming, but it’s mainly the past decade with the advent of all the television news shows that certain characters are emerging — and more importantly, that there’s a need for better spokespersons. So what qualities do you want in your spokesperson? Let me tell you two anecdotes.
1 NATURAL NATURALNESS – in the same way that great actors have “a presence,” great spokespersons have the same thing. A major part of this is a lack of “self-awareness.” Meaning that in film and television you can see the person very close up and you can “read” things in them. You can read whether there is a voice inside their head shouting, “Hey! Wow! Look at me! I’m on television!” or whether they simply don’t have that voice and are just being themselves. The former is repulsive, the latter is attractive. And how do you find people with this trait? Let me tell you a little story …
One of my favorite “classes” in film school was intermediate directing, for which I was given the treat of having as my instructor Edward Dmytryk. There were three possible instructors. The other two were major television directors in their forties who had a ton of important practical knowledge to share and ran their students through rigorous, intense exercises and exams. But being a fan of great storytellers, I chose 87 year old veteran movie director Eddie. The other two classes had about 40 students in them and were over-crowded. Eddie’s class began with nine and ended with just six of us. The three that bailed realized they were going to learn nothing of practical value, and most of the other five that stayed showed up stoned and slept as most of the class consisted of me more or less interviewing Eddie. And that was all he did — was tell us tired old war stories of Hollywood (which I couldn’t get enough of).
Eddie was on his last legs. He died four years after the class. He was kind of an old curmudgeon (constantly saying, “Today’s movies are crap!”), but with a big heart and a lot of life behind him. Just look at his Wikipedia page — he was a Hollywood legend. He directed two of the greatest movies of all time, “The Caine Mutiny” and “The Young Lions” (with Marlon Brando and Montgomery Clift), was one of the founders of the entire genre of film noir, and was one of the Hollywood Ten during the McCarthy Era. An amazing guy, yet most of the film students just felt he was “old” and of no obvious use to them.
Anyhow, one day I asked him how he conducted auditions. Here’s what he said, which I thought was brilliant. For the important actors, he never had them act. All he would do is set them down on a stool in front of a big movie camera, then start chatting with them. He would talk with them about baseball, world politics, the weather, and then just when he felt they were deeply engaged in telling him something, he would turn to his cameraman and say, “Roll film,” and the red light on the camera would turn on.
The good actors never missed a beat. The bad actors, as soon as they saw that red light turn on, would shift their posture, change the pitch of their voice, and suddenly seem completely different. The bottom line is that you learn in directing there is something different in the brains of good actors. They have the ability to disconnect from what is going on around them, to not be “self-aware” and to present something unique that people connect with — something very real.
The bad actors have that voice in their head shouting, “Yay! I’m on TV! Look at me!”
2 PERFECT CASTING – one of the treats at USC film school is that the very best of the best in Hollywood are more than willing to run across town and spend an afternoon hanging out and talking with the film students. When I was there, every Friday afternoon the writing program would bring in a big name actor, director, writer, or producer to sit in a room that felt very much like a living room and just chat for a couple hours with the students. One guest I really enjoyed was Joe Roth, who back then was a brash and gutsy young studio executive. That was in 1995 when it had just been announced that Tom Cruise would be playing the role of Lestat, the vampire in “Interview with the Vampire,” and the book’s author, Ann Rice, along with her millions of fans, had very loudly and publicly lambasted the choice.
So Joe Roth kept talking that day about the incredible importance of casting. Finally someone asked, “Can you tell us an example of perfect casting?” Without hesitating he said, “Yes, Tom Cruise in Interview with the Vampire.” The entire crowd guffawed. And he immediately followed, “His name guarantees that you automatically make back your money at the box office.” Which proved to be true.
These two tidbits illustrate two key principles in spokespersons, namely the importance of likeability and celebrity. In the next installment I’ll explore the importance of these characteristics.
TO BE CONTINUED …