Close Shots: Interview with Gary Chason
by Michele Deradune
A number of resources and people in filmmaking have been entering and re-entering the Austin Area lately, and GARY CHASON, director, casting director, acting coach, screenwriter, author, sometime actor and more, is an exciting addition to the Austin filmmaking community. A brilliant and charismatic man, I have heard him referred to as "the most important casting director we have ever had in Texas." I was very happy to be granted the opportunity to interview him on this fine day in early October, 2002:
DERADUNE: Hi, Gary. Thanks a lot for granting me this interview today. Why don't we start with just a little bit about anything you want to say about your past. And go ahead and brag a little.
GARY CHASON: Well, okay. I started off as a theater kid in a family situation. In fact my older sister is still in the theater. She has her own theater school, Houston International Theater School, and her own physical plant theater and school facility in Houston. We did shows from earliest memory, and I was more of a performer at that time. So there was never a time in my life - ever - when there wasn't some sort of show at one phase or the other.
DERADUNE: Where was this?
GARY CHASON: Dickenson, Texas, halfway between Galveston and Houston. In our teen years we worked a lot with the theater in Galveston, Galveston Little Theater. That was back when community theaters were called little theaters. And then later on I shifted focus to Houston. I even studied ballet with the Houston Ballet. In fact I dropped out of varsity athletics my senior year in high school to study ballet every day and drove the thirty miles to Houston for two or three ballet classes every day after school. And then when I went to college at The University of Texas I became more interested in serious theater as opposed to musical theater and eventually found myself being president of the revitalized Curtain Club and thrust in the position of being a producer. Of course I didn't really realize that at the time.
DERADUNE: Now what was the Curtain Club?
GARY CHASON: The Curtain Club was the original drama club at The University of Texas out of which the drama department itself emerged. It preceded the drama department. But after a certain time - I think in the late 50s, when the drama department had gained national stature there was no need for the Curtain Club and it served no viable purpose and died out. It had only been nonexistent for a couple of years by the time me and some of my theater-minded friends who chose not to major in drama, (my major was in English, but my minor was Drama), decided that the way to express ourselves was to create the Curtain Club all over again. We did so under the auspices of the Texas Union, and that then thrust me into the position of being a producer. I had to find directors, and then found myself directing. The second stage play I directed was Tennessee Williams' A STREETCAR NAMED DESIRE. The library had the original manuscript. I was able to sit in a special area in the library and look at and actually touch the pages that Tennessee Williams had typed on with his Underwood and see little notes that he had made and such as that. That gave me additional insights into the material. I was very proud of that production, and from there on I considered myself a director, although I was still an actor.
After graduating college I worked with a theater group in Austin called The Bijuberti Players. The founder of that is a woman who is still active in town, Linalice Carey. I worked as an actor and then more and more as a director and producer. With that group we had a small theater in the basement of what was then the Christian Faith and Life Community at the corner of 19th and Rio Grande. Of course today that is MLK and Rio Grande, and it's an alcohol rehabilitation center. Anyway, there is a long, narrow basement down there and we had church pews on two sides and it was an astonishing theater experience for me and I directed a lot of shows there, one being Euripides' THE TROJAN WOMEN and Alfred Jarry's UBU ROY and had a lot of fun in the process. Ubu means "poo-poo" and Roy means "king," King Poo-poo. That is early Absurdist theater. Roger Shattuck was at the romance languages department at that time. He is a nationally well-known intellectual, and he was an expert on Jarry and numerous other artists coming out of what he called The Banquet Years. In fact that was the title of a book he published, The Banquet Years. Then I went to New York City.
DERADUNE: What year was that, that you went to New York?
GARY CHASON: '68. I didn't really do anything in New York. I proofread the Manhattan telephone directory with a group of artists and hippies for an hourly wage and never found an opening for myself in the theater. In the meantime I made a trip back to Houston and saw that I could do what I wanted to do there. There was a crying need for someone like me, available theaters crying for someone with the creative energy to come in and do shows. I immediately came to the conclusion that geography had nothing to do with my career goals and life path. I was interested in being an experimental avant-garde theater writer/director. And that was what it was all about. I knew that that didn't hold a whole lot of financial success as a carrot. I was more interested in following along with people like Jerzy Grotowski of the Polish Laboratory Theater and Richard Schechner of the Tulane Drama Review, later called the The Drama Review, out of NYU.
And so I said the heck with New York, moved back to Houston, got a job as an acting teacher with the Alley Theater when they still had a school. They don't anymore.
Note of Regret: At this part of the interview the Interviewer screwed up big time by clicking the microphone thingy only halfway "on" while checking the tape for time. At the time of the interview we had no idea just how much was lost. This is a very sad thing, and I promise never to make that mistake again! However, the problem was discovered further on into the interview, and there is a bit more that was actually recorded. Sorry, Gary! Sorry, Dear Readers! - Michele (whom Brad might certainly fire were this a paying job)
Here is some information about Gary Chason that will hopefully help fill in this hole a little bit for those who are not already familiar with his career, copied off of some email that promotes his acting classes:
"During the Seventies/Eighties Gary Chason split time between casting major motion pictures (THE LAST PICTURE SHOW, PAPER MOON, PRETTY BABY, THE GETAWAY, PARIS, TEXAS, etc.) and directing experimental theater in Houston.
"He was not only the first Casting Director in the State of Texas, but was one of the earliest innovators anywhere in the use of videotape to teach acting techniques. He is also a filmmaker. His feature, CHARLIE'S EAR (35mm, SAG) won numerous festival awards and played at the Dobie Theater in '95, and he has two short subjects, GOD THINKS YOU'RE A LOSER (35mm) and MORE THAN TWO DOLLARS (24 frame HD), in post-production right now.
"His first book, NOTES ON ACTING FOR THE CAMERA, will be published later this year."
(CHARLIE'S EAR also won Best Picture, Best Actor and other Best awards in Madrid, by the way, and though a copy of this movie is rare to come by at this time, Chason hopes to release it on the tails of his next successful feature film. And no, it's not a documentary anatomy lesson. It's something more in the vein of "from your mouth to God's ears" but with a twist more like "from his mouth to the gangsters' ears." A story about a man who got himself in a whole lotta trouble, quite unwittingly.)
DERADUNE: In the classes you are teaching right now, how are they going?
GARY CHASON: The classes are going very well. What I am teaching now is a course that I call "Film Audition LA Style," and it's based on some casting that I did on a feature film in Los Angeles this past summer. It was movie called P.O.V. and the director is a young lad named Tyrone Tann, a Filipino-American. I saw the skill level of the Los Angeles actors and realized that our Texas actors, while they might be as talented, the skill level was not the same. And so I am teaching a course that proposes to get them to that level - at least pass on the knowledge I acquired from this latest casting trip to Los Angeles, to help them understand what is required in the audition in order to be competitive with Los Angeles talent.
What we see - and what I've seen over and over again as a casting director when producers and directors come in from Los Angeles and they are willing to look at the local talent, but more often than not they go on ahead and cast somebody from LA. And it was distressing for me to see then, as a casting director, the Los Angeles actor who came in and wasn't as good as the Texas actor that I had presented. They are simply insecure about casting someone who does not have a Los Angeles address. I'll give an example of this. A close friend of mine who is a producer in Los Angeles saw a movie that I am in - one of those times in which the director and producer insisted that I play a role because they liked the way I read lines as cues for the actors that brought into the callbacks for them.
DERADUNE: What movie are you in?
GARY CHASON: It's called MY BEST FRIEND IS A VAMPIRE. It certainly plays every Halloween, and I get a small residual check. It recently played on cable, because some people saw it and commented to me. This friend of mine, the producer in LA, who is originally from Texas, does what would generously be called "B" flicks. He recently saw it on cable and saw me. You know, it's funny. Your name is on the credits of a movie as a casting director and nobody notices, but you have one part in a movie and all your friends see it and they call you. So that tells you the power of being an actor in a movie. Plus I got year of paid SAG insurance, which was pretty cool.
Anyway, here is an example. The leading female in one movie I worked on is weak. My friend, who has become such an LA chauvinist he makes me throw up, called and wanted to razz me. He said, "You cast that movie, didn't you?" I said, "Yes, I did." He said, "Oh, well you must have cast the lead female, because she was really bad. She was a local Texas gal, wasn't she?" Well it just so happens that she was NOT from Texas. She was Los Angeles. All she had ever done was a commercial. I didn't think she was that pretty and she certainly wasn't that talented, and I think she is the weakest link in the whole movie. So I was able to bust his chops on that. Furthermore, the gal that I had proposed for that role was a Houston actress. And in fact a few years later, when Peter Bogdanovich was in the state and we did the movie Texasville, he saw her and cast her in a part. After that she moved to Los Angeles and was immediately snapped up and played Regan in King Lear. You can't be some little commercial model and play Shakespeare for crying out loud. And that was the actress I had presented for the role and would have been inestimably better in that role than the LA gal. But she did not have an LA address at that time. She does now. But that's the kind of frustration we deal with all the time.
DERADUNE: I think these things are already changing, though, don't you? It just takes people a while to get used to the idea that LA is not always the center of the universe, don't you think?
GARY CHASON: You know, I wouldn't hold my breath. I think what has made the biggest impact is the work of people like Robert Rodriguez and Richard Linklater in particular - who are doing it here. And they are doing movies that actually get distributed theatrically and make money. That probably has more impact on Hollywood than anything else. The prevailing attitude in LA is, "If you are any good, what are you doing living in Texas?" Well, the quality of life here is vastly superior.
DERADUNE: We're intelligent as well as good.
GARY CHASON: But I think that also what Messrs Rodriguez and Linklater are doing is saying, "Well, we will create our own industry right here," and there's no reason why not. What is really happening is the decentralization of the industry and of the independent movement, which is going full force. And as video technology continues to evolve the cost of making our movies is getting to be less and less, and there is less reason for Los Angeles to be the center. It can have numerous centers. It can be simply decentralized. And that's what we're seeing. I think the Austin film industry is the leading proponent of the independent movement nationwide.
DERADUNE: Wow. That's really cool. What about the thing with Canada? Do you have any perspective on Austin versus Canada for moviemaking?
DERADUNE: Well yeah, being a producer and dealing with budgets and trying very hard to get that other movie to fly, we've looked at that a great deal and I have many friends who are in the industry and we have looked at the budgets and the impact of the budgets. And if you are line procedure or a production manager you are irresponsible if you don't take advantage of the financial advantages of shooting in a place like Canada. Just the exchange rate alone gives you something like 20 or 30 percent, and then they give rebates. There are just so many financial advantages you get that have an enormous impact on the bottom line. If you are spending $3 million below the line you might save $750,000 by shooting in Canada. Well, you are going to be crazy not to. The money is huge.
To tell you the truth, I am offended by a movie that's coming out soon on television called The Junction Boys. I'm a football fan, and it deals with the legendary Junction, Texas training camp that "Bear" Bryant had for his Texas A&M team in 1954. They shot that movie in Australia! Now, I know that they shot The Texas Rangers in Canada. That didn't hurt me as much. I mean, they don't even know what football is in Australia. How in the world can they do that? But it's a matter of money. It's an unfortunate turn that the industry has taken that is impacting everybody, including people in LA and New York.
Austin has been amazingly immune to that, simply because the industry has created itself here. It is a center. There is production going on here with or without Hollywood, and it has become a popular place for Hollywood to come and make their movies. The lifestyle is similar, the terrain is similar, and people like the nightlife here and what have you, and so Austin hasn't felt the pinch everywhere else has felt. The industry in Dallas is dried up. It's just a very unfortunate thing there and Houston is probably even worse still, and I don't see it changing. Because Hollywood is not going to go back to the way it was before unless there can be some sort of legislation, unless something happens. And of course when you look at the politics of that, you don't get very good answers. You start having tariffs and restraint of free trade and things like that that are not really workable. And so I think that this is a permanent situation, and it's too bad. And a lot of people are feeling the pinch. Many people are having to leave the industry who were making a living previously.
DERADUNE: This main pinch you are talking about - I'm a little dense here - is because of the work going to Canada?
GARY CHASON: The work is going to Canada, Australia, New Zealand and Mexico. And these are movies that ten years ago would have been shot on location somewhere in the United States. And it's just not happening anymore. And it's huge numbers, and it's in the billions of dollars that are being lost. You know, when a film company spends money, especially below the line, producing their movie in a community, film commissioners have come up with a figure that is a factor of six. The dollars turn over by a factor of six: it's cash-intensive, it's labor-intensive, and so the money turns over. So it has a huge impact on the local economy. Well, you take that out, goodbye, gone. Austin is not feeling the pinch. Houston is. Go talk to them in Houston. Go talk to the film commissioner in Houston. There isn't even a film commissioner in Dallas, but there is an Irving Film Commission. I don't even know. I don't get there that much anymore. Allied Lab, that was my lab. I used them for a number of projects. They had to shut down. Screen Actors Guild had a big local in Dallas and a local in Houston. Those are shutting down, and they are going to have one SAG representative in Austin. And it's really peculiar that they will have their one, lone SAG person, SAG office so to speak, in Austin when there is not a single SAG franchised agency in Austin. Explain that to me.
DERADUNE: Well, I guess that just about says it all. Is there anything else that's been up your butt lately that you would like to end with?
GARY CHASON: [laughs] No. I'm actually a fairly well-adjusted, happy person.
DERADUNE: You don't have any complaints or anything you want to just blow out about that you would like to see change here in Austin for the filmmaking community?
GARY CHASON: One of the things that I noticed while casting in Los Angeles was that the actors through two different companies were able to get their sides in advance. The casting people can create the sides and give them to one of these places, (one of the places is called SHOWFAX [www.showfax.com - ed.]), and then you send your breakdown out and breakdown lists that you can get sides at this or this place. And so the agent submits the headshots, casting people call people in for the first interview and audition. The talent can then find out what part they're up for and get their sides before they even go in for their first audition. They don't have to get them from the casting director. They pay a modest fee. I don't even know how much, but what actor wouldn't want to pay a few dollars to get the sides in advance? We didn't even have sides at the casting that I did there. Every single actor walked in with their own sides. And so that's something that I would like to see here. There is the unwritten 24-hour rule in Los Angeles where talent wants to see the material 24 hours in advance - at least 24 hours in advance. And I think that that's the best way to determine the skill level of an actor is if they have had an ample time to prepare their audition. And that keeps it from being entirely cold. And also that is how an actor is able to achieve that magical camera-ready audition. We need to get people up to that level here in order to be competitive with the Los Angeles talent. And that's what we're trying to do in the course that I'm teaching, "Film Audition LA Style."
DERADUNE: Excellent. That's just beautiful. Thank you so much, and it's been a real pleasure meeting you today too.
[End of Interview]
So, that's all of my interview with Gary Chason (that you are ever gonna hear anyhow). Hey, it's my birthday starting in just a few short hours, so I'm gonna cut out now, dear readers. Here's wishing you all a fun and safe Halloween!
Gary Chason will be teaching TV COMMERCIAL TECHNIQUE on four Wednesday nights, starting November 6 and ending Dec. 4. Tuition is $150. To register, contact: Debbie Harper 512/836-1132 or email her at: firstname.lastname@example.org. This course emphasizes practical "Know How" and gives actors lots of on-camera experience. Feedback from students who have taken it indicates a much greater comfort level in front of the camera, especially in an Audition!
P.S. For any of you all who are curious: I have thus far lost 60 lbs. on my (mostly vegan) raw food diet this year. Yep, I'm doing that "Incredible Shrinking Woman" thing. Hey, that sounds like a part for me in a Hollywood movie. Well, we'll see...
Michele Déradune is a single mom, film actress and voice talent represented by Ciao! Talents in Georgetown. She had a principal supporting role as Mel in SNAKE TALES (Winner "Best Independent Film Comedy" at the Gene Siskel Film Center), was featured in an unscripted movie by actor/director KEVIN SPACEY, and was the voice of Wakana in the English version of the Japanese anime SAKURA WARS 2. You can see Michele's online acting résumé by clicking on the link at http://www.deradune.com