We had no reason to think that casting Still Green would, in any way, shape, or form, involve the Vice President of Columbia. So I was of course beyond skeptical when Vice President Santos first called the house and left a message for me with Doug’s mom.
Let me fast forward. There is a reason the leading role of George was cast 4 days before we started shooting. The reason is that for months, we weren’t really looking for an actor to play this role. As far as Doug and I were concerned, we already had our George.
The following story will probably strike you as beyond random and completely unbelievable. But filmmaking often turns out to be both of those things.
Our relationship with Vice President Santos began in June when Doug and I were running our production office in his parents’ basement in New Hampshire. Among other things, we had started casting, and every day we rifling through thousands of headshots.
One day an e-mail arrived from an agent named Maria with an actor named Jaime’s headshot attached. The agent had seen our casting notice on Mandy, read the description for the role of George, which was simply “pudgy, funny, good natured” and was sure this actor would be perfect.
But there were a few stipulations clearly listed in our casting notices; the big one being that all actors had to live within a reasonable commuting distance from Naples, FL as we could not afford to house local talent. If a headshot arrived and the actor did not live in FL, their headshot went straight into the “probably not” pile.
This agent said Jaime was from Colombia, which at the time I assumed meant Columbia, SC, which is still not Florida, so I deleted the e-mail. A few days later, another e-mail from Maria hit our inbox again endorsing Jaime. Again, I deleted it. A few days after that, a headshot arrived in the mail. It was Jaime again, except from the return address, I could see that this agent was from Columbia, as in the country. I thought it was a little odd that this Colombian agent would be so persistent, but again, just tossed the headshot.
A week later, Doug and I returned from lunch to find his mom standing in the kitchen looking really confused. She said that a well spoken man with a thick accent had just called claming to be Vice President Santos of Columbia. He wanted me to call him back immediately regarding incentives he could offer me, in exchange for casting an actor named Jaime in Still Green.
Yes, I was beyond skeptical when I called “Vice President Santos” back. But I figured it would be better to waste 20 minutes on a prank call than potentially miss out on any prospect of “incentives.” Besides, Doug’s mom had a feeling in her gut that the man was legit, and her gut feelings have always had an uncanny accuracy.
In a nutshell “Vice President Santos” explained that Jaime was the son of one of his closest associates. Jaime’s big dream was to break into the American film industry. At the same time, the success of Maria Full of Grace had begun to change the world’s view of Columbia as a place, basically, known solely for growing cocaine. Because of this, his press team was beginning to look to the film industry as a way to improve Columbian relations. His press secretary, Maria, had been heavily involved in Maria Full of Grace’s selection into the Cannes and Berlin Film Festival and had handled the marketing for the film in Latin America. If we were to cast Jaime, they wanted to offer the same support to Still Green.
As Jaime was currently in Miami working as an extra on the Miami Vice movie, Vice President Santos had been pressuring Maria to find a production company shooting in Florida that might cast Jaime in a leading role in exchange for these incentives.
Santos admitted it was hard to find leading roles for Jaime as he was hardly the tall, cut, chiseled prototype of a Hollywood leading male. “Pudgy, funny, good natured” was an infinitely more realistic choice for this boy. In a nutshell, Santos said he would guarantee us pre selection into both Cannes and Berlin, 30 million Pesos towards the marketing of the film in Latin America, and the full support of his entire press team.
I admitted to the Vice President that I found it pretty hard to swallow that A-he could really guarantee us all these perks and B-that he was even the real Vice President Santos in the first place. I also explained that while, at this point, I was intrigued enough to schedule an audition slot, the final say on all casting decisions was going to come from our director, Jon Artigo.
I asked him to please put everything he has just explained to me in writing, on government letterhead, and send it to our attorney, who would no doubt be calling with many questions and requests for proof of identification etc. He said he was leaving for Malaga for a press conference in the morning, but assured me that before he left, he would get a letter out to our attorney. He said our attorney was welcome to call his cell or his office at any time, and he gave me both numbers.
Honestly, the man sounded legit to me; polite, educated, and extremely entitled. Doug was convinced the entire thing was a weird hoax from a desperate actor, but agreed to hold off all judgments until our attorney had enough info to make an educated decision.
Doug called our attorney, Kirkpatrick, to brief him on the situation. I called Jamie, to introduce myself and to find out where I should send a script. Jaime’s English seemed mediocre at best, but he was nice and extremely excited about Still Green. I asked him if he knew the Vice President of Columbia was giving this much support to his film aspirations. He said the Vice President was very close to his father, laughed and said “They think I’m going to be the next hot Columbian film star.”
Jon has never been responsive to pressure from anyone to cast anyone in any role ever, which is something I love about him. When I called him, he simply responded that he would cast the actor he felt was the best for each role, including George. He did admit this was a wild situation. Jokes about what we would wear to Cannes were certainly thrown around, as well as jokes about a Columbian cartel coming after us if we did not cast Jaime after all of this.
Our attorney was, of course, also very skeptical. But in three days, a letter from Vice President Santos, offering everything he said he would offer us, as a matter of fact, did arrive, on government letterhead, in his office. By then Kirkpatrick had made enough phone calls and done enough fact checking that after one final conversation with Santos, he called us to say thumbs up. He felt confident in assuring us that, at least in his opinion, Vice President Santos was indeed, for real.
Did VP Santos really have the sway to get us into Cannes? We were not so sure. Was this man really Vice President Santos? He certainly seemed to be.
Sure there were other actors we lined up to audition for George. But given this whole Columbian situation, we had our hearts set on Jaime. When Jaime showed up at our auditions you could tell that in his mind, he already had the role. I was fine with this.
But there was a major problem. Jaime was just learning English. Regardless of how incredible an actor he may have been in Columbia, when it came to the lines in Still Green, he could barely read them, much less understand them, much less understand their subtext, and much less give them any type of inflection or personality. He sounded the way I am sure I would have sounded if someone put a letter written in Spanish in front of me and said, “Here read this.”
Nevertheless, I was still blinded by the potential perks that came attached to Jaime and my hopes were not daunted. I had an incredible amount of faith in Jon as a director, and figured if anyone could make this work he could.
Fortunately, I am not the director of Still Green. And after watching Jamie’s audition, the director of Still Green made it crystal clear that this situation was not going to fly. I begged. I pleaded. I used the words “Maria Full of Grace” a few hundred times. I got nowhere.
As Jon pointed out, Still Green was only going to work if we could suck the audience into the world and dynamics between this group of friends. It just wasn’t believable that Jaime would be in this group. He would stick out like a sore thumb, constantly reminding the audience that they were watching a movie, and killing all their emotional investment. Maybe we would get press all over South America, but we wouldn’t have a good movie.
The day after the audition, Vice President Santos called me. He wanted to know why Jaime had not been cast yet.
I decided to throw Jon under the bus. I explained that although as a producer I could see the perks of casting Jaime, Jon was the director, and he had the final say on the cast.
The Veep did make one call to Jon on Jaime’s behalf, but after that, we never heard from him again.
The more immediate problem was that we still had no George. We found another local actor but by our first read through, it was clear that he wasn’t right. And with every other problem going on around us, this one kept getting pushed onto the back burner until 4 days before we started shooting when finally, we put everything else on hold and focused all our energies on finding our George.
By now, our original lead actress was in town. While we were flipping through trash bags of headshots, the actress asked if she could watch some of the “no” auditions which were still on Evil Tom’s computer. She said it was fun to watch bad auditions. We said fine, whatever, and went back to our work. About twenty minutes later, she came into the living room to tell us she had found us the perfect actor for George.
Mike Strynkowski had landed in Evil’s no footage because he was not right for the role I’d originally called him into audition for, and as I said at the time, we were not looking for a George. But watching him with this new perspective, he was perfect.
Anyone following these webisodes already knows that something major went down on our set that led to our firing of our original lead actress. But I think it was fate that she was brought into our lives. Not only did she indirectly lead to our casting of Sarah Jones as our lead, but she hand picked Mike Strynkowski for us”¦things happen for a reason.