Marion Dougherty in Tom Donahue's Casting By

Imagine The Graduate without Dustin Hoffman, or Sundance Kid minus Robert Redford. Is there a Midnight Cowboy without Jon Voight? James Dean messed up an audition and luckily had an advocate when he was just another actor. Casting directors are critical to finding the right alchemy in any film argues Tom Donahue's revealing documentary Casting By, which opens today at Film Society.

Casting directors, the people who match up the character with the actor, are still sidelined when it comes to things like awards. The film illuminates a role that has remained an enigma, at best, for movie fans and many insiders as well. If it weren't for the work of a casting director, there very well may not be the likes of Al Pacino, John Travolta, Jon Voight, Bette Midler, Jeff Bridges, Clint Eastwood—the list goes on—at least as we know them.

Casting By looks at the craft through Marion Dougherty, a casting matriarch whose career spanned the first decades of mass media. Hailing from the earliest days of television, she quietly became the glue that helped define an era of screen and television entertainment. Martin Scorsese, Woody Allen, Robert De Niro, Oliver Stone, Robert Redford, Norman Lear, John Sayles, and more all celebrate Dougherty and the role she helped define in Donahue's documentary. FilmLinc Daily spoke to director Tom Donahue about the film in advance of its theatrical release.

FilmLinc Daily: How did you cast your casting directors? And what about their role in the filmmaking process sparked your interest?

Tom Donahue: Kate Lacey and Joanna Colbert, two of the film's producers, came to me and asked if I knew Marion Dougherty. Kate had worked at Disney and was in casting. She said that Marion was getting up there in age and that someone should tell her story. So I decided to go back to New York and see if there was something I could do a story on. I thought, at the very least, it could be something we could put on tape. Then I searched the internet for Marion Dougherty and I found almost nothing. There was one interview that I could find at the time and it was from a student at the University of Oklahoma and I realized from reading that article, wow, there's a window on a profession here that I'm extremely uneducated about and I'd imagine the rest of the world is too.

Jon Voight in Tom Donahue's Casting By

FD: I'd assume then, considering the number and caliber of people who took part in this film, that she was widely admired.

TD: Everyone loved Marion and came on board though sometimes it took a few years to get them on camera. Clint Eastwood and Al Pacino, for instance, [took some time] but everyone agreed to do it and of course her casting directors came in like Juliet Taylor and that opened the door to everyone else. But at that point the movie started to get a little out of hand because I spoke to all these people and I loved every interview I had. I wanted to keep interviewing everybody and I ended up doing over 240 interviews, mostly casting directors. I realized I couldn't have all these people. It could just get out of hand. I realized that the real story was Marion Dougherty. But at the same time, I realized that if we're going to talk about this profession creatively and professionally, I can't just make it about Marion… So I had to prove two things: How great Marion is as well as how great the profession is, generally.

As far as the talent I spoke with, one of the first interviews I did was with Jon Voight. I didn't even ask him any questions. I said, “Are you familiar with Marion Dougherty?” and he said, “Marion Dougherty, now who is that?” And then he goes, “I love Marion Dougherty,” and then for an hour and ten minutes he told his story. Every time I tried to say anything it didn't matter. He just wanted to get his story out and that was the basic tenor of all the actors I spoke with. John Travolta wanted to be interviewed and Jeff Bridges called me and said, “I want to be in this film.” He's even called me since to see how the film's coming.

FD: Were there any people that were more of a challenge to get on camera?

TD: Well, you'd think Woody Allen, but literally we contacted him and three days later we were interviewing him. One person who was hard to get was the one producer on Midnight Cowboy, Jerome Hellman. We had heard he was [unwell] and that we wouldn't be able to find him, but my producer Kate [Lacey] is very tenacious and started looking up all the Jerome Hellman's in the phone book and kept calling until one woman who answered said, “Why do you want to talk to Jerome? He's not feeling well…” She said, “OK, well I found him,” but that Jerome would not go on camera but he's not feeling well. But then Jerome called Kate a few days later and said, “I want to do this.”

FD: I read that you had caught Robert DeNiro [at a particular event] and asked him to join the film…

TD: DeNiro came up to me at the Tribeca Film Center right as I happened to be showing clips from the film and he said he wanted to be in the movie. He said he had learned all this stuff about Marion. “I didn't even know he had gone to L.A.,” he said. [Laughs] 

FD: And what did Marion think about all this as the film was coming together and it became obvious that she was going to be the main thread of the film?

TD: She was ecstatic! She would tell everyone: “They're doing a movie on me! They're doing a movie on me!” 

FD: She had such a long career from the early days of television and then in feature film, did she ever get into some miscasts that may have occurred along the way?

TD: I'm sure there was, but I had 12 hours with her and we didn't get into anything negative. But I don't know if I really would have honestly. It would disparage the actors, of course, and I didn't want to do that. But I will say in the 90s she was forced by the studio to place actors in roles that she didn't think they were right for. It's not that they're bad actors, but they just weren't right for the parts. There was a lack of chemistry. 

Tom Donahue's Casting By

FD: It's interesting with John Voight because in his interview he said he thought he had blown it for her, but then came back with Midnight Cowboy

TD: She had seen him Off Broadway and knew he was a talented actor, so she always had faith in him.

FD: The movie makes the case that Casting Directors deserve an Oscar category and there are a lot of big named talent you interview who go on camera to advocate for that. What is the hold up?

TD: I think the Academy will ultimately come around. I think it's going to happen with the changing of the guard, though. It's getting more and more progressive and open minded and mindful of diversity. In some [quarters] people believe the casting director is nothing more than a glorified human resources person. It didn't have the pedigree that the production designer or costuming or other “artistic creative professions” had. It's the Marions of the world who made it a creative profession, and I think we're at a tipping point right now in which [casting directors] will get their award. 

FD: You have Taylor Hackford in the film, who I think is important to show because he's a dissenting voice when it comes to this debate. Has he seen the film and if so has there been any reevaluation?

TD: I don't think he has seen it, but I really wish he would because I think he'd like the way he's portrayed in the movie. I was really amazed by how honest Taylor was in the film and I thanked him immensely. He's a living, breathing human being who is showing his veracity [of opinion] about the casting director. I didn't think I'd get something like that on camera. You need someone there to answer the central question. We make the argument that they contribute so much, but why are people against [the Oscar]?

I think people are wrong if they just disparage Taylor for his POV because there are a lot of people out there who agree with him, including actors.

FD: What talent does a great casting director such as Marion possess? What are the artistic qualities that one needs to possess to be a successful casting director and why are they essential?

TD: What does Scott Rudin bring to producing a film or a Harvey Weinstein? They have incredible tenacity but they also have great taste. And a great casting director has great taste in talent and that's what Marion brought to the table. In a way, they're kind of producers. They read the script and have 10,000 actors in their databank in their brain and they can read that script and constantly process which actors they know [could fit]. What a casting director would know is far greater than what any director would know because they have the knowledge of a hundred different parts, for example, that an actor has done and [is capable of].

They have great instincts and understand what actor will work well with another actor. Directors can't think that way, they don't typically have that kind of education that the casting director has. So, it's interpreting the character but also understanding the alchemy of how the other characters are cast. Casting directors can vouch for an actor's range. They've seen them in other auditions and they can attest to their ability even if that director has only seen that actor in, like, Dawson's Creek for instance.

FD: In the 90s, after Marion left Warner Bros., there seemed to be a shift in how casting works and I wondered if maybe there had been a step back to the early days when type-casting ruled how people got parts…

TD: I didn't want to hit people over the head with that, but there seemed to be a bit of a step back. Back in the early days, when TV arrived, it changed things. Nobody knew what it meant at the time, but it's kind of like the internet now. Marion is central to the story of mass media, and I think we're waiting for a new Marion Dougherty or someone like that to do the same thing in the age of the internet. The studio system was ossifying and breaking down after television and movies became more creative. I think the same thing is happening now. Things are ossifying and breaking down, but the internet is going to change things radically and it already is…

Casting departments at the studios now are actually really great, but casting at the top level—the leads—they're no longer cast in the same way as, say, John Voight, who was relatively unknown and took a major lead. Casting directors can do great work [with indies] but at the higher level like Pirates of the Caribbean, for instance, the leads are cast based on their international bankability. But there are still [many] actors that need to be filled for the other roles. And those actors are the ones that come up and become stars themselves.

But I think the golden age of casting as it exists now is in television. It's ironic because Marion started out in TV and then moved onto film. For a long time there was a barrier between the two. If you did TV, it was very hard to be a film actor…

FL: What do you hope audiences will take from Casting By?

TD: The film has a real emotional journey and it's great to be able to share that in a theater. I'm excited that it's playing at Lincoln Center.