September 29, 2008

Casting Directors Put Faces in Crowds in Area Films

By William Loeffler

It's the kind of problem that could only happen in the movies.

In 1990, casting director Donna Belajac received a call from a production assistant on "The Silence of the Lambs," which was shooting in Pittsburgh.

The scene called for Anthony Hopkins, who played serial killer Hannibal Lecter, to escape by impersonating a police officer -- by cutting off the cop's face and wearing it like a mask. The New York actor who had been fitted for the prosthetic face had unwittingly blundered by getting his hair cut. The prosthetic no longer fit and they needed another actor for the scene, which was scheduled to shoot the following day.

"They called me in a panic," she says. "They said 'Send us a few guys who look like Anthony Hopkins.' "

She found three local actors, one of whom, Alex Coleman, was cast in the face-losing role of Sgt. Jimmy Pembry.

It's part of the daily grind for Belajac and her friendly competitor, Nancy Mosser, who play two of the most crucial roles in the Pittsburgh film industry. Check the credits at the end of nearly any film shot in this region, and you'll likely see their names.

Belajac's specialty is finding principals -- speaking roles -- for directors and producers. Mosser provides the extras -- the non- speaking roles -- although she has cast speaking roles for "The Road,""Zack and Miri Make a Porno"" Adventureland' and "The Bridge to Nowhere," all shot in the Pittsburgh area.

"My first film, there were people who didn't even have answering machines then," says Mosser, who has been casting extras for nearly 18 years. "They didn't have cell phones, they didn't have e-mail. I would walk around with a fanny pack full of quarters so if people didn't show up, I'd go to a pay phone and call them."

The presence of two casting directors in town makes for healthy competition and saves time and money, says Mt. Lebanon native Mike Wittlin, founder of Mike Wittlin Productions, an independent film company. He recently completed "In Northwood," shot on Mt. Washington.

"It's certainly easier," Wittlin says. "Otherwise, you'd have to go set up a temporary office. These people are in town and they know the people. They can make a few phone calls and cast it very quickly.

"Donna (Belajac) has this great system. She'll send you a link to these people, and you can actually start looking at some of these featured extras online. Even if we're not in Pittsburgh at the time, if I'm in LA, the process doesn't stop. I can take it off my worries list. I know it's going to done."

Belajac and Mosser also help to cultivate local talent, says Dawn Keezer , director of Pittsburgh Film Office.

"We're really lucky that they're both in town and that they've stayed," Keezer says "They've helped create some great talent. They've both been doing classes. They've really helped shepherded people through this process and get them onscreen. "

Belajac's first casting job was finding ballet dancers and welders for "Flashdance," which was released in 1983. More recently, she was casting director for "In Northwood." She has cast roles for 33 feature films, 20 movies of the week and episodes of "West Wing" and "The Guardian." She also has cast commercials, including a recent spot for UPMC Health Plan's concierge service.

She won a casting Emmy for "Citizen Cohn," which starred James Woods and shot here in 1992.

"The producer hires us and pays us to find the best person for the job," Belajac says.

That means calling casting agents who want to find work for their actor clients. Belajac can also consult her own extensive files of actor photos and resumes at her Firstside office, Downtown. The actors come in to audition. She selects the best ones, digitally records them onto a laptop and uploads them to a Web site where the director can view them. At that point, her input essentially ends.

There's no shmoozing with stars, she says.

"By the time the stars get here, I'm pretty much finished," Belajac says.

Mosser spends more time on set, where she and assistant Katie Shenot sign up the extras. Mosser still contacts extras primarily through phone, telling them where to be, what to wear and where to park.

"I try to make sure they get one or two phone calls in the process, ask them if they have any questions," she says. "The more human contact, the better."

The shopping list of extras varies from film to film.

For "The Road," which shot here earlier this year, Mosser had to find extras who looked haggard, malnourished, and unkempt in accordance with the film's bleak and horrific story. For "Sorority Row," which begins shooting here Oct. 6, she rounded up people aged 18-25 years to play college students dressed for an "upscale clubwear party."

"You're painting a picture with people," Mosser says.

On "Dogma," shot here in 1998, director Kevin Smith cast Mosser in a small role as the governor of New Jersey. She got to hang out with comic George Carlin, who played Cardinal Ignatius Glick. At the same time, however, she was in charge of 350 extras, including those playing nuns, priests, a marching band, altar boys and reporters.

Born in Huntingdon in Central Pennsylvania, Mosser's first job after graduating from Penn State University was as a production a assistant at Channel 11 when it was WIIC. She worked on "Mister Rogers' Neighborhood" at WQED and freelanced in commercial and television production in Boston.

She got her first job as casting director thanks to a referral by Belajac, who recommended her for "Criminal Justice," a television movie shot here in 1990.

"I just fell in love with it," Mosser says. "My background growing up was in theater. I majored in theater and television in college, so it was really a combination of everything that I loved."

Belajac, born in Overbook, modeled briefly before working as a production assistant and assistant director for a local company called Television Production Communications. She was eventually hired as their in-house casting director and started her own casting agency in 1982.

"I've never gotten tired of it," she says. I've never gotten jaded. I like to come to work every day."

Unscripted moments

Pittsburgh's casting directors discuss one of their toughest film assignments.

Donna Belajac: "The War that Made America" (2004)

Belajac was the primary casting director for the PBS docudrama about the French and Indian War.

"The clients didn't hire a casting director in New York or L.A. because they wanted to find everyone here," she says. "So, not only did I have to find true Native Americans, but they had to be actors who could handle the speaking parts and somewhat resemble historical characters. ... We dug for talent who might have a connection to Pittsburgh and a willingness to travel.

"I did hire a colleague of mine to run a casting session in New York to find two or three (actors), but for the most part, I found what we needed.

"Oh, and a George Washington-at-22 look-alike, too."

Nancy Mosser: "Sudden Death" (1995)

Jane Claude Van Damme plays a former fireman who must thwart terrorists holding the Vice President and others hostage during the seventh game of the Stanley Cup Final.

The hockey scenes were filmed inside Mellon Arena.

"There were 10,000 paid extras," Mosser says. "That was a challenge because they were planning to shoot at some real games. But then the (hockey) strike happened."

Producers used cardboard cutouts to fill some of the upper seats, she says.

"We cast 58 speaking roles, " Mosser says. "I remember my assistant on the film turned around to me after the premiere and said, 'How did we do that?' "

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