What is love? I’ve spent many years exploring this question with my film Audition, which is having its international premiere at the Manchester Film Festival, on 6 March. Set in the midst of a real-life acting competition, the film follows a cautionary narrative told within a documentary structure. The story’s romance is portrayed by 100 actors who audition for the two lead roles and the chance to perform the final terrifying act.
A professor once told me: “If you start a feature, you’d better believe in it. Because it will take a lot longer than you think. It will become a big part of your life.” That statement couldn’t have been more true. Because after 15 years trying to get Audition made, this film is not only a big part of my life, it has become my life and I’ve never stopped believing in it.
The roots of Audition are embedded in influences I can trace back to childhood. I was born (coincidentally) in Manchester, Connecticut, in the United States. My father was born and raised in Manchester, England. My grandfather worked at Rolls Royce as a tool and die maker and my great grandfather was a Manchester steeple jock. After WWII in the RAF, my father became a successful Manchester door-to-door salesman, a career that would sustain him throughout his life. However, it was his secret artistic talents, such as the power of his photography and 8mm movies, that would influence me throughout mine. That magnetic lure of filmmaking soon led me to sneak quietly downstairs, where I’d watch films like Looking for Mr Goodbar on Betamax in the middle of the night. On my first trip to London in 1976 I saw A Chorus Line on stage, then listened to all the numbers over and over again.
My college thesis turned out more like a Lynch or Scorsese film than my own but moving to NYC, meeting and losing someone deeply meaningful to me, I was motivated to pick up a camera to find my own voice. I created projects like never before, producing a series of films in the late 90s, fueled by spontaneity and intuition. Films shot in a day or even a few hours. Intuitive filmmaking became my thing. The power of the unplanned or unexpected.
All of this led to the concept of Audition – an idea that took a grip in 1999 and never let go. Originally, I was looking for an idea I could film in 24 hours. Then one day I was having coffee with a friend who was talking about all the behind-the-scenes gossip at an audition she just attended. In that moment a light bulb went off. What if 100 actors were to play the same characters? I spent that evening hashing out a mathematically-based diagram that showed that an entire script could be shot in a day through a power in numbers approach – that if a lot of people are motivated to learn different bits of a larger whole, you can collectively achieve a great deal in very little time.
At first I searched for a story in the public domain, but ended up making it personal instead. Writing it helped me understand myself better. It gave me purpose. So I wrote, and I wrote. Then I pitched, and I pitched. Green light. I was slated for production in the summer of 2001, but after unexpected events the project did not move forward. Over time, I never gave up trying to reinvent it with different titles, multiple castings and pre-visualisations, for years.
Yes, there were many setbacks, but crowdfunding hit the scene and, with the support of the people closest to me, I gave it one more shot. All my family, colleagues, and people I’ve never even met rose up to support it. Now I could finally begin.
With Audition I wanted to prove that there are many ways you can make a film – that you’re not limited to how you’re ‘supposed’ to do things. As a production strategy, all of the narrative scenes were scripted in real-time and shot in chronological order, to allow the actors to bring their characters to life in the moment.
We filmed over one week. Act one was shot in one day, engaging the full 100-member cast. With act two, we reduced the cast to 10 actors filming over two days, giving me more time to work with each actor, as well as having additional takes. For the final act, we chose two leads, spending two nights filming the harrowing finale.
In casting, I personally went through over 15,000 headshots and narrowed them down to about 1,000 actors. From there we coordinated countless auditions over the period of a year. Additionally, we held an open call with renowned casting director Todd Thaler which resulted in landing both the male lead and male runner-up, as well as one of the five females in the top ten.
The film has gone beyond my wildest expectations and I’m thrilled about the final act even though the shooting of it was very hard for all involved. Ultimately, it is what makes this film so compelling and controversial. Big lessons were learned those nights. What I love most about the entire film is that, like the actors, the story and the film’s methods constantly change and we let reality play a role, allowing the unexpected to happen. The final act is the most unexpected event of them all. It goes without saying that I ultimately selected the perfect two actors, and they truly deliver powerful and surprising performances.