While on vacation in Maui this past week, I made the decision to end my time in casting after 31 years. So rather than just disappear, I thought I’d write something to some of the many wonderful people who have shared the journey with me on this long and somewhat winding road and also share my future plans beyond casting.
As I sit here writing this on the plane coming home, I’m thinking back to when I started in casting in 1985 in my native Los Angeles. I remember the day I walked (temporarily….or so I thought!) into the offices at Anderson, McCook & White Casting in the old Lucasfilm headquarters at the historic Egg Company Building at the base of the hill at Universal Studios in the neighborhood where I grew up. By then, I was a full-time musician for hire playing drums in various recording studios by day on jingles and demos and live performance situations by night. But after several years of doing this, I had reached the age of 26 years old and was finding the music business VERY political and complicated significantly by the influence of cocaine. Producers were becoming more and more inclined to hire based on whether or not players brought it to sessions to share. Since this definitely wasn’t my thing, I was finding the situation of my day gigs to be more and more of a toxic environment. I had grown up the son of a professional musician as my father Paul was a noted conductor. His friends and accomplices included influences like Zubin Mehta, Marilyn Horne, John Williams who’s brother was my first drum teacher and I remember actually speaking to Igor Stravinsky on the phone but didn’t know at the time who he was! Anyway, it was always assumed from the time I was small and exhibited a knack for music that I’d be a professional one day. As a boy, I had sung with the Los Angeles Philharmonic, The Los Angeles Master Chorale, the San Francisco Opera Company, a Tide commercial, the soundtrack of “The Godfather” and the Disney “Small World” album. The road to the drums was quick and necessary when my voice changed and I went from being a great boy-soprano soloist voice to just a decent ensemble voice in my teens. I was a working musician playing drums from the age of 16 on from there. And I’ve kept it up my whole life as the calling to be a musician is not optional when it happens. So I’ve appreciated the flexibility that I’ve enjoyed to close the office and either go on the road or into the studio and play with artists like David Benoit, Gerald Albright, Peter White, Michael Tomlinson, Doug MacLeod, Mycle Wastman and Taylor Mesple’. I’ve even gigged with Andy Williams!
But on this day, casting director Nancy McCook, a dear friend of our family whom I had known since I was born, had asked me to come in and help cast a Volkswagen for Mexico spot for the day. After showing me how to operate the 3/4” tape machines and the camera, I was soon running an audition requiring two couples per audition slot. It felt very natural to me having frequently directed rehearsals for many of the bands in which I had found myself over the years. Growing up the son of a conductor, I also had first-hand experience watching my dad direct his own rehearsals. So it all felt pretty natural to me. A few days later, they asked me to come in again as I didn’t have a session to play that day and after a few more of these, Nancy and her partner, Catherine White offered me a job as their assistant. The seminal casting company of Anderson, McCook & White was started by casting pioneer Maxine Anderson when the studio system dissolved. Nancy had been her partner and Catherine had been a client but came on board as a partner when Max passed away. Each time they asked, I kept telling them that I was a musician. But each time, my heart was less and less in my answer. So after one particularly unpleasant recording session, I accepted the job with Nancy and Catherine provided I could still get away and still play sessions with the less political cohorts on days when we weren’t casting. It wasn’t long before I was turning away most of my drumming accounts and suggesting other players to the producers and contractors who were calling. Eventually, I was casting full-time during the days and playing in live situations at night for the love of it. (Much easier to do in your 20’s!)
Believe it or not, I found there was a LOT less politics in the casting business than in the music business! I enjoyed working with the actors and felt very protective over them given that they were walking into a situation that was vulnerable for most of them. And since I had invited them in, I felt ESPECIALLY responsible for their artistic and emotional safety while they risked the trials of the audition process. So I always tried to make it the best experience I could whether they got the job or not. Besides the stimulation of the casting work, the conversations with Nancy and Catherine were incredibly interesting and I learned so much about actors and acting, film-making, theater, story-telling, character-development, direction and the criteria for having a script that worked. Given that they were both 20 and 30 years older than I and female, they usually had a completely different take on things and viewing the world through their eyes was such a great learning experience. They told me that they wouldn’t pay me very much but they would teach me everything they could about casting. And they were true to their words! There were times, they would put me on the phone with agents for over-scale, celebrity talent in negotiating situations where they would sit opposite me and if I got into trouble and didn’t quite know what to say, they would prompt me and I learned to negotiate over time. They tutored me on the basics like union contracts and how to work with them, making sure the actors we brought in were clear for work with the union, writing clear Taft Hartley requests for waiver, quoting clients the rates and practices, disseminating breakdowns to agents in a really clear way and how to assess actors. They’d ask my opinions on things and then give me theirs. I was able to see where I had been limited in some of my impressions and include the greater perspective they brought with their experience in the business.
Between them, they had some 85 years combined in the casting, talent agency and advertising agency sides of the business. Nancy started out an agent at what is now KMR Talent Agency, and then moved to casting partnering with Maxine. Catherine had been vice president in charge of talent at one of the biggest ad agencies in New York and also been on several of the American Association of Advertising Agencies negotiating teams that hammered out a number of the successful SAG contracts that governed work during the 60’s and 70s. She knew them all intimately. In addition, Catherine’s husband Larry White started his career directing television in is infancy, was head of programming for NBC in the 1970’s during one of their big heydays, Vice President of Columbia Pictures Television and was an independent producer of note. To this day, I’d put Larry White in first place as the most intelligent person I’ve ever met! He would have been my “go-to-guy” as a lifeline in “Who Wants To Be A Millionaire!” They all generously mentored me in every possible sense of the word. And we discussed pretty much everything but especially things related to casting like the actors that came in and those we had seen in movies or on television, what we liked or didn’t like about them, their strengths and liabilities, how to present actors to clients, how to watch what I was filming as if I was the client who would be watching it and so much more. They taught me how to anticipate problems above and below me in the food chain so that I could protect everyone as much as possible from any issues arising. They taught me about billing clients, bidding projects and marketing. They let me make mistakes that with their corrective oversight, were never felt by our clients which is crucial to the apprenticeship process. As Nancy always used to say after one of them, “listen, you only have to make that mistake once!” There isn’t space enough here to adequately tell you what they gave me over the four years of my intensive apprenticeship with them. They were my lifelong friends and occasional colleagues over the years when we got the chance to work on the same projects after I moved away and started my own firm. Nancy passed away in 2009 and Catherine, last year. I miss them a lot but always feel them around me whenever I think of them! And their influence was in absolutely every job I’ve ever done.
Eventually, I outgrew my next position as a casting associate as there wasn’t room for a partner which would normally have been the next step at AMW. In 1988, the Writer’s Strike locked up the town pretty tightly and movement to another casting job anywhere else was impossible. One day while stuck in traffic trying to go south on the San Diego Freeway in the Sepulveda pass, an idea hit me like a bolt of lightning as it literally felt like something hitting me! I could just move away from Los Angeles! The traffic and crowding were much worse than when I was growing up and I didn’t own a home yet and wasn’t married so I could literally pick up and go wherever I wanted. I figured I could find work as a musician or work in production somewhere else as they probably only had actors in towns like LA and NY and I sure wasn’t moving to New York! So I figured working in casting was probably out of the question wherever I was going! I didn’t want to freeze to death, wanted cultural diversity and a flourishing arts scene so it had to be a fairly decent-sized metropolitan area. I came up to Seattle to visit during the summer of 88 and fell in love with the place. A client of ours at AMW set up a meeting for me with the number one commercial director in Seattle at the time and he suggested I move here and start a casting company. I was surprised they had such a flourishing production market and lots of actors! While I was a bit trepidatious about starting my own firm, I had met the two leading casting directors in Seattle on my trip and was gratified that while I had nowhere near as much experience as Nancy and Catherine, the previous 4 and half years imbued me with at least twice the volume of work all the local CD’s had and mine was from a much larger market. After discussing the situation with Nancy and Catherine, they endorsed my readiness to start my own firm up in Seattle and I moved up in November of 88. I opened Complete Casting by Stephen Salamunovich exactly 27 years ago to the day on May 19th of 89 after building out my first office on Third Avenue with a guy who’s now the Dean of Bellevue Community College. Catherine thought up the name of the company as “Salamunovich” Casting would have choked people and “S” was pretty far down in the alphabet for various trade directory listings. Within the first year, I was doing the majority of work in the market and having a blast working with a very large talent pool as there was more theater in Seattle per capita than any city outside of New York. Work was plentiful as there were nationally-known production companies based in Seattle who were doing lots of industrials and bidding for and bringing home national commercials along with the movies of the week and features that used to come into the market. I was part of a family large film community of trained professionals who all together, provided an attractive infrastructure to bring productions into the area. Business was good enough to have done close to more than 4000 projects over the past 31 years my has career lasted.
Over the 27 years since I’ve been in Seattle, I’ve seen the business change drastically, going from vibrant and healthy to barely sustainable with a very few notable exceptions. Mind you there are definitely things shooting in Seattle! But with the advent of pro-sumer cameras and cheap editing software, the business has now become the domain mostly of people with day jobs who moonlight at below-market rates (or free!) on productions. Rates that have irreparably dropped the pay scale for the career professionals who are stuck trying to compete and still be profitable. They’ve completely changed the way business is done as the apprenticeship model for getting into all areas of the business, has now pretty much disappeared. And now people who mostly made it up as they went along are teaching what they DON’T know to a new crop of people and perpetuating their ignorance. And the lineage back to the professionally-trained producers and crew people, is all but invisible in the rear-view mirror. And most of these producers assume they know how it’s done because they’ve managed to make it through a few productions without anybody saying anything contrary to them about the path they took. Many of them don’t have any idea what a casting director can actually do for them since they’d rather just post directly to actors on callboards or Craigslist and pay talent by the number of hours they expect to have them on the set!! The least efficient way to cast in the world but that’s the future! And it obliterates the standards for proper payment to the actors as many people now making commercials, just offer them the hollow value of “exposure” having no idea that this is a liability for actors in commercial projects! For the past two years, I’ve turned away far more jobs than I’ve taken. That’s because the rates producers want me to offer to the actors are so scathingly low, I’d have to abandon my responsibility and gratitude to them for the fact that I’ve had a career all these years. If I took these jobs on and put out those paltry talent payment rates, they’d quickly become the new “low” on their way to a newer and lower, “low. Unfortunately, someone else who has no idea what the work really should be paying, takes it on as a “casting director” with little or virtually no training or background in the business except that they survived a few productions and got away with it not realizing what the true criterion actually was to be a trained casting director. Or, out of town producers bring in CD’s from outside the market who require the added expense of being flown in and housed to “discover” a talent pool those of us local professionals already know in detail and have logged in our databases. I know that my fellow, local casting professionals must be feeling some of the same influences and I want to express to them it’s been a privilege serving along side them all. And I wish them well as they continue the “good fight” without me.
I’m sorry if this sounds a bit like sour grapes. But my main intent here is more in the direction of a cautionary tale about the future of the industry. Having had so much respect for the honorable profession of casting the way it was taught to me, the prices I paid to learn the ropes and for what I DIDN’T yet know even after four years of apprenticeship, you can imagine how much respect I have for someone who just decides they’re a “casting director” today because someone asked them to find some actors to be in their production! I’m sure they think that anyone with a reasonably sound opinion on who’s a good actor, would make a fine casting director without any training otherwise. Now this would all be harmless if I could have operated in a vacuum where these falling rates and unprofessional casting executions by others, didn’t affect my situation. But we all get affected when people don’t charge sustainable rates and/or, they botch jobs that could have gone to proven professionals which chases potential clients away who end up thinking this is what casting actually is! So most just decide to do it themselves next time and omit a CD from the equation as a useless expense. As such, I’m certain a professionally-sustained career as a trained casting director in secondary markets like Seattle, is soon doomed for extinction. And these same forces are exacting the results of “natural selection” in Los Angeles and New York as well. And since the practice of merely sitting behind one’s computer and asking actors to audition and film themselves is now firmly taking root, the “director” part of the title is now also a vanishing art form of casting.
While I was vacationing in Mexico this past February and in Maui the past two weeks, I had taken on a few jobs that became especially problematic because of issues created by inexperienced clients that wasted huge amounts of my time which was more aggravating because I was trying to be on vacation. And both projects had rates that I had to struggle to pull up to the current market rates as clients are now all wanting to pay less than those rates for the reasons above. I’m sure that if I hadn’t had so much experience working with so many fellow pros who knew their stuff over the years, I’d have the necessary patience that I’m finding more and more is required to deal with it. After this latest one I prepped and oversaw from Maui that I should have been able to complete before I left, I finally decided that it was time to put a period on the end of my casting career, I and move on to my next adventures.
I’ve had amazing experiences with so many people over the years. I’ve done so many creatively rewarding projects and many incredibly challenging ones that required my best possible efforts to make it look easy to my clients so they’d never feel the pain. I’ve been privileged to be the first and one of only three casting directors working outside of New York or Los Angeles to win the Casting Society of America’s highest honor, the Artios Award as a principal-position CD. I’ve worked with wonderful clients whom I consider friends and for whom it’s been an absolute pleasure to have served. There are so many great producers on whom I’ve relied over the years who really know their stuff and have regularly made my life easier with their grace under pressure, intelligence, professionalism and vast experience. And working in a secondary market where budgets are smaller, I’ve regularly worked with talented directors who are true artists and can make a five figure budget, look like six or more with their artistry and ingenuity.
And I’ve especially enjoyed working with so many great agents over the years all around the world but especially in Seattle and Los Angeles. They’ve been the people who were regularly with me in the trenches and probably number in the mid-hundreds by now. I’m very grateful to those agents who have made my life much easier and absolutely forgive those who made it more complicated from time to time as well! And I hope they’ll forgive me for the times when I was short on patience for the occasional mistakes EVERYONE makes. Including me! On so many occasions, I’ve asked the impossible from them when it’s been asked of me. And they’ve come through time and time again, moving mountains to get submissions in and actors to auditions on the shortest of notice. Even after hours and on weekends and holidays. I’m so very grateful to them all!
But MOSTLY and appropriately, I’ll miss the actors who have auditioned with me who now number in the hundreds of thousands. You guys are a truly special bunch who courageously step into the light to reveal the human condition against no shortage of stacked odds. Your partnership has been crucial to me professionally and personally. I’ve run into people I know from my work, all over the world! I’ve given many people, their first jobs on-camera including no shortage of people who are now household names. I’ve been so grateful that actors have come in to audition and helped make me look good with my clients over and over. And among them, I’ve found so many friends with whom I’ve had a chance to share the path over the years in that vulnerable and sacred space where actors reveal themselves in the audition. A space I’ve always tried to make as safe as possible for them. I’m truly grateful for the trust they’ve regularly placed in me there standing on the “skinny branches” of life. And it’s not inaccurate to say that I have grown to love so many of them! I’ve never taken them for granted and have tried to have their backs and support them at every turn while fighting with clients on better rates and hours, honoring every SAG strike that happened over the years, trying to help with career advice whenever asked and standing up against the “pay to audition” workshop scams that prey on actors. Without the actors, I wouldn’t have had a gig all these years and that’s never been lost on me. They will always have my eternal gratitude for their partnership with me. What I will absolutely miss most of all, is spending time with them helping provide an environment to bring out their artistry and to catch up on what’s going on in their lives.
Johnny Carson used to talk about his agent “Bombastic Bushkin” and I’m sure that many people thought this was some made up character. But there really is a Henry Bushkin and he has a law firm that specialized in representing clients who were celebrity athletes and entrepreneurs branching out into celebrity endorsement opportunities. Back in 1988, he sent in Kareem Abdul Jabbar to our office and I helped him prepare for a Campbell’s Chunky Soup commercial written for him. That day with Kareem started my work as an executive presentational live performance coaching specialist which I’ve done over the years, working with professional athletes, chefs, political candidates, authors and entrepreneurs appearing on shows like “The Today Show, CBS This Morning, The Tonight Show, Good Morning America and on IPO’s and live appearances before groups. I’ve come up with coaching techniques that are rooted in my unique experiences of what works while presiding over close to a third of a million auditions helping actors get comfortable in what can be a fairly stressful situation. And there have always been a number of pressures requiring the quickest results to satisfy SAG time requirements, taping duplication and FedEx drop-off deadlines complicating that situation. These pressures have helped me hone the most efficient techniques to help my clients in the shortest amount of time. I’m in the final editing stages of my first book illustrating those techniques which are very different from the standard ones in the field. Since the casting work is always deadline-oriented, I’ve usually made time for the coaching work AROUND my casting work but I’ve enjoyed it immensely. Leaving casting will allow me the time to prioritize something that is very fulfilling for me and work with a wider range of people around the country and also live wherever I want. And I’ve never stopped working as a musician performing and recording with great artists. I’m looking forward to getting back to that more as the last two years required more family priorities that temporarily took me away from it. And I love teaching acting workshops I’ve designed to help actors break through their barriers at auditions which are quite different challenges than after actors already have the job!!
I truly hope that I can still cross paths with many of you who have shared the casting journey with me in some way over the years. Whether you know it or not, you’ve brought so much richness to my life and I truly hope I’ve contributed something positive to yours! With Great Gratitude and Love, Steve