April 8, 2009
With his iPhone in hand, veteran Boston casting director Kevin Fennessy is working his extensive contacts lists to find people willing to work for little money -- very little -- on a low-budget indie movie called "Slip & Fall," which is filming in the Boston area this spring.
"Whether you're trying to handle thousands of extras for a big budget film or working with a few first-time actors trying to learn their craft in a small budget project, it's all the same. The casting people have to bring together the vision of the creative team and help them make it work," Fennessy says.
And the Cambridge native knows a thing or two about both ends of the mercurial industry. He started in casting after a lifetime of theater and film acting (he's had his SAG card since 1980) and seven years in New York working on film and in commercials. He returned to Boston in 1994 to work with Carolyn Pickman (now of CP Casting) and started his own company in 1998.
In 2000, Fennessy was on the top of the heap with numerous credits on his resume doing both extras casting (those background players who fill out a scene) and locations casting (smaller acting roles where producers won't fly a person into town just to say a few lines). But life soon intervened. In February 2002, Fennessy's Cambridge office was destroyed in a fire and he endured some health problems.
Much like the revamped and reinvigorated local film industry, Fennessy has seen a steady growth in Boston-based work and he's even worked a few gigs as an extra or a day player. "I'm sure some people think it's crazy after all these years to work as an extra but it helps me see what goes on with that part of the production and it pays," he says. Fennessy worked with Angela Peri's Boston Casting two years ago casting extras for the Dane Cook comedy "My Best Friend's Girl." Once again, Fennessy worked his extensive Rolodex and even persuaded the national and local media to cover the hilarious afternoon call for a "guy who looks like a rabbi, but isn't one," which resulted in a page one photograph in The Boston Globe.
Each job leads to something else, Fennessy says. "So much of this 'biz' is knowing what's going on before you read about it in a newspaper or on a website," he says. Among his credits are four of the Farrelly Brothers films, the critically acclaimed "The Boondock Saints," writer/director Dave McLaughlin's Boston-set "On Broadway," and the late TV show "Providence."
To illustrate his point, Fennessy points to the current "Slip & Fall" project. Although he's spending most of his days wrangling extras, many of whom are working for no pay, the film's star is Sam Cohen, who got his first job from Fennessy, a bit player in the Farrelly's "Shallow Hal."
"You just keep plugging," says Fennessy who is quick to add that he's revamping his website and uses Facebook and other online networking tools to get local actors to turn out. "It's so great to actually watch a film and see something that you helped play a part in work out. It's very rewarding."
Chuck Conaway, an Orange County (California) police officer turned screenwriter, says his World War II Irish romantic comedy "Waiting for Dublin" came about because of a serendipitous meeting in Southern California with a Boston veteran.
"I was at a cookout-pot luck gathering, something I wouldn't normally go to, and I met a guy from Boston. He had a great accent and all," Conaway says. "The man, I don't know his name and have never been able to find him, was in the Army Air Corps and told me a true story that essentially sparked the story of the screenplay."
Set in the waning days of World War II, "Waiting for Dublin" follows an American fighter pilot who has a bet going with the nephew of Al Capone that it looks like he going to lose when he's forced to land in Ireland and is supposed to ride out the rest of the war. Reviews for the flick, which had a week-long screening in Boston around St. Patrick's Day, have been mixed with some critics panning the odd mix of locals as distracting to the story.
It's something that Conaway has to laugh at. "First, it's a movie. It's set in World War II and it's in the vein of an old-fashioned tale, like a John Ford story," Conaway says. The screenwriter, whose previous credits include "Fatal Pursuit" and "Dilemma," points to "Waking Ned Devine" and other modern comedies as inspiration. Starring Andrew Keegan and Jade Yourell, the Roger Tucker-directed movie features a cast of veteran Irish actors playing some predictable characters (the parish priest, the well-read local farmer) and a few zany ones like the World War I hero now blind who wants to fly in a plane.
On St. Patrick's Day, Conaway turned the tables on his interviewer. "Forget what I'm doing today. How's Boston on March 17th? You know, I hate to admit it, but I've never been to town and now 'Waiting for Dublin' is playing there." Boston has a place of honor in Conaway's heart, if not his travel itinerary. "I owe this whole story to the town. I need to get there."
For a post-concert visit by Bono, the Edge, Adam Clayton, and the rest of the U2 entourage, the staff at UpStairs on the Square in Harvard Square had to employ tactics that would be impress a spy agency.
"As we were setting up and even the night before, people were asking us what event was happening, but no one suspected U2," said UpStairs GM Matthew Lishansky. "So one of the staff came up with the idea of calling it the Rabinowitz Bar Mitvah. That was our code name and people believed it."
It worked out, indeed. Most fans speculated that after their Somerville Theatre gig, the band would head to The Burren just up the street in Davis Square. So why head to an upscale restaurant known more for its bright colors and four-star food than some "pub grub"?"What would you want after a concert," Lishansky asked. "It gave the band and all the radio and record company people a chance to relax in a different way."
Bono and his bandmates have a previous connection with UpStairs. Chef Susan Regis cooked for them at a private house in Ireland a few years ago. "When Bono came through the kitchen, he immediately recognized her and started asking for some of her signature dishes," said Lishansky, who is quick to note that his mother is an O'Brien and he's proudly "Shanty Irish."
Everyone seemed to be relaxed and enjoying themselves, said Lishansky, who chatted with the Edge about Harvard Square architecture and the history of some of the buildings nearby. "I've studied a bit since I came on board, but he knows a lot -- a lot -- about the buildings in Harvard Square," Lishansky said.
And for those who think we're forgetting, U2's drummer Larry Mullen opted for a more traditional post-concert libation and was spotted enjoying a few pints of Guinness with the locals at Tommy Doyle's Irish Pub in the original House of Blues spot on Winthrop Street across from UpStairs.
Since it was back to Ireland directly from the March 11 concert and after-party, the folks at UpStairs packed doggy bags of steak sandwiches and other goodies -- including the eatery's trademark turtle desserts -- for the overnight plane trip. "That seemed to make them happy," said Lishansky, "and make up for the fact that we were taking the margarita glasses out of their hands as they left."
Carol Beggy is a longtime Boston-area journalist who most recently co-authored the "Names" column in The Boston Globe.