Picture: The three actresses, from left: The asylum escapee, the motherly one, the hooker. The pimp is between them and our set designer holding the script.
We had been told that if we needed actors they were to be found every morning at the front gate of Beijing Film Studios.
Migrant workers who aspire to become the next Gong Li or Jackie Chan gather every day at the main gate and wait for producers or directors to walk by, cast them and make them famous. So, after searching without success for an actress to play The Bonsai Girl’s mother, we resorted to the front gate of The Beijing Film Studio. We needed a woman, around 40-50 years old and preferably a passable actress, but, mostly just a cheap actress.
We arrived around 9.00am, seeing mostly young men standing around, one of them came up to us and asked what we were looking for (like a proper pimp). As soon as people noticed that we were having an actual discussion about our needs and that we were in fact looking for actors, we were surrounded by hopefuls and a bit of a mob mentality ensued.
We could still only see men and tried to be clear that we needed a woman, most of the men said it would be no problem for them to act a woman, it all depended on how much we were willing to pay them. Finally, we explained to them that there’s two kinds of movies made in Europe – it’s the cross gender sexual explorations that they make in Spain and south Europe and then there’s the bleak dark reality that we make in Scandinavia and north Europe … we come from that latter school of European film making. So that explained, the first guy who spoke to us promised us he’d get us what we needed. He told some of the younger guy’s to escort us into the parking lot – “for privacy” – since the auditions were about to begin. He started making phone calls and later we would come to the conclusion that he acted as a sort of a acting coach/pimp, and the self appointed leader of these migrant actors.
Five minutes later we had three “actresses” lined up, all the right age. One was the shy type – a motherly woman who looked the role, another was the slutty – one step away from being a hooker type and did not look the role, the third was a spaced out woman who seemed like she’d just escaped from some asylum and did not seem to fully understand where she was or what she was doing. Great, we had choices!
We asked if we could make them act a scene from the movie, using our set designer as the little girl and then the three women would act out a scene. “Showing anger and emotion without facial expressions or hand gestures – and no tears” was the advice of the director (from Latvia).
First up was the motherly shy woman, she wasn’t great, very shy, very introverted … but with some direction, she was passable. Next up was the hooker type – over the top, over acting, tears, emotion, anger, shouting … she didn’t get the directions but at least she acted and if we could make ourselves understood then; she also was passable. The asylum escapee had by that time left, wandered off and disappeared.
I told the director that “personally” I liked the hooker, I felt it would be easier for him to tone her down rather than add something to the mother type. (YES, I’m being brutally honest, I liked the hooker type). I did warn him though that at that particular moment I might have been thinking with something else than my brain. The director stepped aside for a moment to think things over. Then the hooker type actress came over and asked me who I was, I told her I was the producer. When she had made sure that being a producer meant you made the money decisions she started negotiating … I offered 100 rmb per day, she offered to act for 500rmb per day and at lunch breaks she’d personally make sure I was happy … all included in the 500rmb. Here’s the basic conversation:
Producer: “We can pay you 100rmb per day”
Actress: “I think you will like better, you pay 500rmb a day”
Producer: “No, I won’t like that better”
Actress: “You rich, you make movie, I know you rich, 500 is cheap”
Producer: “It’s a European movie, so we’re not rich”
Actress: “You pay 500, I also make you happy man, make happy time every day”
Producer: “We have sex? you mean you will have sex with me?”
Actress: “Yes! 500 rmb, I act in movie … I give you good happy sex”
At that moment the director interrupts our conversation and declares that he’s decided to choose the hooker type (well I can now stop with the type thing) … he’s decided to choose the hooker as his actress.
The pimp comes over and ushers the hooker away and the deal is made for 200rmb per day, after some haggling. Haggling that does not include sex. We think we’ve made a deal and people are getting ready to leave, when suddenly the hooker starts shouting and screaming – the pimp runs over to her, slaps her face and rips her CV out of her hands, tearing it into pieces. Shouting at her all the time. The hooker actress then runs away.
The pimp comes over to us and tells us in a regretful tone that the hooker asked for 5000rmb per day, he felt angry at how un-professional she was and that it’s over, we can’t get her. Even if we had 5000rmb per day he would not recommend her because she doesn’t act in a professional manner. The pimp understands low budget “European” film making (He’s a fan of Bergman) and points to the motherly type, “how about her?” we take one look around, there’s no other woman present at that moment and we decide, yes OK. The motherly type actress is hired for 200rmb per day and that’s that.
We would later get a phone call from the hooker type asking for 150rmb per day, so for a few day’s we went back and forth between the two actresses and finally chose the motherly type and paid her the 200rmb. She turned out to be a fine actress and there was no sex involved.
I still wonder what would have happened if we’d hired the “hooker” … I just wonder, as a producer.