Works and Days

Interview with simon max hill '01

Madeline Wagar ’16, Assistant Editor with Works & Days, interviewed Simon Max Hill '01, a self-employed Casting Director working in Portland, OR.

Tell me a bit about what you do.

I have a small casting company that does casting of all kinds. We don’t cast theater, but we do commercial, film, T.V., print, any kind of advertising or entertainment. Say you are a producer and you have a project that requires an actor or model. You come to us and say, “I need a guy who looks like a college basketball player. He'll have some lines, but not a lot, but he must be able to play basketball. What can you get?” And then we have a conversation about payment. In a way, we are a human resource company. For a very specific kind of human resource.

For commercials, we're usually approached with a pretty specific idea. For movies and T.V., they just give you the script and allow you to interpret who the actors would need to be, what the roles are. Sometimes it's very general, for example, the description is just “police officer,” so you get to be creative. Sometimes they are very specific, and we get a description like, “They are a police officer in their fifties and they have a lazy eye.” Movies are less locked in to specific looks than commercials. Which makes sense. When you have a few seconds to tell a story you rely a lot more on visual cues and social recognition.

Sometimes we go out to locations, and rent a soccer field, or football field. Once we have our actor or model, then we'll create a video or compile some photos to show the client.

I am also involved in consulting on what to pay actors or models. Union rates are all fixed, but non-union stuff is very flexible. They can be very fickle about what they think the talent is worth. Agencies chronically under budget for talent.

We also had a problem doing a job for Wal-Mart, because all the agents were like, “screw those guys.”

How did you transition from Reed to your current position in casting?

Before I left Reed I worked in film production. I took a random semester off and so was on a spring/fall schedule, but I really didn’t want to do a spring/fall thesis. I had serious doubts about my ability to stay disciplined with a summer break in the middle of such a large project.

I decided to take another semester off to have a fall/spring schedule. I stayed in Portland during that time. I called every film house and production company in the area, asking for internships. It was so long ago I went through the yellow pages to find places to call. Eventually someone said yes, and I went although I wasn't paid. That is especially common in prestige industries like film production. The place I got my internship wanted me to do a fixed month internship program, which is crazy, because they need you for so many hours a week in the first place.

I agreed, and they asked me to commit twenty hours a week, but after three months I did step in and say, “I need to be paid for this work.” That is one of the smarter money decisions I’ve made. I was still not being paid as much as a real PA (Production Assistant), although I was doing as much as a PA.

While serving as a casting guide for this company I began building up my own skills and services, eventually winding up where I am now with a full studio space for casting, one full-time employee and one four-day-a-week employee.

I did a movie called Wendy and Lucy in 2008, for free-ish. It was a tiny budget movie, and I only made $2000 for eight weeks of work, but ultimately that work really paid off. When I started with it, it was a low budget movie with a pretty talented movie producer. But three weeks in Michelle Williams got attached to the project. That didn’t get us more money, but this thing that I started working for a hobbyist ended up being a really good movie.

This same producer has a new movie out right now, Night Moves. It’s a psychological thriller, about terrorism and the isolation that occurs when someone decides to commit a terrorist act. It's slow and arty, but also a great movie.

That movie [Wendy and Lucy] got me on people’s radar. I got a call from some friends about a show they were trying to put together, Portlandia. They asked if I could help them. I said, “No. I don’t have time to work for free, sorry.”

They were trying to make the first episode, the test episode. I said, “I can send you some recommendations, but that’s all I can do.” After that first episode, they got a bit of money, and I did help them. I did the math on the work I did for those first few episodes, and it came out where I was getting two dollars an hour. But the show did well. They got more money, and they are doing well.

Those jobs are like feathers in the cap. They get me attention without earning money.

This summer I'll hopefully be doing several movies, some T.V., some commercials. I also help people with student films for no money, or basically no money, but they have to be the right student film. I’ve been working for a friend of a friend. I really liked the end product of a project I worked on with him before, so now I’m trying to help him even though there’s not much money in it. I want to support him.

I think one big mistake people make is they get into the film community rather than the film industry. In the film community, they may be making films, but they are not necessarily good. People think making a film is just about the blood, sweat, and tears, and it is, but they are paying dues for nothing, into a side of things that doesn’t make money and isn’t sustainable. You can’t even support yourself as a starving artist in those areas, and ultimately, that will burn you out. I’ve been very lucky. I’ve been picky of where and when I will work for free. Sometimes my decisions have been super dumb and sometimes I’ve been smart. Maybe it’s just luck.

I do have a constant rule about when I will or won’t work for free, though. My rule is, if someone comes to me and says, “I’ve got a great movie, it’s about zombies,” then I’m like, "Well, you better have a lot of money because it’s not going to be good.”

To judge potential client’s projects, I think to myself, if I saw that movie in a video store, would I want to rent it? Or would I tell a friend that they should rent it, because I pick a lot of projects that are outside of my preferred genre.

I like explosions and things. Crank is one of the greatest movies of all time. It’s brilliant. It’s like ballet, with a lot of swearing, and crashing, and explosions.

What is the most important lesson you learned from your Reed experience?

I was not a very good Reed student or Reedie. I went in a terrible student and came out a mediocre one. But I worked really hard to attain that slight self-improvement.

I was an English major. The reading and analysis of fiction that I had to do, thinking about the relationship between characters and context, has been very helpful for me in breaking down scripts and understanding commercials.

For example, an agency will tell me, “Okay,we’ve got this role, he’s got tribal tattoos and this long, brown hair.” You can kill yourself trying to find this perfect model, or you can try to find equivalencies. I can ask the agency, “what you are trying to convey with these tattoos and long hair, and what else can we use that will have that effect?”

I often direct actors during their sessions. To prepare them for the audition, I give them a lot of weird, creative, fun scenarios related to the one they'll be performing. If the scene is about serving coffee, I create a fun backstory, with a lot of really high blown crazy stuff that has nothing to do with the scene. Like maybe they murdered someone.

The thesis experience was also good for me. I learned how to execute a very long-term project. How to apply constant pressure over time, and setting milestones to get it done.

Playing D&D has also helped me develop these skills.

What was the most difficult part of Reed, in your experience?

I was never good at going to the parties, or doing my homework. I was a really slow reader, which made it hard.

I thought, I should have gone to a state school, and studied computer science. Instead I went to a liberal arts college because I decided to round myself out as a person. I tried English because I like reading books and stories. I didn’t understand what being an English major meant. My senior year I was asking professors why we should write essays about books we’ve read. I just didn’t understand the philosophy of the major. I think these are good questions to ask yourself at any point, though. Maybe at the beginning of every year. Why are we here doing this at all, why are we here?

Any advice for current Reedies?

It’s a weird time to get into this industry. So I would say, go into video games. If you like video games. Get into the video game industry. It's very robust, it's likely to be a more stable industry than film. Movies seem very much on the outs. Even though we're in a golden age of serialized television, video and T.V. are headed for some major transformations. The structure and model of movies, advertisements, and T.V. that have existed for nearly a hundred years will all collapse and be replaced by something no one understands. In the short-term future, the technicians and specialists and actors and people who have carved out their niche will find their roles eliminated, or combined, with their wages reduced. Economic stability will go away and then have to be re-established. This outcome is not guaranteed, but it’s possible. It’s an industry whose core product is being completely changed, in a lot of different ways. The means of delivering the product are changing so extensively. For example, the actors union doesn’t have set rates for stuff on the web. There is a fixed rate for everything, except when it’s on the web. That’s right now. All the money will be there in the future.

It’s also a great time to be a creative in the industry, because the barrier to entry is very low. If you want to be an independent writer, now you have the internet to create your own content cheaply, and if people like it they can buy it from you directly. If you are Louis C.K. it’s a great time for you.

Fall Externship with simon max hill! Read more....

[Because the January window for externships is a slow time in simon's industry, he is offering a fall break externship for up to two first, second, or third year Reedies from Monday, October 20 to Friday or Saturday of that week. If you are interesting in shadowing simon, please send your resume along with a 250 wd min/500 wd max coverletter telling why you're interested to Brooke Hunter no later than Wednesday, September 17, 2 p.m. This article gives a good sense of simon's work. Use your coverletter to explain why this externship calls to you, and make sure to do some due diligence about his work before you write. This is a creative opportunity, creative!]—Editor 

Tags: film, casting, television, alumni