Broad Cinema: Michelle Guish And The Art Of Casting Best Pictures

A master of a job most take for granted.

From Alice Guy-Blaché to Ava Duvernay, women have been integral to cinema for the last 120 years. Broad Cinema is a new column that will feature women who worked on films that are playing this month at the Alamo Drafthouse. From movie stars to directors, from cinematographers to key grips, Broad Cinema will shine a spotlight on women in every level of motion picture production throughout history.

For June we are celebrating casting director Michelle Guish. Live near an Alamo Drafthouse? Get tickets to this month's The English Patient Afternoon Tea here!

Let’s pretend that every part of the 10,000-piece jigsaw puzzle that is filmmaking receives relatively equal attention. Imagine that we live in a world where a Friday night jaunt could reasonably include a casual conversation about our favorite sound technician, visual effects supervisor, or costume designer. In this alternate reality, Michelle Guish needs no introduction. She collects as much adoration and acclaim as Kate Winslet or Benedict Cumberbatch. She is one of many faces that craft the A-list collage. She is one of our favorite—drumroll, please—casting directors.

Alas, we wake up only to find that the opposite is true. Despite internal industry reverence, the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences, a.k.a the Oscars, hasn’t been too kind to casting directors. They received their treasured seat on the Board of Governors only four years ago after the Academy announced the creation of the Casting Directors Branch. The branch has yet to convince the board that they are worthy of their own Oscar category, but…baby steps. Last year at the Governor’s Awards, the branch took a leap when the Academy recognized 88-year-old casting director Lynn Stalmaster for his lifetime contribution by handing over an honorary award. However, regardless of official recognition, the job of a casting director is imperative to an Oscar-adorned film, and UK-born Michelle Guish is living proof.

She got her start with Terry Gilliam and Monty Python in 1983 casting The Meaning of Life. Of course, the Monty Python team was already guaranteed leading roles, but that didn’t necessarily make Guish’s job easy. Instead of trying to mold a cast out of the vision of one director, she had to surround a pre-existing cast based on the vision of an entire comedy group. Between 1983 and 1995 Guish founded Kenneth Branagh and Colin Firth by riskily casting them in their first lead roles in Pat O’Connor’s A Month in the Country (1987). She formed a relationship with director Anthony Minghella by boldly and triumphantly casting the late Alan Rickman—known to the public at the time as the cruel Hans Gruber—in Minghella’s first feature film Truly Madly Deeply (1990). She cast her first Academy-recognized films in Tom & Viv (1994) and Four Weddings and a Funeral (1994), the former yielding two acting nominations and the latter claiming the first of Guish’s four Best Picture nominations. In 1995, she introduced the world to Johnny Lee Miller and Angelina Jolie via Hackers and shaped a magnificent ensemble in Ang Lee’s sensational Sense & Sensibility. The film was nominated for seven Oscars, two for Emma Thompson and Kate Winslet’s performances, and the other for Best Picture, the Academy’s highest recognition. Then the fireworks began.

1996 bred some of Guish’s most impressive work: Anthony Minghella’s The English Patient. She was having incredible success casting period pieces and her previous work with Minghella led to an unbreakable understanding between the two—one which would immediately come under fire. Guish had used Kristen Scott Thomas in Four Weddings and a Funeral and felt secure in Scott Thomas’ passion for the role, which Scott Thomas expressed in a letter sent directly to Minghella. 20th Century Fox wanted someone bigger to play the dazzling and sensuous Katherine Clifton, but the production team refused to budge on Guish’s decision. The choice to cast Dafoe was equally maligned. Fox demanded a hotter name than Dafoe for the sly, dodgy, vengeful David Caravaggio. They quickly threatened to de-finance the film over the casting decisions, but Minghella and his producers stood firm, clinging tightly to Guish’s unconventional choices. Fox immediately backed out and Miramax swooped in to finance what would become Scott Thomas’ only Oscar nomination and Guish’s first Best Picture-winning work.

Scott Thomas and Dafoe were not the only casting gambles Guish took for the film. Juliette Binoche was not well known in America or the U.K. Only a decade into her film career, the French actress had worked almost exclusively with arthouse filmmakers in non-English-speaking films. But Guish wasn’t polling for popularity points. She was watching Binoche’s career unfold and she knew when and how to bite on it. Binoche was fresh off what is debatably her most impressive performance in Krzysztof Kieslowski’s Three Colors: Blue (1993), the first installment of the conceptual trilogy. The English Patient spotlighted Binoche in both the English and American conscience and led to her only Oscar to date. Ralph Fiennes had recently been nominated for his first and only other Oscar in Spielberg’s Schindler’s List (1993). The choice to cast Binoche and Fiennes together was due to Guish’s awareness of their recent display of chemistry in Peter Kosminsky’s Wuthering Heights (1992). The film was nominated for twelve Oscars and won nine of them, one for Binoche and the most significant being Best Picture, upsetting the supposedly sure victor, Fargo (1996).

After casting John Madden’s Mrs. Brown (1997) and leading Judi Dench to her first Oscar nom, Madden wanted Guish back for a much bigger project. Her job on Shakespeare in Love (1998) required the casting of the one and only William Shakespeare to which she returned to the Fiennes family and came away with Ralph’s brother Joseph, an unknown actor at the time. She surrounded him with a culturally on fire Gwyneth Paltrow, soon-to-be Oscar winner Judi Dench, 1997 Oscar winner Geoffrey Rush, go-to Colin Firth (in his second Guish-casted Best Picture winner in which he gets his romance ruined by a Fiennes), Ben Affleck, and the sure-fire Tom Wilkinson. The film received thirteen Oscar nominations and won seven, two to Paltrow and Dench. Some still think that it is the greatest Best Picture upset, beating the supposedly cemented winner in Spielberg’s Saving Private Ryan (1998). The cast also took away the Best Ensemble prize at the SAG Awards.

After casting four Best Picture-nominated films in five years in the mid-'90s, Michelle Guish solidified herself as one of the industry’s best. With winners The English Patient and Shakespeare in Love, she showcased her natural and necessary talents. She seeks to understand the artistic composition of director and actor alike in order to contrive a seamless combination. She studies the social and professional loop of collaboration in order to compound the perfect elements. She weaves screenplay and directorial vision and performance neatly into every decision. She is the industry’s alchemist, conjuring creative magic before the production ever begins.

Find tickets to The English Patient Afternoon Tea here!