How ‘Belfast,’ ‘CODA’ and Other Ensemble Films Built Their Families

·7-min read

Filmmaking involves creating illusions. From massive CGI-driven battle sequences between interstellar armadas to historically accurate art direction from any and all moments of humanity’s history, the trick is making audiences believe what they’re seeing.

Despite miraculous technology that can transport audiences to any past, present or future point in time, one of the most challenging tricks a film can pull off is making an audience believe that the actors — who often have met for the first time on a project — are family.

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Sometimes that means a family related to one another, as in the tight-knit Williams brood of “King Richard” or the ensembles of “CODA,” “Dune,” “Belfast” and “House of Gucci.” Or it could mean the family you choose, such as the casts of “Don’t Look Up,” “Tick, Tick … Boom!” or “The Harder They Fall” or “Licorice Pizza.” Sometimes it’s a mix of both — including in “West Side Story” and “Being the Ricardos.”

“When it comes to creating a family, chemistry is everything,” says Lisa Zagoria, one of the casting directors on Sian Heder’s “CODA,” which tells the story of a teen (Emilia Jones), who is the only hearing member of her family. “You never know how personalities will mesh or clash. We knew individually these actors were just lovely human beings and, in this case, we couldn’t have asked for better chemistry on set.”

Jones agrees, noting that even though audiences might not have seen many deaf families onscreen, they can still relate to the basic interactions.

“Because we’re all just the same, every family is the same, it’s the same dynamics,” she says. “It’s the same brother-sister relationship, we tease each other, you bicker, the family chemistry that you see in our movie onscreen, none of it was forced, it’s exactly how we were in real life behind the camera.”

Filming before COVID, the cast was able to rehearse for two weeks ahead of shooting, allowing the actors to forge a true bond that remains long after production wrapped.

“We really missed each other when we weren’t working together, we still have group texts, even two years after the film was made,” says Marlee Matlin, who plays the mother in the film. “It’s important for me to have that kind of connection with actors that I love. It was important to me to keep this family together off-screen.”

COVID created new challenges for casting a family. Shelved, for the time being, was the ability to put actors together in a room and see if the chemistry was there.

Thus, for Kenneth Branagh’s “Belfast,” a personal coming-of-age film set in the Northern Ireland city during the 1960s, putting together a family ensemble required an entirely new approach from casting director Lucy Bevan, who had received the script from the director during lockdown.

“He then sent photographs of his family (himself included as a child — very sweet!) and it helped me get a sense of the family as individuals and as a whole,” says Bevan, noting that the main casting had to be done via Zoom. “Ken and I have always worked with actors in person. We had to embrace a new way of doing it.”

After they had narrowed down the options for the characters of Buddy and Will — onscreen brothers in the film played by Jude Hill and Lewis McAskie — Branagh went to Belfast to work and improvise with them.

“He needed to see them together to get a sense of them as brothers; that is when we knew we had the right kids,” says Bevan. “I am absolutely thrilled that the cast came together in such a cohesive and authentic way.”

Ridley Scott’s “House of Gucci” presented another set of challenges — casting a family based on real people who didn’t behave like typical kin.

“If it’s a fictitious family, there’s a lot you can play with, you can challenge conceptions because a lot of families don’t look like each other, but for Gucci, we had everybody in front of us,” says Kate Rhodes-James CDG/CSA, who regularly casts for Scott’s projects.

Because the Gucci family was so dysfunctional, the psychological underpinnings were important to consider. A lack of chemistry that would show a family’s closeness in this case revealed its dysfunction. “Each family member had a very different upbringing, had a very different story,” says Rhodes-James. “So there wasn’t so much a need to create their chemistry because there sort of wasn’t any, there wasn’t a relationship.”

Another tool films use to create the illusion of resemblance between an actor and the real person they are portraying is visual, using hair, makeup and sometimes prosthetics to bring an actor closer to the real person.

“It’s very rare, because it’s an incredibly lengthy and extremely expensive process,” Rhodes-James says, referring to the transformation of Jared Leto into Paolo Gucci. “I struggled a bit, because here is this incredibly beautiful man and Paolo was far from it, so I had to go on a bit of a journey with it. Jared really, really wanted to play this role, so it sort of was born out of his enthusiasm and the conversations with Ridley that they came to an understanding on how to make it work.”

When onscreen families are thrown together by circumstance, whether by marriage or other major life events, the nuanced differences of the relationships before the event and after need to be clear to the audience so the steps moving forward tell the story.

Jane Campion’s “The Power of the Dog” follows one frontier family unit, the Gordons (a mother and son played by Kirsten Dunst and Kodi Smit-McPhee), who join another, the Burbanks, when Dunst meets and marries a rancher (her real-life partner Jesse Plemons), residing along with his brother (Benedict Cumberbatch).

Dunst and Smit-McPhee worked with Campion to create the existing bond between a single mother and an only child during rehearsals before filming.

“I feel the first day I met Kirsten I was so relieved to discover how down to earth she was, immediately I felt how effortless creating our onscreen bond would be,” Smit-McPhee says. “We knew what we wanted to convey, and we explored it with Jane in our rehearsal time.”

Dunst shared Smit-McPhee’s affection, easing the rehearsal process as they improvised together. “Kodi is a lovable person, so it wasn’t difficult to act that piece,” she says. “I also thought about my own son to create that bond while acting as well.”

“Jane gave us the freedom to come up with our own ideas that we kept from everyone, including her,” adds Smit-McPhee. “It gave us an eerie yet sweet onscreen bond, which I feel caused the audience to think about what they been through before we found them at this time in their life.”

Dunst also noted that although she and Plemons share an off-screen relationship, the performances were still separate from their off-screen selves.

“The existing chemistry made working together easy,” she says. “But we played very reserved people, so we had to hide our intimacy as well.”

Whether films are period pieces or tell the stories of real-life events, no amount of technology can create the intangible connections between human beings that actors — and the filmmakers behind them — forge. Audiences know the difference; the way children instinctively sense things.

As Dunst notes, “Children can tell when you’re a mother in real life, they trust you easier when they know that you also have children.”

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