Hank Isaac: Underfunded Overachievers – The Crafting of “Lilac” Part 2

Lilac star Capture a
Elora Coble, the definitive Lilac

I’ve never understood how a filmmaker can post a call for actors which goes something like this:

Feature film shooting next week.

Casting lead actress.

Send resumes & head shots…

I mean, really… A WEEK!

Okay, so maybe I’m at the other end of the see-saw. I cast really, really early. Sometimes more than a year out. Why? Well, first, I don’t believe ANY actor can play ANY character. Somehow, when studying history way back when, I just never really pictured John Wayne as Genghis Kahn. Second, I like to take parts of an actor’s personality and infuse the character she’s going to play with them.

When I first wrote “Lilac,” both the story and the characters were completely different. The main character, Lilac, was a fourteen-year-old homeless girl who became an assassin, eventually mentored by an aging former CIA hit man whose career ended badly. The ramp-up to that idea was my disappointment with how the film, Leon (The Professional is the title of the sanitized U.S. version) dealt with the character of young Matilda at the end. She walks away from the now dead Leon, her mentor throughout the film, mends her ways, goes back to school, and sticks Leon’s treasured plant in the ground to complete the planting-roots metaphor.

Well, folks, I wanted Matilda to take up Leon’s craft as an assassin. She even says somewhere in the film that she’s getting really good at helping him.

But, for whatever reasons, the filmmakers chose the moral high ground.

So I simply wrote the story I wanted to see. And even though I actually had someone who could play the part of Lilac, she was not ready to be as rough and tough as the character needed to be. And I felt that sort of hesitation would be obvious to an audience.

At that point, I did a complete reversal and created a younger Lilac and wrote the after-school-special version (same title) wherein Lilac was about ten and was competing with a slightly older boy for the honor of being considered the best detective in elementary school.

While I liked the characters and their story, I felt that the whole thing was way too mellow.

And besides, when I write, “dark & edgy” ALWAYS creeps in. No matter what I do. Honestly, stories and characters are way more interesting that way.

So I essentially took Lilac the assassin and Lilac the child detective and merged them into one homeless ten-year-old vigilante. The log line for the series then became: “What if Robin Hood was a homeless ten-year-old girl living in a modern city.”

Now let’s flashback about four paragraphs to the elementary school detective version of Lilac.

I needed a ten-year-old actress who could carry off the lead in a potentially long storyline. I immediately thought of one of the extras I’d cast in my short silent film, “The Bench.” She had a brief appearance in a dream sequence. She was one of six kids in it and one of them got to dangle a dead mouse in front of one of the older actors’ faces. I decided to shoot six takes so each child could have the fun of doing that. Well, this particular young actress – she was only eight at the time – not only dangled the mouse superbly, she made sure each of the other kids got his turn. She became, in essence, a temporary 2nd AD.

But it wasn’t so much THAT she did it but more about HOW she did it. She was a gentle leader and every single kid listened to her. She never had to establish herself as the “authority,” but for some reason, everyone did what she said. She was forceful without being over bearing.

So it was about six months later that I realized: This is my “Lilac.”

I arranged to meet with her and her parents. Here was the kind of family every child in the world would pick if they could order a family from a catalog. And the young actress? Super smart. Articulate, with impeccable diction. And could not take a bad photograph if she tried.

But the most important part – and this is really my casting mantra – is that she expressed the perfect blend of strength and vulnerability. Because it is my opinion that strength will carry a character through a story, but it is her vulnerability that will bring the audience along with her.

So… many meetings, discussions, improvisations, and rehearsal assistances began to reveal the personality that would ultimately drive my writing and create this tough but caring character who has absolutely nothing in the world except her crossbow and the unflinching desire to fix the very same world she perceives as horribly broken… Lilac.

LILAC is here