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We Read It: Casting Ridley Scott & Cormac McCarthy's Bleak, Beautiful Collaboration 'The Counselor'

Photo of Oliver Lyttelton By Oliver Lyttelton | The Playlist February 28, 2012 at 12:00PM

Accusations of ageism fly around Hollywood all the time, but they seemed to be fairly definitively refuted in recent weeks when a 78-year-old became the hottest screenwriter in town after his film sold, attracted Ridley Scott and Michael Fassbender, and was fast-tracked into production this May. Of course, it helps if that 78-year-old is Cormac McCarthy, the Pulitzer prize-winning author of "Blood Meridian," "All The Pretty Horses," "The Road" and the source material for Best Picture winner "No Country For Old Men." But it's still a rare achievement, to get a film from the page to a greenlight, with A-list talent attached, in only a matter of days.
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Ridley Scott Cormac McCarthy

Accusations of ageism fly around Hollywood all the time, but they seemed to be fairly definitively refuted in recent weeks when a 78-year-old became the hottest screenwriter in town after his film sold, attracted Ridley Scott and Michael Fassbender, and was fast-tracked into production this May. Of course, it helps if that 78-year-old is Cormac McCarthy, the Pulitzer prize-winning author of "Blood Meridian," "All The Pretty Horses," "The Road" and the source material for Best Picture winner "No Country For Old Men." But it's still a rare achievement, to get a film from the page to a greenlight, with A-list talent attached, in only a matter of days.

As so often happens with hot spec scripts, McCarthy's screenplay "The Counselor," leaked almost immediately, and like many others, we managed to get our grubby hands on a copy. And as one of the most talked-about scripts in a while, we thought we'd take a stab at casting the project, as we did with Quentin Tarantino's "Django Unchained" last year.

Set mostly in the border country where McCarthy's stories often take place, the screenplay (which is laid out in a play-like format, much to the ire of amateur screenwriters all over the internet) opens with a couple, the Counselor of the title -- we never learn his name -- and Laura, in bed. They're clearly besotted with each other, as they share some very sexually explicit dialogue. Across the border in Mexico, a septic tank truck is specially modified and loaded up. And in the desert grasslands, another, very wealthy couple, Reiner and Malkina, take their cheetahs out hunting. Yes, cheetahs.

The Counselor is, as you might imagine, an attorney, but is also in search of a big payday after he proposes to Laura. So he hooks up with Reiner, an acquaintance with deep criminal ties, for a new business proposition: they'll take $20 million worth of cocaine from south of the border and offload it themselves, aided by the no-good Westray. As you might imagine, things do not go well for anyone involved.

If you know McCarthy's work, even just from the recent film adaptations, than you'll have a good idea of what to expect here: blood and savagery, much more so than even 'No Country.' There's also a thick vein of sexuality running through; mostly verbal, it should be said, but more than enough that the film may hit ratings issues down the line, even without the incredibly extreme violence. It'll be an interesting test case, anyway.

So does it work? Very much so: it's pure uncompromised McCarthy, with an atmosphere of looming menace from the first frame, with things only getting bleaker from there.  Some characters are perhaps a little thinly drawn, but there may be some redrafting. McCarthy's scripting technique might aggravate Robert McKee disciples, but we have no desire to swap his prose for more sparse stage directions. And while it's very talky -- with multiple page monologues and long dialogue scenes: there's also some indelible images that haunt us still, days after we read the thing. There's also an explicitly political tint that feels new from the writer.

For the record, some incorrect info has been doing the rounds: Deadline referred to a villain, a part being circled by Brad Pitt, Jeremy Renner and Javier Bardem, but there is no real villain per se (we'll get to that in more detail below). Meanwhile, there's one female part that could arguably be described as a villain, but even that doesn't quite give the whole picture.

What we can't work out at this point is what Scott will make of it. Genre wise, it's very different from anything he's ever tackled; while he's displayed lashings of gore in his work before, there's a nihilism to it that feels very different for him, and he wouldn't be the obvious director to come to mind when reading the script (in fact, his brother Tony, in "True Romance" mode, might seem like a better fit, in some ways). But we're glad he's pushing himself, even as he approaches his seventy-fifth birthday, and we're dying to see how it turns out. So, let's have a look at the characters in the film, and who would be a good fit to play them.

Fassbender Counselor
The Counselor
The Character: A moderately successful lawyer in an unnamed town near the border with Mexico (who is 43 years old in the script), The Counselor is a fundamentally decent man, undone by greed, and his absolute love for Laura.
Ridley's Choice: Michael Fassbender is locked in obviously, reuniting with his "Prometheus" director. And it's a damn fine choice: Fassbender can carry off the moral ambivalence and the raw sexuality, while also filling in some detail where the script leaves him something of a cypher. The part is kind of an everyman, but in Fassbender's hands, it should turn out to be something far more interesting.  

Counselor Phoenix
Reiner
The Character: A criminal acquaintance/client of The Counselor, who drags him into the underworld, Reiner had done pretty well out of the drug trade so far, living an opulent life that includes his two pet cheetahs. He's something of a racist, and is wounded by his last girlfriend leaving him for, in his words "a negress," but is deeply in love with Malkina, even while he knows that he can't trust her at all, and suspects that she'll one day be his undoing.
Our Choice: It's tricky, this one, in part because McCarthy doesn't specify an age. Our gut says that he's someone not far from The Counselor's age, possibly even a little younger (he's more hot-headed than his friend). We can't imagine Pitt or Bardem in this role, although it's likely that this is the one that's attracting the attention (it's the second largest male part in the film), although Renner's certainly feasible. Our first choice, however, would be Joaquin Phoenix, who'd bring his trademark unpredictability to the character, and given his post-comeback trend of working with top directors like Paul Thomas Anderson and James Gray, he might be attracted to a reunion with his "Gladiator" director. He's meant to be shooting Spike Jonze's next film shortly, but maybe scheduling could be worked out.
Other Options: Assuming we're on the right track with someone vaguely around Phoenix or Renner's age, there's a number of options on the table. One that sprung to mind immediately was Scott's "Matchstick Men" star Sam Rockwell, who could bring a nice nerviness to the character, and play well off Fassbender. Along not disimilar lines would be Adrien Brody, Colin Farrell or Oscar Isaac, the latter of which is hot at the moment thanks to working with the Coen Brothers, and was in "Body Of Lies" and "Robin Hood" for Scott. Tom Hardy would be an excellent choice, except that he's going to be shooting "Mad Max: Fury Road" for much of the rest of the year, and will therefore be unavailable. On the younger end of the scale would be Ryan Gosling, Ben Foster, James Franco or Justin Timberlake, while an offbeat, but fascinating choice would be rising star Rafe Spall, another member of the "Prometheus" crew. Going a touch older, Guy Pearce, Patrick Wilson or Eric Bana would all be interesting.

Counselor Anaya
Malkina
The Character: Probably the meatiest part in the script, Malkina is an incredibly attractive Argentinean woman who's hooked up with Reiner, although doesn't seem to show any particular affection towards him. She's also hyper-sexualised: arguably the most indelible scene in the script involves Reiner relating a time when his lover fucked his car in front of him. She's an almost Almodovarean femme fatale, with a mysterious, possibly traumatic past that she hints at, without ever revealing it. To say any more would probably give the game away.
Our Choice: While there's a host of actresses who could pull this one off, there's one that stuck out for us: "The Skin That I Live In" star Elena Anaya, who's already demonstrated that she can play complex, vengeful female roles with aplomb. She might not be as domineering as some possibilities, but we think she could do something special with the part.
Other Options: We're sure Penelope Cruz is high on executive wish-lists, but we don't quite see her in the part; Paz Vega might be a better fit, or possibly Catalina Sandino Moreno or Ana Claudia Talancon. As for American actresses who might be able to pass it off, there's Eva Mendes or Genesis Rodriguez ("Man On A Ledge"), but we're not yet convinced that either has the chops to pull off McCarthy's dialogue, although Mendes' role in "The Place Beyond The Pines" might change our minds. And if Scott isn't too attached to casting true-blue Hispanic actresses (we would argue it's kind of crucial), Eva Green or Marion Cotillard could both be excellent choices.

Counselor Chastain
Laura
The Character: The Counselor's fiancee is sadly a little underwritten in the script. That being said, she's got some intriguing character traits, and a couple of great scenes, including the opening, and a heart-to-heart with Malkina over the phone. In terms of size and importance, Kelly Macdonald's part in "No Country For Old Men" is a good guide.
Our Choice: Laura is 36 in the script, but probably going to be cast younger, given the scale down to Fassbender. Given that the actress needs to be fearless, attractive, and to play well opposite Fassbender, the obvious choice for us is Jessica Chastain. Once she wraps Kathryn Bigelow's latest, she's got a perfect gap in her schedule before going to Broadway in the fall, and Scott would be a fool not to want her.
Other Options: Given the level of talent involved elsewhere, we imagine they'll probably be able to attract a better calibre of actress than the part necessarily demands. For instance, one of our first thoughts was Amy Adams, who's capable of much more than the aw-shucks types she tends to get given these days, although as with Phoenix, it depends if shooting on Spike Jonze's latest is done in time. Other possibilites include Michelle Williams, Maggie Gyllenhaal, and Rachel Weisz, while if they go for slightly smaller, younger names, Kate Mara, Lizzy Caplan and Mary Elizabeth Winstead might all work.

Counselor Strong
Westray
The Character: The most enigmatic character in the script, one never quite knows what Westray's exact job is, but he's in the drug trade, and advises and aids The Counselor on his new sideline gig. Described as the same age as the protagonist, but feels older on the page.
Our Choice: It's very also possible that this is the part that Pitt, Bardem and maybe Renner have been linked to (although it could be Reiner too), and all could be interesting. But the one who came to mind for us was an actor who's proven a recent favorite of Ridley Scott: Mark Strong, whose performance in "Body Of Lies" led to his current omnipresence. The actor has the right kind of gravitas and look for the part (he was down to the last two, with Bardem, to play Anton Chigurh in 'No Country'), though with "Blood" and Bigelow's thriller on the calendar, scheduling could be an issue.
Other Options: Scott's most frequent collaborator of late, Russell Crowe, would fit in nicely here, but he's found himself in demand of late, with "Noah" and "Harker" competing to be his next after "Les Miserables." Idris Elba would also be a great fit, while names like Edward Norton, Demian Bichir, Michael Shannon, Don Cheadle, John Ortiz, John Hawkes or even Sean Penn could all be possible. 

We know some of y'all have read this: if you have, feel free to add your own picks below. Especially if your name is Ridley Scott.

This article is related to: Ridley Scott, Features, The Counselor, Cormac McCarthy, Michael Fassbender, We Read It


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