After a couple of years of putting others in the spotlight, casting director Greg Mason is taking a star turn of his own--as a film writer


September 15, 1991|By A. M. CHAPLIN

IT WAS AFTER THEY'D FINISHED JOHN WATERS' movie "Cry-baby," says Gregg Mason. Director Barry Levinson had called to ask if Mr. Mason and his partner Pat Moran wanted to take on the casting of the movie "Avalon" as their next assignment.

You and I would wait about four seconds before shouting "yes," but not Mr. Mason. He went to Montreal and sat on a rock and thought, "Do I want to go any further with this?"

Eventually he did say yes, and Mason & Moran cast about 50 character parts for "Avalon," plus an incredible 6,000 to 7,000 background parts. And Mr. Mason says he's very glad he did it. But his second thoughts -- or doubts, or creative reluctances, or whatever you want to call them -- continue.

"I won't be doing casting forever," he says. "You have to grow and do different things."

Which he has done: Although Mason & Moran will still be doing casting, he says, he won't be as "full time" with it as he once was. Instead, he'll be doing some of those "different things": This summer he wrote the script for a movie; in less than two months he found a producer for it, and next spring he will be directing it. And when that's done, if he has another idea cooking, he says he'd be glad to write and direct a second film, too.

But not automatically a third. Not "automatically" anything. Gregg Mason does not want to do things automatically; he doesn't want to do a job just because it's a job. That's not what it's all about for him. Perhaps by the time he's made a second movie he will want to make a third -- or perhaps his creative instincts will be taking him in a different direction.

"Ten years from now it might turn out that I'll be a painter," he says. "Who knows?"

THERE AREN'T A LOT OF CERTITUDES IN THE universe of Gregg Mason, but in the uncertain field of American entertainment he has turned that lack into an asset.

This contradictory phenomenon has its roots, you suspect, in a powerful imagination, which allows him to excel at the creative arts of casting and script-writing, and at the same time projects before him the vision of a world in which things don't necessarily turn out the way he wants them to. And because he can imagine things turning sour, he takes steps to make sure they come out sweet instead.

To put it another way, this dreamer and doubter is also a pragmatist. Which is why when you ask his friends what is characteristic of him, they say things like "he's very level-headed" (filmmaker John Waters), or "Gregg is a walking regulation book, he knows all the rules and regulations" (partner Pat Moran).

"He's a very good businessman, which I think a lot of people don't realize," sums up his best friend, David Martz, who is himself an accountant. "For example, he hired close to 7,000 people for 'Avalon,' . . . and it went off without a hitch. How many people can hire 7,000 and nothing go wrong?"

This dual imagination of Gregg Mason couldn't have found a better place to express itself than the world of entertainment, that solid world of commerce built from fragile imaginative tissue. But he doesn't choose to play the part of the young man making good in the world of glitz and big bucks. His hair is in dreadlocks, not for political reasons but to save on trips to the barber shop. He seems to live in T-shirts and baggy Bermudas, though his slenderness and loping grace give this casual attire a striking elegance. He has no pretensions -- that is, no pretensions that would be recognized as such by a society high on premium cars, loud mouths and pumped-up sneakers.

He is 33, but he could be older or younger: His face gives few clues. "He doesn't reveal much," says David Martz; "he is very guarded, but it comes across as being very laid-back."

You can guess at intensity beneath the quiet surface when he talks about doing what's important to him -- or not doing what he doesn't want to do, such as casting movies that don't interest him. He scrutinizes every script he's sent to see if there's something interesting in it, something with scope for imagination in it, something about which he can say, "OK, I can do some neat stuff with this." It doesn't have to be the whole movie that grabs him -- "sometimes I can just be turned on by just one scene."

But without that scene, without that sense of something that grabs him, he won't do the picture. Not any more.

"Of course in the beginning you'll do anything, you've got to eat," he says. But then came "Her Alibi," a Tom Selleck movie without an imaginative vision -- or with too many of them. "I woke up every morning and it was just a job and I hated it," Mr. Mason says, and when it was over he knew he wasn't going to do another film just to do it.

And with that decision made, the worrying side of his imagination starts up again talking to him.

"The phone will ring, and I'll think, 'Do I really want to do this?' and I'll think, 'Are you crazy, you really should be working.' "

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