Culture

Casting Call: Marisha Pessl's Night Film

Emma Roberts, Mark Ruffalo/Photos © S. Bukley, Cinemafestival/Shutterstock

Welcome to Signature's Casting Call, where we exercise our creative muscles by focusing our attention on extraordinary characters from exceptional books - either fiction or nonfiction - and make the case for how we'd cast those roles if given the chance. Note that, here at Signature, we're not casting directors, nor are we producers, agents, or anyone else who has any say in if a film will be made or how a film will be cast; we're simply ardent fans of books and movies who can't help ourselves from such musings.

It could be asserted that movies are the greatest magic trick ever conceived. A group of strangers gather someplace and pretend to be people other than themselves. They are told where and how to move. They speak words written for them by yet another stranger. Their actions are recorded by mechanical means, combined with music written after the fact, shipped around the world, and thrown onto giant screens as a collection of light, shadow, and sound. The combination of all these ingredients and effects can make a person laugh involuntarily, cry, check under the bed before turning out the light, or view an aspect of their lives from a whole new angle.

There's something almost alarming about such influence, especially when it sneaks up on us in the dark. Tricks can be benign, but they can also be the opposite of treats. Marisha Pessl's new Night Film wraps a fast-paced thriller around an exploration of some of the darker ways in which reality can become blurred when the "magic of the movies" escapes from the screen.

Scott McGrath, one of the central characters in Night Film, is a down-on-his-luck investigative reporter. He lost his credibility, his job, and his family after making some disturbing public claims about one Stanislas Cordova. Cordova is a legendary director of thrillers and horror films who has lived out of sight in an isolated estate for decades - think Roman Polanski meets Dario Argento meets Stanley Kubrick. His recent films are screened in secret and passed from hand to hand by obsessed fans who pore over his oeuvre on the internet, searching for visual motifs and clues to some larger, darker mystery. When Cordova's twenty-something daughter Ashley is found dead of an apparent suicide at the base of an elevator shaft in Chinatown, McGrath decides he needs to uncover the director's secrets no matter what the personal cost.

Before long, McGrath finds himself accompanied by teenager Nora, an aspiring actress, and Hopper, a man in his early twenties with no fixed employment and a deep connection to the departed Ashley that will reveal itself over the course of the novel. The trio dives into a narrative hall of mirrors that finds them sneaking into a mysterious party, visiting a witchcraft emporium, breaking into an abandoned townhouse, and staging a nighttime raid on Cordova's estate. All the while, Cordova hovers just out of reach, casting a pall over the proceedings and beckoning the ill-fated trio deeper into the darkness.

Clearly, a story like this cries out to be adapted for the big screen. Good news: The film rights have already been sold. In a unique twist, Marisha Pessl retained the rights to all of the Cordova films described in the text. This opens up the possibility for a truly one-of-a-kind branching narrative experience down the road. But our space is limited, so let's just figure out who would be best suited to bring the main story to life.

Scott McGrath, mid-forties, comes across as a charismatic man who wears the miles he's picked up fairly well when he's on his game. Daniel Craig has a great look for the part but he may not be inclined to play a disgraced journalist investigating a murder with the help of a young woman again quite so soon (though it's totally fine in this writer's opinion if David Fincher wants to clear some Night Film time on his schedule once he gets done knocking Gone Girl out of the park). Aaron Eckhart also looks the part and has the acting chops to pull it off, but he has a little too much innate square-jawed heroism - post-"In the Company of Men" at least - to convey the shadier aspects of the character. We still "believe in Harvey Dent" a little too much. We think the best fit is Mark Ruffalo. He's the right age, a great actor, and he can pull of the charisma the character would need to be such a good reporter while hinting at the slyness underneath. And "Zodiac" and "The Avengers" show he's great at being rumpled, exasperated, and slightly out of his depth.

Nora needs to be young and confused while showing flashes of an inner steel and perceptiveness. Ashley Benson has the right look for the character, but we last saw her stepping over James Franco's body with Vanessa Hudgens, en route to shooting Gucci Mane in his hot tub. It's going to take a little while to get that out of our heads (thanks, Harmony Korine). Every studio in the world would love to have Emma Watson in their prestige thriller, but she's a little too sharp right off the bat. She naturally carries herself with the assurance of someone who has grown up on the global stage and not been crushed by the experience. We like Emma Roberts for the role. She seems a bit younger than her age, but we think she can play the more mature aspects of the part as well. She's also checked off the "Nickelodeon Series," "Teen Movies," and "Breakout Comedy" boxes on the It-Girl assembly manual. "Supporting Role in Dark Awards Bait" is next.

Hopper is in his early twenties and needs an actor with matinee looks who can brood over a dark secret in a way that's compelling rather than annoying. We were thinking Ryan Gosling would be totally perfect! Okay, not really. We're just obligated by the Hollywood hive-mind to mention Ryan Gosling for any role that can be filled by a male actor between the ages of fourteen and eighty-five. Baby Goose is a good ten years too old for the part. Next stop in our search for a brooding young hunk: "The Hunger Games." Liam Hemsworth is certainly eye-catching, but we think he's a little too ... plain. He's Thor's little brother, but not the compelling and conflicted one with the giant Twitter following. We like Nicholas Hoult from "X-Men: First Class" and "Warm Bodies." He's got the look and he pulled off carrying a dark burden just fine as Hank McCoy/Beast. He also fulfills our "totally knows Jennifer Lawrence" quotient and - let's face it - everyone associated with "Jack the Giant Slayer" deserves a hug and a second chance.

Those are our choices for Night Film. Please feel free to share yours in the comments -- and also let us know who you would cast as Ashley!