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In November, The Hollywood Reporter broke the news of a con artist who had been cold-calling actresses purporting to be an Oscar-winning producer.
For many of those THR spoke with, the calls began with the offer of a starring role in an art house film being shot in Europe, with the imposter claiming to have been given their details by someone they had previously worked with. The conversations then often descended — sometimes over the course of several hours on the phone — into deeply uncomfortable and probing personal questioning, regularly under the guise of “energy” work required as part of the auditioning process. On several occasions, women were coerced into moving to a video call where a small number exposed themselves to the man on camera.
Within hours of the story being published, many more actresses came forward to say that they — too — had been contacted by the individual, describing very similar stories. It soon became apparent that the manipulative operation — which appears to be purely for sexual gratification rather than anything financial — had been running for far longer than the six months that was originally estimated and had targeted aspiring screen and stage stars from across the U.S.
As it turned out, not only had this man been making his predatory calls for more than two years, but a short film inspired by his creepy activities, featuring True Blood and Daredevil star Deborah Ann Woll, was already well underway, a film that is currently being adapted into a series.
L.A.-based writer, director and actress Laura Beckner — recently seen on Netflix’s Unorthodox— says she actually had a “premonition” in the fall of 2020 while shooting Willing to Go There, which she made inspired by her own experience speaking to the predator.
“I had a feeling that we had to make this film now,” she says. “Maybe it was COVID and the feeling I had to do something. But I had a very specific sensation that this film and this story had a window and that window was now. I also had a feeling that after I made it this guy would resurface in some way.”
Despite this remarkable premonition, it was still something of a shock for Beckner when THR’s first article was published, landing two weeks after the shoot and while she was in the editing room.
“I had a full body chill,” she says, adding that people on her team — many of whom hadn’t previously been informed of the story’s origins — then realized that it was actually grounded in reality. “My actors were freaking out!,” she says.
Beckner’s interaction with the predator took place in the Spring of 2018, shortly after she returned to L.A. having worked in Berlin for two years.
Like the other calls that would follow, the man phoned from a withheld number, referenced someone Beckner had worked with before (this time the producer of a German TV show she had appeared in — information all available online and later refuted by the person in question), and said he wanted her for main role in a film (a biopic of a “brilliant but unknown female French intellectual” who had been living in Paris in the 1920s) that he was producing.
But there was one notable difference, suggesting that the fraudster was yet to have fully developed his story.
In every other incident that has been brought to THR’s attention, the conman claimed to be Hugh Welchman, an Oscar-winning British producer and co-director of 2017’s Vincent van Gogh biographical drama Loving Vincent — considered the first fully painted feature (and a runner-up to Coco at the Academy Awards). While not an instantly recognisable name to many, a quick online search gives some significant industry gravitas to his credentials.
To Beckner, however, he introduced himself simply as “Michael,” adding — with an almost comically arrogant flourish — that his films were “too avant-garde” to be listed on IMDb (“although, honestly, I’ve known people who are quite snooty and confident and have said things like that to me,” she notes).
The rest of the conversation took a similar path to those reported in 2020, shifting into a uneasy game of power-play, with the man dangling this offer of a “role of the lifetime” before, as Beckner says, “jerking the carrot back,” trying to exert his dominance and force to her to submit to a stranger now potentially wielding the keys to her future. The more intrusive elements of his questioning — attempts to get her to describe personal emotions, secrets and relationships — came during breathing exercises he insisted on (although he didn’t call it “energy” work as he would do later, claiming it was all part of the character’s development).
Beckner says she spoke with the imposter for about two hours, but knew from the start that his elaborate tale — which, like the others, involved the peculiar claim that he was raised in India — was a lie.
“I was impressed with this fiction, this persona he had created,” she says, although she fully acknowledges that other women he called had wholly different experiences. “I suppose I was entertained. As an actor, I felt like he was the one performing for me.”
The conversation between Beckner and the imposter eventually fizzled out when she pushed back against his ongoing efforts to pry into her weaknesses and vulnerabilities, noting that it was the opposite of his initial talk about the role’s female empowerment elements, and how “this woman needs be really powerful and fearless.” He didn’t have an answer, the breathing work stopped, and they hung up.
“It was a very boring ending, there was no ‘fuck you,’ or although I wish there had been,” she says. “It was a disappointment. I almost wish it had been all guns blazing, and I regret not telling him where to get off. I was too immersed in it. For those two hours I was not not enjoying being in this fantasy. That’s what it was for him.”
After the call ended — thankfully without any attempt by the predator to move to Skype or any suggestion of danger — Beckner says she completely forgot it had taken place. Until COVID-19 hit.
“It was June , during quarantine, I think many of us were living in our memories,” she says. “So you’re not creating any new experience, you’re just living in the past.”
Among the many recollections to bubble to the surface — “knocking at the gates, asking to be dealt with” — was this creepy call from 2018. “I felt bad about it — I felt fascinated by my complicity,” she says.
Beckner notes that one of the ongoing themes during the pandemic was for people to reflect upon how they’d been living previously, pre-lockdown. For her, the memory of this call highlighted how, as an actress looking for work, she’d become accustomed to “playing the part,” coming across as “lovely and charming and available” even to some random caller. “And it wasn’t just that I felt preyed upon. I also felt ashamed … of how good I’ve gotten at doing this routine, and how this routine doesn’t really serve me at all.”
It wasn’t immediately apparent that there was a film to be made, but after ruminating on the experience, how rare a human voice on the phone actually is in the increasingly digitised world, a “ghost story” started to take shape and she got to work on the script.
Willing to Go There — named after a line used by the imposter as part of his power-play routine (“I need an actress who’s willing to go there,” he told Beckner) — was pieced together from memories of the conversation.
An 18-minute short shot in one location (Beckner’s friend’s apartment in Historic Angelino Heights), the story follows Margaret, (played by Woll) and a call she accepts from an unknown individual (voiced by The Orville’s Dylan Kenin). Over the course of the conversation, he proceeds to praise her acting abilities, raise the role offer, reel it back in and then, during breathing exercises he introduces, ask pertinent questions relating to her life, relationships and work, hoping to elicit tearful emotions. Eventually, Margaret snaps out of an almost trance-like state and flips the chat around, asking the predator about his own feelings and what he’s getting out of the exchange. Having lost at his own game, he hangs up, although it’s clear the call has left its mark.
Having based the script more on her “memories of how I felt” rather than the specifics of what was said, Beckner says she’s grateful that THR’s article came out when it did, after Willing to Go There had been written and filmed.
“Because otherwise I might have tried to copy some of the details, some of the juicy bits I forgot, or I might have tried to make it a representation of all of these women’s experiences, which I think is impossible,” she says. “And given this cultural moment we’re in, when we make films about sensitive experiences, you want to do a service for people who have gone through something unfair and unjust.”
Beckner says she’s now considering the potential festival circuit for Willing to Go There. But even before it’s had any public screenings the idea is already being expanded, with Sarena Khan and Andra Gordon of Athena Pictures and Melanie Donkers of Mermade (sister company to Sharon Horgan’s prolific Brit production company Merman) currently developing a short form limited series, which Beckner would write and direct.
Beckner also says she’s interested in sharing Willing to Go There with the other women who were called by the predator.
“The openness and imagery in the film makes me feel at once vindicated and curious about the whole experience … in a way that’s perhaps more powerful than just doubling down on the real details of what happened.”
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