Sabrina the Teenage Witch Actor David Lascher Talks Breaking Into Directing, Casting Grace Kaufman, and Portraying Mental Illness
Welcome back to the Forward Filmmaker Podcast, where we share stories and advice from a new generation of filmmakers bucking industry norms. On this episode, host Max Sanders interviews David Lascher. Here’s a lightly edited transcript of their conversation.
Max Sanders: Joining me today is Los-Angeles-based actor, producer, and director David Lascher. David has an extensive acting background, with roles on iconic 20th century TV shows including Beverly Hills 90210, Hey Dude, Sabrina the Teenage Witch, Blossom, Full House, and Roseanne. In more recent years, he has directed and co-written the award-winning film Sister, now streaming on Tubi and Amazon Prime. David also co-created the viral 2019 short comedy series Cruisers & Shakers. He has successfully made the leap from actor to writer-director and has a variety of projects on the horizon. He’ll be talking about that acting-to-directing shift and how his experiences on the other side of the camera help inform his directorial style. David, welcome.
David Lascher: Thank you for having me.
Max Sanders: So first off, your late ’80s Nickelodeon show Hey Dude was a favorite in the Sanders household. So big fan over here.
David Lascher: Thank you. It was a good time in my life as well.
Max Sanders: So you were raised in the suburbs of New York City and had this extensive acting background with roles on Sabrina: The Teenage Witch, Roseanne, Beverly Hills 90210, and the list goes on. How did you get into acting as a kid?
David Lascher: I did theater when I was in eighth grade and ninth grade, and I didn’t really tell many of my friends. I don’t know. It was something I would just enjoy doing, like the camaraderie with the cast and putting on a play. I just loved it. And one of the shows that I did was called By Audition Only. It was a musical. During that show, managers and agents came, and I signed with a manager named Shirley Grant, who – she had the Cosby kids and Allison Smith from Annie. And she was a real great mentor, and her office started, right away, sending me in on all kinds of commercials. And then by tenth grade, I was auditioning for TV pilots and TV shows. I remember I flew – was it ninth grade or tenth grade? – I flew to LA to test for a series regular role on Who’s the Boss?
Max Sanders: Oh my God.
David Lascher: With Alyssa Milano and Tony Danza, and I didn’t get it, but it wet my pallet, and I was just gung ho. And then later in that year, I got a pilot for NBC, and I was just off and running.
Max Sanders: So it was a kind of a quick process for you. It seems like it wasn’t like you were four-years-old being trotted off to commercials.
David Lascher: No, no. It was not part of my real childhood. By ninth or tenth grade, I was going from high school. Scarsdale High School was not far from the train station, but I would either get a quick cab or catch a ride to the train station after school and go right into Manhattan, and I’d be off on my auditions, running around the city on my own.
Max Sanders: That’s awesome. So you have all this success being an actor. When did you decide to shift your focus to writing and directing?
David Lascher: Oh, that was many years later. I think after Sabrina [The Teenage Witch] ended in 2003, within a couple years, I partnered up with Todd Camhe, who was my brother-in-law. My wife is Jill. Her brother Scott was married to Todd’s wife. So we were sort of family. He had been selling screenplays for a long time, and he really taught me how to write screenplays. And we started co-writing together, and we sold one pilot to Fox that took a year of development. And after that, we just were like, let’s write something that we can make ourselves. So we ended up writing Sister, and it took a number of years to get that made, but he was my partner in screenwriting.
Max Sanders: So speaking of Sister, it’s this powerful portrayal of mental health, adolescence, and family, and it feels really true to life. The sibling relationship between Billy and Niki comes off as authentic. Is that based on any personal experiences of yours?
David Lascher: Yeah. So Sister was born from the idea – I have a mom who struggled with mental illness. My father passed away untimely, and I had a young adopted sister that I really didn’t know very well because I was 14 when my mom and dad adopted Carly, who is Niki. And as we discussed, I was flying to LA. I was living in California, and then I was living in Tucson junior and senior year of high school doing Hey Dude. So I wasn’t even really home during her formative years. And when my dad passed and my mother struggled with her issues and I had to take guardianship, legal guardianship, of Carly, the screenplay was born from the idea of: What would happen if this kid had to come crashing into my life? And then we had to dramatize it in the sense that we had to make my character struggling in a way that I wasn’t in real life. What if he was in a bad marriage? What if he was stuck in his career? What if the worst thing that could possibly happen to him was the thing that actually saved him? So we turned it into a screenplay, but it was born out of characters from my life. Yeah.
Max Sanders: I just want to thank you for sharing with that, because the mental health stuff in 2022, it just seems very important.
David Lascher: Oh yeah, man. My sisters and I had been dealing with that before it was a topical issue. I mean, my mom had several bouts in the hospital and shock treatments with bipolar disorder. And when my dad passed away, she was in the hospital for a long time. And this is before anyone even spoke about it. So it was challenging, and I think being able to write about it was a healthy way of dealing with it in some way.
Max Sanders: Absolutely. And let’s talk about the actors that portray these roles. The casting, it’s just this rockstar group of actors. You have Grace Kaufman. You have Reid Scott of Veep. You have John Heard from Home Alone and Big. And up-and-comers like Serinda Swan. So you and your co-creator Todd seem to have really tapped into these heavyweight actors – some before they even broke out. Did your past experience in front of the camera help you in casting?
David Lascher: Yeah, for sure. In casting the role of Niki as Grace Kaufman, she was the second girl we read. I got to give kudos to Emily Schweber, who’s an amazing independent film casting director. And when we finished the script and sent it out as a go movie and Emily put it out to all the agencies, it got great coverage, which to this day, I’m just so grateful. And getting Barbara Hershey. For me, I’m a big Woody Allen fan. And just the idea of her playing my mom, I remember when I got the call that she said she would do it, I was on the East Coast in New Jersey with my family, and I was like, oh my goodness, the same girl from Hannah and Her Sisters is going to be on my set playing my lead. And yeah. And Illeana Douglas, Reid Scott not only came in an audition, but wrote me a whole email about how he’d like to get together for dinner and discuss why the role was so important to him. And Grace Kaufman, as I was saying, was the second girl we read out of probably, I don’t know, two months of auditions. Hundreds of auditions and nobody could live up to what she did, which was be able to react without a predetermined performance. You know what I mean? Todd and I just knew this girl was incredible. And she has a movie coming out soon called The Sky Is Everywhere with Jason Segel. She’s a rare talent.
Max Sanders: So give us a little behind the scenes – inside of the casting process. You talked about kind of improvisation. Did you throw that into your casting? Did you throw them curve balls?
David Lascher: No. I’ll tell you what it was. It was a scene where Niki’s at her locker and her brother comes, and for the first time, he sees her flip out and she starts to panic that everyone, the kids all hate her and she doesn’t belong there. And it’s the first time he sees her freak out. And instead of her coming into the scene freaking out, Grace started the scene very perplexed like, what are you doing here? And then it built and it grew, and I saw her turn – I saw her get upset. You know what mean? And it’s just something you see in an audition where you’re like, okay, this kid didn’t come in with the training and the planning and everything timed out. She came in and reacted in the middle of a scene. We should have just cast her on day two and saved ourselves two months.
Max Sanders: It’s like real estate. Sometimes, the first house is the right house.
David Lascher: Yeah, exactly.
Max Sanders: So to sum up, what are your top casting tips for other directors looking to crush it and get the right talent for their scripts?
David Lascher: Well, there’s two different aspects to it. Number one, one aspect is trying to get the most high-profile talent you can to work for your budget. I mean, I had Barbara Hershey and Reid Scott changing in my daughter Chelsea’s bedroom as their dressing room. You need to put out a script that has really interesting roles for actors. Not to say horror movies or genre movies are lesser than or anything. But you give an actor a role that goes from A to B to C and has a very interesting arc – and maybe issues such as Sister, with the overmedicating of children and diagnosing them with disorders – and you can get actors that are way out of your league to start looking at your script. And then the second tier is when you’re sitting in the casting rooms, that’s where I think my having been an actor helped me zone in or find the actors that knew what the hell they were doing. And I think when you’re in the room with them, try and weed out the actors that come in and do the same thing every time and have it all planned out. And give me the actor that can adjust and adapt and change and stay with you. You know what I mean?
Max Sanders: Yeah, absolutely. So you don’t want a robot. I think they say genius is how much you can improvise basically on the spot.
David Lascher: Yeah. I agree. Someone that can stay with you and change and improvise. They’re going to serve you well when you’re shooting.
Max Sanders: Yeah. So did you have any director interactions that really affected you when you were in front of the camera?
David Lascher: Oh yeah. Oh man. I mean, first off, Ridley Scott. When I did White Squall, we were together for six months. And the things I learned from Ridley were nobody’s going to work harder than you. You’re going to set the tone as the director. And when Ridley’s hanging off the side of the boat in Cape Town, South Africa in 50-foot swells, you’re not going to complain that you’re not being used and you’ve been there for eight hours. It’s a work ethic. Ridley hires actors very carefully in the casting process. And then he’s off with the visuals, and you’re there to do your job. So he very rarely gives you a note, or he’ll go a little more or a little less, and that’s really it. He hired you because he saw something. And then another great director in TV, Henry Winkler, came onto Sabrina. It was like the fifth season. And when you’re on a fifth season on a hit TV show, a lot of times you lose perspective and people are trying to get back to their trailer, or asking what time am I wrapping today? And I remember Henry and I were working out a bit, and I don’t remember exactly what it was, but he called me at home at nine or ten o’clock at night to go over this bit that he had had a some idea for, and I thought this guy who’s been working for 30 years at the highest level is more concerned about how this scene is going to play than any of the actors. It just taught me if you’re going to do it, then do it. You know what I mean? At any level, you come and you come to play with everything you got. Your motivation is not what time do I wrap? It’s how do I make this the best it can be? And I’ll never forget Henry calling me at late at night to work out a bit. And I was like wow. It just woke me up.
Max Sanders: Yeah. I mean, you just told two of the most motivational stories from two powerhouses in film and TV. So thank you for sharing that. I mean, Henry Winkler, it’s so funny. I think of the show Barry – him being the acting coach. I just picture him with that passion and just calling you.
David Lascher: That’s him, dude. That’s totally him. He is like all in.
Max Sanders: Oh, that’s so wonderful. And I’m glad that they both injected their influence on you.
David Lascher: Yeah. Me, too.
Max Sanders: Are there any specific mistakes you made when you first started directing and producing that became valuable learning moments?
David Lascher: On Sister, we started to run out of money.
Max Sanders: Oh, wow.
David Lascher: I think your scheduling and your first AD on a film are incredibly important. And having money for post-production and finishing and color correction and music and sound editing, have that all priced in because I remember having to go raise money for post-production. And that was not fun. But yeah, on productions and working with Group Nine Media, the production of the show was my favorite part, really. I mean, anything, there’s so much that can go wrong in the development and the selling of the show or the financing of it, but I think most filmmakers have waited so long to direct their thing that when they’re on the set, they should know what they want, and it usually goes well for them.
Max Sanders: So on another one of your recent projects, the short comedy series Cruisers & Shakers, which was kind of about actors who are also Uber drivers trying to make it. It was released on Facebook Watch in 2019. How did you choose Facebook as the distribution platform?
David Lascher: Well, I started working with Group Nine Media, which has just grown bigger and bigger, and the niche or the genre of branded entertainment has become enormous. And they have all these different properties, like Thrillist, Now This, PopSugar, The Dodo, all these different platforms. And they look at the show and say, okay, the right audience for this show is Thrillist, which is a travel, dining, entertainment, destination-type website or platform, if you will, and their biggest audience is on Facebook. So we went to the Thrillist Facebook Watch page and launched the show. And basically, I deferred to Group Nine’s really intelligent digital minds on how we would get the best audience, because for me, I wanted to make the show that I wanted to make and tell the stories that I wanted to tell. But at the end of the day, I can’t find the audience. They can, and that’s where deferred to them, and they were unbelievable in getting us millions of viewers.
Max Sanders: Yeah. I think every episode had over a million views.
David Lascher: Yeah.
Max Sanders: So, I mean, do you think social media reaching viewers, do you think that’s the future when it comes to streaming and all?
David Lascher: Yeah. I mean, as you see with Netflix, Amazon, Hulu, Paramount+, I mean all these streamers, but then there’s Tubi and there’s a whole second tier of enormous audiences that are waiting for your content, and you don’t have to go sell to a network or a studio then a network, and take a year to maybe get your show made. You can go and make it and find a platform with an audience.
Max Sanders: Yeah. It’s so funny: When I saw Cruisers & Shakers, I saw 20 of my friends on Facebook had already seen and followed it.
David Lascher: That’s awesome. Dude, I’m so proud of that show. It really, it’s as funny as I wanted it to be, and it’s about the shared economy and what it does for younger people and how they can continue to pursue their dreams. I’m really, really happy with that show.
Max Sanders: And it felt like very on the pulse of 2019, like smartphones, social media, streaming, Uber. So how does Hollywood feel different to you nowadays as opposed to when you were coming of age on those blockbuster syndicated network shows, pre of the smartphone, pre-social media?
David Lascher: I think there’s more opportunity now. Back then, it was like an established system. You go to the studio and you test, and then you go to network and the network signs off on you and the show. And now, they may be cut out of the equation. And if you want to do a show, there are many opportunities for you to do it without Paramount or Universal or Warner Bros telling you that you can do it. So I think there’s a lot of opportunity now for talented people to make interesting, entertaining, innovative content and find their own audience.
Max Sanders: Yeah. So in that vein, what’s on your plate for 2022?
David Lascher: I’m hoping to continue working with Group Nine Media on another comedy series, hopefully season two of Cruisers, which got held up due to the platform. We sold it dealing with a merger and with a much bigger media company. And then also a podcast we’re working on called the Inside ’90s Podcast with Group Nine and iHeart. And Group Nine just merged with Vox Media as well. So they’ve become probably the biggest player in digital media if you take out TikTok. And they’re great people there. My friend Daniel Kellison and Jimmy Kimmel and Adam Carolla, they started this comedy platform called JASH. It was Sarah Silverman and Michael Cera. And then they got acquired by Group Nine when we were doing Cruisers. So I was with them when they started as this small comedy platform and then became part of this bigger digital media conglomerate. And now they’ve just grown even bigger. So I’m kind of trying to stay under that umbrella. And also, there’s a comedy feature film that I want to do, like I did with Sister, and just put it together myself. It’s a basketball romantic comedy.
Max Sanders: There needs to be a new, good sports movie. It’s been a while.
David Lascher: Yeah. Like a real sports comedy.
Max Sanders: Yeah. Give me some Teen Wolf.
David Lascher: Yeah. Yeah. Not far from that.
Max Sanders: So what’s the best film or show you’ve watched recently? What’s on your mind right now?
David Lascher: Oh, wow. There’s so much good stuff. Did you see Dopesick?
Max Sanders: Not yet. My sister is just over the moon about it. That’s Michael Keaton, right? That’s about the Purdue pharma stuff?
David Lascher: Yes, yes, yes. About the creation of OxyContin. Yeah. It’s incredible. It’s a true story. What else have I watched? Oh, did you see Don’t Look Up?
Max Sanders: Yeah. Quite an ending.
David Lascher: I mean, I haven’t watched that many movies this year, I guess, like everybody else. But that one, and Adam McKay is one of our favorites and Leo is at the top of his game, and you know they’re talking about climate change. You know that this is close to their hearts. I love that movie. I would recommend anyone living on this planet right now to go see that movie.
Max Sanders: Wonderful. And even people living off of it. If Elon Musk is on Mars, you should watch it.
David Lascher: Elon Musk should definitely watch it.
Max Sanders: Well, David, thank you so much.