DIFF Daily 2010

The truth about casting and crossing over

Dec 15,2010 - 12:17 PM


When the makers of Lasse Halström’s latest film, ‘Salmon Fishing in the Yemen’, were looking to cast a substantial role, they didn’t have the options they might have had on an American or European production – the established agencies, unions and casting directors that habitually help western filmmakers assemble a cast. Instead, like many regional productions, they depended on personal contacts – in this case, Amr Waked, an Egyptian actor who has also worked on Hollywood projects such as ‘Syriana’ and Steven Soderbergh’s forthcoming ‘Contagion’.

“They asked me to find an Arab character of 50 to 60-years old,” Waked told the Dubai Film Forum’s ‘Casting for Talent’ panel yesterday. “I really tried to get what they wanted and found a terrific degree of resistance. They’re all stars. Only one, who was over 70, accepted to come and film a scene with me. Everyone else refused. This is the problem we have in our industry – even if we create the role of casting director, people feel they’re too big to read for [foreign filmmakers] who don’t even know their work.”

The reluctance of big names to submit to castings is not unique to Arab cinema. (Waked’s co-panellist, casting director Gerard Moulevrier, noted that French stars also habitually turn their noses up at such requests from directors, “unless it’s Woody Allen”.) But, Waked argued, the relatively small scale of regional production provides little impetus for the development of a more streamlined casting process. “The clear difference is that in countries like France they produce around 200 films a year,” said Waked. “If any country in the Middle East had to produce 200 movies, casting directors would be necessary for the industry to survive. But today, with 30 or 40 films a year [being produced in Egypt], we have the same actors in up to three films a year.”

Talent management, like other aspects of the regional industry, remains less codified and professionalised than in other film industries. Actors unions, for instance, do exist but tend to focus on extreme situations rather than setting industry-wide minimum wages. And there are talent agents but, Waked suggested, “they’re not as sophisticated and cinematic as those in the west. Most of them work for advertising or modelling, sometimes for extras in movies but hardly ever in casting leading roles.” But it would be a mistake for individuals to try to get too far ahead of the industry culture. In 2005, a friend approached Waked to act as his agent but “I realised that every time he spoke for me in the industry, he damaged me. Now that I had an agent, they were less willing to approach me. You become an alien in the industry. Maybe if all actors decided to do that, it might change, but so far it has failed.”

But that doesn’t mean Arab actors interested in an international career don’t have options. “No matter where you’re based, you need to think globally,” said co-panellist Dan Hubbard, a UK casting agent with around 90 credits, including ‘United 93’. “Spread out your contacts all over the world through decent agents and managers. Study the industry, look at the films being made all over the world. Who’s directing them? What choices are being made?” And a word of warning: “people who are looking for money off actors to promote them I wouldn’t really trust.”

“An actor should never think he should go anywhere,” Waked added. “He should think of the roles he’s offered.” This was a theme reiterated in the Variety panel ‘Crossing Over, also held yesterday. “If you’re an actor, it’s about the character,” said Ahd Kamel. “I want to play whatever part appeals to me.” And are the opportunities there? “You have to create your own opportunities. Put yourself out there. Being an artists is always a risky business.”

A Saudi-born actor, writer, director and producer who moved to the US in 1997, Kamel remains loyal to her home – she sees Saudi as the target audience for her latest work – has found that her background can be advantageous in both directions. “I have experience of the US, which is great to bring to an emerging platform [like the Arab world], while being from the Gulf is a plus there. The world is growing smaller but we’re highlighting our differences rather than our similarities. I prefer to start from a humanistic, universal point of view.” She also found strength from her home audience. “There’s a flavour when your own people are proud of you and it keeps you going.”

Egyptian film icon Lebleba, star of more than 80 films, talked of her openness to foreign co-production. “I would like to do that because art is art, cinema is cinema in any country,” she said. “Hopefully, I will have a co-production with Lebanon – something very different to what I usually do. I would do that without any hesitation. I always like to present something different, whether inside my country or outside it.” But she warned against regional industries trying to ape the approach of western cinema. “When we produce a film, we must talk about life in our community. We might have a technically well-produced film but if we talk about things that don’t exist in our community, it would be like an imported film. We can’t imitate what happens elsewhere – our films sell abroad because people want to know about our community, our feelings, what life is like for us.”

Syrian TV star Marh Jabr, appearing in the DIFF 2010 feature ‘Damascus With Love’, also discussed the potential for more regional co-productions. “In Syria, we’ve had co-productions with actors from Morocco, Algeria, Egypt and so on. Eventually, this will lead to pan-Arab work that will be important on the Arab scene.” In an international context, she also noted that she played a Bedouin character in a film for American television that was positively received. “I was surprised Americans watched a film about desert life.”

So should actors look into developing their own talents as casting directors? Waked would not recommend it – his efforts on behalf of ‘Salmon Fishing in the Yemen’ were, he insisted, “just a favour” and dabbling in casting work is unlikely to help an aspiring actor’s credibility. And was that part ever filled? “Eventually they changed the age group and I got the role,” he said. “Things worked well for me. If you ever get the opportunity to be a casting director, cast yourself.”

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