10 Feb 2014

Shooting Stars hit East Berlin

Tonight will be  the climax of three days of hectic activity for the Shooting Stars, as they come onstage at the Berlinale-Palast to accept their awards. Over this period, they have had intense sessions with numerous casting directors who come each year to the Berlinale for the annual meeting of the International Casting Directors Network. The ten have had the opportunity to meet talent agents – although increasingly our Shooting Stars are arriving not only with agents in their home country but also with international representation, such is the growing international interest in  European acting talent. And of course they have met the press.

Charles Gant on tour with Anno Saul and Nikola Racokevic © Ralf Uhler
Charles Gant © Ralf Uhler
This morning, in a break from the official activities, the actors were invited to special tours by three Berlin residents from the film industry. Talent agent Mechthild Holter from the Players agency took Cosmina Stratan (Romania), Marwan Kenzari (Netherlands) and Mateusz Kosciukiewicz on a tour of Alexanderplatz, including the revolving restaurant at the top of the TV Tower. Italian actor Luca Marinella, who is now resident in Berlin after coming here as a 2013 Shooting Star, invited Maria Dragus (Germany), Miriam Karlkvist (Italy) and George MacKay (UK) to check out his favourite places in Kreuzberg, scene of the famous Banksy graffiti art and many street murals. And Nikola Rakocevic (Serbia) and I joined director Anno Saul in his own lakeside home in Hohenschoenhausen, for some exercise and sunshine next to Lake Obersee, and culture in the Mies Van Der Rohe Haus museum and gallery that is nearby. This beautiful lakeside spot was once the home of many elite Stasi members, who used the single-storey 1932 Mies Van Der Rohe house as a laundry facility.
Having served on the jury last December where we are judging based on the submitted spotlight films and the actors' showreels, it's been particularly special to spend time with all ten of the Shooting Stars – who also include Danica Curcic (Denmark), Edda Magnason (Sweden) and Jakob Oftebro (Norway) – at the Berlinale. I have served on juries for rising acting talent before, and of course I am aware that such accolades are useful for bringing press attention, enhancing status in our very competitive film industry, and giving a little extra spotlight to their next movies. But what I had never previously understood was the personal boost it also gives, and especially in their own confidence as actors, to receive this endorsement. I will leave Berlin knowing that the Shooting Stars initiative is more vital than I ever suspected, and I am happy to have played my small part.
Charles Gant, Shooting Stars 2014 jury member

Tonight, the ten Shooting Stars will walk the red carpet before Berlinale Competition film In Order Of Disappearance, and receive their Shooting Star awards on-stage before the film

Shooting Stars: meet the sales agents

Charles Gant at the EFM
For the international sales agents here at the Berlinale selling films in the market, the Shooting Stars designation for their cast members can be a welcome boost. At the Doc&Film stand, the poster image and marketing materials all feature the face of Miriam Karlkvist from South Is Nothing (Il Sud E Niente), just one of the films the Italian company is presenting at the EFM. Doc&Film's Daniela Elsner long ago considered festival offers, and agreed with Toronto, Rome and the Berlinale Generation strand that they would be the first three steps in the film's life – a plan negotiated up-front and agreeable to all. Of course, at this point, Daniela had no idea that in Berlin her lead actress would be feted as a Shooting Star.

“We liked the image,” explains Daniela. “We have three films at the Berlinale, but the South Is Nothing poster is specifically with Miriam, and it makes sense to us with the Shooting Stars. It gives another light on the film in Berlin. I think it's well-established enough that people know. If you mention Shooting Stars, it means something. That's also because of years of work of everyone, which was not so much the case in the beginning.”

Over at the TrustNordisk desk, CEO Rikke Ennis is in the happy position of selling three films featuring Shooting Stars. She has On The Edge, fresh from its Rotterdam premiere, featuring both Denmark's Danica Curcic and Norway's Jakob Oftebro; Berlinale competition entry In Order Of Disappearance, with Jakob; and The Absent One, with Danica, which is in post-production.

We always mention Shooting Stars,” says Rikke. “It's a good platform and to promote the film. It's good sales-wise. Here in Berlin there are so many films, all the attention you can get, all the visibility is always welcome. If you have a cast with Shooting Stars, and all the glamour around it, it always helps.”

In Order Of Disappearance, also starring Stellan Skarsgard, Bruno Ganz and former Shooting Star Anders Baasmo Christiansen, premieres in the Berlinale tonight (Feb 10)

9 Feb 2014

Our Shooting Stars jury spokesman: Anders Baasmo Christiansen

As a former Shooting Star himself, Norwegian actor Anders Baasmo Christiansen has a special role on our jury and is its public face. Introducing the 2014 Shooting Stars today at the Hotel De Rome for their Berlin press conference, he spoke tenderly about how the accolade, which he received in 2010, impacted him not just in terms of doors it opened for his career. “It put me on a different level of confidence with my own work,” he said. “Actors tend to feel self-doubt. We sometimes feel like we are the worst person in the world and that's part of our process.” But with such an endorsement as Shooting Stars, he advised this year's winners, “If you find yourself in that position, you can blame the script rather than yourself.

Anders and Jakob during the Shooting Stars Press Presentation
Afterwards, Anders told me about his time as a Shooting Star, which came a fair way into his career, in honour of the Berlinale Panorama 2009 opening film North, from Rune Densted Langlo. “I was the oldest of the Shooting Stars group, and 2010 was my last chance to be a Shooting Star,” said Anders. He remained level-headed about the accolade and didn't necessarily expect big changes in his career. However, the Shooting Star designation won him an international agent – Denmark's Anne Lindberg – who has been mentioned to me many times in conversation here in Berlin as the best Scandinavian talent agent. She also represents the 2014 Shooting Stars Danica Curci (Denmark) and Jakob Oftebro (Norway).
Anders gives credit to Anne's patience that he hasn't necessarily leapt at international offers that have come his way, and says he now feels more ready to embrace them. He added, “I always say, with Shooting Stars, not every door is necessarily opening, but maybe the road of coincidences [that you need to occur take you to your career goal] will be a little bit shorter.”

Partying with the Shooting Stars

Last night in Berlin the ten Shooting Stars were seen on the red carpet for the Berlin-Brandenburg Film Fund party at the Ritz-Carlton, and later walked over to the Tesiro Golden Bear Lounge at the Hotel Hyatt, for a private reception celebrating the jewellery brand's association with the annual award scheme. At the Berlin-Brandenburg party, I first spoke with Sweden's Edda Magnason, who has made a remarkable transition from musician to actor with her film debut, playing famed Swedish jazz singer Monica Zetterlund in Waltz With Monica. She won the role by an unconventional route, after somebody attending one of her concerts suggested to director Per Fly that she should be considered for the role. Multiple screen tests and almost a year later, the film-making team were convinced that they had found their Monica. Edda, who won Best Actress at last month's Swedish Film Awards, has been busy recording her third album, which will be released in the spring.

From left-right): Cosmnia Stratan (Romania), Mateusz Kosciukiewicz (Poland), Jakob Oftebro (Norway), Miriam Karlkvist (Italy), Maria Dragus (Germany), Richard Shen (President of TESIRO), Danica Curcic (Denmark), Marwan Kenzari (The Netherlands), Nikola Rakocevic (Serbia), Edda Magnason (Sweden) and George MacKay (UK)  © Markus Nass
I also caught up with the UK's George MacKay, who is in Berlin on a special break from his London play The Cement Garden. George is coming off a big UK box-office hit, Sunshine On Leith, which is adapted from a stage musical that incorporates songs from Scottish band The Proclaimers. The film was released on the same day in the UK as two of George's other 2013 films, dystopian teen romance How I Live Now, and the gritty low-budget drama For Those In Peril, which won him a Scottish BAFTA. George spoke about losing weight for one of his 2014 films, Duane Hopkins' Bypass – a mindboggling thought since his frame definitely already qualifies as lean. The film-making team soon realised that a dietician was needed to help George lose the weight safely and responsibly.
George's other 2014 film is Pride, from Matthew Warchus, who is best known in the UK for directing stage smash Matilda: The Musical. The film is inspired by the true story of the gay rights activists who set up a group supporting the striking miners in their epic – and ultimately doomed – battle with Margaret Thatcher's UK government in 1984-5. George and I are both excited about a young actor called Ben Schnetzer, an American who studied acting in London and is making his career in Europe, first in The Book Thief (playing a German Jew), and then in the British films Pride and Posh – the latter an acclaimed adaptation of a Royal Court stageplay. I believe Ben is playing a Russian in it, and he is an actor that Europe will be very happy to adopt.

All the Shooting Stars were a little giddy after their epic eight-hour photo shoot yesterday, which between set-ups had left plenty of time for hilarity to ensue. After the shoot, local Shooting Star Maria Dragus took George for an authentic Berlin experience: currywurst and chips at Curry 36. I caught up with Maria at the Tesiro party, where I was teasing her about her resemblance to Elle Fanning (I'm not the first person to mention this), and she told me all about shooting White Ribbon with Michael Haneke. His directing style is surprisingly straightforward and non-cerebral, I learnt, and we talked about how details in the set decoration, often invisible to the camera, nevertheless help the actors believe in the moment and commit to the role, thus elevating their performance. All the Shooting Stars were presented with gifts by Tesiro, and were welcomed by the company's President, Richard Shen.

Meet the Shooting Stars: Mateusz Kosciukiewicz and Nikola Rakocevic

The balance between glamour and diligence for this year's Shooting Stars was aptly on display at their photo shoot this morning. An 8.30am start at the shoot location meant lie-ins were not much of an option for the ten actors, and Norway's Jakob Oftebro may have been regretting going on to Soho House after the Danish party last night, where he more or less closed up the bar with Harvey Weinstein. On the other hand, Jakob looked totally fresh and rested, such are the advantages of youth.
In between the styling sessions for the shoot (the snaps with me above are as we arrived, before the grooming team worked their magic), I managed to grab some interview time with both Poland's Mateusz Kosciukiewicz and Serbia's Nikola Rakocevic, and both told similarly engaging accounts of their first steps into acting.

Nikola Rakocevic and Charles Gant © Sinissey
Nikola grew up in the town of Kragujevac in central Serbia, about 100km from Belgrade. He has one older brother, his father was a forklift-truck driver and his mother worked in accounts for an insulation manufacturer. Mateusz grew up in the small town of Nowy Tomysl, near Poznan in western Poland. He also has one older brother, his father is a carpenter and his mother a hospital cleaner.
Both were encouraged to act as teenagers by inspiring women who fostered local talent. For Nikola it was the Kragujevac after-school acting club run by a woman called Slavica Urosevic. Not only did she encourage his acting, but she also inspired all the kids to “find yourself”, and to make the best of themselves in whatever direction their life took them. In the case of Mateusz, it was while visiting the local cultural centre at Nowy Tomysl that the woman who ran it, Renata Smiertelna, persuaded him to read a poem aloud, and then encouraged him down the path of acting. Together with local retired actor Henryk Dabrowski, she ultimately helped him prepare for theatre school in Wroclaw – a Silesian city better known outside Poland by the name Breslau.

Nikola had previously received encouragement to act by his grandfather, who whenever he had friends visiting would ask the nine-year-old to perform characters from his favourite TV show Djekna. Meanwhile his grandmother – the whole family lived in the same house together – developed his acting by improvising scenes together, sometimes in a made-up language. “I always say that my grandfather was my first agent and my grandmother was my first acting teacher,” says Nikola.
Mateusz had a chequered history at acting school, transitioning from puppet theatre to drama and not completing his degree. He looks back on those years with self-deprecating amusement at his own behaviour, which involved “challenging everything – I wanted to make my own new style, invent the programme. It was crazy.” Also problematic was his accepting roles in films, which as all actors know is deeply discouraged at acting school, since it interferes with the teaching programme. “Half of the professors wanted to kick me out and the other half wanted to give me another chance because they believed in my talent,” he says.

He is aware of his incredible good fortune that the Polish film industry, after a difficult transition from the full state subsidy of the Communist era, was at last beginning to find its feet again just as he was making his way as an actor. There had been a dearth of career opportunities, he says, for his immediate antecedents. But in 2009's All That I Love, “I was the first young actor in a long time to be given an opportunity to have a big success in the cinema.” Comparisons with Zbigniew Cybulski – aka “the Polish James Dean” – ensued.

Although it feels almost trivial to talk about the tragic conflict in this context, Nikola agrees that growing up during the wars of former Yugoslavia, in which his father was conscripted to fight, and in which “for three years as a child I am seeing dead people on TV every day”, certainly gives him access to deeper emotions that may not be so easily available to all – ones that he can convey with restraint and subtlety. You get more than a hint of that in his film Circles, the true story of Srdjan Aleksic, a Bosnian Serb soldier who in 1993 lost his life defending an ethnic Bosnian shopkeeper from being attacked by a group of fellow soldiers.

I'm reminded of Mark Wahlberg, who very different reasons had known troubles in his youth, experiences that can help him get to the necessary place a lot quicker than, in his mocking words, “Let me think about the colour blue. Let me think about my dead cat.”

Mateusz is returning to the Berlinale after his film In The Name Of, directed by his wife Malgorzata Szumowska, won the Teddy Award here last year. He was also just in the city shooting the German-Australian co-production Elixir, an English-language film in which he plays a Frenchman, alongside former Shooting Star Natasha Petrovic. Meanwhile Nikola has likewise made a foray into English with the Las Vegas-set Travelator. “I don't have so many lines,” cautions the actor – not, he clarifies because his role is small. He plays the protagonist, a hired assassin who is despatched to Vegas to kill a protected witness. “He's a silent guy who kills other people,” explains Nikola.

8 Feb 2014

First impressions of the Shooting Stars

Today here in Berlin begins three action-packed days of events and festivities celebrating the ten Shooting Stars for 2014. All of the actors are here at the Berlinale, some together with their agent, others braving the spotlight on their own. As a jury member and official Shooting Stars blogger I am privileged to be shadowing the group, and last night we met at our hotel for a relaxed introduction session with organisers European Film Promotion.

Jakob Oftebro and George MacKay during the introduction meeting © Ralf Uhler

Several of the stars have particular excitement to be here in Berlin. Norway's Jakob Oftebro is here at the festival with a film in competition, Hans Petter Moland's Kraftidioten (In Order Of Disappearance), also starring Stellan Skarsgard, Bruno Ganz and Shooting Star jury member Anders Baasmo Christiansen. Anders, who himself was a Shooting Star in 2010, arrives today. Last night Jakob spoke on behalf of the whole group when he articulated how happy they are all to be here, and looking forward to this special time together. Shooting Stars 2014 may have found its ambassador.
George MacKay from the UK stepped briefly outside the Shooting Stars bubble last night since his girlfriend Saoirse Ronan was here with Berlinale Opening Night film Grand Budapest Hotel from Wes Anderson. The pair met on the set of Kevin Macdonald's dystopian teen romance How I Live Now and managed to keep their relationship pretty much under wraps until the UK release of the film last autumn. George has been given leave of absence from the London play The Cement Garden, in which he is currently starring, to attend the Berlinale.

Sweden's Edda Magnason is celebrating her recent Best Actress win at the Swedish Film Awards – aka the Guldbagge Awards – for her title role in music biopic Waltz With Monica. An acclaimed recording artist in her home country, Edda makes a sensational film debut as legendary Swedish jazz singer Monica
This year's crop of Shooting Stars is international not only in the sense of representing ten different European countries, but also to some degree themselves. Italian Shooting Star Miriam Karlkvist is half-Swedish, and Danish Shooting Star Danica Curcic has Serbian heritage. Norway's Jakob Oftebro works happily in any Scandinavian language (and English, of course) and co-stars with Danica in Danish film On The Edge, which is selling in the market here in Berlin. Poland Shooting Star Mateusz Kosciukiewicz returns to Berlin having just completed shooting a movie here three weeks ago.
Finally a word about Serbian Shooting Star Nikola Rakocevic, who seemingly comes complete with his own GPS device. He was able to guide us back to our hotel as we took some welcome past-midnight air walking home from the Danish party, having seemingly noted the directions when being driven to the event. If I get lost in Berlin, which I expect to do, I'm calling Nikola.

This evening (Saturday February 8) the Shooting Stars attend the Medienboard Berlin-Brandenburg Film Fund reception at the Ritz-Carlton, and a welcome cocktail with Shooting Stars main partner and Berlinale official partner Tesiro. Medienboard is a partner in Nikola Rakocevic's film Circles, for which he is nominated as a Shooting Star this year.

7 Feb 2014

Casting directors step into the spotlight at Shooting Stars

Since 2004 and the creation of the International Casting Directors Network, Shooting Stars at the Berlinale has recognised the importance of the vital industry creatives who help connect acting talent with filmmakers. But while many film fans could name a famous composer or cinematographer, most would be pressed to recall a single casting director's name.

Hoping to bring a brighter spotlight to their profession are the team behind documentary Casting By, which screens on Sunday evening with Shooting Stars in Berlin. The film tells the story of the creation of the casting profession, with a particular focus on one of its most illustrious practitioners: Marion Dougherty. Explains one of the film's producers Joanna Colbert, who is herself a Hollywood casting director and formerly ran the casting department for Universal Pictures, "I thought this story had to be told: how Marion discovered De Niro, Pacino, Gene Hackman, Bette Midler, Redford. She gave all of these people their first job, and she was invisible. She was changing film history and changing Hollywood, and nobody knew her name." Colbert, whose casting discoveries include a ten-year-old Kirsten Dunst for Interview With The Vampire and Channing Tatum for Step Up, has a personal connection to the films' subject in that she herself was mentored by casting director Juliet Taylor, who was previously mentored by Dougherty. Explains Colbert, "It¹s such an important part of casting today. There's no school for casting, so it has to be a mentorship. I learned from the best. I had the opportunity to meet Marion on a Warner Bros flight, going across the country to cast Interview With The Vampire. She and I spoke on the flight. I could just tell she was a force, a force to be reckoned with. I was so thrilled. It was like meeting the greatest celebrity, for me, to meet Marion."

Like ICDN chairman Debbie McWilliams (see separate story, below), Colbert agrees that casting is becoming more and more international ­ and that's especially encouraging to hear coming from a casting director working exclusively on US productions. Says Colbert, "I think absolutely yes. One of the reasons is just a general evolution that's going on in the world of openness. People really looking at the way people live, and who they marry and who they adopt and what their kids look like. They are not just in a box any more. And then with the introduction of the internet, it opens us up even more to being able to do an audition anywhere in the world as quickly as we could do it with our neighbour. And I think it's exciting. Network television is the real litmus test for this quote unquote openness. Networks are casting with more diversity and more internationally, and I think that's
the sign that the world¹s eyes are finally open."

While studios and international sales agents are still guided by lists of actors they perceive to be bankable talent, says Colbert, "Thankfully we are evolving in this regard. The lists are now filled with names at the top that might otherwise be at the bottom. For example, Chiwetel Ejiofor, I used to have to beg for somebody to pay attention to that name and now he¹s an Oscar nominee and will be at the top of every list. And I love it. It's an unpronounceable name to some Americans, it's a name that used to scare executives and that will now be embraced, and I think it¹s thrilling."

In decades past, it was common for foreign-born actors to change their names to make them easier to pronounce for American film fans ­ Greta Gustafsson became Garbo, for example. In fairness, actors changing names to something more memorably iconic was more the practice of the time, regardless of ancestry. Still, it's heartening for our Shooting Stars past and present to consider that no name, however foreign-sounding to Anglophone ears, is now viewed as any impediment to a successful international career.

6 Feb 2014

The unsung heroes of film: casting directors

At the Berlinale, the four days of events celebrating this year's Shooting Stars will see the spotlight fall quite properly on the ten young actors selected by the jury, on which I was proud to serve. Much more behind the scenes, important work will be occurring with the creative enablers who are so crucial to the careers of all actors: casting directors. Launched at the Berlinale in 2004 the International Casting Directors Network will once again see its members meet with the ten actors, with a view to future castings. The EFP¹s own research confirms that these sessions are fruitful and vital: 70% of past Shooting Stars went on to achieve an international film role via casting directors they met through this process at the Berlinale.

A big cheerleader for the ICDN is founder member and current chairman Debbie McWilliams, a London based casting director who is best known for her work on all of the Bond films since For Your Eyes Only in 1981. Understandably, she's a big supporter of Shooting Stars. "It's a fantastic for them to meet us and for us to meet them," she says. "It gives them a great platform that will prove fruitful, if not instantaneously, then over the years."
While casting directors continue to bristle at the limitations imposed by the dreaded sales agents' lists ­ those actor names that financiers believe will guarantee an audience for a film ­ McWilliams is lucky to be working on a franchise that's strong enough not to need them. "Doing the Bond films, I have the world to choose from. I'm not so dictated to from the commercial angle because we don't need it. The films stand on their own, and it's whoever is right for the part."

Encouragingly, at the current blockbuster end of film production, most would agree that  casting has become less star-powered, since these days the film brands themselves ­ Marvel Avengers, Spider-Man, Twilight, Hunger Games, Tolkien, Harry Potter, Planet Of The Apes, X-Men and all the numerous upcoming Young Adult literary franchises ­ are bigger than the star names they present to audiences. We have moved on from the days when studios were focusing more on developing films likely to snag the interest of the A-list stars that formed the $20m-per-movie salary club. This gives casting directors more of a vital creative input in these blockbuster films.

On the other hand, at the lower budgetary scale, the challenges of independent film financing make producers more lustful of star names than ever before ­ even for films with modest budgets that formerly might not have aspired towards them. Says McWilliam, "Everybody's chasing the same
names all the time. It's the same list who help get a film made. That to me is rather detrimental to how the film ends up: you could end up with somebody who's not appropriate at all. That's always the battle: trying to match up the suitability of the person versus their commercial worth, and we do the best we can. Everybody has to start somewhere and you wonder sometimes how anybody ever does break through."
McWilliams points to Alicia Vikander ­ a Shooting Star in 2011 ­ as an example of an actor who has broken through, and now appears on approved lists as a bankable name. She adds, "I think it's because of people like us going to things like Shooting Stars that we are able to find new people and
try to set them on their way."

Another positive, agrees McWilliams, is that casting is overall becoming more international: "Very much. Absolutely. Just on something like Game Of Thrones, they've got people from all over the place: Russia, France, Norway. They have really gone international. I've always tried to be as inclusive of other countries as much as I can, it just lends a bit more... it just makes it feel a richer blend. In the Bond films, I've cast lots of people who I've seen on trips abroad or watching foreign films. Like (Casino Royale's) Mads Mikkelsen, for instance."
While casting directors still struggle to have their role recognised ­ there is no Oscar or BAFTA for casting, for example ­ there are encouraging signs that they are finally emerging into more visibility. In the UK, for example, at the 2013 British Independent Film Awards, casting directors for the first time appeared as nominees in the Technical Achievement category, alongside other crafts such as music, sound design and editing. Two casting directors were nominated, Shaheen Baig for Starred Up and Amy Hubbard for The Selfish Giant, with the latter winning the award. Comments McWilliams on that small victory, "It's fantastic: somebody somewhere is saying, 'You know what, that did make a difference.' People take it so much for granted. It's a mystery to me why it has been so under-appreciated all these years. It's perhaps not entirely unremarkable that it is a very much female-dominated world, and I think we don't fight hard enough for ourselves."

Casting Directors events at this year’s Berlinale:

- Casting Breakfast: Individual Interviews with EUROPEAN SHOOTING STARS 2014
- Screening of Tom Donahue's documentary 'Casting By', followed by a Q & A.
- Annual meeting and information exchange of ICDN members