Lucinda Syson started her career as a casting director twenty-five years ago after graduating in French and Linguistics. Her training under Priscilla John began with films like “Alien 3” and “Seven Years in Tibet”. Her first film as casting director was Udayan Prasad’s “Brothers in Trouble”, and Lucinda has since worked with such filmmakers as Luc Besson (“Fifth Element”), Christopher Nolan (“Batman Begins”), Alfonso Cuarón (“Children Of Men”), receiving an Artios nomination for Matthew Vaughn’s 2010 film “Kick-Ass”. She is a member of the International Casting Directors Network and the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences.
Can you talk about your background?
Lucinda Syson: All I can say is that I was one of those people that fell in love with Film. I think that between seeing Disney films when I was a kid and then going on to “Spartacus” when I was seven, I just found a place in watching films; it was always in my heart, I suppose, and I never dreamt of being able to part of the film industry, but it happened… I was studying languages – I did French and linguistics – and I did a bit of photography and then I got the opportunity of being a runner on a film. I had a degree and I had one of those moments – I went to Shepperton Studios and I thought: “This is magical!” I felt totally, for the first time ever, an absolute “being at home.” And then, I actually ran into casting and fell into casting because I hit a point where I could have been assistant director. For me, Film comes alive with the people and I still maintain that. And, that’s how I got into casting. I’ve always been fascinated from a psychological point of view, creative point of view by people. But, for me, Film is obviously about the lighting, etc. But, really, it is about careful casting and intelligent, smart, innovative casting – there’s nothing like it – it brings films like “The Godfather” to life… It’s fantastic!
How does one become a casting director?
L.S.: That’s a different matter! Nowadays, things have changed a lot since I started in the profession, which was twenty-four years ago. When I started, casting directors didn’t really talk to each other. Now, we have organizations; we’ve got the CSA in America, we’ve got the CDG in England, we’ve got the ICDN… So, it’s in lots of ways about sort of looking at the job, and the main way in is to always be an apprentice to someone. So, it’s starting at the very beginning – I mean, it’s like anything –. You have to learn the ropes. There’s a lot more to casting than the outside. A lot more. And, it’s hard work. It’s a lot of long hours and it’s a commitment. It’s not an easy job.
How familiar do you have to be with one actor’s work? Do you see all of their films? The director’s as well? And, you have to see how they would work and fit together? It seems impossible!
L.S.: Nowadays, it’s impossible! I mean, on an international level… It depends on the sort of casting director you want to be, because there’s short film casting, there’s independent film casting, there’s studio casting, there’s television – which is huge in American television –. So, there are a lot of avenues now, and it depends on where you want to specialize. There are so many actors and, with the internet, it’s impossible to know everyone. Everyday, there’s a new star on the rise… All you can possibly do is go to the theater, watch films, and just kind of get to know as many actors as you can. But, it’s very difficult to know everything about every actor. It’s impossible!
The casting process is different in the US and Europe. Can you elaborate on that?
L.S.: England has become very much a similar process to the US. And our agents as well. We used to be more like Europe in our agent structure and now we are more like America. The American influence is enormous. And, the general casting structure – in studio films anyway – is definitely very similar to the American. I work a lot with Simone Bar when we do co-productions, and she always used to laugh at my interview methods (short interviews). That’s funny compared to Europe where we spend hours doing it way in advance. I mean, any American studio film now will get a casting director on board three months before production, so you rely on the availability – who’s available three months before. So, this means a lot of actors are not available. Whereas, I think, a European idea is really to work as much in advance on the cast as you can, so that you’re not restricted so much by availability. There are lots of definite differences and I think England certainly has become a lot more Americanized in its agent structure and in its way of casting in studio films.
It is about careful casting and intelligent, smart, innovative casting.
How do the agents interfere? Do they help or are they more like a barrier? How do you work with them? They can be helpful and unhelpful at the same time…
L.S.: Yes! I think, when I started, agents represented actors and we were supposed to know who they were and phone them and check their availability. Now, the American system, because there’s a lot more actors, and the agencies are big companies like CIA, ICN, UTA, what they tend to do is be involved in the packaging. And, that is a much wider area; they tend to push actors so they are much more proactive. When a project starts, you’ll get your point person in the company and they’ll be contacting you and keeping in touch all the time and pushing forward actors. That’s a whole new way of working as far as the work is concerned. And, I think our agents have picked up on that, so they’re much more proactive.
How much do you have to take into account the personal relationships (feuds) between directors and actors and actors and actors? This can be a problem in the casting…
L.S.: Yeah! You have to take that into account. So, that’s why casting is never as easy as it seems. There are either requirements in the role – there’s height, there’s looks, etc. Really, there’s a lot more to it! And, you have to take relationships into account. You can’t go casting Brad and Angelina together right now, that’s not gonna work! So, you have to be very careful with that. Films cost a lot of money nowadays, and therefore, everyone’s very, very conscious of time and money and they try to stick to schedule and come in on the budget. And, if you’ve got something that’s going to delay that automatically because two people aren’t getting on, or creating a problem on the set, then that’s not good. Casting has a huge area which is the human element; it’s just what casting’s about.
Do you watch short films to be able to cast actors?
L.S.: I try to. The problem is an overdose nowadays. There’s too much information everywhere, so you’ve got to try and be up to date with the theater – especially in London –, with the drama schools, with everything… And, the festivals, who’s coming out, what film… Sometimes, you can’t be everything to everyone and possibly short films are the one area, mostly because of the restricted access to them; it’s easy to access Netflix and watch movies, television series… Short films maybe don’t have as an easy access as there is no place to go and watch short films. If cinemas would help short films by showing a short before the main feature, that would be a really good idea…
I’d like to know about the ICDN and how it helps you professionally, how it helps casting directors in their jobs and how it facilitates the casting process in Europe and the world.
L.S.: That’s huge. For me, it’s huge. I’m a big believer in the professionalism of casting and I do feel very strongly about the creativity input of casting. And, I really hope that at some point we can get the recognition because that’s very, very important. Part of that is creating a very strong network of professionalism within casting directors themselves so, some countries are still at the point where the assistant director casts a film or the director. But, that’s changing more and more, I think. And, where the progress in somewhere like America is much more advanced they have an excellent sort of communication and process; they have awards for casting directors and they recognize each other’s work and I think this is where we in Europe are behind. We need to create that network and help people not feel on their own, make them feel they’re part of a profession. And, for me, it’s brilliant because sometimes when I need to do some casting in Poland, there’s the ICDN! “Who’s in Poland? Great wonderful, are you available, yes…” It’s brilliant for that because the ICDN has a certain level of casting directors too, so it’s really, really helpful in getting casting directors to feel they’re not alone, in getting casting directors to have the resources in different countries. I’m a great believer in Europe and I’m a great believer in the input of lots of different cultures and improving our situation and improving from a creative point of view. I think countries have a huge amount to offer each other and improving the profession, the resources, and the overall kind of casting directors’ situation.
This interview was conducted at the 2017 Berlin International Film Festival.