Born in Sarajevo, Timka Grin studied French Language and Literature, but it was her admiration for the art and craft of acting that has led her to a career in casting. She has, subsequently, worked on many short and feature films. According to her, her most valuable lessons came through her work with directors such as the Dardenne brothers, Jean-Luc Godard, Danis Tanović, Aida Begić and Jasmila Žbanić.
She talks to Tara Karajica about her career as casting director.
Can you talk about your background? How did you get into casting?
Timka Grin: My official education was studies in French Language and Literature. But I had been a fan of acting and films since forever. But during seven years of working in the French Cultural Centre André Malraux in Sarajevo and being “in charge of cinema,” I was lucky to get a great crash course in Film History and its current situation. Plus, I was lucky to meet a few great names at that time like for instance Jean-Luc Godard, Claire Denis, Olivier Assayas, Leos Carax, Jeanne Moreau, Michael Cimino… just to name a few. That helped me clear the idea of my function in that wonderful art, or industry – call it whatever you want – I love it, in any case! That is when I realized I needed to work in filmmaking. I needed it and I knew that “it needed me” too, so I quit my job and became a casting director.
How does one, actually, become a casting director?
T.G.: In Bosnia and Herzegovina, I needed to be stubborn and persistent in simply doing the work. In the beginning, I worked on film sets as an AD and I did casting too, but the idea was that, in time, I would end up working only as a casting director and that is the case today. International productions hired me when they were looking for actors from the Balkans and thanks to these collaboration and recommendations, I gained experience very fast and, in the meantime, I started working regularly as a casting director with many Bosnian and regional directors too, but mostly with Danis Tanović and Aida Begić.
How familiar do you have to be with an actor’s work? Do you see all of their and the directors’ films? And, you have to see how they would work and fit together? It seems impossible!
T.G.: It is very helpful to be familiar with an actor’s work, of course. With time, we learn how to follow one’s work even with the “peripheral view,” to recognize the patterns, to see sudden changes in one’s work if there are any, to know what’s up etc. Certain specific senses sharpen, but it’s important to be open to fresh and new people, that the curiosity and eagerness to learn never go away. It is natural to me to watch films, go to the theater, meet film students, actors, directors, producers… We all have something to learn from each other all the time.
The casting process is different in the U.S. and Europe. Can you elaborate on that?
T.G.: I haven’t worked in the U.S. yet, but I understand there is more of a system to it there than in Europe generally, especially in South Eastern Europe, where I live and mostly work. The differences are kind of technical. For example, in the U.S. – but I think also in the UK –, a casting director closes the deal with an actor, or actor’s agent; they sign a so-called “deal memo” and with that, the casting director’s work is done for a certain role and an actor is committed to the project. In my case, I do not negotiate an actor’s deal, but the producers do it. Contrary to the U.S., we do not have a big studio production either. Other that that, the work of a casting director and the process in its essence is the same. The idea is to get the best actor as possible for the part.
How much do the agents interfere? Do they help or are they more like a barrier? How do you work with them?
T.G.: Agents are helpful when they represent actors, yes. But not when they act as agents and as casting directors at the same time, which happens to be the case a lot in South Eastern Europe. I see it as a conflict of interest and do not support this practice at all. It is easy and clear: the casting director is hired by a production and works for “the script” while the talent agent is hired by actors and earns a percentage of their fee. Everything else is just plain unprofessionalism.
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… How do you avoid this? How do you work around the problems?
T.G.: It’s true that we are dealing with a mixture of everyone’s skills, psychology, playfulness or lack thereof. Experience helps. When casting a film, the talent is not the only thing we are looking for and, yes, we do need to take into consideration personal traits and personal relationships. We do try not to put anyone – actors or directors – in an unpleasant situation, so we need to work around that. When I say “experience helps,” that means that I’ve learned it the hard way. *laughs*
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?
T.G.: Easy one. Since I’ve become a member of the ICDN, I have worked together with eight colleagues, all from different countries and with some of them on several different projects, so you do the math! Besides that, the ICDN has been giving every year, for three years now, a Casting Director Award, which is an important event for our profession and its recognition in Europe especially. We exchange experience on a regular basis and aim to create a standard for our profession that would be acceptable and accepted world-wide. We are showing to everyone who doesn’t know it yet how important, but also how much fun casting is. Not just to us, but also to directors, actors and producers too. You wouldn’t believe it!
Talking about the under-appreciation of casting directors, in Locarno there is the European Casting Director Award now, and it’s the first and only festival that does that and it’s in partnership with the ICDN. Are there other initiatives?
T.G.: The ICDN Casting Director Award moved in 2018 from Locarno to the Sarajevo Film Festival and this year we will happily stay at the Sarajevo Film Festival, for its 25th edition and our 4th Award. Although casting directors are heads of a department in film production and get the front credits in most films, they are rarely listed within the creative team in promotional materials and are rarely awarded for their work, but this is changing.
According to you, how much of the magic of a film is thanks to a casting director – because a film would’ve been different were it another casting? How much of your work goes into this?
T.G.: When casting a film, we would sometimes say: “Yes, he/she is great too, but that’s another film.” So then, we just need to choose which film we are making and decide between two great choices. This is a sweet trouble, but it requires a certain amount of courage too. The casting can really define film. We can say, to a certain extent, that it is crucial and I feel that great directors know it. That is why it is a bliss working with them.
When you do co-productions, how many do you get a year and how is it to work on a co-production in Bosnia? What is the difference between working on purely Bosnian films and on co-productions with other countries?
T.G.: Working on purely Bosnian film is a romantic enterprise; it boils down to love and support for your loved ones, like you want to be there for your family. But thanks to a good amount of enthusiasm, we go on, we make, statistically, five to six feature films a year and that includes co-productions, some shot in Bosnia and some abroad. A good amount of shorts is made each year too. All that tells us that, even if there are no serious means here in order to call Film an “industry” in Bosnia and Herzegovina, creativity and talent are blooming and finding their way to be articulated and expressed, and not just locally. Film is something that we, in Bosnia, can be proud of. We are talented.
What is the film you are proudest of for your work as a casting director?
T.G.: Can I mention three films?
T.G.: I was not aware of it at the time, but thinking back, I can say that I am proud of the first feature I did as a casting director. It’s a film by Irish director Juanita Wilson and called As if I Am Not There. Already two actors who were part of that cast were later selected as Shooting Stars and they were, so to say, babies back when we did that film. One of them is Nataša Petrović, who was the lead, and the other is Blagoj Veselinov, who is one of this year’s Shooting Stars. But I am proud of the rest of the cast, too. Another film I am very proud of is the one I did with Aida Begić called Never Leave Me and shot in the south of Turkey, with Turkish and Arab actors and Syrian refugees and orphans. Children play the lead roles in that wonderful film. The particularity of the work and the casting for that film makes it stand out in my career the most. And I must add one more film, one that we’ve cast before the script even existed because there was just a story and the script was written according to the cast. It is Danis Tanović’s Death in Sarajevo. The film won the Jury Grand Prix and the FIPRESCI Prize at the 66th Berlinale.
How do you, personally, work when you are casting? What is your process?
T.G.: My process of casting usually looks like this – short version: I read the script, notice my first strong impressions if there were any; I make a character breakdown; I talk to the director (sometimes both the director and the producer), I exchange ideas where we kind of check out if we have the same understanding of the characters and their relations. When I am casting actors for the characters who are socially or culturally close to me or to where I come from, then I feel differently than when I cast foreign actors for the foreign stories, but both situations are a wonderful challenge for me and it is refreshing doing very different things – only the research might be different. I have worked many times with children too and casting children for film is a particular process that I love.
The situation of women in the film industry is a very hot topic today. What is your take on it and how is it in Bosnia?
T.G.: It is important to speak up and I am glad this is happening. In all the segments of the film industry, wonderful women are equally, if not even more, running things in Bosnia and Herzegovina. I was lucky enough to work with many female directors such as Aida Begić, Jasmila Žbanić, Marion Haensel, Andrea Štaka, Šejla Kamerić, Juanita Wilson, Antoneta Alamat Kusijanović, Ursula Meier, Iglika Trifonova, Una Gunjak, Aude Lea Rapin, Ena Sendijarević. Do you see how many there are and that is not even everyone! – probably more than with male directors, yes! Generally speaking, a certain amount of unfairness and unequal treatment is still there, but this is the moment where change is happening and it’s exciting to be a part of it.
I believe you are the only casting director in Bosnia and the Balkans. Can you talk about that?
T.G.: Yes, in the classical sense of being a casting director I am because, for me, that was an easy choice and I had no confusion about what I wanted to do. And I insist on perusing this profession in the way it has been done decades, where many casting directors work, where there are rules, where the film and TV industry are big enough for everyone etc., even if all that is not the case in Bosnia. To me, it really makes sense. However, I am not the only person who does casting in the Balkans, maybe even in Bosnia. I’ve never met someone who’d say: “Hi, I am a casting director so and so…” – no one makes that clear choice. But most do it differently, by mixing casting with many other activities in the production, or, what is the saddest part, by mixing the notion of a talent agent and a casting director, although these are completely different kinds of work. I would love to have someone approach me and say: “I’d like to become a casting director. How do I do that?”
What is the next film you are working on?
T.G.: The film I am currently working on is Murina, the first feature by very talented director from Croatia, Antoneta Alamat Kusijanović. It is an exciting project and my second collaboration with Antoneta. There is another film in preparation, by Serbian director Vladimir Perišić and for that project we are looking for a teenager for the lead part – how great is that!? So I am often between Zagreb and Belgrade lately. In Sarajevo, meanwhile, I am casting several short films that will be screened in Cannes this year.