In Casting, German director Nicolas Wackerbarth takes us behind the scenes of a rather doomed film production. “The fun thing is that it’s actors playing actors. They all know this profession, they’re commenting on their own business – show business.”
The TV-film remake of Rainer Werner Fassbinder’s The Bitter Tears of Petra von Kant that the crew in Casting is working on, is not going well – to say the least. Director Vera is more at home on a documentary set, and can’t seem to make up her mind about anything on the set of her first fiction film. Meanwhile, actor Gerwin, who has been hired as a scene partner during the casting sessions for the actresses in the running for the main part, is trying to bend the production to his will.
While the film is largely the product of improvisations between the actors, there was a strong backbone before they started work, Wackerbarth tells us via Skype. “If you improvise, as a director you have the responsibility to provide a solid dramatic structure. Otherwise the actors get frustrated: they can bring you great material but they don’t know what’s the use of it. So we tried a lot of different things, testing the borders of how far we could go, but we always came back to basic outline of the script as it was written.”
The casting process for this film must have been quite a mindfuck – the casting of a casting for a casting…
“We didn’t really do a traditional casting, actually. It was more like rehearsals, or improv-sessions. None of the actors had a script or description of their part; there were no roles, no pressure to fulfill something specific. So actually casting was a lot of fun – the pressure was mostly on me, to make sure they had a target to aim at. I didn’t cast one actor after the other, I was always looking for an ensemble, because we would incorporate a lot of improvisation on set so it was important how they related to each other, the hierarchies between them.”
“The fun thing about the movie is that it’s actors playing actors. So that mindfuck of a casting of a casting is already in the movie – even more so because they’re making a remake of an old movie, and all these actors know this profession. They’re making comments about their own business, show business. So there are all these layers in the movie. That went even further when it turned into a TV production – no-one wanted to finance it for cinema. So we worked with a team from the TV station, people I didn’t know before – just like it happens in movie! Like Vera, I was a so-called auteur director now making something with a TV team, so there was a lot of irony in that.”
The character of Gerwin insinuates himself into the production, manipulating director Vera and other people. As a director, have you ever had to deal with an actor trying to take control?
“Oh sure, that’s everyday business, haha! To be an actor, you can’t just be a victim of circumstance, you have to be someone who can manage those circumstances – less successful actors can’t do that. If you want to make a living, you have to be nice to everyone and be flexible. That’s actually the reality of a lot of professions in our neoliberal society: always be nice, always be available. Everything is a sort of casting process, including social media.”
The crew in your film is remaking Rainer Werner Fassbinder’s The Bitter Tears of Petra von Kant. Why did you choose Fassbinder as a touchstone?
“He’s sort of a mythical filmmaker character, because of his wild life and relationships, because of the amount of movies and plays he made in such a short time, and also as political figure. What would a Fassbinder movie look like today? That’s very interesting to me. He was someone capable of making a political film right on time, reacting quickly to changes in society. That seems to be lacking in Germany now; no-one is doing that, for instance, with so-called refugee crisis – a crisis that is made up by the right wing media.”
“By the way, I don’t think you need any knowledge about him or the original play and film to enjoy Casting, although there are a lot of hidden details relating to the Fassbinder film. They share certain themes: how in a relationship, there’s always one who loves more, so the other has more power – both films deal with the abuse of power, patriarchal structures and power plays. But you can watch Casting without knowing anything; it’s definitely not a movie only for cinephiles.”
The improvised behind-the-scenes dialogue clashes beautifully against Fassbinder’s language in the scenes they are rehearsing. How did you find that balance?
“Fassbinder’s language is pretty tight and formal, very stylized. That’s also in the way it’s acted in his films, and the way he shoots. What we tried to do was the complete opposite: we use everyday, messy language and hand-held camerawork, kind of like a spectator on set experiencing it immediately. I think you can see a difference between our times – his Fassbinder’s characters are searching for alternative ways of living, they went to extremes in love and drugs, in this bohemian and experimental lifestyle. In my film, you see a more a neoliberal world, with no space for this experimentation in relationships. My main character just needs a job – he just wants to get some recognition, and he’s so focused on that that he doesn’t care about anything else. That’s goes for all the actors in the film, even the very experienced ones – they still need to come to the casting, that never stops. So they feel much more trapped than people were in the time when Fassbinder shot his melodramas. That’s what makes it a comedy.”