Andrew Worsdale profiles Christa Schamberger, Johannesburg and South Africa’s foremost casting director and gets an insight into the craft of getting the right people for the part.

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Christa Schamberger
Christa Schamberger is South Africa’s leading specialised casting director. She’s not an agent and represents no actors or actresses; instead she is the first port of call for most international productions shooting in South Africa looking for talent. In Hollywood, these days, the casting director is recognized as a vital ingredient in the filmmaking process and casting directors will get up front credits next to the cinematographers, editors, screenwriters and other crafts people; invariably they also get credit on posters and other advertising products, finally getting the recognition they’ve been fighting for, for years.

She’s been involved in a vast array of local and international projects over the past few years; and it seems that if anyone is looking for actors who can ‘work’ the film medium – then Schamberger is the person you call to find them. Amongst the movies she’s been involved in are Michael Mann’s Ali, Roland Emmerich’s 10,000 Years BC, Neil Marshall’s apocalyptic “comic-book” thriller Doomsday starring Bob Hoskins and Malcolm McDowell, the 7-part HBO series Generation Kill about the war in Iraq and The Deal a hip independent film starring William H. Macy and Meg Ryan. But she’s also a dedicated supporter of the local industry having cast nearly all of Darrell James Roodt’s movies, as well as recently casting Shamim Sarif’s period drama The World Unseen and Junaid Ahmed’s docu-drama More Than Just A Game about the highly organised soccer league on Robben Island during the 1960s.

After completing a BA degree in Speech, Drama and English at the University of Natal, Schamberger got drawn into film in Durban by a group of people who made films for black audiences under the subsidy system. “I wrote scripts in English (!), handled basic production co-ordination, assisted on set and was told to “do” continuity for a series of locally made “black” movies.  I used to sit in occasionally when the editor started work and watch in fascination as it all got strung together.  Thinking back on it all now, it’s a terrifying thought that these feature-length films were shot in 3 to 4 days and edited in a week.  I can’t imagine that they were marvellously watchable, but what a learning curve!” says Schamberger.

Her break into casting came after moving to Johannesburg where she initially worked as an Assistant Director and had to take over casting operations at Cue Films when her boss became ill. After studying endless casting tapes, making notes, dealing with cast budgets and Artist’s contracts she was hooked. “My fascination with that process remains. Each film is different and presents its own challenges,” she says, “There’s certainly no room for complacency. Obviously, as a casting director it’s important to be in tune with the director - it’s always possible that I may read a character one way, only to find that the director has seen it another way. And then we find that a gifted actor will find yet another way.  This is a creative scenario that is perhaps at its most exciting in the audition process.  It is also why I prefer working in feature film where there is more creative leeway – more openness to what an actor can bring in terms of skill and ability rather than style or a certain look which is often a fixed concept for a “soapie” or television drama series.”

As for the talents needed to be a successful casting director Schamberger says she doesn’t think that a degree or some kind of post school training is necessary for a Casting Director, but a healthy amount of general knowledge, some kind of theatrical background and a wide range of reading interests would be a good basis.  “I don’t know if having had some acting training or experience is useful - it can get in the way – but certainly a sensitive understanding of the actor’s creative process is essential. You need to be something of a diplomat when dealing with the sensibilities of creative people like directors, actors, and writers.  Then there’s the business side – you have to be organised in terms of meeting deadlines, be meticulous with paperwork, good on research, have the ability to set up a network and have a good head for budgets and legal documents. Perhaps the ability to read a script and be able to visualise each character is probably the basic starting point for a casting director.  Closely followed by a holistic sense of the relationships between those characters. I guess this presupposes that you know the actors who would suit the roles.”

Schamberger acknowledges that the local playing field is very different from doing auditions in London or LA.  “Firstly and most obviously, the numbers game is vastly diminished,” she says, “I think I’m doing well if I can put forward more than 5 or 6 experienced contenders for a support role.  They’ll be talented, capable people and they’ll be right for the part, but I won’t have 150 others, equally perfect, lining up behind them like they have in Hollywood. Secondly, local training for film acting is still minimalist, so you cannot anticipate that the actor will have much technical know-how and thirdly, there is a general lack of experience of working on a big film set.”

Her company – The Casting Connection – operates out of a house about a kilometre from Sasani Studios in Johannesburg’s Balfour Park. She has a 5m by 4m studio where auditions are captured direct to hard drive in full DV quality and simultaneously to Mini-DV tape. From that, multiple menu-driven DVDs can be sent anywhere in the world by courier or broadband, an increasing need in the era of co-productions and global interconnectivity.

Schamberger, through her company The Casting Connection, is trying to find the balance between working on local productions and international ones, but as a freelancer in a precarious industry she’s not able to pick and choose. All the same she believes that maybe, just maybe, the local industry is learning the importance of what she can contribute to a movie, “One thing I’ve noticed about the high-budget, big release productions that I’ve done – a very noticeable difference – is the level of respect that a casting director is immediately given. They give you the job because they think you can do it. So get on with it, that’s very affirming.  I like to think that I apply my standards to every job I do, but there’s no doubt when you’re working on a ‘big movie’ you’re very aware that the sheer size of it all increases the pressure and responsibility.”

For now she truly believes that the local industry is finally casting their movies with the kind of zeal and responsibility she brings to her work, no matter what the budget is.

Christa Schamberger can be contacted at +27 (0)11 440 3477 or visit The Casting Connection website at: www.castserve.com