Name: Fabienne Bichet
Role: Casting Director
Notable Works: Cessez-le-feu, Par instinct, Le fils de Jean…
A little bit more about Fabienne Bichet...
Can you tell us about your background, and how you started working in the film industry?
At first, I definitely wasn’t destined to work in the film industry! All my life I wanted to be a nurse, so I first trained in nursing school and then worked in a hospital… if I hadn’t been fired from the hospital I would still be a nurse today, not a casting director! When I was working at the hospital though, I attended a film shoot in a castle and that fascinated me, making me realise that some lives are definitely lighter than others! I was working in heavy services at the time, so I had found the filming quite magical without knowing that one day it would be my life!
But after I left the hospital, I started working as a hostess in Paris and my boss at the time gave me the responsibility of recruiting hostesses. I had never imagined working in the film industry, but that experience was already the beginning of my career in the casting business. It led to hire hostesses in the provinces for various events and sponsors and I did that for a year.
After a year, when I wanted to diversify my hostess activity, I started going door-to-door to production companies, trying to help young women become extras in films. For the first film though, my hostess roster wasn’t quite suitable because they were looking for children. So instead, I went out to schools to find kids to be part of the film. On my second film, the production was looking for 20 year old women to shoot naked in a Hammam (Turkish bath). So for that, I went dancing at the “coupole” in Paris to find 20-year old ladies who wanted to shoot! The production manager from there liked my work and then took me with him on his next film, “Le dernier métro” by François Truffaut. At the same time, I went to the Cannes Film Festival, where I attended 5 screenings a day. I discovered the world through cinema… then I did extras casting on the greatest French films of the 1980s such as James Bond, but also for American and Italian cinema. On “Pentimento”, Tonie Marshall’s last film, one of the actors of the film, Antoine de Caunes, proposed me to join him on a small television channel on which he was starting with his team, Canal+! I did all the castings (actors, columnists, presenters) necessary for the entire channel. It represented a lot of investment for a few years and I then continued to make films for the cinema whilst working on Canal+ programmes!
On a production, are you in charge of the casting all the roles or just specific roles?
I’m in charge of the entire cast! First I look for the two main roles, which is more like marketing than artistic research because I’ll look for an actor in this or that category depending on the financial cost of the film. Once the choice for the two main roles are made, the director looks for financing for the film. Then I come back later to distribute all the secondary roles. For television, the choice of casting is more linear and I really work in the continuity of the project.
You’ve worked as casting director for extras specifically, which must be a very different experience from casting directors of lead or supporting actors. Can you tell us more about these two experiences?
Both experiences were great! For a whole year, I did extra casting, which allowed me to get to know the actors on set. I was able to form strong bonds with them, first friendship and then trust. I was able to see what their field of possibility was and acquire legitimacy with them. It took me 10 years to acquire enough knowledge about the industry and actors. Some do it faster, but these 10 years were necessary for me personally as I had never worked in this industry before.
Where do you usually begin when casting for roles?
In order to identify and get to know the actors’ acting better, I go to the theatre a lot. I receive a large number of films and spontaneous applications from actors and I also have a file of artistic agents. When I read a screenplay, I start to distribute my roles based on all these files of actors and artistic agents. I select about ten actors to receive 3 per role, since I usually have only 4 weeks to distribute about 40 roles. I work by eliminations for my selections, taking into account the personality of the director, the actors who will play opposite, but also the tone of voice or energy of the actor or actress, in order to create good tandems.
As a casting director, you have to interact with many members of the film team such as the director, the actors, the producer…. What’s your relationship with each of them?
Initially, I’m either hired by a producer because he’s seen other films I’ve worked on, knows my personality and wants to work with me, or I’m recommended by someone to conduct the casting for a film. The trust that each producer or director has in me is earned through the films I’ve done previously and the relationships I’ve built with the actors. The more castings a casting director does, the more actors he knows, and the more confidence a director will give him to follow him on his next film. This bond of trust is also important in order to make suggestions to the actors. Listening and observation are so essential! It’s important to know that it’s not always possible to say that a certain actor would be good for a specific role. It’s above all a question of knowing which actor would be good for ‘this’ role, with ‘that’ director and ‘this’ actor in front of him. If I work with a director who is precise in his expectations, who could almost play in the place of the actor, I’ll propose an actor who is very attentive. On the other hand, if I work with a director who is limited in his communication, I will select actors with a strength of proposal and great confidence in themselves. The personality of the director and the actors play a huge role when it comes to casting. That’s why you can find a good actor in one film and a bad one in another! In the same way, I can’t put together a cerebral actor, who’ll make several attempts before succeeding in the take, or an instinctive actor who’ll succeed in the first take and have difficulty understanding of what’s expected of him if he has to do it several times. Successful casting requires good listening and good observation!
Between ” Par instinct ” by Nathalie Marchak, ” Cessez le feu ” by Emmanuel Courcol, ” Le fils de Jean ” by Philippe Lioret or ” Les heures souterraines ” by Philippe Harel, you have worked on very beautiful films. How many projects do you work on average per year?
As I diversify my activities (as an acting coach, teaching at university, managing a cultural season in a town…), I’m lucky enough to get to choose the films I work on. I work on about 4 to 5 films a year, and I only choose projects I really believe in. Money isn’t my driving force; I prefer to earn less than to work on a film I don’t believe in.
When several actors are suitable for a role, selecting the right actor must be very difficult! How do you manage to choose between different actors (either main or secondary actors)? What’s your state of mind at the time of this decision and do you involve other people when the choice is too hard to pick?!
The choice of lead actors is linked to the economics of the film, and it’s not necessarily an artistic choice, so the selection will be based more on financial criteria really. Sometimes, the team of a film will even rewrite and adapt the script to an actor rather than change actors.
For secondary roles, I choose actors according to the director of the film and the actor who will play opposite. If no one comes as an evidence during the castings, I do new ones until I find the actor I’m looking for.
Between the tight timing of a shoot, the pressure of having to find the perfect actor for a role or the very specific demands of the directors, your profession is not an easy one! Which aspect of your profession do you consider the most difficult? How do you manage it?
The most complicated part of my profession is the logistical part… I have to make sure that everyone’s appointments are feasible, which requires very rigorous organisation.
On the contrary, what do you consider to be the most rewarding aspect of your profession?
I really enjoy being in my casting room and trying out actors, whom I know more or less well, to ensure consistency in the cast. These tests allow me to get a good idea of their potential and their acting ability. I try to be inventive enough to bring the scene in different colours. It also allows me to get to know new actors!
Your profession invites you to meet very different personas in the film world. Have you had a particularly memorable encounter during a casting, a shoot or other?
There’s been a lot of great encounters and outstanding projects! In particular, I loved making films that took me to a field of knowledge that I didn’t have. For example, working with Thierry Binisti on the trilogy Louis XIV, Louis XVI, Louis XV was very interesting, because it was a whole piece of history filmed through politics and economics and transposed to today. I loved working on this project because it allowed me to fill in gaps in knowledge. I was also delighted to be accepted on this project by the director.
Your role is especially crucial during the period before the shooting of a film. Do you nevertheless have the opportunity to attend the shooting? Do you have a particular memory of shooting that you could tell us about?
When I go to a shoot, my work is already finished so I go there to make sure that I didn’t make a mistake on the choice of actors. I only stay 1 or 2 hours on set and mostly go to the canteen to talk with the crew though!
I do indeed have a particular memory of filming when I worked at Canal+. At that time, I was also doing all the castings for Karl Zero, Groland, but also auteur cinema, which shows the diversity of the projects I participated in. At that time, I had total freedom and responsibility in the choice of actors. It was all quick and there were sometimes problems of understanding and miscommunication… We were shooting a scene in which there was a Papuan tribe in the Amazon who lived with just a loincloth, so penis cases had to be worn by the actors. So to fill the roles, I had selected 10 young people and of course explained the scene to them. But on the day of shooting (which I wasn’t initially present for), the production called me and asked me to join them on set. Turned out, all 10 actors categorically refused to wear the penis cases that the crew had made for them!So faced with this refusal, we couldn’t shoot the scene! It showed me that you can’t always get what you want, even with a lot of conviction, and that it’s important to have very good listening and communication skills! I deal above all with the human aspect and you have to be careful, because actors can rightfully say no to anything.
As a casting director, you see the project of a film continually evolving! How do you feel when approaching film projects?
Sometimes I’m very happy to have been associated with a project, to have carried it through and to see the end result. Sometimes, I even know in advance that the result will be up to scratch, as with Philippe Harel’s films, on which I agree to work even before reading the scripts! Philippe inspires me with total trust and I know that his end products will be interesting. On the other hand, sometimes a good script doesn’t always make a good film, just like how a good trailer doesn’t necessarily mean the movie is great. There’s always a certain amount of unknowns between the script and the final result, which is very exciting too!
We imagine that several steps are necessary before becoming a casting director, so what’s the path to become one? What advice would you give to someone who would like to follow this path?
In order to exercise the profession of a casting director, it’s essential to go to the cinema, watch television, go to the theatre, do fact sheets on actors and characters, and meet the actors! The actors’ personality is very important, beyond his or her ability to be a good performer though. It takes time to get to know them well, time that’s more or less consuming for each actor depending on the energy and passion that drives him or her.
It is possible to train as an assistant casting director. When I take on an assistant, I expect him or her to have a good sense of organisation, pragmatism, and to know how to use computers, which are basic qualities. But the assistant can also be at my side to watch the tests, see how I direct the actors, what I expect from them, what makes me choose one actor over another, and to learn how to work. It’s a quicker approach than the one I took as a self-taught actor. I learned from my mistakes by working hard, day and night. Not everyone can be a casting director. You have to be a good listener, have an excellent visual memory and a special sensitivity!
Do you also have any advice for movie fans who would like to become extras on films? What is the procedure to follow?
The extra casting starts the moment I finish my actor’s casting. So when actors who are looking for a fee want to be extras on a film and are afraid that it will harm them to do extra work, I assure them that this isn’t the case as castings of actors and extras are done by different people. To be a candidate for extras, you have to be careful because some companies ask candidates for money to create their file or to make a photo book, which is a scam. Only two photos, not a whole book, are necessary for an application. In France, there’s certain platforms such as Cineaste.org or AgenceArtistique.com, which are reliable and genuine platforms.
You’re also a member of the Molières committee and a juror at Festivals to award actors prizes. Can you tell us about these two experiences and the functions they represent?
I’m at the Avignon Film Festival every year so I see more than a hundred plays during the festival! I’m also three times a week at the theatre in Paris, which allows me to see the essence of theatre and I’ve being doing this for 30 years now. Working for the Molières and giving awards is just a continuation of the work I do now. And for festivals, I help associations and the passionate people who work behind the festival scenes set up their jury. These people wouldn’t necessarily be linked to French directors and actors, so I like to use my knowledge and my network to help them reach such individuals!
The current situation is a challenging time for the film industry. Nevertheless, have you received requests for future projects?
I’m currently working on a Finnish film, although with the crisis we’re going through, we’ve had to adapt and work differently as the director was in Finland and I was in Paris! But before COVID-19, I was directing the actors in my casting room and then the actors went to Finland for the actual shoot. Once lockdown happened, I started asking the actors to send video tests using the acting directions I gave them and if the test didn’t go well, I’d just ask them to try again with the acting directions. I also worked on a film with a director in Luxembourg, where I was casting for a young girl of 16-18 years old. We had to work on video remotely so I gave a scene with acting directions to the young actress and she acted out the scene in front of her computer!
Are there any other projects you’re working on that you can share with us?!
In addition to my work as a casting director, I train actors in Benin, Togo, Burkina Faso and Cameroon, Africa! The acting methods for African television aren’t the same as for international cinema. African actors have a very demonstrative acting style, which is perfectly suited to local television, but in order to be able to work on co-productions, I make them work on a much more inner acting style.
For example, I run training workshops on acting techniques for cinema, and I try to use these techniques to show women who can’t make a living from acting in Africa that their skills can be transferred to the corporate world… I show them that they can do a lot of things outside of acting and this gives rise to very interesting exchanges! I also run improvisation workshops to develop a sense of repartee, open up the imagination, work on the precision of language or even work on how to limit speaking time. I’ve invented 10-day training modules to help them use their acting skills in a variety of ways, as I do myself in my profession as a casting director.
In the beginning, I had workshops with men and women, then I decided to have only women and I’d like to develop these training modules in other countries on the African continent.
For the past 5 years, I’ve even been teaching once a week at the Catholic University of Paris to students who aren’t at all destined to work in the film industry… I help them improve oral communication based on techniques for training actors in the exercise of their profession as journalists. I’m also involved in internships at second-chance schools where I work with young people on their ability to express themselves, to dare, to assert themselves, to open their imaginations… We work on their presence, their voice, their stress management and conflict prevention. All these workshops and training modules are a continuation of my job as a casting director!