A nondescript meeting room at a Dubai Media City hotel is a far cry from the stereotypical audition setting of a dusty old theatre with a creaking wooden stage and a curmudgeonly director. But like any other audition, there were the same nerves, occasional flashes of ego and constant self-analysis among hopefuls after their turn in front of the director.
The first-time director Craig Johnson was casting the final roles for Expats, a movie he has written and hopes to film in Dubai and Mumbai. Johnson, 36, an affable New Zealander, has a budget of Dh2.5 million and a tight six-week schedule. He is tight-lipped about the details of the script but said it's a "drama with some comedy" and it takes place over a three-year time frame, focusing on three expatriate families of different nationalities living in Dubai.
The script is with the National Media Council for approval and Johnson needs to get permission to shoot at several locations in Dubai, but he is confident that the project will get the green light from the authorities with "the integrity of the story" intact. "There's nothing offensive in the film. I've taken care to be really respectful of the local culture and done nothing to denigrate or ridicule Dubai," said Johnson of the script, which took him a year to write. "This is a film that everyone in Dubai can be proud of."
Johnson has called for investors, with shares in the film priced at Dh250,000 each. He is yet to secure a UAE distributor but is optimistic that it will succeed at film festivals. "It's a fun investment, something a bit different to property, and I'm confident that there'll be a return," he said. "Investors will get an executive producer credit and I think the film will be well-received at festivals. A lot of distributors attend film festivals and there's a lot of curiosity about Dubai at the moment. Five years ago people knew nothing about it but now it's high on the radar."
However, Johnson is erring on the side of caution when it comes to the National Media Council's requirements. "I'm not taking any investor's money until the next step with the approval process is complete," he said. Before coming to Dubai to work in real estate four and a half years ago, Johnson was a comedy writer and stand-up comedian in New Zealand. His film script for a comedy called Repping, about travelling salesmen, has been picked up by a Hollywood studio. After undergoing some changes to make it better suited to a US audience, the film is in preproduction.
"I'd be lying if I said I was happy with all the changes that have been made, but once you've sold a script, that's the sacrifice you've got to make," he said. "I want to keep control of this particular project, and with Dubai Studio City opening up, hopefully there will be plenty more opportunities for more films to be made here. With Expats, everyone involved is in Dubai." Johnson held two days of auditions in Dubai in the hope of unearthing local talent for the cast and was impressed by the standard. (Numerous people had to be turned away after some pre-audition press coverage gave the impression that it was a cattle call rather than appointment-only auditions.)
Among those auditioning was Katie Shaver. The glamorous American brunette has been in the UAE for seven months as the communications manager for the chairman of Tatweer. "I was involved in theatre at university, mostly Shakespeare. Very dramatic, but that wasn't going to pay the bills so I ended up in corporate consulting," Shaver said. She described her time in Dubai so far as "a roller-coaster ride" and because of that, she felt that she'd be able to relate to a movie about the experiences of expatriates.
Racha Zeidan from Lebanon also felt at home with the Expats script after she emerged from her audition. "I had to read the part of Joanne and it was all about convincing someone to get a maid so they wouldn't have to lift a finger," she said. "I can really relate to that." The British security consultant Greg Wiseman admitted that he didn't have any prior acting experience but thought the audition would be "an interesting experience". Before the audition, he discovered something he didn't know about his wife, Sarah, a bid manager, who was also auditioning. She said she had performed in a production of Antigone for the 2001 Edinburgh Festival.
"Really? I did not know that," he said amid laughter from the other aspiring stars after Sarah told everyone she played the male role of Tyreseus in the Greek mythological drama. Karan Singh and Lloyd Lobo, both from India, were trying out for the leading role of Tahir, an Indian man aged 27-35. On paper, it seemed as if Singh had the typical CV for someone going for a movie role. The Jaipur native is a DJ on Pulse FM and has appeared in short films. He also has released an album in India and has a second one on the way. But he was not particularly talkative.
Lobo, on the other hand, despite having no prior acting experience, bounded into the waiting room, all smiles and full of energy. "It was great," he said of his audition. "It was my first time auditioning for anything. It looks like an interesting movie." Skye Cameron, a vivacious drama teacher from New Zealand, was also enthusiastic about Expats. She said it was fate that brought her to Media City.
"If it wasn't for the traffic in Dubai, I wouldn't be here (at the audition)," she said. "I was at Deira City Centre and the taxi queue was so long I went and got a cup of coffee and read about the auditions in the paper. So it was for very Dubai reasons that I came to be here auditioning for a film about Dubai." A few of the hopefuls were shy about being quoted or photographed in case their employers spotted them in the newspaper and discovered their plans to try their luck in Dubai's burgeoning film industry.
An Indian software engineer who only wanted to be identified as Suheil said he had no prior acting experience but was interested in being involved in the film in any way possible. "When I heard there would be shooting in Bombay, I thought that sounded nice - that's where I'm from," he said. "I've only been in Dubai for a few months and it's good but there have been some teething problems. When I heard about these auditions, I just thought, 'Why not'. I'm also an amateur photographer and I'm interested in moviemaking so I'd like to learn whatever I can (from Johnson)."
The aspiring actors have a nervous two-week wait to find out if they will be a part of the first full-length feature film about Dubai. A young Australian woman will be among those prepared to jump on the Expats public relations bandwagon if she is one of the chosen performers. "Once I've got the part, then I'll be happy to talk to the media and get my photo taken," she said before breezing into her audition. She emerged about 10 minutes later with a non-committal smile, and said: "It went OK, you never can tell."
Over the next two weeks, Johnson will be watching hours of audition footage to make his final casting decisions - and no doubt hoping that enthusiastic new acting talent and global curiosity about Dubai will make for a winning combination on the silver screen.