The best advice for assembling a stellar cast is extremely simple: Cast phenomenal actors who are right for the roles and avoid getting caught up in the “who is famous” trap.

People are hot this week, and then not, and then back in vogue. By the time your movie is actually finished, it will almost certainly be a completely different environment. In the end, none of that matters anyway. The movie will be its best version if you focus on fitting great actors in the right roles.

That sounds idealistic, but it’s true. What may seem like “red hot” famous-right-this-second casting must be put into context, as Meet Me in Montenegro took me and Linnea Saasen, my co-director and co-writer, four years of full-time work to complete. On films you either have time or money, and you never seem to have enough of either. To understand the evolution and casting of a small-budgeted movie like this, we have to step back in time.

Casting Rupert Friend and Jennifer Ulrich

About five years ago, I had the luck of taking a meeting with Rupert Friend when I was “about to make” my first film at a studio. I had taken hundreds of actor meetings by this time in Los Angeles, as we were looking for the right pairing for the film we were hoping to do.

I was to meet Rupert at a crowded café in Culver City. When I got there I didn’t see him, so I ordered a coffee and took a seat next to a young student who had his head buried in a book. Because people who show up at meetings are always on their phones, I didn’t even look at this “student” next to me. It was Los Angeles after all, and this guy was reading a book, not a script—a hardback book. I finally looked over and saw the face I knew so well from all of his fantastic performances. Gone were the flowing locks from The Young Victoria and Sense and Sensibility, replaced with freshly cropped hair over that movie-star face, the one many would come to know as the character Quinn in Homeland.

Sitting in that café, Rupert and I both cracked smiles, realizing we had been sitting right next to each other without saying a word. We shook hands, laughed, and dove into talking about things that had nothing to do with casting a movie in Hollywood. Sometimes you meet someone you hope to make many films with, and this was such a meeting for me. He was charming, self-deprecating, and hilarious! I immediately thought that someone should put him into a comedy: “This guy can do anything, and people have only scratched the surface with what he will do.” It is a rare breed of actor that can play a “beta type” with sensitivity, yet also pull off a leading alpha male. It was plain to me that Rupert Friend was a true movie star.

While the movie we were at the café to discuss never came to fruition, a year later Linnea and I were writing a new script called Meet Me in Montenegro. We began envisioning a part for Rupert that was light, funny, sexy and a bit heartbreaking.

We created a character, Stephen, who was in a loving seven-year relationship that was starting to fray. Instead of addressing their feelings, he and his girlfriend, Friederike (played by the German superstar Jennifer Ulrich), would focus all of their attention on going to the infamous Kit Kat Sex Club in Berlin for a group sex encounter—maybe sexy fun, maybe the final blow to their relationship. We thought Rupert could bring all the heart, humor and commitment to make Stephen special. We sent Rupert the script and explained the indie, no-budget European production. He loved the idea, and the timing was right.

Rupert Friend and Jennifer Ulrich as troubled lovers in Meet Me in Montenegro

Rupert Friend and Jennifer Ulrich as troubled lovers in Meet Me in Montenegro

Our German producer, Ineke Hagedorn, had also introduced us to the German star Jennifer Ulrich. She was perfect for the role of Friederike—smart, driven, and funny. We could imagine her pairing well with Rupert. This was the international cast we had hoped to assemble.

Three weeks later, Rupert was living on the set where we were shooting in Berlin, and within another week we were in the Kit Kat Sex Club with extras in leather. (Special thanks to the amazing woman in leather who celebrated her 60th birthday by dancing her ass off with us all day.)

Casting Ourselves

Once Rupert and Jennifer were wrapped, we were able to focus on the other fictional couple, Lina and Anderson, who would carry most of the film. Their story, inspired by our own globe-trotting real-life love affair, was more complicated to capture, logistically, since it took place in multiple countries and spanned several years of fictional time. We considered casting other actors in these roles, but we knew we would have to be very strict with time and location since we had no money. We did a few test scenes playing the parts ourselves and edited them together. Creatively, playing the parts ourselves felt interesting. As an invasion of our own personal lives, it felt terrifying. But if we could pull off the parts, we could shoot all over the world on a shoestring budget, using a Canon 5D Mark II from the cliffs of Montenegro to the underground clubs of Berlin to Los Angeles and snowy London. It made it possible to keep our crew minimalistic.

So Linnea, our DP Robert Murphy and I traveled together and shot bits and pieces of our story in these amazing locations over time. It would have been nearly impossible to get actors to commit to such a journey with us. Given Linnea’s character is a dancer, like her, we incorporated a few of her performances into the production to add flavor, style and more great locations. We also used some of our real photos, videos and things from our own lives to give flavor and backstory that we would otherwise have had to fake.

Sassen and Holbridge in Meet Me in Montenegro

Saasen and Holdridge play a couple based on their real lives in Meet Me in Montenegro

Little did we know we would dedicate the next four years of our lives moving around with backpacks full of costumes and hard drives, from hostels to Airbnb apartments to random friends’ living rooms in five countries. By the final year, Linnea and I were shooting remaining sections back in Berlin. We edited the piece along the way, and honed in on a cut with the help of our German crew back in Berlin. Composer Stephen Coates, meanwhile, created a beautiful score back in London and sent over tracks via Dropbox.

When we finally submitted our finished cut to Toronto, we had no idea what to expect. We had spent every penny we had, borrowed from every friend and family member that could chip in. We went camping in northern Norway and didn’t expect we had any chance. We were seriously making plans of starting a fish taco truck together as our Plan B in life, when we got the email that Toronto loved the film and wanted to premiere it.

Holdridge and Saasen in Lofoten, Norway, where they learned that Meet Me in Montenegro was accepted into the Toronto International Film Festival. Courtesy of Alex Holdridge

Holdridge and Saasen in Lofoten, Norway, where they learned that Meet Me in Montenegro was accepted into the Toronto International Film Festival. Courtesy of Alex Holdridge

That was something we will never forget, celebrating that news under the midnight sun in Scandinavia. It premiered a month later and sold to The Orchard—a filmmaker’s dream come true. We kept working on the film as we were premiering it across Europe. The final version was completed weeks ago. It’s exciting and humbling to bring this love story to cinemas this week after a long and winding four-year journey. MM

Meet Me in Montenegro opens in theaters and on VOD on July 10, 2015, courtesy of The Orchard.