Fresh from my interview with one up-and-coming British filmmaker last week, with Mustapha Kseibati’s Mohammed just released online and featuring on Short of the Week today, I couldn’t pass up the opportunity to talk filmmaking with another of the UK’s burgeoning directors. With his passion for cinema evident in everything he does, I stifled my desire to talk 80’s movies with the filmmaker and instead we discussed a love for The Goonies and how to motivate young actors with Star Wars clips:
Your short ‘Mohammed’ centres around a young boy and his 31yr old brother with learning difficulties, where did the story for your film originate?
I saw a documentary on TV called My Mum and Me back in 2010, about Tulisa Contostavlos experience growing up looking after her mother who has Schizoaffective Disorder. She spoke to other young carers too and their stories about feeling trapped and having low self-esteem really moved me. So I wanted to tell a story that spoke to them and one which gave them hope in a fun and touching way.
I was very much the outsider like Adam wanting to fit in and be cool.
The film is also about my relationship with my brother. I’m older then him by a few years, but growing up he was perceived to be older. I was a skinny geeky kid into Spider-Man comics, The Goonies and cartoons like Transformers, whilst he was the stocky popular bad boy into Gangster Rap. I was very much the outsider like Adam wanting to fit in and be cool.
I also spent lots of time around a friend’s house that has an older brother with learning difficulties called Saleem. His mother used to record TV for him non-stop during the 80’s and he used to watch the same VHS tapes on repeat. I’m talking WWF, Dynasty and Magnum, P.I. He’s a massive Magic FM listener like me too. I saw this innocence in him that I couldn’t stop thinking about. So I guess it’s a culmination of all those things along with my love for Rain Man and Big. Tom Cruise deserves an Oscar.
It’s a film that blends elements of family-drama and comedy that really hits home with its sweet and moving storyline. When writing and developing ‘Mohammed’ how did you go about balancing the tone of the film? And was there a particular feeling you wanted your audience to leave with after watching it?
The tone was the hardest thing to nail and really came together in the edit. The films I love have elements of action, adventure, comedy and drama, something the Marvel and Disney films do expertly, but balancing them together is extremely difficult especially when you have a well-known comedian playing someone with learning difficulties. Sticking to the truthfulness of the character was key.
For me a film should be like a rollercoaster ride. Fast, slow, exciting and enjoyable.
At one stage I had a really dark moment and one over the top silly moment in the film. But by letting them go I got to what felt was a good balance tonally. Where you’re invested in the characters and story emotionally and never having the comedy undermine that. Patrick Jonsson’s (Virunga) beautiful score also really helped. We stayed away from piano and stuck with guitars and organic instruments in order for it not to be overtly sentimental and also not to let the comedy lose the heart of the film.
I want audiences to have a good time and connect with the theme of my films. For me a film should be like a rollercoaster ride. Fast, slow, exciting and enjoyable. I love that feeling of walking out of a film immediately afterwards and thinking that it was so much fun I want to watch it again. Or I want to buy the action-figure or t-shirt. I’m a big kid – it’s true! Being captivated by the magic and wonder in films is what I love the most. But I also want people to think and be moved in a positive way. I have no interest in spending £12 to feel depressed about life. Don’t get me wrong I highly respect and think blisteringly visceral, obscure art house films and dark dramas are important. But they don’t do it for me. That’s ok isn’t it?
UK residents will probably recognise actor Kayvan Novak from his roles in Four Lions and various TV programmes – was Novak someone you always envisioned playing ‘Mo’? And what did his experience bring to the production?
Definitely. He’s such a chameleon. In Four Lions he has this innocence to his character, which I recognized in Saleem so felt he would be perfect for the part. I sent him the script accompanied by a letter about how much I loved his work. We met and he said yes. I sent him films like Defendor to watch and he met with Saleem because I felt it was important Kayvan had a truthful reference. To his credit he never played the character too big or for laughs, always steering toward drama and honesty. I’ve got to say a big thanks to Sophie Thompson too. She brought so much depth and warmth to her role. She’s the best mum ever!
Sharing the screen with Novak is youngster Jayden Revri making his film debut, how did you go about casting Jayden and do you feel his “rawness” as an actor helped in his portrayal of ‘Adam’ at all?
We saw around 100 kids and Jayden came down to the final three. I remember him saying he played Peter Pan in theatre productions and how he loved Back to the Future. He may have been fibbing and did his homework – but it caught my attention. What it came down to though was his audition alongside Kayvan on camera. From that it was clear Jayden was right for the part but needed to understand how young carers felt, so he met with some.
I’m very proud of his performance in the film. He’s one to watch.
During rehearsals I showed him the clip from A New Hope where Obi-Wan Kenobi tells Luke to let go and use the force in the trench run, in order to give him confidence to trust his instincts. That coupled with martial arts sparring and watching him act as if he was an eagle, helped him become Adam. I’m very proud of his performance in the film. He’s one to watch. His eagle is AWESOME! Sorry Jayden. He probably hates me now.
Your short was made as part of the ‘BFI Shorts Scheme’ – for those who have never heard of it, what can you tell us about the scheme and what did their involvement/support mean for your production?
Back in 2012 I submitted a draft of Mohammed for the BFI Shorts. It was a scheme run by the good guys at Lighthouse Arts in conjunction with the BFI to help give standout filmmakers a stepping-stone toward their first feature. 16 films were selected in the end, including the outstanding SLR by Stephen Fingleton and the award-winning Orbit Ever After by Jamie Stone amongst many others.
After an interview, I was chosen to attend a workshop with my peers. Then we had to re-submit and I was lucky enough to be awarded funding. I have to say a big thank you to the awesome Emily Kyriakides, Nicky Bentham, Natascha Wharton, David Segal-Hamilton and the late Chris Collins for supporting the film. They were so supportive every step of the way from script development all the way up to the shoot, production, post-production and delivery. They were amazing. I love them all.
You also mentioned before when we were discussing your film that you managed to get Marvel involved – if I’m right, you’re a big Marvel fan, what it did mean to you getting them onboard and how exactly were they involved?
Oh man! I’m a huge Marvel freak since the early 90’s. If you ask anyone who knows me, they’ll tell you I’ve been wearing comic book t-shirts way before the MCU existed. I think Natascha Wharton (BFI Senior Development & Production Executive on Mohammed) had worked with the awesome Nira Park previously on Edgar’s films and got in contact with her to ask if it was possible. Nira emailed me late one night and cc’d in was the exec producer of The Avengers! I had a full on geek spasm. They agreed to let me use some bits in the film. I’m so grateful to Nira and Marvel for helping me. There’s also an Attack the Block poster (one of my fave films of 2011) in the bedroom night scene. Big Talk rule! Look out for Man Up. It’s excellent!
As someone who watches a lot of short films, the name Michael Berliner is one I’m seeing more and more in the work I watch. Michael is your long-term producer and he’s worked on all of your short films – how important is his work in your filmmaking?
Michael’s great. I think we’ve both grown together and we really compliment each other. He’s one of the most hardworking and honest guys I’ve had the pleasure of working with. We shot Skateboards & Spandex on 10k, and Painkiller on 3k! He’s put in so much hard work on all our films and there’s no way the films would be as good as they are without him. His latest short Emotional Fusebox by Rachel Tunnard was up for a BAFTA this year. It’s fantastic. I recommend everyone watch it.
This is your 4th short film, how do you think your filmmaking has evolved since you made Big Tingz and if you had one essential piece of advice for fellow short filmmakers what would it be?
I’m more experienced now and I’m more confident in my work and the types of films I want to be making. Painkiller is technically my strongest piece, but the heart and soul in Mohammed is bursting from every frame and I’m very proud of that.
Better to tell a story in a world your passionate about then to spend that long on a film that you’re not emotionally invested in
My advice would be to stay true to yourself. Some filmmakers think that by making a Viking film because they sell or whatever, it’ll kick-start their career. What they don’t realise is that you could be working on that film for 4-8 years. Better to tell a story in a world your passionate about then to spend that long on a film that you’re not emotionally invested in and which could tank. Always.
Also there are literally 1,000’s of filmmakers in an oversaturated market. How are you going to stand out? The answer is easy… Again, it’s stay true to yourself. Nobody else is you and that’s your greatest asset. Don’t try to be Fincher, PTA or Spielberg. Sure, take and be inspired by them. But do you.
What are you working on next?
DANGER CLOSE. It’s a Comedy with Ken Marshall producer of Filth / The Eichmann Show. It’s Die Hard on a Cul-de-sac in a nutshell. The projects being supported by Creative England, written by the very talented and funny Simon Judd and Alex Carter. They’re like the British Lord & Miller. The script will be going out very soon. It’s awesome!
Also just wanted to give a massive shout out to some brilliant British feature films coming out this year; Stephen Fingleton’s The Survivalist, Jon Drever’s SuperBob, Corin Hardy’s The Hallow, The Blaine Brothers Nina Forever and Jon Wright’s Robot Overlords. BOOM! (Boom indeed Mr Kseibati)