Off the coast of Malta, Winston Azzopardi directs his son in their first film, The Boat. A joint venture between father and son, sharing the writing, production, directing and acting. Lina Bitout interviewed them for Indulge before their film’s premiere in Malta on February 22nd.
How did you get into films in the very first place ?
I studied in New York and trained to be a film director but I fell into production, and that was what was required here in Malta. So I wasn’t afraid of directing, I knew I could do it. There was obviously times where it was challenging! For the music for example, where to put it, for how long… It takes a long time to make a film, especially the post production phase.
You started as a producer before directing. You co-produced numerous movies in Malta like Troy, World War Z, Assassin’s Creed… Why did you want to change from producing to directing movies with The Boat ?
We’ve basically been considering the idea of doing a film together, me and Joe. And it’s so hard for an actor to get into the business, you know, Joe is very lucky (laughs). So we thought maybe one day we’ll do something together. We made a short film called Head, which is almost the same story as The Boat, we took it to some festivals and it did very well. (Best Short Film, Audience Choice Awards at the Rome International Film Festival in Georgia) So from there we were encouraged to do this feature film.
What was your motivation to make Head, the short film, a featured movie ?
We thought the idea was good and that it was original as a story. I think that’s the trick of having a new film, not to be cliché. You get a lot of films that are copycats or had taken some pieces of others films. But The Boat is an original story: just one actor and the boat, which is the antagonist in the story.
As Head, The Boat is shared between you and Joe (writing, producing). Does the relationship between a father and his son helped to make a greater movie ?
… No (laughs). We tried to keep it as professional as possible. At the end of the day he was still my son and I was still his father. I actually would have like him to treat me like a director but he didn’t. But we always found compromises, trying to see what was best for the film. It wasn’t an ego-driven project, we had a film to do, it costs thousands to do it so we tried to make a good one.
But the relationship between a director and an actor is always strenuous anyway ?
Yes, they could be. It’s sometimes very hard for an actor to understand what a director wants because he has a vision in his head from the beginning. And it’s complicated to explain this vision to everyone, not only the actor but to all the crew. There’s more or less a bit of friction, it depends what characters we have on the set. In our case, one was a boat.
Talking about the crew, it was in major part Maltese and the film was entirely shot in Malta. Why was it important for you to make the local industry work?
As I was shooting a film here, I wanted to use and promote local talents. Also, it’s cheaper to hire local people because at night they go home, you don’t have to pay for transport and hotel (laughs) – and also I know the talent and dedication to the industry that is here. More seriously, our local film industry is non-existent basically, we have film once a couple of year so it needs to grow. Internationally we are used because of the skills the scenery and the costs.
The big difference between a studio shoot and an outdoor shoot is the conditions, like light, weather… How was it to make this film on a boat ? What were the challenges ?
Well, I’ve shot a lot of films out at sea, so it was natural to me. In the movie, it was a combination of 2 identical boats, we shot in a water tank and out at sea. Shooting at sea was very challenging, especially with the weather conditions. We had to try and match continuity. If you look closely at some films, you will see that there’s a lot of mistakes in this area – for example, you can look right the water is calm and the other way it’s rough.
They were a lot of scenes in the movie, even in Head, that were shot in a very confined space. How did you do that ?
That was a set. Some shorts scenes were made along the boat but we wanted more out of Joe being locked in, in the storm scene for example. So we had to move it to a set. We had panels, we could take a wall off, put a camera and close it from the other side. That’s why it seems to be real and tiny.
What was the motivation behind the choice of a dialogue-free screenplay ?
The American way of doing things would have been to have Joe’s character talk to himself, but I think it’s very annoying! The basis of making a film is to show rather than tell. This choice is probably due to my love for silent films, in the 20’S before dialogue came, it was all about narrative.
When you’re in the boat at sea, is there many things you have to consider for the sound that affects the movie ?
Of course ! There’s 3 characters in the film : the sailor, the Boat, and the sound. When you don’t have dialogue, the sound has to carry the movie. You have to put the audience in the mood of the movie. Our sound designer stayed on the boat for days, with a mixer and a microphone and we took him out sailing a lot.
You’re nominated in the category « Best Director » at the UK’s National Film Awards 2019, what does it mean for you to have a recognition from such an institution ?
Me personally? Nothing (laughs). I’m a producer over all. But for the film itself, I think it’s important, hopefully the film will get recognised and people will watch it.
Would you do another film yourself if you had time in your schedule ?
Sometimes I say yes, sometimes I say no. I love making movies but I hate the distribution part. Trying to sell a movie abroad and getting rejected. The problem is all distributors see now is money. And it is expensive, for a film you have to spend half a million dollar just for advertising even though people are saying it’s good.
What’s coming next for you ?
I have a lot of projects coming this year. Next month, I’m doing a reality show for MTV, I’ve never done that before. Then, I have a TV series called Bulletproof on SkyOne in May and in October I’m starting a big show for Netflix. Don’t ask me the name, I’m not in the liberty to tell you, I’ve signed an non-disclosure agreement ! (laughs).
Hi Joe! So, I didn’t see the movie yet. Can you pitch it for me?
Well, a sailor goes out for an early morning fishing trip off Gozo and while he gets quite far out from Malta, he gets surrounded by sea fog. He bumps into an abandoned sailing boat and jumps on it and when he tries to reach his own boat, he discovers it has disappeared. He’s stranded in the middle of fog, on a boat he doesn’t know and he’s going to try to get this boat back to land. But he starts to think that there’s somebody on the boat but we’re not sure if it’s someone or just him going a bit mad. You’ll find out at the end…… Or do you ? (laughs)
What is the first memory you have with cinema ? The one that made you wanted to have a career in it?
The first film I went to see on a cinema was actually The Lion King. And I had to leave the cinema because as soon as the lion roared I cried (laughs).
And obviously, my dad works in the industry so I was kind of brought up in this, running in and out of different film sets. But everyone hated when I was on set because I never knew the times they were rolling and had to be silent so I just ran around the set screaming (laughs).
Is there any director/actor you’re dreaming to work with ?
Yes, there’s hundreds. Directors who I’ve look up to from a very young age like Quentin Tarantino, Martin Scorsese, Christopher Nolan… They’re all very intelligent directors. One I like to work with currently is Andy Serkis, a great actor whose only just got into to directing. He’s bossing the industry at the moment.
You co-wrote the screenplay with your father but you also play the main character in the movie. What is the most interesting for you to do, acting or writing ?
Acting has been my thing from when I was a kid. I went to drama school for 3 years to perfect my technique. Writing came later, after a few good acting roles when I got to the essence of some characters. But, at least at this stage of my life, I‘d rather act.
Did you have any apprehension about shooting a featured movie directed by your father?
A lot, of course! There was a lot of fights but they were good fights. I think it happens because we have two different styles of film making. But if there wasn’t this opposition, the film wouldn’t have been as good. We had to take it seriously.
How does it feel to play a character that doesn’t speak ? Is it harder to put yourself into the character’s skin?
It was weird. As an actor, you think « Maybe I should try and say something here » but the more you do that, the more it’s distorted. So, I just said what had to be said and hopefully the rest of it is just captured through the eyes of the camera. Honestly, I never felt like I needed to voice my thoughts, you wouldn’t do that in real life.
Also, the easiest thing for actors is to have someone in front of you to react to what you said. But there wasn’t anyone else in the Boat. All you have is noises that you hear around, and you don’t have them the day you’re shooting – they’re added in post-production so you have to follow the script and know exactly what is going on.
Would you have prefer to have had another actor with you ?
Honestly, only for the PR and press stuffs, to take the lime light of me a bit ! (laughs) When it comes to doing a premiere and had to have everyone clap at you afterwards, I hate taking too much praiss on me. So if somebody could do that for me that would be great !
The shooting took place in a tiny boat, what was the hardest scene to shoot for you ?
The storm scene. Definitely. The water was so cold but I had to get in. When we shot in the sea it was fine but the tank is freezing. I think it’s built under a freezer or something. (laughs). We shot the storm scene at night, there was a lot of wind blowing and for the first take I went in the water for 20 minutes and everyone kept saying « Joe, go down, go down » but I couldn’t do anything anymore, I was shivering so badly. I had to go in there about 7 or 8 times, I got so sick afterwards ! (laughs)
When you’re shooting in confined space, is it difficult to ignore all the crew, especially if you don’t have any other actor to look at/rely on ?
You know, it depends. Some days, I’m really focused and I can play in front of 20 people without noticing. But there’s somedays where even the slightest move on the back is disturbing. But I found it great actually, I would even hold the lights while I act sometimes, cause you can’t get everybody in the tiny set.
Did you prepare physically for this movie ?
Well, I tried to take more of a sailor’s attitude. Four months before shooting, I would go swimming every morning and I practiced a lot more even though I’ve been sailing from an early age. It was important to have a good physical attitude and condition for this character. But otherwise, there wasn’t too much preparation. Usually when you prepare for a role, you go through your character study, the script gives you a lot of information about your character but there’s nothing of that in this film ! It’s a situation-based drama, I just had to play the reality of the situation all of the time.
Your best memory filming The Boat ?
No one’s asked me that yet ! There was one time, we needed to go to the North side of the island because the sea was dead flat and we wanted to film that. And instead of driving there, we said that he’d be quicker to get a boat. I had my makeup on, my costume and everything but when we arrive at the harbour, all of a sudden it started pouring ! I got on the other side of the island soaking wet, my makeup artist, my costume designer and me were all laughing at what a waste of time this was because we had to go back and get changed again. (laughs)
What’s coming next for you ?
I’m actually doing a Shakespeare play in Valetta and then I go back for a British series called Bulletproof with my father. I like going from films to theater. I’m also working as an assistant director on set when I’m not acting. I want to stay in the industry.
The Boat is showed at Eden Cinemas, St. George’s Bay, St. Julians, Malta.
Buy your tickets here for the premiere on Friday 22nd February.