TDF Interview: Nour Wazzi
In anticipation of the release of her seventh short, Baby Mine, on Omeleto this Friday, we got the chance to interview writer-director-producer Nour Wazzi and ask about her early beginnings in Cyprus, her time at Goldsmiths, and how she developed her own unique style, as well as the chance to involve herself with Oscar-nominated projects.
Sabastian Astley for The Digital Fix: Tell me about your childhood in Beirut – I read about how your mother would put you in front of the TV as a welcomed distraction, what were some of your favourite films growing up?
Nour Wazzi: I was born during the Lebanese civil war and then we fled to Cyprus where I grew up. I honestly can’t remember much of my youth other than what my family tells me – probably why I’ve always been so fascinated with memory and constructed identity. I grew up on Hollywood movies, the standout ones in my teen years were films like Seven, Fight Club, The Matrix, Face Off, The Sixth Sense, Jurassic Park, Back to the Future, Love and Basketball, Memento, The Silence of the Lambs and The Shawshank Redemption. They clearly shaped my taste today.
Within a year of moving to London, you got your first job as a runner on a Fanta commercial, what did you take away from that very first experience?
Actually, the commercial back in 2004 was a summer training job at BBDO in Cyprus while I was at Goldsmiths. It certainly made me realise early on that commercials weren’t my thing. I think my first proper job in London was in 2006 as a production and development assistant for Phoenix Film and Television which was at Mile End Studios at the time. It’s long gone bust now. I don’t remember much from the six month stint just that we were producing a new edition for the anniversary of The Young Ones for the BBC and filming interviews with the cast. That was probably my first introduction into British comedy going through hours of old footage. My first real taste of professional narrative film-making, outside of shorts, was when I worked as a production coordinator on the low budget feature thriller WMD a year later.
Tell me about how you felt when setting up Panacea Productions, you mentioned that your intentions were to “marry US, UK and Arab talent”, and I’d love for you to expand on that.
I knew early on that I wanted to develop my own features that reflected my unique perspective of the world and could unite the cultures that shaped me. I remember when I was trying to think of a name for my company, I wanted something that connected to my desire to tell stories that could travel universally, that were escapist and thrilling but that meant something. And then I found the name Panacea, something that is ‘all-universal’, an ‘elixir.’ I remember that being a very exhilarating moment! This was the start of my career, the world felt like my oyster and I charged ahead like something was after me. Well, I guess something was… time. That was 12 years ago.
Let’s talk about Oscar-nominated Waste Land now – how did you handle adapting to documentary work and how do you reflect on that whole experience?
About the same time, I set up my company and started developing projects, I fortuitously landed a job at a production company called Almega Projects that namely focussed on documentary and I climbed from assistant to executive. The main project I managed through production and post was Waste Land, which pretty much took up five years of my life.
The company was run by a wealthy producer and documentary-making can be very dynamic and immediate when you have resources behind you. The project snowballed from a small idea to something much bigger, we partnered with O2 Filmes (City of God) and became the first production to utilise the new Brazil-UK co-production treaty at the time. We raised more money and I believe it ended up with a budget north of $1.5m. We’d shot something like 300-400 hours of footage on a multitude of different formats, it went through a few versions and directors before returning to the rightful hands of the insanely talented Lucy Walker. I spent three months in LA with her as she transformed Waste Land into a profoundly moving emotional journey that will drive you to tears. It won at Sundance and so many festivals I’ve completely lost count. Being around such an empowering female director invigorated me and really made me value the power of a strong directorial vision and prioritising emotion and character – in whatever format your story is in.
The experience of selling and exploiting a successful film, negotiating deals, working on the Oscar campaign and managing the aftermath - seeing a project through from inception to completion and beyond was just an invaluable eye-opening experience. After a long stint stuck behind a desk while still making shorts, some with my Almega colleagues Shirine Best and Ellie Emptage, including Baby Mine - I knew docs were never my passion and what I really craved was more narrative filmmaking experience, plus running film sets always made me feel alive. So, I made the transition into freelance 1st Assistant Directing (on shorts, low budget features, short-stint TV, commercials and branded content) while I continued to develop my narrative slate and direct bits here and there.
In that same year, you directed Habibti, working with now-regular collaborator Daniel Fajemisin-Duncan – how did you come to meet Daniel, tell us about your relationship.
This film and meeting Daniel actually completely changed my life. It’s a story of life imitating art... but to explain this I’d need to start from the beginning! While I was working on Waste Land, we’d gone to the Cannes Film Festival to pitch the project and I ended up befriending Ari Folman who at the time was Oscar nominated for Waltz with Bashir. We hung out and he helped me come up with a story that was right for me. It would be about the culture clash and unlikely friendship between a black man and a conservative Arab Woman. There’s a lot of racism in the Middle East, and I wanted to find an accessible way to explore the bias and show that there was more that unites us than separates us.
I remember fleshing out the story but didn’t want to write it and was determined to find a Black British writer for the task. Then as luck would have it as I went out to walk Shirine’s dog in a park in Brixton I run into a guy I haven’t seen in a while who tells me he’s just moved in with a screenwriter that I should meet. Do I want to come over? I did of course. And that’s when I met Daniel. I immediately wrangled him into writing Habibti and we started a whirlwind romance a month before I was headed to LA for a few months for the Waste Land edit. I had ambitious plans of using this as an opportunity to plot my move to LA but the universe clearly had different plans. And in the years that followed moments from Habibti between Daniel and my own mother kept creeping in. It was pretty surreal. The short was pretty successful, and I ended up marrying Daniel of course! The story of Habibti is the story of how I met the love of my life. He went on to win a BAFTA and RTS for his C4 show Run and has some incredible projects with Working Title, Netflix and Warner Brothers. We’ve got a few projects together, a feature thriller and a couple other big budget sci-fi / fantasy projects on the back-burner for when we find the time!
You’ve been able to reflect the quality of your work in the talent you’ve attracted to it; Emilia Clarke in Shackled, Maisie Williams in Up on the Roof and most recently Alexander Siddig in Baby Mine – what do you think draws them in?
My persistence probably helped in the first instance. Every actor had their own reasons to do with their unique connection to the story, themes and character. They’re all such different films. In ‘Up on the Roof’, Maisie connected to the loss of innocence and while being the love interest she had her own deeper layers of trauma we masked in a lyrical, carefree youth. In Habibti the incredible Hiam Abbass resonated with her journey of ignorance to connection, unpacking her character’s racial bias in a light-hearted way. In Shackled, Emilia connected to the surreal imagining of the stages of grief. In Baby Mine, Sid connected to the emotional through-line of a vilified character, challenging audience bias and judgement through the lens of a thriller.
Speaking of Shackled, I know that was funded through Indiegogo, so I wondered if you could tell us more about funding your projects, and the endeavour to find financial support as an independent filmmaker.
Short film funding is tough. Well, so are features that are so cast-dependent. I have yet to get my own feature fully financed, but possibility is in the air and feel I’m on the brink. Shackled was basically crowd-funding, friends and family support. My dramas Up on the Roof and Habibti both got some money via the Film London borough schemes plus additional crowd-funding. But crowd-funding is a lot of damn work, and not the fun kind - so by the time I got to Baby Mine I wasn’t intending to put myself through that again and I wanted a much bigger budget. Pretty much all my shorts were made for an average of £13,000 and I needed at least triple that for Baby Mine as I had an aesthetic direction in mind that needed the production value. Plus we needed a few locations, action vehicles, security, a low loader, big lighting set-ups that involved scaffolding, lots of exterior mist and I wanted to pay a good crew a lot better than minimum wage.
After a number of rejections over the years, the Doha Film Institute finally gave me a grant (a big thank you to Khalil Benkirane for championing me). But it still wasn’t nearly enough. After casting up, I reached out to Sami, a high-school Arab friend who’d put a bit of money in one of my other shorts and convinced him to reach out to his network. We ended up finding a handful of awesome investors like Omar Darwazah and Nabeel Sheikh who liked the story, cast and believed in my vision. We also enlisted support from short film financier Stefan Allesch-Taylor, who continues to champion emerging talent. We basically pulled out all the stops, and my production partners at Flat Cap Films Kyran and Andrew even cashed in the tax rebate which was never worth doing before now. But honestly no matter what budget you raise, it's never bloody enough!
I noticed you’re a member of Cinesisters, could you tell us more about the group?
We’re a collective of talented, award-winning female directors in the UK who work in film and TV. Many have made the leap into TV, have made one or two features or are at the cusp of making their first feature with a wealth of experience behind them. Before COVID-19, we’d meet up monthly with a moderated topic of discussion we’d explore together and provide support to one another. We recently started a monthly newsletter which celebrates all our little wins. It’s always nice to remember that the struggle is real, and we’re not alone in the world! You can check us out over at https://www.cinesisters.com/
Let’s talk about The Break – this was your first paid narrative directing job, and you commented how helpful it was to you as an emerging BAME writer/director; would you say this was a particular high for your career so far?
It was certainly a high back then as it was my first paid broadcast credit, and it was a great experience to see how TV bureaucracy works differently to film – where the director is not king. It helped me honed my craft in a different way and led to being selected as a future star on the BBC hot-list of 2017. While it was a fantastic opportunity, I’d expected to get more TV work or representation after that but the grind was still the same. It’s taken three more years to finally be given a shot to direct high-end TV, that’ll be happening later this year (crossed fingers).
How would you describe your directing style – I noticed you have many Pinterest boards relating to your projects, Light/Mood/Framing for Baby Mine, as well as a public toilet one interestingly - is aesthetic key to realising your projects, or does it naturally form with the tone/subject matter?
It’s certainly differed across all my shorts, depending on the story and tone. Shorts allowed me to explore a multitude of genres, but as I develop long-form and my voice becomes ever clearer not just as a director but as a writer – something that co-writing on Baby Mine opened the doors to – my style is inevitably rooted in my taste which gravitates to dark, subversive and suspenseful storytelling. Making Baby Mine allowed me to explore and discover my style in a deeper way than ever before. And our BAFTA-nominated cinematographer Rina Yang (of Top Boy and Becoming fame) was a formidable talent to be reckoned with along the journey. I’d be lying if I said I don’t focus on the aesthetics, I’m a visual storyteller after all and I want every frame to be a painting. I always come up with a visual philosophy that is in line with the characters arcs and shifting dynamics to ensure my choices are motivated. Ultimately for me, the manipulation of light and colour are the backbone of emotion in visual storytelling and my aesthetic research plays a huge role in how I imagine the most exciting and impacting way to unravel my stories.
Now, Baby Mine. Inspired by Gone Girl and 21 Grams, it has a complex intersection of race and gender, with both father and mother occupying those roles – how did you develop the concept, and the characters?
I think 21 Grams inspired an early very non-linear iteration of the film but we ended up stripping back on that as was just too convoluted. Gone Girl certainly had an impact with its very flawed and complex anti-heroine - I’ve always been a huge Fincher fan, growing up on his commentaries. My writing and producing partner Shirine - who was recently awarded the BFI Vision Awards by the way - is half-Iranian and she’d told me a story when we’d first met about her father kidnapping her sister. We hardly ever see Middle Eastern men in interesting roles in commercial cinema, so I suggested merging an aspect of her father’s story with another true story we were all excited about and crafting it into a thriller. Pulling from truth and fiction is always a challenge to get right. I just knew that I wanted it to be a gripping, emotive and subversive story that challenged stereotypes. Point of view was a hard one to navigate throughout writing and we ended up prioritising the mother’s perspective to shape the narrative.
I know you’re adapting it into a whodunnit-style thriller feature, Don’t Tell a Soul, reworking it to be in-media-res with Alexander Siddig’s character – tell us more about why you decided to re-configure the narrative to that point.
I actually ended up abandoning the story you’ll see in Baby Mine – I ultimately felt like that particular story was told. However, it certainly inspired the journey to Don’t Tell a Soul that I co-wrote with my husband and draws from my family history as it unravels an Arab-American perspective that revolves around a murder, a missing family, lost memory, past trauma and dark secrets…
I noticed you described Lab Rat, your upcoming short, as the very last – tell us about your future plans, both feature and television show related.
I actually shot my sci-fi/ thriller Lab Rat a couple years ago and its definitely my last. It’s launching online on the sci-fi channel Dust on the 9th July and I've been developing it into a very unique TV show that I’ll be pitching soon. I’ve recently partnered with powerhouse producers Hans Ritter (DC’s Birds of Prey), Mary Jane Skalski (American Animals), Robert Ogden Barnum (All is Lost) and former Sony Pictures’ Exec Josephine Rose (Pin Cushion) on various film and TV projects. Two of my scripts are out to cast and being packaged and while I wait to shoot on the sci-fi show (which I was meant to be shooting right now), I’m just developing a bunch of my own exciting sci-fi shows along with talented emerging writers.
Currently in the midst of developing a dope dimension-hopping show that unravels a hidden ancestral past rooted in African mythology through the lens of an African-American teenager. I’m also in the middle of a new script I’m super excited about that U.S. studios loved the sound of - a sci-fi/ action/ thriller set on a prison planet revolving around three generations of women. It's my first completely solo writing endeavour, that also feels like quite an existential journey through its main theme of faith, so we’ll see how that goes. Writing has undoubtedly kept me sane during the lockdown, almost given me permission to lose myself in storytelling. My philosophy is all about using what’s in my control to get ahead and right now while I wait to shoot that’s churning out stories I’m excited about in areas I want to know more about, pitching and finding the right partners I can count on that challenge me to be better. It’s the law of probability. Something is eventually bound to stick. The challenge is remembering there’s more to life than filmmaking!
On a final note, I know you were involved in BAFTAs Lucky 225, talking about increased demand for diverse female directors – what’re your thoughts, how much have things changed?
I can say with near certainty that I probably wouldn’t be getting my shot on the sci-fi TV show if they weren’t giving more opportunities to emerging, diverse, female directors to at least get in the room. In LA, I felt a sense of excitement from execs with a renewed remit and my style also felt more at home there. The Americans do talk a good game and I loved their efficiency - reading a script in days vs months in the UK - ultimately I found U.S. homes for my genre scripts that struggled in the UK via relationships I’d fostered for years. It’s been an arduous road and now I can finally see a light at the end of the tunnel. More female and diverse directors are getting their break in TV but, as statistics will show, the fact is we are still at the beginning of a very long journey…
I’ve been really inspired by Ava Duvernay – she’s a real powerhouse. Not just in her thought-provoking stories that have enriched and touched me, but as someone who doesn’t wait for permission and has paved roads for all of us. I cannot wait to be given the opportunity to be a show-runner on my own shows and be able to support the next generation of filmmakers. With the world’s renewed craving for change, my fire is burning strong and I’m staying optimistic about the road ahead.
Nour Wazzi's upcoming short, Baby Mine, premieres Friday 19th June over on Omeleto. Lab Rat will be launching on 9th July on Dust, and all of Wazzi's previous projects can be viewed over at Panacea Productions.