LUZZU premiered at the 2021 Sundance Film Festival, winning the Special Jury Award in acting for the film’s lead, Jesmark Scicluna. Jim Ross spoke with director Alex Camilleri about the making of the film. You can read Jim’s review of the film here.
Jim Ross: So, first of all, thank you for the film. I want to ask you, to start, about the locations. You often contrast the very small scale trials Jesmark goes through – such as a conversation with his wife – with some of the stuff around him, like the container ship looming in the background. How did you come up with the locations in Malta you wanted to film which enabled that?
Alex Camilleri: I love locations, it’s my favourite part – the whole process. And they were so intrinsic to this project because I wasn’t just writing a sort of blackbox drama. I always knew that, just as I was articulating things very specifically through the characters, I would also be trying to do that visually, and through the world. That’s the kind of the primary tool that we were working with. And because we were shooting on a micro-budget – essentially all on location – the physical environments become all that more important. The Maltese sun in October is brilliant. And so you basically don’t have to change your f-stop for about 12 hours. That opens you up to being able to point the camera anywhere, and you just can make something really good out of it quite readily. So, I had some very specific locations in mind while writing. So that shot that you highlighted about the containerships, while we’re having that conversation, for instance, that was just baked into the script from the get-go. And these are just places that I know, but that are also familiar to anyone who is accustomed to Malta, and my role comes in is to take those locations that everyone sees every day, and just give them meaning. Put them into a context to elicit the emotions. And you know, that’s the director’s job, like a chef, you know: combine these ingredients in the right order, the right combination, at the right intensity…and you can elicit something that goes beyond the everyday
These locations, as I mentioned before, they’re so commonplace, and everyone knows them. What I find it in Malta is that people look away from them – you sort of close your eyes. Not literally, but you ignore them, in some sense, just to get through your day, as they’re not the most picturesque parts of the island. I always feel like I perhaps bring a freshness of view, because I’m both an insider and an outsider to Malta, that these things haven’t yet lost their impact on me as they might if I was thinking of them every day and running into them every day. And I just, I would have to put them out of my mind, just like I do here in New York City. There’s probably an amazing street that I ignore, because I have to walk through it and the pavement is cracked, whatever, and I don’t like it. But there can be a specific kind of beauty in it. And in the right hands, of course, that beauty can come out.
“…that’s the director’s job, like a chef, you know: combine these ingredients in the right order, the right combination, at the right intensity…and you can elicit something that goes beyond the everyday”
JR: Talking about things that were baked into the script, how did you decide when to insert these little nods and moments to broader things such as the environmental concerns, the cost of health care, the precariousness of migrants, and so forth? How did you pace out and measure that out in the script?
AC: I knew from the beginning that there were there are things that I wanted to say, but all of the things that I want to say have to be sublimated to the drama. And I’m interested in the world and I want to have my eyes open, but I didn’t want to make a nostalgic film. This is not about some romantic idea of what the life of fishermen is like. And to get all those things in, it’s tricky, because you don’t want to make it an issue film. And you don’t want to feel like you’re preaching – everyone gets turned off by those things, and I certainly do. So I think that the best way to go about it is just, you know, make sure you’re telling everything through a strong perspective. And this film is focused like a laser on Jesmark. He’s in every scene but one in the film. As long as the information is being parcelled to the character in a believable way, at the right time in his journey, then the audience accepts it. I think you just have a little bit of patience and trust in the audience. We don’t get to that stuff about climate change, really, until maybe three-quarters of the way through the film. You have faith in the audience that they don’t need to be told what these forces are that are lurking in the background and putting all these pressures on Jesmark. The conventional knowledge, of course, is that you’re not smarter than the audience. The audience is smarter than you. And I find that to be true. I’m kind of surprised about how much we actually we get into [LUZZU]. Maybe it’s too much. I don’t know. But we get into climate change, we get into EU regulation, we get into migration, we get into racism, we get into politics a little bit. But that, also, I think, matches the film – it’s part and parcel of the style.
“I knew from the beginning that there were there are things that I wanted to say, but all of the things that I want to say have to be sublimated to the drama.”
JR: Maybe it’s because I’m Scottish and British, but it reminded me quite strongly of Ken Loach’s work with Paul Laverty. So, I was interested to see [cinematographer] Leo Lefevre amongst the crew [of LUZZU], who has worked with Loach a lot in recent years, and the look informs the whole tone and mood of the piece. How did you end up working with him and how did you come up with the look of the film?
AC: Well, I’m a Ken Loach obsessive and I think certainly, his and Paul Laverty‘s films are a big influence on this. I can’t deny that. But I was delighted when I met Leo, as that wasn’t the first thing that I knew about him but it was an unexpected treat. And, yes, he was part of the camera crew on three of the recent films. That language spoke to me. I wasn’t sure that was the exact cinematic language for this film. I was thinking about Loach’s work a lot in the writing, more so than in the directing, than the cinematography. But it was great to speak to Leo, just to know, the ethos, for instance, on those sets. What is the day like on a Ken Loach film? I just love hearing about that. But we could even look at scenes specifically, and we did want to reference them.
He was an amazing resource because I could just ask, “Okay, what lens are they on here?”, for instance, and he just had all the memories of how they actually did it. Leo had a lot else to bring to the table and had a strong documentary background too. And he had recently worked on a film in Algeria. That was also a very small budget film with a lot of heart in a difficult unconventional cinema environment. So those combinations made him the perfect guy for the job. We developed the style theoretically talking about things that we’ve liked. We love so many insane films, beyond just the large films, so it was very easy to get started. I think we thought that we might try to shoot a bit more in the tripod, as Loach does. But it’s important that you have your eyes open once you get on set. We realised the way that Jesmark moved, somehow, that the tripod wasn’t doing him many favours and that he had a different energy, and we needed to go on the shoulder a little bit more. So we ended up combining more handheld with tripod and Leo is very adaptable. He’s a very, very skilled operator and can kind of do everything. So that was a wonderful moment for me as a first-time filmmaker to come in with plans and to be very intentional, but realise you’ve got to wake up and if this plan doesn’t work, let’s be alive to what’s being fed to us here on set.
“Well, I’m a Ken Loach obsessive and I think certainly, his and Paul Laverty’s films are a big influence on this.”
JR: This is your first feature directing, but you have a lot of editing experience and edited LUZZU yourself. Were there specific things where your editing experience informed what you were doing on set? Or even or even during the writing process?
AC: I hope so. To speak the set first, I think the conventional wisdom about shooting for the edit is valuable. In some ways, though, you have to kind of let the slack out a little bit, you don’t want to shoot too tightly. But I guess it goes both ways: meaning just get the coverage that you need. I think I had a strong sensibility for what shots we need to cover. I think we used every setup we ever shot in this film – there are no extraneous setups, [discarded] like that didn’t really ever happen. But, I also had a background in documentary, and that informs a different sense of shooting for the edit, which is that you’ve just got to shoot stuff out. What you’re trying to do is get a lot of lumber, and you’re going to go home, and you’re going to build a little house for yourself. But you know, if you don’t get that lumber, you can’t build the house. Sometimes you just needed to let it roll. I’m thinking about, for instance, a scene where there’s a group of old fishermen, and they’re all chewing the fat, talking about stories and griping. It was really just like a documentary shoot. We just did various passes and put the camera in different places. So I guess that is similarly informed by editing and knowing when to switch the gear about this material we need here. And then in this other place, okay, we don’t need to do that. But let’s, let’s be smart about what the coverage is. I am I’m really grateful to the background and editing. I think it’s tremendous training for filmmakers. And it’s a bit surprising, and people picked up on it to be honest, that I could make a transition from editing to directing, I think because it’s unusual. And I’m not sure why it’s so unusual, because editors are really tremendous storytellers. They just get to the heart of what you need to tell the story.
“…editors are really tremendous storytellers. They just get to the heart of what you need to tell the story.”
JR: What are your hopes for the film during this period? We’re talking about a film that screened virtually worldwide, from a Utah film festival, and I’m sitting in the UK interviewing you in New York. We’re pretending that this is all normal festival stuff. But I’m used to seeing things at a film festival where, often, the filmmaker will be standing at the back of the room, keenly studying everybody’s reactions, because it’s the first time an audience has seen the film. Obviously, you haven’t really had the chance to do that. Are you hoping to try and get that at some point? Or do you just want people to see it any way that’s possible?
AC: Well, you know, by this point of the pandemic, I have a certain humility about these things – that we can’t project too far into the future. I think it’s fair to say that – at some point this year – things are going to get better? And I hope that that coincides with physical screenings. I’m dying for it. Not only have I not seen this film in a room with 300 people, or 1000, people, I haven’t seen this film in a room with one or two other people. That’s crazy, right? And for a young filmmaker, such as myself, you do miss an opportunity to do what you were hinting at, which was to study the collective body language of the audience. I mean, it’s too late for that film, but it helps you in the next film. You learn where the laughs are and where people are getting restless. It really informs your sense of rhythm and how these things play in a room. Not that there are many jokes in this film, but – for instance – jokes can be too close to each other, and those are the things you can only get a sense about with seeing a live audience. I just think that experience is still really valuable for us.
But I’m grateful to be working with a tremendous sales team. We are kind of charting out the rest of the year for festivals, and we’re hoping to just go on the road with it, so to speak – the virtual road. At some point, that’ll give way to physical screenings. I hope that I can pop up at one of these festivals, and most importantly, with my cast, because they do such tremendous work in this film. I think it’s really important for people to understand that these are real fishermen. With all the messaging that we’ve done about this film, it’s still amazing to me that I’ll read reviews that say they had no idea that they were actually real fishermen. I think that’s a credit to the work that they do in the film because there are good non-actor performances and I think we all kind of know what those are. And then there’s Jesmark and David, with these just amazing performances, and no one would be any the wiser that these guys have never been on camera before this film.
“I think it’s fair to say that – at some point this year – things are going to get better? And I hope that that coincides with physical screenings. I’m dying for it. Not only have I not seen this film in a room with 300 people, or 1000, people, I haven’t seen this film in a room with one or two other people. That’s crazy, right?”
JR: Do you have an idea of what you’ll work on next? And if so, are you looking to do something with the same sort of approach? Or did you feel that was just what fit this particular story?
AC: Well, I really enjoyed working in this way. And I am developing my next film right now, which brings me back to Malta. It is actually using some similar techniques, but charting in a different direction. So I’m going to work again with non-actors, and mixing some trained actors in a very specific side of Malta that most people don’t know about. But it’s in a completely different emotional register, different tone, different kinds of characters. And I think it’s really going to surprise people.
JR: Well, I look forward to seeing it. Hopefully in person!
AC: I hope so too. I think it’d be actually a very good film to see with a big group of people. It has that kind of energy.