Category Archives: Director

Director John Wate lives childhood dream when making ‘Samurai Warrior Queens’

JW Samurai Warrior Queens
John Wade, Photo by Roberto Vivancos

Growing up in Berlin and Munich, Germany, John Wate found a passion in Manga comics at a young age. He was intrigued by the style of the Japanese graphic novels and began drawing his own at just ten years of age. Even then he knew he was meant to tell stories, but as he began transitioning away from drawing and into filmmaking, his innate drive to be a storyteller never wavered.

Now, Wate is a renowned director in his home country and abroad. Two of his past films, The Sword of the Samurai and The Samurai Bow, made it for 4 years into the top twenty of National Geographic Channel’s worldwide most popular documentaries. He is known for his unwavering dedication to his craft, and his work on projects like Epic Warrior Women, Samurai Headhunters, and Samurai Warrior Queens, projects that reminded him just why he got into filmmaking in the first place.

“One of the first manga stories I ever wrote when I was a teenager was that of a female samurai kicking ass. When I was sitting in the edit room watching Samurai Warrior Queens chasing inslow motion across a bridge towards the enemy with their blades drawn, I felt as though I was having my teenage wishes fulfilled,” said Wate.

The drama documentary Samurai Warrior Queens tells the real-life story of Samurai woman Takeko Nakano who in 1868 fights for her clans’ independence in a final battle that marks the end of the Samurai era. The legends of the Samurai seem to be an all-male affair; but contrary to popular belief, Samurai women stood their ground in countless battles and castle sieges. Takeko Nakano fights for her clans’ independence in a final battle that marks the end of the Samurai era.

“It is almost unknown that female samurai existed, let alone that they stood on the battlefield. Recent DNA from battlefields found that 30 percent of the sampled bones belonged to female fighters. However, for proud male samurai it was regarded as a shame if you had to rely on women to win your battle, so their presence was hardly ever recorded. The film can give them their place in history,” said Wate. “Takeko’s life provided a great arc and was pretty much a metaphor for the end of the samurai era as a whole. The role of female heroes has not received much attention until recent years, especially in Japan, and the story sheds a very different light on what in the West is often perceived as the general submissive and weak, moon gazing Japanese female persona.”

Wate enjoys strong female characters and had already come across different accounts of strong female samurai and wanted to show what their life was like. Their education, their ability to stand up against the more famous samurai in battle, it was all an intriguing topic that Wate wanted to really dig into.

Extensive background research of local folk tales and chronicles eventually led him to choose the life story of Takeko Nakano. She grew up in Aizu, a proud province in northern Japan where education, etiquette and martial arts were held in high esteem. Her father was a commander in a clan that understood itself as the protector of the Shogun. When the Shogun was threatened by other clans, supplied by Western firepower, the Aizu fought their last battles that eventually ended in the end of the samurai era. Takeko was very talented with the Naginata, a polearm or a samurai blade with a meter-long grip at the end. She was an instructor and took it on herself to recruit other female combatants to charge against the enemy but was eventually killed during the assault by a bullet.

To understand how she lived, how she might have seen her daily duties, why she refused to marry and fight instead, Wate traveled to her home province, went to research local archives, see their castle defenses, and really explore what her life would have been like. He then developed the script, cast the film, and got to shooting.

“I loved showing the world of the samurai, their attitude, ideals of honor and courage from a female perspective. In some ways they had to endure more than their male counterparts. Not only because they were often the pawns in the marriage game, but also because they had to fight and stand in for the actions of their husbands, their clan and the Shogun. I also found it fascinating and horrifying at the same time how they were taught to pursue grace even in death. Female samurai carried a dagger with them at all times once they reached womanhood to defend their honor. If they were in danger to be captured and raped, they would often have to commit suicide and were taught already as teenagers to tie their knees together with their belts, so that their legs would still look graceful after their death,” he described.

The film was distributed worldwide and nominated on the short list for the IMPACT Award, losing to the Academy-Award winning film Lincoln. It aired in the United States on the Smithsonian Network in 2015 where it still plays regularly, and is available to stream currently on various platforms, including Amazon and Hulu.

By Sean Desouza

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Walt Disney Animation Studios Hosts Bali: Beats of Paradise

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In a moment that mirrored the artistic exchange of the film Bali: Beats of Paradise, Walt Disney Animation hosted the talent of the film for a screening at their studio. Director Livi Zheng, Executive Producer Julia Gouw, and gamelan composer Nyoman Wenten viewed the film with some of Disney’s most creative forces, including the producer of Moana and the Head of Story for Frozen. Disney’s invitation is yet another indicator of the recognition Bali: Beats of Paradise has been receiving since its US release on November 16, 2018.

Beyond exploring the culture that created Balinese gamelan music, the film displays western artists being influenced by its character; integrating gamelan into modern day western musical styles. A question and answer session followed the screening in which Wenten, Gouw, and Zheng discussed filmmaking and Indonesian culture. Nyoman Wenten remarked, “It is amazing how quickly like-minded people attract each other. I can already see the start of a beautiful relationship between Livi and the creatives at Disney. I don’t know if any other Indonesian before Livi Zheng was ever invited to show their movie in front of the top brass in Disney. This is amazing and it makes me proud today to be an Indonesian”

Receiving a hospitable tour of the Disney Animation Studios, Livi revealed, “Disney is  remembered fondly by many children around the world. I remember so many happy memories from watching Disney movies; I am very glad that today I was able to be here and introduce my unique culture to the hardworking artists at Disney”. Executive Producer Julia Gouw noted during the film’s premiere at the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences in Beverly Hills last November, “Crazy Rich Asians put Singapore on the map, so we hope that Bali: Beats of Paradise will put Indonesia and Bali on the map.”

Female Filmmaker to Watch: Eliza Brownlie

Eliza Brownlie
Movie poster for “The After Party”

 

Canadian filmmaker Eliza Brownlie has firmly made her mark as a director in Hollywood. A breath of fresh air in the contentious filmmaking landscape, Brownlie has solidified her reputation as a director who tells stories with a unique aesthetic style while exploring social constructs and the human experience of modern life.

Her 2016 surrealist horror film The After Party earned praise from coast to coast in the U.S. garnering a hugely successful festival run with exclusive “invitation-only” screenings at the Sacramento Horror Film Festival in California and the Williamsburg Independent Film Festival in New York.

Directed and written by Brownlie, The After Party follows an aspiring starlet who hopes to break into the Hollywood scene by attending a mysterious, late night party where she quickly discovers a darkness the lurks beneath the glitz and glamour.

With captivating visuals and an intriguing story that leaves audiences wanting more, The After Party is rendered even more interesting thanks to the distinct female lens through which it is filtered.

“I knew I wanted to make something within the horror/thriller genre and set in Hollywood. I had been living there and was interested in the idea of how this beautiful dream world could resemble more of a nightmare when you examine it a little closer,” explains Brownlie.

“I needed a context, so I thought, what more appropriate setting for a surrealist horror film than a private party in the hills. I also needed a protagonist who was naïve to this world and desperate to be a part of it, so, naturally, I decided to make the lead an aspiring starlet. The rest of the story and the characters expanded from there.”

 

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Still of actress Tarryn Lagana in Eliza Brownlie’s film “The After Party”

 

The film’s star Tarryn Lagana, who’s represented by Luber Roklin Entertainment, the same talent agency that represents Disney superstar Dove Cameron and the late Oscar-nominated actor Burt Reynolds, shines on screen. Lagana was also recently signed to Abrams Artists Agency, which represents Finn Wolfhard from the Netflix series Stranger Things.

“Working with Eliza is an incredibly open experience. She loves to communicate with her actors and give them freedom to explore within the scene. Which was great for ‘The After Party’ because it gave me a chance to create the character Simone and ultimately deliver a strong performance,” says Lagana.

“Eliza is a one of a kind director… She has a very specific voice and vision that makes her stand out as one of the greatest filmmakers of her generation… She is what the industry needs right now.”

 

Director Eliza Brownlie
Cinematographer Ari Bre Bre (left), Director Eliza Brownlie (center), and producer Jessica Kelley (right) on set of a commercial for Cast + Combed

 

Well versed in directing projects across various mediums, Brownlie’s resume showcases her impressive flexibility and includes commercial, fashion films, music videos and narrative films, with her collective body of work revealing a highly stylized and dreamy nature that has reinforced her reputation as an auteur. Over the years she has directed numerous captivating and edgy commercials for an impressive list of clients including Dove, Top Expert and Canon.

In the fashion film she directed for Top Expert featuring model Breanna Box, she captures her subject with slow camera movements, creating a sultry, relaxed vibe that makes us want to dress ourselves in all of the company’s luxury basics. Brownlie effortlessly pulls us into the ethereal worlds she paints in many of her fashion films with a unique style that is simply unforgettable.

A dynamic director, another powerful aspect of her directorial prowess that has set her apart and led her to become a sought after director for more human-interest style commercial pieces is her talent for eliciting raw and vulnerable emotions from her subjects and revealing them with a rare form of elegance. As the director of the docu-style commercial series ‘Imperfectionists’ for Dove’s Self-Esteem Project, and Canon’s Female Hero series, Brownlie captures the women on screen in a way that is captivating, relatable and empowering.

“I like projects that challenge or engage the viewer in an interesting way. Something in the material needs to resonate with me. There’s nothing more painful than working on something you don’t have any passion for,” says Brownlie.

From the extensive repertoire of work that she has released to date it is clear that Brownlie is passionate about her subjects. She is definitely one contemporary female filmmaker that has made a powerful mark in both Hollywood and on a global scale, and she’s one that we will continue to look towards for inspiration.  

Livi Zheng Directs Music Video for Grammy Award Winning Artist

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(On the set of “Queen of the Hill” in Joshua Tree)

Livi Zheng recently directed the music video “Queen of the Hill” featuring Judith Hill a Grammy Award winning artist and contestant on The Voice (US season #4). “Queen of the Hill” is a unique collaboration between two genres of music: funk and Balinese gamelan. The music video itself is a kaleidoscope of funk and traditional Balinese dance and costumes.

“Queen of the Hill” was shot in the Southern California’s Joshua Tree desert. Filming in the desert is always a challenge but doing so in summer, as in the case of this music video, is even more so. Shot in a single day, the greatest challenge for the Queen of The hill team was transporting a Gamelan ensemble during rising temperatures in excess of one-hundred degrees Fahrenheit. Director/Producer Livi Zheng only had access to one set of the large gamelan ensembles and if the set broke during three-hour truck drive, or cracked under the heat…that’s it, show over.

The making of “Queen of the Hill” is featured in the full-length documentary Bali: Beats of Paradise. Also directed by Livi Zheng. Bali: Beats of Paradise will be released in theaters November 16, 2018. This epic story of Balinese music and the spread of gamelan was shot in Bali, Indonesia, and The United States. The executive producers of the film are His Excellency Ambassador Umar Hadi, Indonesian Ambassador to South Korea, former Consul General of The Indonesian Consulate in Los Angeles, and Julia Gouw.

Julia Gouw, on the list of 25 Most Powerful Women in Banking in the US, was born in Indonesia but has lived in the US for the last forty years. Her passion includes promoting Indonesian culture in the US internationally. Julia Gouw and Livi Zheng have collaborated on projects ranging from filmmaking to concert production.

Producer and Director Gianlorenzo Albertini’s new film explores PTSD in veterans

Director-Gianlorenzo Albertini
Gianlorenzo Albertini

Hailing from Naples, Italy, Gianlorenzo Albertini was drawn to film at a young age. At the time, he believed everything that was happening in the movies actually occurred at that moment in time, somewhere in the world. As he grew, he realized that they were in fact stories, but the magic of movies was not lost on him. He daydreamed about all sorts of futures, from being a professional athlete, a rock star, an army pilot, a poet, a doctor, a detective, the pope. Although he knew that these were not all reasonable options, he knew the one path he could take where everything was possible: filmmaking.

“Films combine all the best things that I love in life: music, photography, writing, painting with light, portraying different characters, and any art,” he said.

As a celebrated director and producer, Albertini is currently releasing his most recent film, The Ribbon on the Kite, to worldwide audiences. The film follows a woman who, after discovering a homeless man living on the riverbank, tries to help him against his wishes. As you watch, you begin to see there is a greater history behind the homeless man than initially seems. Albertini, who also co-wrote the film, wanted to explore the emotional effects of war on individuals and draw attention to the hardships and the devastating effects of physical and psychological trauma that vets who have severe PTSD and are forced to endure due to governmental neglect. He wanted to place emphasis on veterans’ life after war upon, on the grief and horror of the battlefield they are forced to endure, oftentimes keeping the struggle to themselves, and on their difficult transition adjusting to civilian life. The film shows how frequently veterans end up being deliberately homeless because of their psychological inability to cope with the mental abuse inflicted on them, ultimately choosing to suffer in isolation.

As the writer and director of the film, Albertini did not have the experience and the full understanding of the plight of war. However, during his childhood, he often heard the stories told by his grandparents, about the horrors and atrocities during WWII they lived in their youth; they were his first understanding of the harsh and frightening conditions of war. He knew that, as a filmmaker, it was his responsibility to show the world just what so many veterans go through as realistically and explicitly possible.

poster the ribbon on the kiteThe Ribbon on the Kite is making its way in the festival circuit. It’s been screened at and won several awards at various festivals around the world such as the Richmond International Film Festival, Maryland International Film Festival, Kansas City FilmFest, Garden State Film Festival, Soma Film festival, Oniros Film Awards, L.A. Shorts Awards, New Filmmakers New York, Hollywood International Moving Pictures Film Festival, Los angeles Independent Film festival Awards, Los Angeles CineFest, St. Lawrence International Film Festival, European Independent Film Award, and Largo Film Awards. After the festival run, Albertini is planning on distributing the film through VOD platforms such as Amazon and Fandor.

During the research and writing phase, Albertini made sure to research exactly what life is like for war veterans. He talked with friends of his, who gave the director vast insight regarding their physical and psychological traumas and what might ultimately drive them to isolation. This created an even deeper drive for Albertini, who had the chance to perceive and recognize their struggles and eventually apply them to the film.

The authenticity of the script was mostly achieved on set during filming, due to the fact that the script barely contains any dialogue. Therefore, all the real emotional traits are not said but instead shown by the work of the actors. This also made Albertini’s work as the director that much more vital, as he had to choose just how to visually convey the authenticity and purity of the story in every shot.

While filming, one of the most significant challenges was working with natural lighting and the unpredictable changes in weather; the natural light of course would eventually fade away, meaning shooting would stop for the day, even if Albertini and his team were in the middle of a scene. For the last scene in the film, they shot at sunset during “magic hour”, which may be short, and took more effort to finalize, but was incredibly worth it.

They shot the film along a riverbank in Los Angeles. The location was beautiful but is known for flooding. During production, the water level began to rise. The crew quickly began packing up their things, but the shot ended up being quite beautiful.

“The equipment almost got swept away by the strong current – that was quite an adventure, but we filmed the flooding of the river and that ultimately ended up in the movie,” he concluded.

Be sure to check out The Ribbon on the Kite. In the meantime, however, you can watch the trailer here.

 

Top photo from left to right: Actress Julia Yusupova, Actor Greg Hill, and Director Gianlorenzo Albertini

Saudi Arabia’s Talha Bin Abdulrahman is director extraordinaire

As a child, growing up in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia, Talha Bin Abdulrahman’s father used to rent movies and watch them with his family. This quality time together meant even more for the oldest brother, as he was enthralled by the films in a different way than the rest of his family. Bin Abdulrahman knew then that he was meant to be a filmmaker, and has spent his life making that dream a reality.

Now, as a director, Bin Abdulrahman does exactly what he always dreamed of. He creates all new worlds, and sees his job as gathering all the pieces of a puzzle and putting them together just right. This viewpoint is that of a perfectionist, which is exactly what Bin Abdulrahman is when it comes to filmmaking. His newest film, The Scapegoat, is a telling tale of a writer going through a rough spot, and is expected to be a strong contender at many of the world’s most prestigious film festivals. This is no different than his previous work. His comedic musical Film School Musical is an award-winning look at the difficulties a young filmmaker can go through, and his feature Viral Night, although still in pre-production, is a thriller that audiences can already look forward to.

“The rush of being on set, there’s nothing quite like it. You get to see performances of talented people giving you their best with what they were given, even when things go south there’s always some kind of silver lining or a lesson to be learned so you avoid it in future situations,” said Bin Abdulrahman.

One of the director’s favorite films to work on was the 2015 dramatic thriller Served Cold. Honoring television shows like Breaking Bad and Better Call Saul, Bin Abdulrahman wanted to tell a story about the drug world, showing that there is no clear-cut black and white in this world. Therefore, Served Cold is about a former drug lord who is sentenced to life in prison after killing an undercover cop. With the help of his shady attorney, he has to take desperate measures in order to be with his teenage daughter.

“There is a lot of interesting grey areas to discover and I wanted this project to shed some light on that theme. It’s essentially a cold revenge story about a criminal lawyer who poisons one of his clients who was sentenced to do a life sentence for illegal drug trafficking and killing the undercover DEA agent, who is also the lawyer’s father by adoption. This scheme doesn’t go as planned,” said Bin Abdulrahman. “Revenge stories can be very emotionally engaging and it’s a good way to see the characters faced with their worst nightmare, the rage behind the revenge fuels the whole story and it’s satisfying for the audience to go through this emotional journey.”

Bin Abdulrahman’s vision for the film was achieved when it won the “Audience Choice” at the SFA awards in January 2015, which was being held at the same time and place as the Sundance Film Festival. The film’s rights were then sold to ShortsHD, an international cable channel, where it was such a hit with audiences that it has aired twelve times during 2015.

“It feels very rewarding to be validated by awards and audience reactions. I think to myself that I must be headed on the right direction. It feels reassuring after five months of work to know that it wasn’t for nothing and it boosts you to move on to your next project,” said Bin Abdulrahman.

After writing the script himself and self-financing the production with his producer, Bin Abdulrahman made the decision to also direct the film. After finding the right cinematographer, the project took off. Immediately, Bin Abdulrahman became committed to telling the story of Served Cold with a specific vision in mind. He knew the look and feel that was appropriate for the genre and worked hard to bring the script to life. The story is very moody and has layers of dark tones, so maintaining that feeling depended a lot on the actors and how realistic their performances were, so as the director, Bin Abdulrahman strived to get the best out of his cast, and his efforts paid off. It gave him quite a lesson on finding the best way to get his actors in the mood and to get them be very serious, as all of the scenes were extremely intense. Throughout filming, the director strived to be fully harmonious with his crew, and he succeeded.

“Working with Talha is a blessing. He comes to set extremely prepared, knows what he wants and is very easy to work with. I enjoy working with directors like Talha who makes a producer’s life easier,” said Maan B., the Producer of Served Cold. “Talha is a very talented, creative, and visionary director. I experienced it on set with him; we came to set one day with something we have long prepared for, but something did not work, so Talha came up with a better idea on the spot and we continued with our day without losing money. That’s the kind of directors I like. He’s not married to his ideas. He’s open to suggestions and anything else that will help the project for the better.”

Bin Abdulrahman knows just how to bring the best out of those he works with, and the best out of himself. It is what makes him such an in-demand director, and why he will continue to have such a prosperous career.

RACHEL ZHOU DIRECTS A MULTINATIONAL NAIL BITER IN LOS ANGELES KIDNAPPING

China not only possesses an acclaimed and burgeoning film industry but also a huge number of movie goers and cinema fans who greatly contribute to a film’s international box office. There’s a good reason that you see many Chinese names in the credits of Hollywood films these days as well as an increasing number of the country’s talent appearing alongside Hollywood marquee names. The relationship between these film industries has been mutually beneficial artistically and financially. A key ingredient in this scenario is the ability of at least some of the professionals to communicate in both languages (sometimes multiple languages) whether in front of the camera or behind it. Rachel Zhou is a Chinese director well versed in American film. She has found herself working on numerous productions due to her talent and her command of both languages. Communication is key for a director when speaking with the actors, cinematographers, and other members of the film crew. It’s even more so when the same vision must be communicated clearly to a cast and crew who do not share the same native tongue. The China-US production Los Angeles Kidnapping enlisted her as a director due to their need of cross cultural assuredness in both the storyline and the performance of the off camera crew.

The occurrence of US/China film productions is becoming increasingly more prevalent. Directors who are both talented and at ease in communicating in both languages (Rachel speaks four languages) make them even more attractive these days. Zhou believes that the communication involved in a film production transcends even the spoken. Her goal is to have her team work together culturally and spiritually. Directing more than the film, she feels that it is her job to create a positivity, a sense of calm and confidence that permeates the very air of the working environment to sync the minds of all involved. Even though she possesses more than the appropriate verbal skills needed for all on her team, it’s Rachel contention that once she creates this “vibe” on set, everyone understands and anticipates the needs of the work.

Los Angeles Kidnapping is a Chinese story taking place in the US but the theme is universal. Through the experiences of Delger (played by Siyu Lu) the audience is asked the question, to what ends will one spend their life fixated on revenge. Motivated by avenging his brother’s death, Delger follows clues about the murder to Los Angles. As a graduate of the police academy, he both understands the law and is willing to work outside it as a result of his anger. Working undercover as an Uber driver in LA, he continues his investigation. When a friend of a friend is kidnapped by mobsters, Delger is enlisted to aid in the rescue. The experience and a surprising plot twist at the end of the story cause this protagonist to question whether a life solely focused on vengeance is one he is willing to live.

While the list of Zhou’s directing credits is extensive, her work on action films was not, prior to Los Angeles Kidnapping. She fully embraced the idea of the different approach required for the genre. Taking great care to design and discuss the film’s many action sequences with stunt coordinators for entertaining action designers, Rachel’s cast underwent extensive training for them film. While storylines of a more emotional nature are centered around the actors, action films present the action as a character in themselves. This includes crew members and professionals who specialize in the genre such as stunt coordinators, drone operators, traffic controllers etc. The film also gave Rachel a chance to use one of her favorite tools as she describes, “I’m into Steadicam shots a lot. When I direct an action/crime/drama, especially actions scenes, I prefer to go with Steadicam shots. Steadicam is a novel way to shoot a scene as it isolates the movement of the camera operator from the camera. Stabilizing mechanisms counter the movements of the camera operator to eliminate the inevitable imperfections present in handheld shooting. These work in an extremely powerful way since the Steadicam shots, compared to handheld shots, give a stronger sense of subjectivity with steady movements. The audience finds it easy to become engaged in the setup.”

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Los Angeles Kidnapping garnered a plethora of awards at such prestigious events as the London Independent Film Awards (2017), Miami Independent Film Festival (2017), Hollywood International Cine Fest (2017), Los Angeles Film Awards, and received an astounding 1.94 Million views on Iqiyi.com (China’s version of Netflix) which announced Zhou as an action director. Los Angeles Kidnapping’s producer Cleo Zou has an acclaimed career in China as a producer, working with the country’s most respected and successful stars like Jackie Chan. Cleo declares, “With Rachel on the set, I never had to worry about the shoot because she is such a highly-productive artist. She`s talented, smart, hardworking and humorous. She always knows what she wants and how to get it. We all love working with her. She possesses that ease of working with professionals from both cultures which enables everyone involved to relax and enjoy the process, which is when artists are able to deliver their very best.” It’s this tone that Rachel always strives for, in both big and little ways. She reveals, “Everyone works very hard on a film set. I feel it’s important for us to not only support each other but to lift the spirits of one another. I think there is always time to make it fun. When we were shooting a conversation scene in an alley for Los Angeles Kidnapping, the art department was asked to make wanted posters to place on the walls. Because those posters are never in focus, they made ones that said “Wanted, Giraffe” & “Wanted Dinosaur”, etc. It was a tight shoot that day but the funny posters made all of us laugh. It’s not only the little things that the audience appreciates but also the little things the professionals making the film like.”