Category Archives: Film

Michael Whalley steals the heart of ‘Jean’ and audiences in new film

There is a camaraderie that comes from playing sports. Everyone has the same goal, they wear the uniform, they experience the same victories and failures as a team. For New Zealand’s Michael Whalley, he experiences that same solidarity from acting. He represents the team while still shining on his own. He works with that team spirit to achieve the best result possible. He loves to play, and considers acting a serious game, as each new project brings a new match and a different opponent. To use such a metaphor shows how much Whalley appreciates the intricacies of his craft, and this understanding translates to raw talent for this celebrated actor.

With an esteemed resume and unparalleled versatility, Whalley is an internationally in-demand actor. While working on many acclaimed films, such as the 2015 award-winning feature Psychoanalysis, he has shown the world what he is capable of. His work on Slow West, alongside Michael Fassbender and Ben Mendelsohn, received praise from audiences and critics, and this trend occurs with almost everything Whalley takes on.

“To think I could be paid for doing the very thing I wanted to do every day was such an incredible thought, so I sought to make that my reality,” said Whalley.

Earlier this year, one of Whalley’s newest films was once again a large success.  The actor played the leading character of Beverly Shepherd in the historical romance Jean. The film tells the story of Jean Batten, New Zealand’s greatest pilot, heroine, celebrity, and mystery. Beverly Shepherd is the romantic lead in the film. Beverly is a man with a strong moral backbone, a sense of fun for life and a determination to challenge for the things he wants in both affairs of his career and heart. Despite being the only son of wealthy Sydneysiders, he lacks the pretension of wealth. He can read people and knows instinctively if they are being untruthful. Independent and modern, he is attracted by Jean’s adventurous spirit and mystery. His greatest struggle is attempting to protect Jean from decisions that would put her in danger, only to have to accept that she isn’t someone who wants or needs protection. He knows he has to play a long game of love to not scare her away. Jean had lovers in her life, but Beverly is the one man who truly captures her heart. In the story, audiences see how headstrong Jean is with her life and career, and when Beverley sweeps in and shows her glimpses of recreation, fun and love, he innocently threatens her focus, creating Jean’s ultimate emotional conflict. Therefore, the filmmakers required a seasoned actor to play such a pivotal role in such an important story, and Whalley was the obvious choice, with the talent and passion to go with it.

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Michael Whalley and Kate Elliot in Jean, photo by Ginnie Loane

“Especially in the past few years, it has been of growing importance to remind ourselves of the power women had in shaping the world. Too many films are one-sided in their portrayal of male heroes, and Jean was a heroine that defied the constraints of a male-driven world. The film, the first about Jean Batten, is a piece of entertainment, education and inspiration for New Zealand and the world to see. I had known of Jean Batten in the past, but this was a chance to see behind the tabloids and popular public image into the life of such a mysterious firebrand,” Whalley described.

After premiering earlier this year, the film has seen vast critical success. At the Film Awards New York 2017, Jean won an unprecedented nine awards, including “Best TV Movie” and “Best Drama Special”. These are immensely prestigious honors, as New York Festivals recognize only the best content from over 50 countries around the world. In addition, the film was successful commercially, airing on TVNZ, which reaches over 2 million people and has recently been acquired by distributor Banijay International for the ROW market. Such success could not have been possible without Whalley’s portrayal of Beverly.

“He brought a charm, wit and strength to the character of Beverly Shepherd that we could only imagine.” said the Producer and Writer of the film, Donna Malane.

Taking part in this period piece was enticing for Whalley, and as an actor he is always looking for new challenges and experiences to refine his talent. This story is set in the thirties, and Whalley researched the decade extensively to ensure he would completely transport audiences. Parts of this process were more fun than others, such as driving around an open top 1930s Model A Ford, and getting to know about the planes they were working with, which by a happy coincidence, were taught to Whalley by an old friend of his grandfather, Dennis. However, some parts of the preparation process were more grueling. Whalley had to take on the language, manner of speech and the classic nature of the period drama, and work to make that all ring true for his mouth, body and mind to create a genuine portrayal. To do this, Whalley infused his character with the parts of himself that fit best, which he tries to do for every role he can. This helps create an authenticity that captivates audiences, and what the actor is so well-known for.

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Michael Whalley in Jean, photo by Ginnie Loane

Whalley says getting into the mindset of the time was made easier by the incredible costumes designed by Kirsty Cameron. As soon as he put on his gear, he felt clean, classic and upright. “Putting on my costume became a very important part of my morning ritual to get into Beverly’s shoes, literally,” he joked.

Improvisation also was a great tool for the actor when preparing for filming. During rehearsals with his co-star, Kate Elliott, they would have a series of improvisations around the scripted dialogue, which he says was a sure-fire way to find out what they knew or didn’t know about their characters and the world of the film. These exercises were helpful as the role of Beverly was a refreshing change for the actor, who often plays “punks and public nuisances”, and the character of Beverly is very dependable and ethical.

The actor also uses music frequently to prepare for roles. For Jean, Whalley made a playlist specific to what Beverly may have been listening to at the time, mixed with songs from Postmodern Jukebox to “get in the zone to play”, once again, similar to an athlete.

Undoubtedly, Jean is a must-see, and Whalley is enchanting in it, as he is so well-known to be. His passion for the story is evident, and his passion for what he does is even more so.

“This was a chance to act in an historical and important story in both New Zealand and International history. The true love of Jean Batten, at one point the world’s most famous and respected women. To play a character who had the charm, wit, intelligence and pilot skills to win the heart of the Lady that kept it locked away,” concluded Whalley.

 

Top photo by Ginnie Loane

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NOT YOUR TYPICAL FUNNY MAN: JAMES PRESTON ROGERS

Actor James Preston Rogers is tight lipped about the plot details of the upcoming 2018 release Benjamin (Darius Films). What he is happy to speak about is his enjoyment of being in this film cast alongside so many comedic heavyweights. Rogers is so often noticed and cast for action roles (with a commanding physical presence of 280 lbs. and over six and a half feet tall) that displaying his comedic abilities alongside Kevin Pollak, Dave Foley, Rob Corddry, Peri Gilpin, Cheri Oteri, and numerous others was a joyful difference for him. His appearance as Ulf, a Russian semi-pro hockey player allowed James to stay close to the accent he had developed for the “Siberian” in “Frontier” (on Netflix) playing the nemesis of Jason Momoa’s lead character. The accent is as close as James gets in this film to any aspect of the melee that the Siberian or the combative aspect of Ulf’s hockey career in this comedic role. The inference of Roger’s commanding stature might be the premise of a fish out of water but James takes his place evenly matched alongside so many recognizable faces in the comedic acting world. As director and costar of Benjamin Bob Saget states, “Simply put, James is impressive. His comedy talent is obvious. He understood the role of Ulf and added great depth to it. It would have been easy to present the character as one dimensional but James portrayed Ulf as sincere, deep, and of course with the imperfections that make real people so funny. It was a pleasure to work with him and we were lucky to have him in the cast.”

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Benjamin is the title of the film as well as the character which the story focuses upon. A teen who has decided to delve into drug use, a group of family and friends hold an intervention to dissuade him. During the act of revealing the skeletons in their own closets (in hopes of eliciting a similar response from Benjamin) these individuals all come to realize how they are perhaps living more chaotic lives than the young man they came to help. Rogers appears as the Russian hockey player/boyfriend of Benjamin’s mother Marley, played by Peri Gilpin (perhaps best known as Roz from TV’s “Fraiser”). ULF comes in as Marley’s boyfriend very supportive of her and her situation. Throughout the course of the story ULF realize that he doesn’t fit into this new world he has embarked on, and need to focus more on himself to make his dreams a reality. English is Ulf’s second language. He really loves hockey and Marley and will do anything for either of them as the wild side of the sport and this woman fulfill a part of him. Amongst all the other adults who appeal to Benjamin, Ulf is the character who is likely the most unlike them and therefore has an unexpected connection with the perspective of Benjamin.

Appearing as Ulf is the second time recently that James has appeared as a Russian (the first being in “Frontier”). The language and accent are nearly second nature to this Canadian born actor who spent his childhood and early adult years amongst a variety of cultures. His childhood friends in Toronto were German, Irish, English, Scottish, and originated from many other parts of the world. This was early training for his ears, training that Rogers put to good use in his acting career. In regards to his role in Benjamin, James describes, “The advantage I have over Russian actors is that English is my first language. You need to know that the script is written in English and is for an English audience looking for a Russian accent. It can be difficult for a Russian actor who learned English as a second language to hit all of the nuances of the jokes the writer is looking for. I’m sure it would be the same for me if I were in a Russian language film. Sometimes it’s about what you don’t say and let the space be taken up for the audience to complete the joke in their own mind. This comprehension gives me an advantage and I usually book these kinds of roles over the Russian actors. Like almost anything, you need to know your audience. If you put the accents on too heavy, you will lose your audience. You need to put on just enough and know the comedic timing for the joke to get across.”

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Being cast alongside so many famous comedic actors might seem intimidating, and James admits that it was at first. However, the process became so enjoyable and satisfying that any insecurities took an immediate backseat to the experience. Rogers tells that the scripted and non-scripted jokes were plentiful and the conversations off camera were intelligent and enlightening; proof that like James himself, his costars are far from one dimensional. Rogers feels drawn to roles that (similar to career courses of larger actors like Dwayne Johnson and Jason Momoa) dispel the idea that an actor who is cast in action roles does not possess the ability to be equally gifted in comedy or drama. He confirms, “Just because are tall or in good physical shape doesn’t mean that we don’t have life experiences and emotions that equip us to communicate through the camera and onto an audience. Most well-known actors get painted with one brush and it’s very rare that we get to color outside the lines. I love seeing a comedic actor cast in a dramatic role and present another side of themselves. My father was hilarious and I think that part of that comedy gene exists in me. When I was in 10th or 11th grade we’d have these things called ‘cut-fests’ at school. You’d square off with someone and trade insults. People would cut class just to watch. It was all for laughs. Between my father and the cut-fest I was working on my comedy timing through my entire childhood, I just grew into being a big guy. Benjamin has given me the chance to show that training and the fact that I’m standing alongside some of the best comedic actors in the present day entertainment industry is beyond exciting.” James Preston Rogers has taken his rightful place as the physically and comedically impressive gentleman alongside his talented cohorts and can be seen doing so in Benjamin.

FLIPPING THE SCRIPT WITH ROBERTO SAIEH

Honesty is one of the scariest things in our lives. At the same time, there can be no growth without it. One cannot move forward until acceptance of reality has occurred. This is both the core of the story of the film Asia A as well as the reason that director Andrew Reid worked with screenwriter Roberto Saieh on the project. Saieh has a talent for delivering a realistic perspective rather than the typical sanguine escapism which much of the industry is known for. While there is a time and place for both, the blunt actuality of Asia A (the title is derived from the American Spinal Injury Association classification of “A” for a person with no motor or sensory function preserved in the sacral segments S4-S5) causes it to stand out. Reid shares a strong connection to the storyline of the main character Marquise which made the film very personal for him. This makes it even more impressive that the director credits Roberto with flipping the story upside down in their initial meeting, a sure sign to him that this was the perfect screenwriter to help him create the intensity and realism that he demanded.

Asia A is the story of Marquise (played by London Brown of HBO’s “Ballers”), an athlete who has recently suffered a spinal cord injury which has changed his life dramatically. Without knowing whether this will be a lifelong change or a temporary one, Marquise is forced to deal with the uncertainty of his future and what he thinks it will look like. While the core of the idea may not be completely unique, the way in which the story is told is not the norm. This is not a film about events but rather about the characters and how their relationships are affected. The main character’s interaction with his (recent ex) girlfriend [Camilla] and his older hospital roommate [Noah, played by Emmy winner Pruitt Taylor Vince] present him with the choices of letting the actions of others determine his future or doing so for himself, during a very vulnerable and painful part of his life. Reid explains why he pursued Saieh to write the script stating, “Roberto’s creativity is what makes him unique from other writers. His goal is to create truly authentic stories that resonate with audiences. Storytelling is art, entertainment, and emotion all wrapped into one package and Roberto is a true storyteller. What ensures his success is his creativity and work ethic, which are unparalleled. Talent will get you into the room but it’s hard work that keeps you there.”

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An extremely benevolent impact of Roberto’s work in the eyes of the film’s director is that he flipped many of the key relationships in the film and by doing so changed the emotional kaleidoscope of it. A few expertly made adjustments completely transformed the way that the audience and even Reid was witnessing the characters and events. While most writers would fixate on what happened to Marquise, this writer focused on his response to them and those around him. Saieh came to this perspective by an unexpected association as he tells, “It occurred to me that Marquise, the main character, had to grieve the life he once had in order to accept the one before him. Using that as a starting point, I loosely modeled his journey based on the five stages of grief: Denial, Anger, Bargaining, Depression, & Acceptance; taking each as inspiration. It’s impossible for me to know what it feels like to be an Asia A patient but I have experienced different kinds of loss in my life. It is that sympathetic emotion that I overlaid onto the story and used to shape Marquise’s journey. I firmly believe that no matter what you’re writing about, as long as the emotional honesty is intact it will ring true.”

Although the injury happened directly to Marquise, the experience affects all of those around him and particularly those closest to him. In the original script, Noah is the hospital roommate of Marquise and becomes a protector to him. Wanting to present something with an inverse correlation to the norm, Roberto wrote Noah as crass and irreverent with an almost forced cheerfulness. Noah’s deceased wife pitied him and he used this as a crutch to combat the depression and anger of his situation. A diabetic, Noah is eating himself towards death and has already endured two leg amputations. Rather than a wise mentor, Noah becomes a textbook example of who Marquise does not want to become. Saieh describes, “To me, characterizing Noah this way seemed like a truer version of how people are lacking self-awareness and are self-victimizing while at the same time offering a harder-hitting narrative. I didn’t want to shy away from exploring the darker side of the themes. This isn’t the story of someone who successfully went through a similar experience and is now mentoring someone else through it. It’s the story of someone [Noah] who couldn’t do what life is asking of Marquise now.”

Further driving this point and doing so painfully for the film’s protagonist is the fact that his ex-girlfriend Camilla pursues what she believes to be the right thing in reuniting with Marquise. While the comfort of her support could be a band aid, Marquise is constantly confronted with the choices Noah has made and whether or not to face his difficulties alone but with honesty.

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Roberto began his writing career with Indie Dramas and desires to take this indie sensibility and attention to “character” that defined this early work to summer blockbusters and genre films. His fascination with romantic dramas comes from his belief that some of the worst wounds you can receive can be self-inflicted, which can seem even worse when they’re the right choice. This is perfectly stated in Asia A when Marquise rebukes Camilla’s offer in a self-aware understanding that her feelings resemble pity more than love. It’s a concept Roberto feels presents itself often in our lives. He remarks, “It’s a matter of digging into personal experience and those situations where you know a relationship is over but you also know it’s going to be up to you to end it because the other person, for whatever reason, isn’t willing to step up. Having the strength to self-inflict a necessary wound because it’s the only way to save yourself seems to be a recurring theme in some of my work; letting someone go, someone that you love to death, because they’re not right for you or because you know they will be your downfall. It wasn’t that much different writing Marquise in this situation, regardless of his status as a spinal cord injury patient.”

THE SOUND OF THE GRANDMASTER: JIFU LI

The human experience is diverse and complicated. There are layers upon layers of emotions that make up the life of every individual on the planet regardless of their experiences and their point of origin. This complexity can sometimes go unnoticed in the din of so many people. The beauty that makes up each person’s life is a story in itself. This concept goes overlooked by many but is always present in the mind of Jifu Li. As a Sound Editor, Jifu spends his time ensuring that the voices and sounds present in a film weave in and out of presence in the story as the filmmakers see fit. One might not think of sound in terms of color but it is precisely this perspective that allows a contouring of the experience by the audience. Jifu uses his talents in a wide variety of films ranging from Oscar nominated to independent productions, proving that those of great talent seeks to collaborate with great storytellers regardless of the price tag…because that’s what they must do as committed artists.

Creating any film is a massive endeavor. The Oscar-nominated feature film The Grandmaster was almost hyperbolically so. The footage was extensive, twelve reels by the time that Jifu began his work. The production’s shooting cycle had lasted four years. Li’s previous work on five films had convinced Wu Ling (general manager of the China film post Company) that Jifu’s talent and propensity to work long hours without complaint made him ideal for the position. The Grandmaster is the story of the martial-arts master Ip Man, the man who trained Bruce Lee. While it’s a gripping drama, the film is an obvious action story as well. The picture editing and audio editing of the film were done synchronously, which meant that getting the final frame version in perfect sync was an intimidating proposition. Altogether there were fifteen versions of the film. If an action scene changed, all of the effects and Group ADR required recutting by hand, sometimes even redesigning or rerecording.  Describing what he does in a very literal sense, Jifu states, “If you cut from a punch to a slow motion reaction, the sound pacing should be fast to slow. I might add in some ‘Bass Drops.’ The hit should appear to the audience as it ‘feels’ to the characters, like you can hear the fist beat from the skin to the bones, all the texture and details. What happened a lot in The Grandmaster is that they would then change it on the other side; cut to the fighter’s slow-motion movement first, and suddenly speed up, hitting the others person’s face. The sound design will then change a lot. Sometimes there were voices and sometimes just music and sound effects. There are so many of these sonic aspects in modern films and in particular action films. My job is to make sure these subtleties are executed perfectly and to the desire of the director. It can be arduous but it’s always gratifying.”

A consummate professional like Jifu was necessary for The Grandmaster due to one technique which was employed during filming for the benefit of the action sequences. In this film (as in many action films) the director used music to aid in the fight sequences. This type of choreography is always about timing and music greatly aids in this. Quite often, the music used during filming is not the same that is used in the final edit (sometimes the music is altogether discarded). This results in extensive ADR (automated dialogue replacement). Even beyond the main characters, Li worked extensively on Walla Editing (the background character voices), Wild Tracks (sound effects which are recorded on location by the production sound mixer and then later edited for use), and Foley.

The Grandmaster is a beautiful film, visually and audibly. In addition to its 2014 Academy Award-nomination, it also received the Best film at the (2014) Asian Film Awards, Best Film at the (2014) Hong Kong Film Awards, as well as a Golden Horse Film Festival Audience Choice Award & Best Feature Film nomination. Most meaningful to Jifu was the Golden Reel Award for Best Sound Editing in Foreign Feature Film that acknowledged his skill on The Grandmaster and which he credits for inspiring him to continue to excel in the profession.

Though he enjoys the challenge of a huge budget feature film, Li also welcomes the opportunity of smaller films and the methodology they require. His work in Editing for the film “Love is Color Blind” helped to create the mood for a very different type of adversity and combat between the film’s main characters. The film, which won a host of awards at the London IFF 2017 and the Los Angeles Cinema Festival of Hollywood, is the story of an American woman who adopts an orphan from China and has brought it back to the United States. With adolescent rebellion, the child begins to gradually question the authority of her mother. Teen angst ensues and a rift is created between child and parent. As life educates the daughter, she prepares to sincerely apologize to her mother at her 18-year-old birthday party but the mother faints from weakness due to late stages of cancer. At the last moment of life, the mother and daughter finally understand each other.

Jifu had extensive conversation with director Liu Jiaqi about the emotional shading of the tone she wanted in the film. In creating the sound design for “Love is Color Blind” he used Avid Media Composer  and Protools HD. The program creates sound Design effects and allows them to be categorized and moved around as per the director’s desire for subtle differences. These type of modern tools are equally applicable in major studio films or smaller indie productions. It’s a fact of the modern filmmaking era that both the tools and the skilled professional like Jifu who use them often work in both situations. The key factors in either are talent and hard work, something which Li is always mindful of. He reveals, “I remember when I worked for Kar Wai Wong the director and he told me an idiom which inspires me to this day. Everyone knows that the most valuable part of a toad is the toad oil but do you know how the toad oil is produced? The toad is placed under a light and is scorched by the light. It produces this oil, a process which takes about twenty hours. When I heard this, I thought ‘sometimes inspiration comes from dogged pursuit.’ The best thing/essence occurs at the moment when you feel you reach your limit and want to give up. If you persist, you might be surprised by your achievement. This is what keeps me working as hard as I possibly can.”The Grandmaster -MPSE best sound editing

Ismaël Lotz on the honor of working alongside his childhood idols

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Ismaël Lotz

When Ismaël Lotz looks back on his inspiration to pursue a career as a Director of Photography, Lotz recounts a unique combination of motivators. He recalls watching television and films with his father as a child. In fact, at the mere age of 7, Lotz saw E.T., and it was his first time seeing a film on the big screen. He was left in complete and utter awe, eager to see many more films just like it. After E.T., came films like Indiana Jones and Back to the Future. Eventually, he began experimenting with photographs and with shooting film on an 8mm camera. Even at a young age, he was confident that he could build a future out of his passion. His fascination with telling these gripping stories through different lighting techniques, filming methods, and sound styles opened an endless amount of possibilities and creative outlets for him to channel his artistry. He promised himself that one day, he would produce films that audiences would love the way he loved films like Back to the Future. Little did he know, he would one day work with the actors who crafted these stories before his eyes; however, today, instead of being his idols, these actors are also his equals.

Over the course of his career, Lotz has built himself into a highly sought-after Director of Photography in the arts and entertainment industry. His creative process typically begins when he assesses the story of a script and determines which style of film would best suit its inherent messages, moods, emotions, and atmospheres. Once he develops a vision for the script, he works tirelessly to ensure that he brings it to life in such a way that honors every element of the writer’s vision. Lotz distinguishes himself by his ability to capture every detail of a storyline, no matter how large or small. In his free time, he researches and experiments different filming techniques used by other directors of photography to master new techniques and broaden his range of abilities in order to enhance his skill set for the better of his future projects. In fact, in 2016, he had the unique opportunity to test his hand at filming a documentary called I Am Famous, featuring the life of Tom Wilson.

After he developed the idea of I Am Famous, Lotz was extremely excited about the opportunity to work with an actor that he had admired and idolized ever since he was a child. Wilson, who played the infamous role of Biff in Back to the Future, built an entertaining comedy reel out of his experiences after Back to the Future stormed the film industry. His role was so well known and vehemently disliked by audiences across the globe that he became accustomed to strangers approaching him and saying, “I hate you!” For I Am Famous, Lotz was not only the Director of Photography, but also the film’s sole director and editor. His personal approach to shooting the documentary allowed him to unveil Wilson’s true self. Being able to get to know one of the actors who inspired Lotz to become a Director of Photography was an opportunity unlike anything else he had ever encountered. He worked tirelessly to ensure that the final product of the project was nothing short of perfect.

“The way I create documentaries is very close and personal. I think the closer you can get to your subject, the more honest and real you can present them in your film. I like getting close to my subject on an intellectual level, but also with my camera. The result of I Am Famous was more than I could have ever dreamt. It turned out to be very successful,” told Lotz.

On the other side of the camera, Wilson was extremely humbled by the project. He doesn’t often allow for filmmakers to tap into his personal journeys; however, he felt that he could trust Lotz to portray him in an honest, organic light. He developed a confidence in Lotz that allowed him to feel at ease on camera and that allowed Lotz to challenge him to open himself up before his audience. When Wilson agreed to the project, he had no idea that he would be so moved by the final product and he felt that it was a distinct pleasure to be able to experience working with such a well-established Director of Photography.

“Working with Ismaël was a pleasure, as he is kind, easy to collaborate with, and keeps his humanity of the utmost importance – which is sometimes a rarity in filmmaking. His friendly demeanor makes a fine foundation for his skills as a cinematographer and director who gets things done. His knowledge of the technical demands that underlie the complex technologies of filmmaking are at the highest professional level and he has proven that with a long list of impressive professional work. In my almost forty years of filmmaking, I must say that Ismaël combines the essential ingredients for a successful filmmaker; a high level of technical skill, a deep commitment to the art of cinematography, and the personal character that makes for a solid and lasting success,” noted Wilson.

I Am Famous premiered in 2017 on ShortCutz Festival in Amsterdam. It went on to screen successfully at a number of subsequent film festivals such as the Miami Independent Film Festival, the Los Angeles Film Awards, New York Film Awards, Hollywood International Independent Documentary Awards, and many more. Knowing the film has done this well so early on in its screening life is a testament to Lotz’ prowess as a Director of Photography. He is motivated to explore the possibility of creating a follow up film.

For anyone aspiring to follow in Lotz’ footsteps, he cautions them to remain honest to themselves and to their environment. He understands that in his field, it is imperative to create as much as possible. With that, will come mistakes and ultimately, learning opportunities. By watching the work of other cinematographers, you can learn new techniques and gain an appreciation for all of the different styles present in the industry. The learning never stops and maybe one day, up-and-coming cinematographers will get to work with their idols and perfect their craft as Lotz has done in his remarkable career.

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.

Producer Sherry Yang scares and educates audiences in new thriller ‘Under the Pieces’

The moment Sherry Yang steps onto a film set, she falls in love with what she does all over again. She is an extraordinary producer, and her passion for her work translates into each and every film she has done. She loves the feeling of working tirelessly night and day, as it allows her to see the magic of the filmmaking process in its entirety. She loves that as a producer, she nourishes a project from beginning to end; she works with every department; she is the go-to person for any problem that may arise and always has a way of solving it. For Yang, her work is more than satisfying, it is addicting, and that is why she is in demand all over the world.

Yang has produced many high-achieving films, and the success of each comes down to her talent and work ethic. Her versatility is superlative, and whether working on a historical story, such as the award-winning film The Letter, a telling comedy, exemplified by her films Jiaozi and Cash Back, or meaningful dramas like Te Echo de Menos, Yang’s producing is continuously top-notch. She has now also extended her resume to the thriller genre with her work on the new film Under the Pieces, and she has once again showed the world what she is capable of.

“I had always been very interested in the human psyche, which sparked my interest in Under the Pieces. I have been especially fascinated by the notion of dual personalities. This film decided to take a step further and make it multiple personal identities, and that made me excited. It was going to be another challenge to see how a mysterious murder would play out. I wanted to be one of the key elements that help in bringing this story to its successful,” said Yang.

Under the Pieces - Yuki Yoshimatsu, Brittany Fisheli, Sherry Yang - photo by Vera Zhang
Yuki Yoshimatsu, Brittany Fisheli, and Sherry Yang – photo by Vera Zhang

Under the Pieces follows a detective as she tries to put the puzzle pieces together of a horrendous murder that occurs inside a loving couple’s home. Yang was responsible for gathering the team, setting up meetings and rehearsals, and running daily productions. She also had to hire a writer and director. When she found Yuki Yoshimatsu, Yang then was involved in the creative aspect of the film. She would go over each draft and work with her team to ensure they were telling the right story. This made her extremely attached to the script, and she had to make sure she found the right actors for each part. Finding someone who can convincingly portray multiple personalities is not easy, as they had to be someone who could change their entire disposition just from the look in their eyes, but eventually she found just that in Mikael Mattsson. Her work was not done after that; once filming was completed, the team then looked for the ideal editor, one who would display the story in a manner that the audience would understand what happened whilst keeping the mystery of it until the very end, which they found in Monge. Undoubtedly, the film could not have achieved what it did without Yang, and these thoughts are echoed by her team.

“Sherry demonstrated exceptional problem-solving skills and communication abilities within and outside the production crew. In particular, when working with her, I don’t remember having a single problem with other departments or locations. When a producer is talented and particularly adept at their job it often goes unnoticed, because everyone else can tend to their own responsibilities without unexpected distractions. In this respect, Sherry was always an unsung hero on set by solving every ongoing problem that we were unaware of at the time. She is the best kind of producer, one who provides an environment where everyone on the crew can excel up to and beyond their individual abilities to collaboratively make the best possible product. I don’t even know much about her past work and accomplishments because when I’ve worked with her she has always been focused entirely on the job at hand rather than talking about herself. The filmmaking business is often correctly characterized for its narcissism. It is an industry where many people prop themselves up by tearing others down. It is notable that I have never heard a negative comment about Sherry from anyone else or a diminishing remark from her about anyone else. This might seem like a small thing, but it is a significant asset to the film industry because she has the type of work ethic and personality that sets a cultural and social example for an industry that is too often lacking,” said Edwin Beckenbach, a gaffer on Under the Pieces.

After premiering at the Los Angeles Cinema Festival of Hollywood in February where it won Best Student Film, Under the Pieces has had quite the film festival run. It was a selection at the celebrated Cannes Short Film Corner, as well as the L.A. Shorts Awards 2017 where it won Best Short Film Silver Award and the NYC Indie Film Awards 2017, where it took home Best Short Film Platinum Award.

“It is exciting that the film did so well. I am happy that many audiences and festival juries were able to understand the story and enjoy it. It assures us that the film was understandable and that we were able to tell the story correctly. We hope that this film has not only surprised audiences with the ending, but that it allowed them to connect with its message. We wanted the audience to understand that although perhaps not to the extreme of murder, but any individual in a stressful situation can snap with one simple push,” said Yang.

The film started out as Cinematographer Royce Gao’s passion project. Gao approached Yang knowing she was the best producer possible for her cherished film. Yang was not only eager to tell the story, but also to take on a more creative producing role, finding the correct writer and director, and being a part of the writing process. This made communication critical for the project’s success.

“I truly liked how I got to be involved creatively. The fact that I was able to put a few inputs to the story made this project a lot more personal to me. It made me more passionate to make sure the story was told right. I enjoyed being valued not only for my skills as a producer, but also for my creativity,” she said.

Above all else, however, Yang wanted to tell the story not just as a thriller that would excite and terrify audiences, but as a teaching tool. She wanted to educate viewers on multiple personality disorder, and put in a lot of research to make the story as authentic as possible.

Be sure to check out Under the Pieces and get a glimpse into Sherry Yang’s outstanding producing talents.

 

Top photo Victoria Geske, Sherry Yang – by Yuki Yoshimatsu