As part of our recent series of Film Production BA workshops on the business of the cinema industry, director and producer Waheed AlQawasmi joined tutor Jon-Carlos Evans and his students for a live Q&A. Read our round-up.
Is filmmaking a chance to live many lifetimes? Or is life a chance to make many films? Emmy award-winning director and producer Waheed AlQawasmi would probably agree with the latter, having invested the past four years of his life working tirelessly on his labour of love, his first indie feature film Jacir, alongside running his production company.
“Everyone expects Mike Tyson to train when he wants to win the world championship, but for some reason they don’t want to apply that to art.”
“Everyone expects Mike Tyson to train when he wants to win the world championship, but for some reason they don’t want to apply that to art,” the former Fox Television creative director told our Film Production Bachelor students in a recent online Q&A session. “It’s like, no, I want to win… You have to put two, three years of working 18-hour days on something you love, to build [something] that’s your own, that no one can take away from you.”
Hosted by tutor Jon-Carlos Evans, the session was part of ‘The Biz’, a series of 12 workshops which introduced our students to the wider business of the cinema industry, emerging and ancillary technologies, and the peripheral worlds of new media and video art – all the while initiating invaluable professional connections.
Jacir explores the unlikely friendship developed between its eponymous protagonist, an orphaned Syrian refugee who settles in Memphis, Tennessee – the city to which Waheed himself emigrated as a teenager – and Meryl, a reclusive opioid addict who is fearful of the local immigrants. Meryl is played by Lorraine Bracco, the Oscar-nominated supporting actress of Goodfellas – one of the movies Waheed grew up watching in his native Jordan in the formative years of his filmmaking interest.
How did he go from watching Bracco to directing her 20 years later? It would be tempting to talk of fate. Yet, what we learnt in our two hours with the creative powerhouse is that his shining career is built of solid graft, painted with passion and glazed with luck. The Jacir project began with a promising script. What Waheed didn’t anticipate were the many obstacles that lay ahead on his journey to realising it.
“If I’d have known it would take four years to make that film, I’m not sure I would have gone down that road,” he revealed. Taking on the production and securing the funding was only the beginning of an uphill struggle. Waheed scheduled the shooting to begin in May 2020. When the pandemic hit, he decided to employ his logistics mastery to keep on pushing. That included staggering the schedule of the cast and crew and rethinking entire scenes to eliminate mask-wearing crowds and to comply with hygiene regulations – a huge addition to the workload and to the budget. Jacir is currently in post-production, which Waheed and his team are aiming to complete in under six months. “There are five original songs in the movie that two of the characters sing,” he shared. “That’s a lot of work. That’s like producing an album in addition to a movie, that you have to merge into that world of the movie.”
“Don’t forget, even if it is your first time as a director, that person still chose to do the project with you… they are already coming to you with respect for who you are, so now you have to earn that respect. And sometimes you earn it by collaborating, and I like to collaborate.”
Just like Jon-Carlos, Waheed has worked in nearly every role on set, allowing him to lead in his various roles with a great deal of empathy and humility. Valuing the experience of his collaborators, he is not afraid to work with their feedback. “Lorraine gives the gift of having worked with directors who shaped the whole industry, so she helps you change that hat,” he said. “It’s really about the people that are around you. If you can function in different capacities and it’s hard to do it all at once on the same day, it’s about the people around you and how they know to get your attention, because they come in with things to solve, not problems, with solutions...I wasn’t intimidated directing Lorraine because, at the end of the day, what I know is this: we’re all human. It doesn’t matter how many times you’ve seen someone on TV or how big of an idol they are...Don’t forget, even if it is your first time as a director, that person still chose to do the project with you… they are already coming to you with respect for who you are, so now you have to earn that respect. And sometimes you earn it by collaborating, and I like to collaborate.”
What was Waheed’s biggest advice to aspiring producers? “You have to put it in your head that you’re there for the movie, and you’re there for everyone else there,” he explained. “You’re the person that builds the table that everyone else is going to stand on... The most crucial part in producing – especially if you’re a creative producer, meaning you really have good creative ideas – is learning how to manage creatives. It’s called herding cats. Herding creative cats? Super hard… And go learn budgeting. Budgeting is very important. You have to be honest with yourself about the numbers. You have to be honest about the capabilities. If you hear a crazy idea, you’ve got to steer and shepherd that whole thing away…”
“That’s my best advice for producing: learn math and learn how to handle different people’s personalities.” He also stressed that having fun with whatever you are doing should be a priority. “When I’m not having fun, I’m not as effective,” he said, revealing that it is by applying his director’s creativity to even the most unexciting production tasks that he gets the most enjoyment out of his work.
When Jon-Carlos opened up the Q&A to the students, Jonah asked what everyone was thinking: how does Waheed juggle so many projects within his marathon workdays without getting overly stressed? Honest communication is key. “As long as you’re calm, everyone else around you will be calm,” he said. It’s something he’s learnt from being on sets – the learning by doing we value above all at Catalyst. “It’s just doing it over and over. It becomes a part of you; it’s like breathing. And you don’t think about breathing.”