Filmmaker Spotlight: “Thief”

In the GIFF Filmmaker Spotlight, GIFF interviews writer/director Julian Higgins from Los Angeles, CA, about his film “Thief”; a Grand Jury Award nominee for Best Short Narrative here at GIFF. (Screening Saturday, Oct.1, 1:05pm, Stadium 5 at the Micronesia Mall Theatres. (CLICK HERE FOR TICKETS AND MORE INFORMATION)

GIFF: Thanks for taking the time to do the interview, Julian – it’s an honor to showcase the work of a student Academy Award winner at the inaugural GIFF! I’ve watched your acceptance speech for THIEF on the Oscars’ website while it was presented by Oscar winner Ed Zwick. That’s extremely awesome! Tell us about your experience winning the Gold Medal at the Student Academy Awards. What was it like for you?

JULIAN: It was just an unbelievable experience from start to finish. Such a thing couldn’t be further from your mind when you’re in the middle of making a film — you’re just focusing on the work moment-to-moment, hoping that everything you’re doing will come together and make sense. And even after you finish a project and you get it where you want it and you’re proud of it, there’s still the big question of what the audience will think. So as soon as I submitted, I started managing the expectations of everyone on the team, preparing them for the idea that we wouldn’t get anything…

And then we were named a regional finalist, and then a national finalist, and each time we were more and more excited, but I kept telling everyone, “It’s so unlikely we’ll move on to the next stage, I just want you to be really happy that we made it this far, because seriously, this doesn’t happen every day.” And then, after all that anticipation, sitting there in the Samuel Goldwyn Theater with a thousand people around us, we found out we won the Narrative Gold Medal, which is the top prize we could have won. And of all people, the presenter was Ed Zwick, who besides being a great filmmaker and a personal influence on me, is also one of the most involved AFI alums and someone I had met several times before at AFI events… It just couldn’t have been any better. It was a once-in-a-lifetime experience.

GIFF: You’ve come a long way since your 2004 film “Mending Wall”, which you shot while still in high school in New Hampshire. Let’s talk about making the move from your home state of New Hampshire to California. That’s quite a ways. Did you feel that this was a necessary move to make in order to pursue your dreams as a filmmaker or was it due to your school of choice?

JULIAN: I think having a presence in Los Angeles is absolutely a necessity if you want to be a filmmaker in America. Getting an MFA in Directing from the American Film Institute was my dream scenario, of course, but I planned to move to LA after college regardless of whether or not I was accepted into AFI. I found out I got in during my last semester of undergrad (at Emerson College), so the transition from east coast to west was much easier since I knew what I would be doing once I arrived. And everyone always told me I’d either love LA or hate it… so I guess I’m lucky.

GIFF: Speaking of AFI, THIEF is your award-winning AFI thesis film. Describe THIEF for us.

JULIAN: Set primarily in 1959, THIEF tells the story of an Iraqi boy named Mehdi who finds a wounded young man washed up on the riverbank one day and decides to bring the stranger back to his family’s house for care. That simple decision, and the events that transpire because of it, change his life forever — and not for the better. Then, over forty years later, the two men come face-to-face a second time, and Mehdi must weigh his desire for revenge against his need to make peace with the past. It’s a dark, quiet story, and one that I hope will compel and entertain the audience while also engaging their minds.

GIFF: I love how, in THIEF, you portrayed something that we don’t get to see often enough in the media…the intimacy of Iraq. First of all, the landscape and location for the film was beautiful. Where did you shoot it? Tell us about logistics…any quirky on-location stories?

JULIAN: The setting was everything to us, because we were very committed to the idea of shooting everything on location in a practical set to help create that sense of authenticity – obviously for the audience, but also for the actors. And that one location was going to play for most of the film, so it was very important that we find a place with all the elements we needed. We knew we were going to build Mehdi’s hut from scratch, so the property had to be privately-owned, but it also had to have a long, picturesque dirt road – not easy to find both elements in the same place.

We ended up shooting at a film ranch in the hills that had been completely destroyed in a huge forest fire, so it had an incredible look that was also quite temporary. Now, if you go back there, it’s all green and lush and overgrown. And because everything had recently been burned to the ground, the owners let us build exactly what we wanted. We really lucked out. Logistically, it was difficult at times to shoot there with the wind and the sand and the harsh, direct sunlight – except for the one afternoon when we had a hailstorm! Of course that was the day we had a goat on set, who wasn’t a fan of the hail at all. It seems that every project I work on, there’s always one day where the weather goes completely haywire…

GIFF: The way that you and your team created the personable texture of the story to serve Mehdi’s character was just unbelievable. The visuals, the words, the set design, the pacing…it all felt so natural. Tell us about the principal filmmakers that worked on THIEF. Being that this was a thesis film, were they assigned to you or did you choose them?

JULIAN: At AFI, the key team members are comprised of AFI students from the six programs – directors, producers, screenwriters, cinematographers, production designers, and editors. Usually the producers and directors team around a script or a writer, and then go get the rest of the team, but I did things a bit differently. I had already collaborated with cinematographer Andrew Wheeler and editor Justin LaForge on one of our first-year projects, and we had worked so well together that we agreed to team for thesis before I wrote a word of the script. I brought on writer Matt Wieland to work on the screenplay with me before we submitted it for thesis consideration, and then after the school greenlit our draft, that’s when I got producer West McDowell and production designer Erika Walters to complete the team. I could go on for a long time about the phenomenal work that each person did – making THIEF was a big task, especially since we had a pretty tiny budget, and I was continually impressed by the dedication and attention to detail of my collaborators.

As for the look of the film, we wanted to steer clear of “Middle Eastern movie” clichés, avoiding handheld, desaturated, muddy-looking images. We tried to be very disciplined about our use of color, lens sizes, camera moves, visual repetition, pacing, so that the movie would have the quality of being carefully and deliberately made. Those choices are just a reflection of my preferences as a movie-watcher: I like to feel that there are confident filmmakers behind the movie who are making thoughtful, interesting choices – when I watch a film, I want to feel like I’m in good hands.

GIFF: Maz and the entire cast did a fantastic job as well. I think they nailed it. The roles were cast perfectly. How did you fall into such a wonderful cast?

JULIAN: Yeah, I definitely lucked out with the cast. We had so much fun working on the project together! The pool of Arabic-speaking actors in Los Angeles is pretty small, but it is vibrant. My first thought was that I really wanted to put real faces on the screen – I hate when characters in a movie look like actors. When I started casting, I was expecting to end up with a cast of non-actors, because I love that sense of realism that gifted non-actors can bring to a movie. Ultimately, I ended up with only one first-timer (the young stranger), but pursuing that sense of authenticity, even with the more trained actors, continued to be my priority.

The most important thing, I think, regardless of training, is to find a group of people that are willing to bring their personal experiences fully into the film. I had conversations with each actor about what they could pull from their life and put into the work, and I can confidently say that each one of them gave something very personal into the process. I think they’ll forgive me if I don’t say too much about those things (some of them may thank me, actually), but I think the degree to which an actor is willing to share that stuff with an audience dictates the resonance of his or her performance.

GIFF: What was your most valuable learning experience on this journey of making Thief?

JULIAN: To really empower your collaborators to do their work, and instill them with confidence. I learned this both through success and failure doing so. And sometimes you have to project confidence even when you don’t feel confident in the slightest! For example, I had no idea how the hell we were going to be able to build a fully-functional Iraqi hut on location, how we would plan, organize, or afford that – but my production designer needed to hear me say, “You can do it, Erika! This is totally possible!” And then she, having a huge amount of training and talent, could just go and figure out how to pull it off.

GIFF: If there was one thing that you wish the audience could take with them after seeing this film, what would it be?

JULIAN: I would want them to come away with the idea that no matter how marginalized or insignificant we feel as individuals, our actions really do have an impact on the world, and it’s important for us to participate however we can. It’s the small choices that make all the difference in our lives.

GIFF: And a question that I’m sure you’re tired of being asked as a filmmaker…What’s your next project?

JULIAN: Currently, I’m writing an original feature and developing a number of other projects. I’ll let you guys know when I’ve got something to show!

GIFF: With all the awards that THIEF has won, I’m sure you’re immune to the initial shock of getting a nod, but you can add another nomination to the list for the Grand Jury Award for Best Short Narrative here at GIFF.  Congratulations to you!

JULIAN: Thank you so much, both for the nomination and for including us in the inaugural GIFF! It’s really an honor to have THIEF in the program and I only wish we could be there in person.

GIFF: Now for “The Quick Five” survey:

1. What I knew about Guam before GIFF:
Very little… I think I was aware there was a base there, and of course I knew it was a US territory. But I didn’t even know where it was located! Now I know…

2. What I would’ve liked to accomplish at GIFF 2011:
Explore the island while seeing as many films as possible!

3. How I heard about GIFF:

4. Things I would love to do on Guam:
Visit the War in the Pacific National  Historical Park. And go to the beach!

5. As a visitor, I would love to learn more about__________.
Guam’s ancient history.

GIFF: Thanks for your time Julian and good luck with the nomination!

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