After being tipped as a future star on BBC’s 2017 hotlist and working as the production and post-production manager of the Oscar-nominated and Sundance winning short movie “Waste Land”, it was time for Nour Wazzi to sit in the director’s chair for another short film. Her “Baby Mine” is an thrilling, important and emotional short movie and so our reporter Liselotte Vanophem had a chat with her to talk about the movie, stereotypes, her love for film and the future.
Liselotte Vanophem: Hi Nour, how are you doing?
Nour Wazzi: Yeah pretty good, certainly been a whirlwind of emotions these past few months. Writing has undoubtedly kept me sane during the lockdown, almost given me permission to lose myself in storytelling.
LV: Congratulations on your stunning short movie “Baby Mine”. Where did the story for this film come from?
NW: Thank you, glad you liked it. My writing and producing partner Shirine Best (who was recently awarded the BFI Vision Awards and has since produced “Westwood: Punk, Icon, Activist” with co-writer Ellie Emptage) is half-Iranian and she’d told me a story when we’d first met about her father kidnapping her sister. We hardly ever see Middle Eastern men in interesting roles in commercial cinema, so I suggested merging an aspect of her father’s story with another true story we were all excited about and crafting it into a thriller. I wanted it to be a gripping, emotive and subversive story that challenged stereotypes. They were in!
LV: You wrote the story with two other co-writers. How did the writing process go?
NW: Yes Shirine, Ellie and I wrote the script. We were all working at the same production company at the time so we’d navigate notes and re-writes with our workload and who had the time for the next pass. Feel like I wiped the very long development period out of my memory to be honest! Just remember we had far too many versions of the story. Pulling from true events and characters to create a fictional one is always a challenge to get right. Point of view was a hard one to navigate throughout writing and we ended up prioritising the mother’s perspective to shape the narrative.
I’d long abandoned writing my own scripts before “Baby Mine“, and it was down to Shirine and Ellie giving me the opportunity to write together that re-opened this door for me. It’s taken years to gain confidence as a writer, but becoming one has helped me find my voice as a filmmaker and made me a better director.
LV: The cast of this movie is incredibly strong. How did you come across those amazing actors and actresses?
NW: There weren’t a huge number of known Middle Eastern actors in the UK that fit the story we were telling and I’ve always been a huge fan of Alexander Siddig that modern audiences will know from “Game of Thrones”, “Gotham” and “The Spy”. I’d worked with Yasmine Al Massri and Hiam Abbass years before on my short “Habibti”, who’d in turn worked with Sid on Schnabel’s “Miral”. I can’t remember who made the introduction but Sid and I got talking, and our casting director Martin Ware of course reached out to his agent. He’s super chill and humble. We hung out on his farm, got to know each other and he made the most delicious beef ribs! Working with him was thrilling, he’d naturally always give me something different in each take. My direction was always short and sweet with him, he just knew what I needed before I needed to ask. He had great instincts and made everything look easy.
We’d actually had interest from some pretty big actresses for the role of Sarah but scheduling conflicts made us push the film production twice. The third time we’d lost an actress like a week or so before the shoot and we weren’t about to move it again as it was Sid’s last window for a while. Martin sent over his recommendations and a bunch of reels, I ended up meeting Rachael Stirling and just loved her. We immediately clicked and she was super invested in the story. Crafting this character was tricky and ultimately was a huge learning experience.
Finding the brilliant Grace Taylor was a journey. I must have seen hundreds of child actors but Martin was brilliant at making the process as painless as possible. In the auditions, she ultimately outshone everyone. With some screen experience already under her belt in “Marcella” and “You Me and the Apocalypse”, she was just remarkably gifted, nuanced and took direction so well. I have high expectations for her.
We’d lost an actor due to the second shift of dates but then we found Alex Ferns (who recently won a Scottish BAFTA for the brilliant “Chernobyl”). Think the first time I’d seen him on screen was the brilliant 2005 Oscar nominated film “Joyeux Noel”, and of course all my British partners knew him from “Eastenders”, which I’d never seen. I remember he was perfect for the role, was super driven and such fun to work with.
LV: This movie touches a lot of important topics that should get much more attention. What do you hope that people will take away with them after seeing this film?
NW: Thank you, yes I agree. Well firstly I hope they enjoy the ride! I hope it strikes an emotional chord for kids in unhealthy family environments, and the impact of mental illness on families. And I hope it asks our audience to confront their unconscious bias and judgments.
LV: The movie will get its the global release online soon. How does that feel for you?
NW: Yeah it feels good, and maybe a bit unnerving. I think the curse of being a director is you’re always going to see the flaws of your own work, what I would’ve done differently with hindsight… it’s never quite good enough. I don’t know maybe it’s ultimately a good thing as that voice keeps propelling you to be better. It’s in the hands of universe now and truly hope it finds its audience.
LV: You’ve worked on many different films already, whether it was as a director, writer, producer, editor, etc.. Where did your passion for movies come from?
NW: I’ve always loved movies, didn’t know you could actually make a career out of it till my 20s. Thought I’d be a geneticist or bio-chemist when I first started university in Beirut, before moving to London. But I’ve always been a storyteller, at one point I even dallied with journalism but that wasn’t my calling.
I just loved the escapism of movies – I could transcend my shielded bubble across space and time, see the world through a renewed perspective, be on the edge of my seat and be moved to tears. Making them brings me even more joy, and we have such a responsibility as filmmakers to shape the world we need to see. The moment I directed my first film was the moment my life made sense.
LV: Will we maybe see you on screen as well?
NW: I’ve taken a few ‘acting for directors’ courses for the insight and might’ve been in a few student shorts back in the day but the consensus is….
Hell no. I’ll leave that to the many talented actors out there!
LV: Do you already have projects you’re working on?
NW: No doubt! I’ve spent far too many years fixated on one project at a time for it then to fall apart.
I recently partnered with powerhouse producers Hans Ritter (“Birds of Prey“, “Hard Candy”, “Sound of My Voice”), Mary Jane Skalski (“American Animals”, “Mysterious Skin”, “The Visitor”), Robert Ogden Barnum (“Margin Call”, “All is Lost”) and former Sony Pictures’ Exec Josephine Rose (“Pin Cushion”) on various film and TV projects.
Feeling pretty invigorated with my slate these days, it’s taken me a while to find the right stories and partners – three epic features, two of which are out to very exciting cast (crossed fingers!) and a bunch of exciting sci-fi shows I’m developing with talented emerging writers.
My front runner project is black female-led thriller “Chimera”, I feel like I truly found my voice in this script. Earlier this year I got some fantastic notes from A24 and my producer Mary Jane, and it finally all clicked into place. It taps into questions of what it means to be alive. The nature of humanity, of love, loss, identity, motherhood, time and memory.
I’m also priming to direct on a high-end sci-fi show after the summer that’ll hopefully be announced soon!