I used to foolishly believe that if one makes a film that is of a certain caliber and wins prestigious accolades, distribution and production are guaranteed. However, I realized that this is not the way it really works. I underestimated the importance of networking, and that is a vital aspect of becoming a successful filmmaker. A quality project alone is not enough. This is a lesson that has taken me some time to learn.
As a part of our series called “5 Things I Wish Someone Told Me When I First Became A Filmmaker”, I had the distinct pleasure of interviewing Chris Zarb.
Chris Zarb is a Freelance Film Director and Writer from Ta’ Kappara, Malta. He completed his studies at both the MetFilm School and the University of Malta. He has currently shot a total of sixteen films, with many more on the horizon.
Thank you so much for joining us in this interview series! Our readers would love to get to know you a bit better. Can you tell us a bit of the ‘backstory’ of how you grew up?
I grew up in Malta, having been adopted at a very young age. From early on, films and filmmaking have been a passion of mine. I first studied the art of filmmaking at Met Film School in Ealing, London. These studies led to the award of a B.A. Hons in Practical Filmmaking from Thames Valley University. Some years later, I obtained a Masters in Film Studies from the University of Malta.
Following my first degree, together with my friend and colleague Paul Preca Trapani, I applied for funds from the Malta Film Fund. I was awarded a grant that allowed us to produce my first feature length film, which I also wrote and directed. This feature, Do Re Mi Fa, has received a number of awards and nominations in various international film festivals. The feature was screened at the Cannes film festival in 2016, at the Museum of the Moving Image in New York in 2017 as part of the Panorama Europe Festival, and in other theaters in New York, Berlin, China and Malta. It was also considered as one of the three essential films of the Panoroma Europe Film Festival of 2017 by Stage Buddy. The film is now available on AppleTV, Vudu and YouTube Movies.
To date, I have completed fifteen short films; most of which have won various awards.
Can you share a story with us about what brought you to this specific career path?
From a very early age, I was in love with films and filmmaking. I first tried my hand at acting on stage, but quickly gave this up as I realized that I wanted to be the primary creative driving force of storytelling. At the age of 15, I started filming short sketches and really enjoyed it. At the time, I used a small digital camera that only allowed three minutes of footage at a time. By the time that I started doing more professional work and developing my own individual directing style, it became clear that film writing and directing films was my calling.
Can you share the funniest or most interesting story that occurred to you in the course of your filmmaking career?
I learned an important lesson when I first worked with professional actors on my first directing assignment for the Met Film School in London. During rehearsals the day before the shoot, I was very nervous, and I must have come across as rather unsure of myself. My doubtful comment that I hoped everything would go well on the day must have sealed that impression. On the day of the shoot, I was challenged by the actors and the crew on every choice I made. Now the thing is that I had a very definite idea on how I wanted the short film shot. After all, I had written the script myself. Nevertheless, due to my lack of confidence, I completely undermined myself as the director on set. From that day on, I have never underestimated the leadership role that being a film director involves. I have no problem asking for and taking advice, but this is always within the context that it is clear who finally calls the shots on set.
Who are some of the most interesting people you have interacted with? What was that like? Do you have any stories?
One of my lecturers at Met Film School was Chris Bould, a BAFTA Award winning director. He has always been supportive of my work, and he was the script editor of Do Re Mi Fa. I also developed a strong working relationship with Shakespearean Globe Theatre actor and author, Matthew Scurfield, with whom I have worked on a number of my film projects. He acted in Do Re Mi Fa, as well as on two of my short films (The Last Grain and The End). During our time together, he shared many anecdotes of his work with other professionals in the field — which I always found both highly entertaining and interesting. I have always felt privileged to have interacted and worked with Chris and Matthew, as well as other people of their caliber.
None of us are able to achieve success without some help along the way. Is there a particular person who you are grateful towards who helped get you to where you are? Can you share a story about that?
My parents are the first people who come to mind, as they have always been extremely supportive of my following this career path. My girlfriend has also been there for me and pushes me to continue driving forward. I am fortunate in having the continued support of a strong group of film professionals; nearly all of whom have worked on major movies shot in Malta. In particular, I must mention Paul Preca Trapani, a highly experienced film professional and co-producer of Do Re Mi Fa. His support and assistance over the years has been invaluable! I would also like to thank the Malta Film Commission for believing in the script for Do Re Mi Fa enough to award me the funding to get my first feature film made.
I am still hoping to add to this list. Most importantly, a producer — who would help me take my filmmaking career to the next level.
Can you please give us your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Can you share how that was relevant to you in your life?
Stanley Kubrick had once said “If it can be written or thought, it can be filmed.” I always found this to be inspirational and relevant to me. It has helped me to never give up on an idea, no matter how ambitious it might seem. There is always a way; the trick is to see it.
I am very interested in diversity in the entertainment industry. Can you share three reasons with our readers about why you think it’s important to have diversity represented in film and television? How can that potentially affect our culture?
I am perennially intrigued by the diversity of cultures that I have come across over the years. Differences in culture imply differences in the art of storytelling. That is right up my street. I am hungry for this sort of self-enrichment. I avidly follow schools of filmmaking from all over the world — and not just the Anglo-Saxon world. For instance, the works of Krzysztof Kieślowski (Polish); Abbas Kiarostami (Iranian); Park Chan-Wook (South Korean); Yimou Zhang (Chinese); and Akira Kurosawa (Japanese). I am, of course, all too conscious of the fact that film inevitably reflects the society in which it is conceived: (warts and all) with its prejudices, traditions, beliefs, etc. However, I also recognize the potential for film (when it is incisive enough, to actually change this invisible and palpable monster we call society.
Perhaps even more than a book, a film may offer openness; introducing you to people and situations that you might otherwise never have had the opportunity to meet. Many times, it offers an experience or creates a memory. Films can forge a rapport of sorts, which diminishes the presence of prejudices and does away with non-opinions. In its place, a special kind of understanding and easy acceptance grows. When this kind of relationship (sharing a story) takes root, race, gender, sexual orientation, and other factors (which are by definition divisive) simply become of no consequence. In this regard, I am proud to say that the team I work with are as culturally diverse as my situation in Malta allows me. On my film sets, I ensure that we create a safe environment where everyone can bring their whole self to work without fear of harassment or any form of discrimination. The result is a working environment characterized by bonhomie and humor. At the same time, there is a level of seriousness and focus — which is more akin to real friendship rather than just collaboration.
What are some of the most interesting or exciting projects you are working on now?
I am planning to shoot another short film in October of this year. In addition, (together with my team) I am currently looking for a producer to help us get my second feature film made. The script has been ready for some time now, and we are very committed to it. So, if any producers out there are reading this, like my filmmaking style, and would be interested in collaborating, please get in touch.
Which aspect of your work makes you most proud? Can you explain or give a story?
I believe that many filmmakers starting out find it challenging to come up with a unique style that distinguishes them from the rest. Over the years, I have tried my best to develop my own signature. I am proud that I have managed to create a somewhat unique style of storytelling. Coupled with the obsessive attention that I give to the composition of each shot, I have always loved mixing surrealism with reality and tenderness with brutality. I do not shy away from tackling taboo subjects, and this now defines my style.
Ok super. Here is the main question of our interview. What are your “5 things I wish someone told me when I first started” and why. Please share a story or example for each.
1. I used to foolishly believe that if one makes a film that is of a certain caliber and wins prestigious accolades, distribution and production are guaranteed. However, I realized that this is not the way it really works. I underestimated the importance of networking, and that is a vital aspect of becoming a successful filmmaker. A quality project alone is not enough. This is a lesson that has taken me some time to learn.
2. One of the negatives in the creative arts is that envy and jealousy are often present, and it is no different in the world of film. These emotions often bring about stress and unnecessary pressure. They deplete the energy of both you and your team. Therefore, I have taught myself to control my own insecurities and not fall prey to that kind of behavior. I have also learned to quietly avoid negative or toxic people.
3. Film is an art-form, and hence, by definition — a precarious activity to undertake. Yet, film is also a business and one which carries heavy costs. The downside to this is that today many commercially popular films feel formulistic. Nowadays, it is action spectacles that are most commercially successful (perhaps understandable, as I also enjoy a good action movie). Meanwhile, more artistic (and dare I say) more meaningful, films are struggling to simply breakeven. I just wish it was a bit more balanced.
4. As you embark on a film career, you will soon find many closed doors. My team and myself have spent several years trying to get our foot through the door of the professional film industry. We are very happy with what we have achieved artistically, but recovering our costs and finding the right distributor for our film is very hard. Sometimes it feels almost unachievable, but perseverance and sheer hard-headedness and belief in oneself is essential in this industry.
5. Cultivating an artistic voice is very important, especially if your ultimate dream is to become an auteur filmmaker. A great deal of talent and ideas are out there. The competition is fierce, and it is an uphill struggle. You have to be stubborn and hard-working to find yourself artistically.
When you create a film, which stakeholders have the greatest impact on the artistic and cinematic choices you make? Is it the viewers, the critics, the financiers, or your own personal artistic vision? Can you share a story with us or give an example about what you mean?
I believe I have evolved as a filmmaker over time. To me, film is first an art form. Initially, I focused on this aspect. I used to make films mainly for myself without much thought for anyone else. I always admired films that are ballsy enough to push the envelope; not in a shallow way — but rather an intellectual or artistic manner. I am naturally drawn to films such as A Clockwork Orange (1971) or Oldboy (2003). Films such as these influenced my choice of themes in my work, and some of my works tackle difficult and disturbing issues. Despite receiving positive responses with this approach, I still felt that something was missing. I wanted my work to be appreciated by a wider audience. After completing some less accessible works, such as the 2015 film, Insanity, and, to a certain degree, the feature film, Do Re Mi Fa, I found a way of making my work appealing to a wider audience. My most recent short film, The Black Pebble, and the script of my second feature film have been written with this in mind. I have no interest in artificially compromising my work. However, I believe I have found a way of being more cautious with the topics that I chose to focus on in my stories. I am still determined to shake the audience and make them think, but I have found that I can still do that with themes that enjoy a wider appeal.
You are a person of great influence. If you could start a movement that would bring the most amount of good to the most amount of people, what would that be? You never know what your idea can trigger. 🙂
I believe I create artistically attractive films that are both visually interesting and thought-provoking. I believe in film being both a medium of entertainment as well as an art form. I believe that there is an opportunity to promote more of the latter and restore some balance between the two viewpoints. After all, Pablo Picasso famously stated, “art is the food for the soul”.
We are very blessed that some of the biggest names in Business, VC funding, Sports, and Entertainment read this column. Is there a person in the world, or in the US whom you would love to have a private breakfast or lunch with, and why? He or she might see this. 🙂
A film producer interested in my work and in producing my second feature-length film would be my answer. Also, I would love to have the opportunity to discuss filmmaking and directing approaches with two of my favorite directors: Paul Thomas Anderson and Wes Anderson.
How can our readers further follow you online?
My short films can be viewed on my YouTube channel: www.youtube.com/@ChrisZarb . My most recent short film, The Black Pebble, is currently in the festival circuit. It will be made public in the summer. The feature film, Do Re Mi Fa, can be streamed on AppleTV, YouTube Movies and Vudu.
This was very inspiring. Thank you so much for joining us!
Chris Zarb: 5 Things I Wish Someone Told Me When I First Became A Filmmaker was originally published in Authority Magazine on Medium, where people are continuing the conversation by highlighting and responding to this story.