A tale of two directors who are coming to Sundance, each with a milestone career debut.
One already has a history at the festival with a short film--her first directorial effort--that was well received three years ago. Fast forward to today and her feature-length version of that short has again made the Sundance cut. It marks her initial foray into feature direction and will premiere in Sundance’s Next showcase, a collection of films marked by a forward-thinking approach to storytelling. Prior to settling into the director’s chair, she first established herself as an actor and continues to perform.
Our other helmer also is making his feature directorial debut at Sundance as part of the fest’s World Cinema Dramatic competition lineup. His career roots are in editing.
The latter filmmaker is Alex Camilleri who brings Luzzu to Sundance. The former is Carlson Young who will bow The Blazing World at the festival.
The Sundance Film Festival runs from January 28-February 3.
The Blazing World
The short The Blazing World spawned the feature of the same title. While Young wrote the short, she teamed on the long-form film with friend and writing colleague Pierce Brown whose sci-fi saga “Red Rising” had earned its way onto The New York Times Best Seller List. Young and Brown put the rough draft of her feature script through an intense development process, refining the story. Young described the final screenplay as paradoxically being both the same yet so different from the original. She explained that while the spirit of the story remained unchanged, the honing process imbued it with new qualities. “It took a lot of self-reflection to get the script there,” she shared.
The Blazing World introduces us to Margaret Winter (portrayed by Young) whose life as a child was traumatized by the accidental drowning of her twin sister. Margaret carries the profound impact of that tragedy with her to adulthood. As a self-destructive young woman, she returns a couple of decades later to the family home, finding herself drawn to an alternate dimension where her sister may still be alive. The psychological thriller takes us on a journey of the imagination that is terrifying yet darkly beautiful at the same time as Margaret navigates through the past and a broken family in an attempt to exorcise inner demons and find some light.
In a parallel of sorts, Young found light at the end of her directing sojourn despite--or perhaps because of--being tested along the way. “The person I was at the start is not the person I am today,” she observed, noting that “trial by fire” transformed her for the better as it “took a lot of endurance to get the film over the finish line.”
A prime hurdle was the COVID-19 pandemic as Young and her ensemble rolled into pre-pro at the beginning of March. She found herself having to work with a limited crew on a movie driven by a script that wasn’t written for these circumstances. “We had to get creative and make the best use of essential crew members at all times,” related Young who had to rewrite some parts to work within new parameters, limiting the number of actors in scenes. Young noted that the revised iteration of the film is “pandemic confined” yet she’s hopeful that audiences won’t be able to tell in that every effort was made to “mask circumstances that we had no control over.”
Indeed the film still feels ambitious, expansive and imaginative with no telltale signs that its production was affected by the pandemic. Carlson credits her compatriots including such contributors as cinematographer Shane F. Kelly and editor James K. Crouch. Young cited Kelly’s “incredible eye” and penchant for “gorgeous naturalistic cinematography.” She was attracted to the promise of what he could do with “the psychedelic vision” of The Blazing World.
In that vein, Young observed that she and her collaborators “were all embarking on something we hadn’t actually done before,” which made for an exciting experience.
It’s an experience that further fuels her appetite for writing and directing as she said the film makes her “more confident to express myself creatively,” additionally buoyed by the Sundance recognition. “I feel a creative conscience I hopefully will be able to take into my next project.”
With acting credits that include TV series such as Scream, As the Bell Rings, Key & Peele and the film Premature, Young has broken through as a director, particularly with inclusion in the aforementioned Next lineup at Sundance. Films that have premiered in the Next category in recent years include The Infiltrators, Searching, Skate Kitchen, A Ghost Story and Tangerine. Carlson said that her passion for directing is grounded in the opportunities it affords for “world building and creating something out of nothing.”
In addition to Young, the cast for The Blazing World includes Udo Kier, Dermot Mulroney, Vinessa Shaw, John Karna, and Soko.
Speaking of casts, the one assembled for Luzzu reflected an inspired leap of faith for Camilleri who wrote, directed, produced and edited the film. (A luzzu is a traditional Maltese fishing boat.) Camilleri opted for non-actors to tell a story which introduces us to Jesmark, a struggling fisherman on the island of Malta, who’s forced to turn his back on generations of tradition and risk everything by entering the world of black market fishing to provide for his girlfriend and a newborn baby diagnosed with a growth impediment.
The principal performers discovered in Malta by Camilleri were Jesmark Scicluna, Michela Farrugia and David Scicluna. “I knew I had to cast real fishermen in those roles. It was in the marrow of this project,” affirmed Camilleri. “It was also a tall order, finding the right people. I was looking for a young fisherman. The average fisherman in Malta is over 50 years old. We looked for months. I had a terrific casting director. We were lucky to find the real-life people we did. They had an innate talent, conveying an emotional honesty that went beyond what my understanding was going in.”
Motivating Camilleri further was his heritage. “I was seeking a connection to my past,” he observed, sharing, “My parents emigrated from Malta. I was born in the states but kept close ties to the island. We’d get back to Malta as often as we could. It brought out my desire to share stories, specifically Maltese stories. I wanted to make films in Malta as often as I could. From a distance I was also inspired by the world of traditional fishermen though I knew nothing about that life. I had never gone fishing so it wasn’t the most natural subject matter. But when I started talking to fisherman, I saw something I could relate to, a lot of the things I thought about in my own life, the same things weighing on a working class generation. It all immediately felt ripe for a story, a colorful cinematic world never seen before, unearthing universal themes about family and sacrifice.”
Helping Camilleri capture that cinematic world was DP Leo Lefèvre. “I had been entertaining DPs from wildly different backgrounds and national origins,” recalled Camilleri. “We knew the conditions of the shoot would be hard, our budget was very small. I was in search of someone who would embrace all this. Leo had come off a wonderful Algerian film (Papicha) that played at Cannes. He shot in difficult conditions. I could see parallels to shooting in Malta.”
But perhaps convincing Camilleri of Lefèvre’s mettle even more was a short film he shot as a university student, which centered on a young man interacting with a horse. Camilleri ran across the short on Lefèvre’s website. “His treatment of the horse, how he moved the camera in relationship to the horse was so intelligent, so sensitive,” explained Camilleri. “I’m not equating a horse to non-actors. But I saw in that work that Leo had the right kind of eye to work with a non-actor. The way he captured the performance of a horse really inspired me.”
As for what his biggest takeaways were from his experience on Luzzu, Camilleri said, “I was gratified by sticking with my convictions in casting non-actors, in letting Malta be itself. Malta has a lot of foreign production and stands in for every other country. Malta rarely appears as itself. Using Malta and the Maltese language did not help us in pitching the film. But I learned the smaller you make a story, the bigger it becomes, that there is a common language. And I’m glad people seem to be enjoying the film.”
On the pandemic front, Camilleri said he “dodged a bullet.” The director recalled in the fall of 2019 the film had a funding setback, causing him and his producer colleagues (Rebecca Anastasi, Ramin Bahrani and Oliver Mallia) to consider their options over a weekend. “We were on the brink of pushing the shoot to the spring of 2020,” said Camilleri, but the decision was made instead to go ahead with production. Lensing was wrapped in the fall of 2019, prior to the coronavirus lockdowns that took hold in the spring.
Camilleri said that nurturing him through the quarantine was being immersed in editing Luzzu. “That saved me through those long months,” he observed.
Other effects of the pandemic will be felt in relation to Luzzu as Sundance has this year become largely a virtual event. “I have not watched this film in a room with people,” related Camilleri. “I love the cinema and hope the cinematic experience resumes. I love to watch an audience, learn where the laughs are, see the collective body language of the audience and then take that experience, what you learned, to your next film. That won’t happen at Sundance but I’m hopeful it will happen at some point.”
Still Camilleri is most gratified over Luzzu making the Sundance cut, particularly gaining inclusion into the Next lineup. Films that have premiered in the festival’s Next category in recent years include The Souvenir, The Guilty, Monos, The Nile Hilton Incident and Second Mother.