As a part of our female directors interview season, we spoke with the great Nour Wazzi, a Lebanese filmmaker who founded Panacea Productions in 2008, about her experiences in filmmaking. In the span of thirteen years, she worked with names like Emilia Clarke, Maisie Williams, Earl Cameron and Oscar nominee Ari Folman. It's no surprise that Wazzi appeared as a future star on BBC's talent hotlist!
Interview by Emma Hanson
You're an award-winning filmmaker who writes, directs and produces! Have you always wanted to be involved in several aspects of film?
Storytelling has always been a part of my being. I started as a writer until I fell in love with directing. To survive I took a full-time job in production and realised I knack for producing so ending up producing and directing a number of shorts while developing a feature slate with other writers. Getting frustrated with the lack of control I had over the reliability and speed of writers, I decided to get back into writing a couple of years ago and prioritised projects. I enjoy being involved in all aspects of the process - they all have their time but ultimately I am a director first and foremost!
You are the founder of Panacea Productions, a successful film production company that creates short and feature films as well as music videos. Which piece of work are you the most proud of and why?
Honestly I won’t feel like I’ll have achieved success until I’ve got my first feature under my belt! But I’m proud of a short thriller I made recently called ‘Baby Mine’ that I’m developing into a feature. As a Lebanese, female filmmaker, I wanted to tell a unique story that not only had a Middle Eastern in the lead role but also had a complex female character at it’s core. I’m passionate about thought-provoking stories with high stakes that make you feel uncomfortable and grip you at the edge of your seat, whilst being equally moving and heart-breaking on a visceral level.
'Up On The Roof' was an award-winning film you directed back in 2013, starring Maisie Williams, Michael Matias and Earl Cameron. What was it like working with such great talent?
They were all fantastic to work with. Maisie - the perfect balance of professionalism and light-heartedness. Michael – with no screen experience, he is naturally gifted and took direction like a pro. It took me a while to find him! Earl Cameron - a veteran actor with such a mesmerisingly expressive face and a unique talent. I feel so privileged to be the last Director he’s ever worked with, and before that he appeared in one of my favourite films - Nolan’s ‘Inception’. Now 99 years old, he is a great inspiration with a lot of wonderful stories to tell!
You don't steer away from difficult topics such as abuse and child abduction. What other social issues might you tackle in the future?
As a filmmaker, I don't really set out to tackle social issues, I just go where my stories take me. My Sci-fi ‘Chimera’ for example tackles themes of grief, mental illness, memory, existence and identity. I've found that UK public funders are more inclined to support dramas that tackle social issues over commercial genre films so I adapted accordingly when it came to a few of my shorts. For me, it's always about high stakes which inevitably means that the subject matters will be difficult!
One of your most recent shorts you directed, 'Scotch Bonnet', which appeared on The BBC's series 'The Break', has a comedic feel to it. How did you find working in a genre that wasn't a thriller?
I was thrilled when the BBC gave me ‘The Package’ to direct, but admit ‘Scotch Bonnet’ felt totally outside my comfort zone! As an Arab living in the UK, I connected with Scotch Bonnet’s central theme of identity and found a way to make it personal. Script development mainly dealt with progression of character and my desire to break from the monologue to visualise key moments. We experimented with lots of different ideas and made some bold decisions - particularly in the edit and sound design to make it punchy and fun. My producer Rachelle Constant recently told me that it had 3x the viewership across all platforms than any other film in the series!
You've worked in the film industry for thirteen years now, what's surprised you the most about working in this industry?
Working in the industry is unpredictable and male-dominated. The things people assume about a female director can often be surprising but things are very slowly shifting. My biggest surprise came a few months ago in the form of the #BAFTA’s LUCKY 225! You might have heard of us. I applied to BAFTA elevate this year and the rejection letter was accidentally cc-ed to 225 female directors who started connecting, creating a community to support one another. It was such an amazing testament of unity and solidarity. Within a couple of days the group exploded across social media, film magazines and news - we were even trending no.1 on twitter! The whole experience surprised me and jolted me to remember that I am not alone.
What advice would you give to up and coming directors in terms of obtaining funding for future projects?
One of the hardest things is finding a team you trust who will always do what’s best for the film and will give it the same amount of commitment and passion as you. Even if you find a good producer, always be the driving force in making your project happen. Apply to as many funds as you can, not just in the UK. Research. Talk to people. My philosophy is that doesn’t hurt to ask! I intend to make films that travel internationally so I'm not restricting myself to the UK in terms of funding, talent and production. But there's no right or wrong way to do it. It's a constant hustle. Keep directing, learning, growing. Just don’t stop!
What's next for you and Panacea Productions?
My current focus is on two features - one’s a thriller (‘Don’t Tell A Soul’) in the vein of ‘Gone Girl’ and ‘The Night of’ that I’m co-writing with the BAFTA-winning Daniel Fajemisin-Duncan and the other is a Sci-fi/ Horror (‘Chimera’) with emerging talent Grant Kempster that’s visually inspired by ‘Arrival’ and ‘Ex-Machina’ with tonal similarities to ‘The Shining’ and ’The Others’. I'm also directing a short, Medieval Sci-fi soon which will be pretty epic - always good to keep your directing muscles in action!
For more information about her work check out the links below!