Writer-director Alex Camilleri discusses his feature film debut Luzzu which premiered at Sundance, telling authentic Maltese stories, and turning fishermen into actors.
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Writer-director Alex Camilleri grew up as a first-generation immigrant in the United States with one foot in Malta. The more he grew to love film, the more he yearned to see Malta on film — not standing in for another country, but playing itself, which it had only done a handful of times. When it came time to make his first feature, he hopped over to Malta to find a story, and discovered an unexpected kinship with the fishermen there, who, just as Camilleri felt as a Maltese-American, were torn between tradition and modernity.
Camilleri spent over two years in Malta researching the industry and getting to know the fishermen to pen what would become Luzzu. From the get-go, he knew “that we had to use real fishermen and that I would turn fishermen into actors rather than trying to take an actor and turn them into a fisherman.” That gamble paid off, and the film’s star, Jesmark Scicluna, just won the World Dramatic Special Jury Award for Acting.
Scicluna plays a character also named Jesmark, a fisherman from a long line of fishermen, who is struggling to make ends meet in this age-old profession. He’s a new father of a son who needs special care, and his wife is desperately struggling to find funds to get by, even if it means cow-towing to her wealthy but possibly criminal family. All Jesmark wants to do is spend his days on his luzzu, a traditional Maltese fishing boat, and in the process, earn a living. But with new fishing restrictions and a corrupt marketplace, it’s increasingly difficult to do an honest day’s work as a fisherman and still feed his family.
Luzzu is both the story of one man’s struggle to let go of tradition in order to do what’s necessary, and the larger changes within the fishing community around him. When Jesmark’s boat gets a leak near the beginning of the film, his boat is temporarily out of commission, and he has to find other means to earn urgently-needed money. Because fishing is all he’s ever known, he doesn’t look beyond his industry, instead getting involved with the more criminal aspects of the trade. Camilleri introduces us to the people who run the fish auction, their shady dealings, and just how far the corruption goes within the town. It’s a system that can’t be beat, that hurts locals, but benefits those willing to risk it and join.
Throughout the film, Camilleri reminds us what’s driving Jesmark’s desperation: his love for his son. Even when he’s behaving immaturely, nothing makes him happier than holding his son and caring for his son. He wants to share the parenting work with his partner, but he can’t see a way out of the life his family has always had. Jesmark’s only other refuge is in spending time with others still eking out a living on a luzzu, like his best friend David (David Scicluna). But his constant struggles force him to wonder whether the people who cashed out and changed professions — or those who don’t follow the rules — had it right.
After Luzzu had its world premiere at Sundance, I spoke to Alex Camilleri via Zoom about the genesis of the project, turning fishermen into actors, and how he made sure Malta played itself.
Seventh Row (7R): What got you interested in this story? Where did the idea for Luzzu come from?
Alex Camilleri: I dreamed about making films in Malta almost all my life. My parents immigrated from Malta in the late eighties, and I was born here [in the US] shortly thereafter, but we tried to keep close ties to the island and get back as often as we could. To-ing and fro-ing between the US and Malta, I think, did something to me in my early years that opened up a creative side.
I felt in Malta, of course, that I was an outsider. As much as it spoke to certain parts of myself, and I had a love for the island, I would always have a sense of questioning. There were things that I didn’t understand, and that made me always want to ask questions and lean in. I think that’s a really fruitful place for an artist to be in, to have both love and curiosity, and I always had that in Malta.
My imagination was always on fire going there; it couldn’t be more different than where I grew up in semi-rural Minnesota. Going to a beautiful place like Malta, it’s almost like science fiction. It’s traveling to a universe that couldn’t be more different than the one of my everyday reality. I was always dreaming up stories that you could do on film in Malta. To make a long story long, I then grew up and fell in love with film and learned as much as I could about it. I was always waiting for Maltese films to happen.
I studied world cinema a bit in university and saw films from all around the world that transported me and taught me about the place and the people. That was such an enriching experience. But when I looked to Malta, I kept on wondering why no films have been made there. In university, of course, I discovered the Italian neorealists, and that was eye-opening: watching those films was also like looking through family photo albums come to life. The Malta that my parents grew up in and that my grandparents lived in looked so much like the locations from the Rossellini films and the Visconti films. That made me all the more hungry. It made me miss those films that never happened in Malta. I wondered why it was the next-door neighbour to all these amazing traditions in European cinema, but there was never a local cinema movement.
All the while that I was waiting for those films to come, they never really did. That put even more fire under my ass to make this. The advice you hear so often, as a filmmaker, is make the film that you want to see. This directly came out of making the film that I wanted to see that I’d never seen, and that had somehow never been made over however many decades that the art of cinema has existed.
7R: What made you want to focus on fishing?
Alex Camilleri: In all my time in Malta, I would watch the fishermen from afar. It’s something that struck me as very beautiful and steeped in tradition. I knew nothing about it, and I’d never gone fishing before in my life. I was prone to getting seasick. So the subject matter didn’t come naturally from something in my life. I’m less interested in autobiography than I am in personal expression. When I started to research the world of fishing, I realized that it struck at something that was deeply personal to me.
Speaking to fishermen, I realized that they were grappling with issues of heritage and sacrifice and what they would pass on to the next generation. I had considered those kinds of questions a lot in my own life and how they related to my past as a first-generation immigrant family. It seemed to me that while I was trying to reconnect to something in my past, the fishermen were running in the opposite direction. They were determined to see their children escape from this trade.
While that was so crushing to hear, they were communicating this without any sense of sentimentality. That juxtaposition, I thought, was so ripe with the inherent drama of trying to save themselves, but having to potentially dispense with something that was so integral to the family’s identity.
I could relate to it because I think that immigrant families have to make these kinds of choices about what they’re going to jettison from their own pasts in order for their children to have a prosperous future.
Then, I had to learn everything else about fishing. I love research. I love films that are really meticulously researched. There was an opportunity for me to change myself and to expand and learn about something new. That opportunity was really exciting.
7R: I read in the press notes for Luzzu that you were working with real fishermen in the film. Can you tell me about that?
Alex Camilleri: The two lead fishermen in the film are real fishermen, and their real names are Jesmark and David [the same as the names of the characters in the film]. I did extensive casting to find the characters for the film. I knew, from the outset, that we had to use real fishermen and that I would turn fishermen into actors rather than trying to take an actor and turn them into a fisherman.
Italian neorealists are most known for this mode of filmmaking: what you get from this is not just an artistic approach, but also, there’s an ethical component, too. You’re telling stories about ordinary people, and they should be the ones to tell them.
Everything that they touch improves the film. It doesn’t make your job, as the director, easier because you have to contour to them; they’re not going to read a script and hit marks. But if you can sculpt the film around them, they’ll give you something that goes beyond acting. Their life just breaks through the edges of the frame. They’re bringing to the screen their whole life and their entire past generations, which is important in this film. The sense of reality, it’s so palpable. You can never get it with an actor trying to step into this world.
So I’m so proud of what they did. I think that their performances are tremendous. They’re as good as anything a trained actor could have given us, plus all the perks that they knew how to get on the boat without falling over, how to fish without looking dumb. These things really matter to me — not just that I’m a stickler for them, but the audience can sniff them out. The way that Jesmark is pulling the swordfish in, and he just instinctively puts the wire in his teeth and he holds it, an actor would never get that. They’re never going to do that. It’s just reflexive. They’re being on camera. They’re not acting.
7R: What was the process for you, as a director, to turn fishermen into actors for Luzzu?
Alex Camilleri: Well, you need time, and luckily, with a film of this size with no expectations, we could take all the time that we needed. So I started working with them two years before we shot a single frame.
If you cast well, half your work is done. Finding Jesmark and David lit the proverbial light bulb. I improvised with them in an audition. They’d known each other because they’re cousins and on-and-off fishing partners. One more thing that they’re bringing to the table was a relationship with so much history.
I started writing the script around them and had the characters inspired by the real men. It’s a fictional story, but I was able to learn about them and borrow things from their life that I had come to know. You’ll have any amount of success with a non-actor as long as you are putting them in a good position to succeed, and it starts with the script. From there, while I had a script, I didn’t show it to them.
During this two-year period, we were rehearsing scenes from the film. I may have written it, but I would just describe the scenario, and I would give each of the two fishermen an objective, “By the end of the scene, you need to do this, and you need to do this other thing.” I would let them come up with the dialogue.
Often, they would direct me in the emotion. That was the most interesting thing to me because, sometimes, I wouldn’t have the emotion or the tone correct. For instance, about fifteen minutes into the film, they [accidentally] catch a swordfish that’s out of season as bycatch. Jesmark and David have an argument over whether to keep it or whether they should throw it back into the sea. This was the very first thing we ever tried together. In fact, they improvised it during their audition.
I had written a version of it that was like a debate. It was very logical. But immediately, once they started improvising it, the emotion was much hotter, and that was so instructive to me. I realized, of course, that they were acting a scene from their own life. Every fisherman has had that moment: catching a prize fish at the wrong time. It’s devastating because you could feed your family for a week with that fish, but you might be doomed by a regulation that won’t let you bring it to shore. It’s an absurd kind of scenario, but those things can elicit a really strong reaction, and the fishermen guided me.
We basically rehearsed every scene in the film in some format. I would record on a small camera, take what we discovered during the improvs, and then rewrite them into the script. The script was a living object. We could go back to it to remind ourselves of the good things that they’d found [in rehearsal].
When we were on set for the real thing, they didn’t ever really need to look at the script because we’d just say, “Okay. This is the scene where you’re putting the boat on the beach,” and they’ve done this a million times. So they just do it, and it is, again, a blurred line between reality and fiction. I’m not really sure that that line matters. I couldn’t tell you whether that’s actually real Jesmark and real David or fake Jesmark and fake David. At a certain point, it’s just moving images that tell us a story.
7R: When you actually started shooting Luzzu, what was that like? Did you have the scaffolding that you needed in Malta, or did you bring crew from the US?
Alex Camilleri: We had an almost entirely local crew, and there’s really no other way to make this film. We had a small crew, maybe fifteen people on our big days. We intentionally had as small a footprint as we can manage. No one really knew what we were doing. We didn’t close down the streets. We really shot it like a documentary.
Maltese film crews are astonishingly capable. They’re trained on these enormous Hollywood films that shoot there, so they’re extremely rigorous, and they know how things are done. But I was coming in, and I was being like, “Okay. We’re not doing any of that. I respect you, and this is the professional way to do it, but we can’t. We don’t have the money.” We couldn’t stifle the life out of this film.
We needed Malta to be itself. I chose locations, for instance, that were going to be chaotic and that were not easy to control because I wanted cars passing in the background. I wanted people filtering in and out of the frame. We didn’t want to sand off the edges. Malta needed to play itself, and it never really played itself in a film like this before with this kind of exposure. It always stands for somewhere else. It stands in for Italy or the Middle East or North Africa. The charm of this film would be that 360-degrees is good for us. That’s all fodder that we can use. Let’s not stifle life out of it. Let’s let life burst in.
Seventh Row: Did you shoot Luzzu in chronological story order, or close to in order?
Alex Camilleri: I’m a Ken Loach obsessive. I love his films. He and other filmmakers I love, like the Dardenne brothers, advocate shooting in order. If you can do that on a budget on a European co-production, that’s fantastic, and it’s great for the actors.
But we were working with far less, to put it mildly. We had a lot of locations that we could just grab, that we didn’t really need permits for, so we could do somewhat of a chronological order. We tried to do it by act and to move the cast through the bigger emotional chunks, even if it wasn’t completely sequentially. I think that that really helped.
Every day, my cast surprised me in ways that I just never expected. They could do the things that actors can do; they would just snap into an emotion at a moment’s notice and remember where they were. To their great credit, they went beyond what I thought would be possible. David, Jesmark, Michela [Farrugia], and the rest of the cast were so committed.
7R: Can you tell me about the luzzu boat in the film and how you got that particular one?
Alex Camilleri: If you want to do anything in Malta, you go on Facebook. The entire island is on Facebook. Anything you want, you can find it on Facebook. So we went onto the Facebook marketplace. I have no idea why we looked as early as we did, but we looked maybe a year before shooting, and we stumbled upon this luzzu. It was in a garage far from the sea, but I saw it, and I was like, “That’s the one. That’s it. That’s exactly what I had in my mind.”
You see a number of different luzzus in the film, and they have particularities — different paint jobs and slightly different shapes and details. This one was the right size, the right shape, everything was there. Then, we just had to find a place to keep it for a year. We had to make it sea-worthy.
The thing hadn’t been in the water for a long time. It needed work. In a brilliant stroke of art imitating life and life imitating art, David himself fixed up that luzzu to make it sea-worthy. During his off days, he was in his backyard just breaking his back to get that thing into shape. He’s a fantastic carpenter, in addition to being an expert fisherman. David can really do anything. It was no surprise that he came to save the day and brought that luzzu back to life. It was a supreme pleasure when we brought it to sea, and it worked and everything.
Now, it’s back in David’s backyard. I told him, “Can you please, please hold on to it just in the case that we needed to reshoot anything?” Thankfully, we didn’t, and now we’re just trying to figure out what to do with it. Maybe it will have another life, but that’s the nature of these boats: somehow, they live on, and they find life. I don’t know how else to say it. They keep living.
7R: Can you tell me about how you worked with your cinematographer to develop the aesthetic for Luzzu?
Alex Camilleri: It was a highly rewarding experience and a collaboration working with Léo Lefèvre. We basically cold called him. My producers and I had no connection to him, but we’d seen a really wonderful Algerian film that played at Cannes in 2019 called Papicha. It seemed to me that Léo was going to combine everything that I was looking for. He was used to working in a quasi-documentary fashion. He’d worked under very difficult circumstances. I could see similarities between working in Algeria and working in Malta. As a side note, when they shot, Papicha, it was during Ramadan, so the entire crew was fasting. Can you imagine that during a feature film production? Incredible. So he had a toughness, but a fantastic artistic sensibility. We like the same films, and I just found myself nodding and agreeing so often with him.
We spoke over Skype for a few weeks. Then, the decision was pretty easy to make. Once we got down to brass tacks, Léo and I looked at films that we liked. I was also just thrilled to be able to speak to him, because he had worked in the camera crew on three of the most three recent Ken Loach films at that time. We could look at shots together and be like, “Oh, what lens were you on?,” and he just knew, and like, “Oh, what was the camera actually doing? Where was it?” He had that knowledge, that behind the scenes knowledge.
We both really like tripod films. We originally imagined shooting this a little bit more on a tripod, but it’s really important that when you get to set, you have to be alive to the moment for what’s unfolding in front of you. We ended up, I think, doing a bit more shoulder camera work than we originally anticipated. But Léo’s a fantastic operator and had a really strong documentary background. He’s so intelligent and so alive to the moment that I think he acquitted himself very successfully with the handheld style and really danced, in an inspiring way, with our subject matter.
7R: Can you tell me a bit about the sound for Luzzu? Were you able to get good sound while you were shooting? What was the process for figuring out the sound design?
Alex Camilleri: Amazing. Thank you for asking. No one ever asks about sound, and I get to highlight a few very important people. It starts on set: clean in, clean out, as they say.
I have a brilliant, brilliant, brilliant sound recorder. His name is Robert Bonello. He is just a mad genius with sound. Malta is a very noisy place, and we’re shooting on boats with loud motors. The signal that we got from the logs is perfect throughout the whole film. We went into the sound mixing, which we did here in the United States, and they couldn’t believe that they had no complaints. So I’m tipping my hat to Robert Bonello.
My sound recording mixer and sound editor here in New York is Ryan Bilia. He’s a genius in his own right. I learned so much from Ryan, and I especially took away this wonderful technique he has of removing sound. For him, he taught me how it’s not always about what you put in, but what you take out. He had such a perceptive sense of where do we pull back, and I think he did it in such strategic moments.
7R: In the spirit of capturing Malta playing itself, getting the sound of Malta must have been really important.
Alex Camilleri: When I was mixing the film with Ryan here in New York, while the sound, of course, and the dialogue, was recorded very cleanly, it can be surprising that you actually don’t pick up as much ambiance and detail from the world as you think. For instance, any time that they’re handling the luzzu, whether they’re moving it or putting it on a trailer or carrying it, it makes a lot of noise in the film. But you’d be surprised to know that the recording from set [of those sounds is so quiet], it’s like a pin drop. Those sounds are completely fabricated for the film.
What I found to be a challenge with Ryan, although I think we met the challenge capably, was bringing authentic sounds that were true to Malta. We didn’t have any library of sound effects that we could point to because it doesn’t exist, and Ryan has never been to Malta.
It was a process of just auditioning things — the sound of the birds, the sound of the motors, the cars, the ambience, and so forth. We would have to audition things, and I would just have to use this internal compass of a lifetime of memory to be like, “No, that’s not right. Those birds are incorrect,” or, “That motor is not correct.” Ryan was absolutely determined that we get it as true as possible without having the benefit of the things you can typically lean on, like extensive sound effects libraries.
Seventh Row: Can you tell me about the score of Luzzu?
Alex Camilleri: Jon Natchez did the score, which I’m so proud of. It’s beautiful. He’s scored the inner life of these characters in this world. I really am in awe of what he did. I think there can be a temptation with this kind of film to do something that is sort of ethnographic, like it needs to sound like the Mediterranean.
I heard from a lot of composers that that’s what they wanted to do. There needed to be mandolins or something silly. I’m more interested in music getting at the inner life. I think that’s what he was able to do. He had an instant and really earnest reaction when he saw an early cut of this film and fought really hard to do it. I felt so lucky. I feel like in another year, his star is going to rise so high that he wouldn’t have been able to do a small film like this, but kudos to Jon Natchez for bringing this final touch that really helps the world come alive.
7R: What are you working on now?
Alex Camilleri: I’m working on my second film that’s also going to be in Malta. In a similar method as this film, I’m working with a mix of actors and non-actors set in a very specific world within Malta. It’s again on a side of the island that most people don’t see. But it couldn’t be more different than the world of fishermen. It’s in a completely different emotional register, a totally different tone, a different kind of film. I think it’s really going to surprise people.
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