American-Maltese Director Alex Camilleri’s debut feature film Luzzu is the story of Jesmark, a Maltese fisherman coming to terms with comprises he must make to his entrenched familial values. It’s part drama, part social-realist thriller and is anchored by a tremendous central performance by real-life fisherman Jesmark Scicluna. In addition to his protagonist, Camilleri continued his neo-realist approach in making Luzzu, casting non-actors across the entirety of his film which gives it a grounded authenticity. This authenticity is backed by Jon Natchez’s (of The War On Drugs and Beirut fame) score which begins with serene textures that underpin Jesmark’s life on the water before reflecting the building tension of his compromised ethics through pulsing electronic rhythms. DN spoke with both Camilleri and Natchez ahead of Luzzu arriving in cinemas tomorrow to discuss the practicalities of Camilleri’s street casting process, his multi-role perspective as a creator, and Natchez’s approach to reinforcing Jesmark’s journey through a developing sonic palette.

As a Maltese filmmaker, what drew you to tell the story of a fisherman struggling in Malta’s fishing industry?

Alex Camilleri: I was born in the United States shortly after my parents emigrated from Malta. Growing up, we kept close ties to the island and returned often. I dreamed of making films from an early age and always knew I wanted to tell stories about Malta. But prior to directing Luzzu, I was a total outsider to the world of fishing on the island. I had actually never gone fishing in my life and am notoriously prone to seasickness.

The Luzzu is part of the island’s iconography. I wanted to dig deeper, to deconstruct this cliché and find out what was really going on in the world of Malta’s traditional fishermen. I noticed that even for the average Maltese, not much seemed to be known about the island’s fishing families… much less how a piece of fish gets from the sea to the dinner table. But what really surprised me when I began my research, was finding links between my own family’s story and what was happening to many fishing families in Malta. As we integrated into America, I watched my parents wrestle with the parts of their identity they had to let go of in order for their children to thrive in a new context. I saw this dilemma reflected in the Maltese fishermen who realized that their beloved trade could not pass into another generation. They were desperate to change their family’s fate as climate change, EU regulations, and corporate fisheries upended a legacy that’s been passed down for centuries. Sensing this link to my family’s own story gave me an emotional foothold in this world to which I was otherwise a stranger.

I wanted to dig deeper, to deconstruct this cliché and find out what was really going on in the world of Malta’s traditional fishermen.

How did you find the challenge of balancing the creative hats of a writer, director, producer and editor? Did it affect your creative process when making Luzzu?

AC: I find the various disciplines in filmmaking to be so interrelated it’s hard for me to organize them coherently. Perhaps especially because I learned filmmaking backwards. I began as an editor and reverse-engineered a lot of my conceptions in direction and scriptwriting from what I learned in the cutting room. On set, being able to think like an editor, and to work with the excellent Cinematographer Léo Lefèvre, helped us be extremely economical with coverage on set. There was no other choice, our budget was so small. Writing is editing, directing is editing. For whatever reason, I used to be self-conscious of my background as an editor, but today I see it differently. Editing is the essence of cinematic storytelling, and successful craftspeople are more often than not good editors of their own work.

Could you walk us through how you cast Jesmark and also how you worked with him to get him comfortable being in front of the camera?

AC: From the outset, I was determined to cast non-actors in the fishermen’s roles. Part of this choice was practical; it would be easier to train a fisherman to act than to train an actor to be a fisherman. Working with my Casting Director Edward Said, we drove from one fishing village to another to ‘street cast’ for our leads, fishermen do not have headshots, after all. After months of searching, we came up dry.

A day before I was due to fly back to New York City, where I was based at that time, we were struck with an unusual bit of luck: In Għar Lapsi, a tiny bay in the south, we found Jesmark and David Scicluna, real-life cousins and fishing partners. With little time for formalities, I asked if we could all go out on David’s boat together. At sea, I brought out my small camcorder and asked the fishermen to improvise a short scene. As soon as they began riffing off each other, it seemed the whole film clicked into place. Jesmark and David performed this short scene better than I had originally conceived it, adding emotion and unexpected specificity. I realized, of course, that they weren’t acting as much as they were reliving a scene from their own lives.

Editing is the essence of cinematic storytelling, and successful craftspeople are more often than not good editors of their own work.

This chance meeting confirmed that Jesmark and David were the perfect people for these roles. And it set a template for how I would develop them as performers and refine the script together. Over a two-year period, I presented scenarios to Jesmark and David, allowing them to improvise the dialogue, and then wrote these discoveries into the script. By the time it came to principal photography, Jesmark and David were quite accustomed to the mechanics of filmmaking and the script, which we only used occasionally as a reference, was imbued with their DNA.

Malta is a popular filming location but there is a distinct lack of cinema specifically about the country itself, did that make you more conscious about how you would authentically represent Malta within the film?

AC: My aim was always just to tell a good story. Even though Malta is a small country, it is not a monolith and the community that Luzzu portrays accounts for a very small subset of the population. Of course, the lack of local Maltese filmmaking nevertheless meant our film might carry some “burden of representation” for the country as a whole, but that’s nothing that could be helped. You can’t be too preoccupied by these things. More important questions are at hand for the director: what’s the turning point in the scene, where do I put the camera, what do I tell the actor? I was quite intentional in writing the film that I would “explain nothing”. I rejected advice, for instance, of opening the film with a text card explaining where Malta is located, or what a luzzu is. I trusted the audience to pick up these details as the story unfolded, and that as long as the characters and emotions were clear, people would understand everything they really needed to know.

To me the score, which was recently released by Phantom Limb, seems to reflect Jesmark’s journey in the film, at times subtle and sparse but then gradually more tense and eerie as he starts to compromise in his life. Was that an aspect of the film you were conscious of when composing?

Jon Natchez: Absolutely. Some of that musical development would have occurred naturally even without my focusing on it, the film itself gets more tense and eerie as Jesmark chooses to be involved in increasingly compromised and shady situations and the score had to follow and emphasize that narrative arc. But yes, even beyond that, both Alex and I wanted there to be a kind of simple, sparse beauty in the early fishing and boat scenes, reflecting Jesmark’s simple and uncomplicated, at first, love of his family’s tradition and the humble grandeur of that tradition.

Were you able to see any of the footage when composing? If so, did that alter your approach in any way?

JN: Yes, with this film, it had all been shot and was in fact mostly edited by the time I came aboard. That process is pretty common, having the composer come aboard after the film is nearly in its final form, and it can be very limiting for a composer, often the filmmakers have edited to very specific temp music and end up wanting music that just recreates that temp. But here, Alex was always very open to my own ideas, and it was great to compose for a film that had a strong internal rhythm and visual aesthetic fully defined by the time I started writing music.

Both Alex and I wanted there to be a kind of simple, sparse beauty in the early fishing and boat scenes.

In terms of altering my approach, I especially connected with the imagery of the film, and often when I sat down to compose, I would watch a scene over and over without sound, or sometimes even just quietly focus on a still image for a while, to try to get myself in a kind of creative trance aligned with the vibe of the film. That’s something I’ve never really done before or since.

How different is your method to music composition when solely writing for a film in comparison to when you’re crafting a song within a band?

JN: They’re really quite different processes and mindsets for me. I love working with other musicians in a band, creating a piece of music together, but working on films, I do really enjoy being the lead musical voice. Obviously, there’s a lot of collaboration involved in making a film score, I’ve always gravitated towards collaborative creative processes, and I’ve never been wired to be one of those artists who creates music ex nihilo purely for myself. But I enjoy being the one steering the musical ship when making a score, and in terms of process, that means I’m working on my own, at my own pace, constrained by deadlines, of course, is also helpful because I’m a procrastinator by nature, and generating all the ideas myself, which is radically different from the way every band I’ve been a part of has operated.

What is it about composing music for film that interests you and why at this point in your career have you decided to start doing it?

JN: I could ramble on for a long time with this answer, because there are a million little things about the scoring process that really appeal to me, but a quickish list of some of the biggies: Firstly, the best film music involves elegantly precise, immaculately crafted musical statements, and I love the process of searching for, and then whittling and refining to perfect, those simple but not simplistic, direct, elegant statements. I also feel that the consideration of timbre is such an important part of the scoring process, searching for unique sounds that create a unique sonic world for the film, and that kind of timbral quest is completely my musical wheelhouse.

The best film music involves elegantly precise, immaculately crafted musical statements.

Every film score presents an opportunity to create a new and different sonic landscape, and sometimes even involves learning about musical styles and genres that the composer isn’t intimately familiar with, and I love that a job can involve that much exploration and discovery. And finally, and most simply, I have always loved movies, and I love being part of the intense and intensely rewarding collaborative process involved in making one. In terms of why now, I had literally always thought about it, but being in bands and being on the road had always kept me from seriously pursuing it. Since I was in my early 20s, it was something I was excited to do “one day”. Eventually, I just got to a point where I was sick of putting it off and jumped in. And indeed, it’s an awesome fit for me and my musical personality.

What will you both be working on next?

JN: I’m currently finishing a score for a fun independent feature film with a very different score from Luzzu’s, and then starting a documentary score whose sound will go, at least as of now, you never know until it’s actually been written, in yet another wildly different direction. See what I mean about how scoring gives me the opportunity to explore different musical territories? I don’t think I can give any specific details about either project yet, but they’re both very exciting for me.

In terms of collaborating with Alex, again I don’t know how much I can say, feel free to redact, Alex! But we’ve already talked a little about working together on his next project. Which is tremendously exciting for me, both because I am generally excited to work with Alex whenever he needs music for something and because this project in particular sounds spectacular. But I’ll leave the sharing of any details to him.

AC: After the years of developing and shooting Luzzu, working with Jon was absolutely the cherry on top of the cake… and now, I’d like a whole bowl of cherries! I’m hopeful we’ll re-team on my next film soon. The story is also set in Malta and will be made in a similar style as Luzzu. Part of the film deals with the subject of music itself, so Jon will have his work cut out for him. Speaking as a fan, I honestly can’t wait to hear what he does with it.

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