Interview with Director Yannis Zafeiriou

I’ve had the pleasure of spending an afternoon interviewing Director Yannis Zafeiriou, but not until of course we settled on a place that served really good chocolate shakes…being his favorite and all! I can’t even tell you how exactly we connected on social media, but we did, and luckily a REVIEWlution stood out to Yannis, and he agreed to interview with me. Sure he’s incredibly talented and has such an amazing eye, though Yannis is also kind, thoughtful, and compassionate…which is how we discuss in this interview some sensitive topics that are meaningful to him. Not only was I grateful to have this  busy creative chat for an afternoon, but also have spent some time on set with him and his great cast and crew of Namas Dei: The Tucker J James Story. Those short behind-the-scenes interviews are coming soon.

Tell me, when did you first know you wanted to be a filmmaker?

Call me Yanni. First of all, let me thank you for this interview. A REVIEWlution is an excellent place for filmmakers to feel safe, supported, encouraged and appreciated, something very rare in this “money-making” business which often neglects the filmmaking art itself. I am grateful for the opportunity to meet you and be a part of this wonderful thing you are doing here.

I was never one of those kids who always wanted to be a dozen different things when they grow up. Three years before graduating high-school I first had the thought of working in advertising, to satiate my creative and artistic “urges”. After applying and getting into the Advertising Management BA degree at Bournemouth University in the UK, I noticed that I was getting increasingly drawn to the creative and cultural side of advertising, and less so to all the business and management parts of it. My suspicions were confirmed during a summer internship at the McCann Erickson’s European Coordination offices in London at the end of my second year at BU. That was when I realized once and for all that the corporate world just doesn’t sit with me well enough to pursue it as a full-time career.

I finished my BA, but had already decided to apply to film school and get a Master’s degree in my “true calling”. I based that decision on my life-long love of storytelling and movies. Pretty naive thinking, but hey, I am one of those people who usually watch between 100-150 movies a year (sometimes more, if you count multiple movie screenings at festivals) so it made perfect sense to me at the time. It wasn’t until I focused my eyes on film-school, that I realized I could actually pursue filmmaking as a vocation. During my MA is when I really understood and confirmed the true path I wanted to be on. I realize that I was fortunate to have found my vocational purpose so early in life.

Who initially inspired you? Who are some of your influences today?

The very first movie I ever saw at the cinema, was E.T. I was absolutely blown away and I still remember that amazing experience, even though I was only six years old at the time. I consider it a masterclass in storytelling and of course Steven Spielberg continued to inspire me with films like Jaws and Close Encounters of the Third Kind etc. (yeah, I clearly have a thing about aliens). My favourite genres to this day are sci-fi and fantasy, and you can blame E.T. for putting me in that place so many years ago.

Today I still get inspired by Spielberg, but I consider myself to be drawn to the works of many filmmakers, classic and more contemporary alike. Alfred Hitchcock’s genius work on creatively handling the camera and the narrative intention behind it, is something I really appreciate and identify with.

I find actors to be inspiring, almost mystical beings, whose mysterious access to that deep creativity and understanding of the human condition is something I really depend on and always try to tap into. I guess that brings my filmmaking heart very close to directors like Terrence Malick, David Mamet,

Francois Truffaut, Sofia Coppola or David O’ Russel who seem to love working (and improvising) with actors and don’t see them as a necessary evil. I love Danny Boyle’s interesting (to say the least) choices of angles. He’s not afraid to put the camera in places one wouldn’t necessarily expect a camera to be found. Baz Luhrman’s storytelling is super dramatic and eventful; he can make a simple walk to the park seem like it’s the highlight of a character’s life, I envy that a lot. I love how technical David Fincher is when trying to find the right frame, the right angle, the right rhythm to tell his story, as well as his Hitchcockian story-boarding and planning approach.

The list of filmmakers I admire and draw inspiration from goes on. Gus Van Sant has a tender gentleness, that can also be brutal. Ridley Scott and J.J. Abrams have this intensity and explosive quality to their shots and their films’ pacing that’s just simply intoxicating; Alfonso Cuarón, Akira Kurosawa and Ang Lee are like poets, their films are like paintings coming to life.

I often find myself inspired by music, by reading, by beautiful art and by all those every-day moments that seem to be mundane or ordinary at first look, until I can infuse them with a little sense of fantasy, science-fiction and the supernatural. I try to create intense, emotionally engaging stories in various genres and narratives and I always embrace new technologies, that help me tell a more interesting story.

You have directed some incredible music videos, I mean just visually awe inspiring. And of course won internationally best video of the year along with your other awards in 2014  so share with me the process, concepts, and your experience directing each?

Thank you. It’s always nice getting awards. They don’t actually mean very much, other than the fact that someone, somewhere, somehow likes your work. There’s an equal (or larger) amount of people who probably dislike my work (or feel indifferent about it). But on a personal level, I would much rather chat with the ones who feel I should get an award. I don’t know why, but I just think they’re nicer people, wouldn’t you say? Just so you and the Academy know, I have been working on an OSCAR acceptance speech since I was a teenager, and its length changes every year. I like to be well prepared. Though on the day, I may just wing it.

I love music videos. There is a strange magic to them. I haven’t directed many, but the ones I have said yes to, have always been the videos of songs I love. Or that I can find something to love in them.

There is some kind of mysterious magic that happens during that process that allows me to feel something very personal about the song, something that maybe even the composer/lyricist didn’t realize on a conscious level when they were making it, but I do sense it. At least that’s how the song affects me. Eventually, I get (almost as if out of nowhere) an image, an action, an emotion, a colour, something small, something special, an idea around which I am able to build an entire narrative, a story. Once that story is refined into a very specific narrative, the rest of the process is easy: It’s just takes a lot of planning, effort and luck to make it work as well in real life, as it does in my head, with the help of crew, cast and everyone else who is on that journey with me. It never turns out to be exactly as I have imagined it -filmmakers are not painters or sculptors – but the collaborative process with so many talented and creative individuals always brings out something more, something abstractly better to the end result. The collaboration makes the final music video a LOT better than I ever could have imagined it in my own head. Multiple creative brains are always better than one.

How are directing music videos different and similar to film?

They’re not different. Not to me any way. Other than the technical aspect of not usually trying to capture production sound on set or on location, and not having to do any audio work in post most of the time, I treat them the exact same way. Maybe that’s why people tell me my music videos tend to look like mini-movies. Maybe that’s a problem and my future movies will start to look like very long and boring music videos hahaha. Hopefully not.

Let’s talk about the British Zombie movie that you filmed segments for.

It’s basically a modern take on the “zombie/horror/found footage” genres. The film takes place in the UK, where an air-born virus turns the recently diseased into blood-thirsty zombies. A reporter who is trying to break the news-story to the world is targeted and hides in a news-tower. While in there, she and her team receive these transmissions from various countries around the world, comprised by footage that was filmed by ordinary people as they were going about their day. With the proliferation of cameras in smartphones etc. and the rise of the “selfie”, it makes perfect sense that people would film themselves in all aspects of their everyday lives even during a zombie apocalypse. The interesting thing here is that as they do so, they are far more likely to actually record zombies while they see and attack them, as the virus spreads internationally around the film’s fictional world. Some of them escape, some of them do not, but the “footage” is collected and used/seen in the film itself and often motivates the action and the characters as the story develops.

I was hired by the British filmmakers to film some of those “found-footage” segments in 4 cities around the world (LA, San Francisco, Athens and Jerusalem). I wrote, directed and edited 18 short scenes/films in three different spoken languages, with all kinds of action and gore-packed scenarios, parts of which will be used in the final Apocalypse film itself. Other filmmakers from other parts of the world also contributed their own short scenes. The experience certainly made me exercise my “horror” muscle.

You also worked on a film about commercial sexual exploitation, tell us more about this film.

A friend who works in an NGO that raises awareness about human slavery through education, multimedia, art etc. told me a while ago of the true first-hand account of a young female survivor of human trafficking and commercial sexual exploitation.

Before she managed to escape her traffickers, she was enslaved without access to her passport and official documents for months, she was kept in a basement, and was forced to suffer more than 20 rapes a day (sometimes closer to 40). She was expected to smile to her “clients” and had to pretend to “enjoy” the experience, while she was never allowed to keep her “earnings”. During all those times, her coping mechanism – the only thing that kept her alive and sane – was this little hole in the ceiling. Through that hole, came a thin ray of light that she somehow managed to focus on. While her body was going through this intense ordeal, she imagined she could make herself very small, then float through that hole and finally fly away. That hole and that strand of light, was all that she had, to momentarily “escape” what was happening to her. Psychologists define this behaviour as “dissociation” (i.e. “the psychological detachment from one’s immediate surroundings. Often occurs due to extreme stress or traumatic physical and emotional experiences.”). This also became the title of this experimental film: *dis·so·ci·a·tion*

That story has forever haunted me and changed the way I see the world. Being fully aware of what society’s voices of acceptance dictate on the matter, I wanted to challenge the notion that this is somehow acceptable. I wanted to focus on the perspective of the client (without ignoring the victim/survivor), while making the experience as immersive as possible. I expect this will be a hard film for many to watch, but my aim is to start a conversation and hopefully help shift this paradigm by changing people’s attitudes to what might otherwise seem like “just a little fun”. Commercial sexual exploitation is a market-driven crime and if demand for it drops, so will the need for the supply. My goal is to bring as much attention and awareness to this issue as possible, and help make a difference in the world.

 Ok, so Awake is your first feature film and I know about 70% of it is completed. Share with us more about Awake, the film itself of course, but also how filming has been so far for you, and where the concept came from.

Awake is a supernatural coming-of-age story that follows Eddy, a young millennial, as he travels to Thailand in an attempt to heal his PTSD and aquaphobia. He must return to the island where he nearly drowned as a child and face his fear of the water. What he doesn’t know is that there is a supernatural threat inside those waters that awaits his return.

The story is about growing up, getting out of your head, and living life, but we infused it with an element of fantasy. Additionally, we wanted Thailand itself to be a character in the film, which we accomplished by filming it all on the GoPro camera in the style of a video diary. The audience sees the country the way the character experiences it, through the found-footage video-entries Eddy records on his camera (he is a millennial, after all).

I have rarely seen the GoPro used as a genuine narrative tool (most films usually use GoPro footage to feature action captured at odd angles), so I really wanted to make it central to the film’s visual storytelling, as well as build the world of Awake around it. In the end, the “awakening” Eddy experiences will also “transform” the audience in this super immersive way.

You also currently have in production Namas Dei: The Tucker J James Story and because you and I have talked so much about this, I can’t wait for you to share more with our readers. Share away because this is just too much fun.

Namas Dei: The Tucker J James Story is a comedic vlog/web series following the life of a privileged, East Coast, quasi-new age dreamer who moves to Los Angeles in search of spiritual enlightenment, and fame. It centers around the everyday life of its title character, Tucker, a lovable loser who just won’t give up. In addition, the audience meets the important people in his life, and everyone else he deals with on a frequent basis as Tucker launches his own Video Channel and Social Media to communicate and “connect” with his audience and fans as he gradually experiences LA and evolves into a new version of himself. The series style focuses (and thrives on) on the themes of extreme self-awareness, self-importance, narcissism, pseudo-spirituality and cultural misappropriation. All conditions that “plague” most of us average LA-transplants who move to the city of angels in pursuit of our dreams. But it’s all very meta, as well it should. Production of all 12 episodes of Season One is nearly complete, and once we finish post-production and release the series, we already know where Season Two will take Tucker and his quirky entourage of Hollywood stars and misfits. Tucker J James is very active on social media, so make sure you follow him, to keep tab on his misadventures. #NamasDei

I know these two projects in production are keeping you busy right now, but what else might we expect from you in the near future?

I currently have a few projects in various stages of development. Finishing Awake and Namas Dei: The Tucker J James Story are top priorities of course, but I am also in the early stages of writing my second feature film, a college thriller that explores my fascination with Agatha Christie. Everything I do, I try to infuse it with a little Science-Fiction, Fantasy and the Supernatural as they blend into the ordinary lives of compelling, dynamic and diverse characters. I love collaborating with passionate actors, as well as other talented filmmakers and storytellers. I love breaking stereotypes. Why does a woman have to just be a girlfriend and not the hero? Why does a person of colour have to be a sidekick or a criminal and not a superhero? Why does an LGBT character have to be two-dimensional and not a deeply complex individual? I am interested in showing real life and real people. Well, as real as they can be in the warped Twilight Zone of my imagination.

Thank you so much Yanni!!

Photo credit: Jeff Galyan

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Yannis Zafeiriou

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IMDb