“You realize at a certain point that what you’re doing is storytelling and everything- the writing, the directing, the editing- is just part of that fundamental skill.”
Zam Salim is a writer and filmmaker based in Scotland whose debut feature Up There recently won the Panavision Spirit Award for Independent Cinema at Santa Barbara International Film Festival. The (sold-out) UK premiere of the film is tomorrow night at the Glasgow Film Festival.
With Up There Salim presents the initial stages of the afterlife as a mundane purgatory in which individuals are doomed to continue to walk the streets where they lived, but cannot be seen by anyone, including the loved ones they left behind, or even open doors or pick things up.
Form-filling, group counselling sessions and voluntary work as carers for the newly deceased are the only way to earn enough brownie points to move on to the next (unseen) stage.
Whilst it has a similarly deadpan tone, the film takes a different tack from Laid Off, the short which it takes its lead from (which you can watch below). The humour is not as immediate and stark – instead the characters and relationships are given time to breathe, and the light plot leads naturally to a few very funny situations and a couple of unexpectedly touching moments.
Despite the dark subject matter the film does contain a positive and ultimately heart-warming message but thankfully is never heavy-handed about it.
Zam answered a few of my questions about his journey so far as a writer and filmmaker and offered some advice for anyone wanting to follow in his footsteps.
Your new film ‘Up There’ is a dry dark comedy about the afterlife which expands on the ideas and themes of your popular short ‘Laid Off’. Was there anything in particular which inspired you to explore this territory, or do you just have a morbid sense of humour?
Ha, I didn’t think I was being morbid, I just thought it’d be an interesting way of turning things on their head and be fantastical without having to use expensive special effects. I just liked the simplicity of the idea. They’re dead- but just because they’re dead it doesn’t mean they’ve changed as people. So it was fun taking an extraordinary metaphysical situation and just planting ordinary people in there. It felt like a good arena for some jokes, and also for something a bit meaningful, but not in a way that’s overpowering.
Kafka is an obvious touchstone when it comes to the bureaucracy which the protagonist encounters in the film. Was he a direct influence and did any other artists/books/films in particular influence you?
Yes Kafka was the obvious one- and its interesting to remember that The Trial is essentially a black comedy. Wings of Desire was another one those with angels loitering around the day to day- obviously those angels could be poetic in a place like Berlin but what about one of our town centres on a wet Saturday afternoon? There was also Afterlife, a fantastic Japanese film that was shot using real people in a kind of deathly bureaucracy. Its about something different but the influence was there. And Nightshift an early comedy by Ron Howard, that was fun.
Did you always know what you wanted to do (creatively) or has it been a process of trial and error to get to the point you’re at now? If it’s the latter, how did you decide what to focus on?
I think its a bit of both. I think I’ve always known deep down what I wanted to do, I think I just spent time earlier on shying away from it, or just going through the process of finding out if I was any good at it.
I didn’t go to film school so I was just picking things up and trying to learn the craft my own way by doing it, basically. I think you realize at a certain point that what you’re doing is storytelling and everything- the writing, the directing, the editing- is just part of that fundamental skill.
How difficult has it been, both personally and financially, to get the point of having your first feature film made, and what advice would you give to aspiring filmmakers who may be just starting out?
Its been interesting, let’s say that. I just think its a vocation, it genuinely is. You might not make money at some point but is that what you really wanted?
Getting to shoot a feature film is a rare privilege, and I never ever took it for granted. It took a while and I didn’t earn much but then I wouldn’t have if I did a degree at University or something.
In terms of advice I’d give to aspiring filmmakers I just think you need to keep at it. If you really want to do it you’ve got to hang in there and keep getting stuck in. Just don’t wait to be discovered whatever you do.
You’ve used a lot of unusual Scottish locations in the film and received funding from Creative Scotland. Would you say that being based in Scotland is currently an advantage or a disadvantage for filmmakers?
Well like most things it has its advantages and disadvantages but its up to you. I do think more could be done to help the talent- and by that I don’t just mean throw money at them. Knowing that the talent is here is always a good starting point.
Laid Off got half a million hits on YouTube which can’t have hurt when it came to future projects. How important was the internet in terms of getting your work out there?
Well I had no intention of making anything ‘for the net’, I just made stuff and it happened to get out there- especially Laid Off that had a life of its own. I can never quite get my head around the net to be honest. I mean who is your audience? Someone in Sao Paolo? Boise, Idaho? Its pretty much the entire world so where does that leave you?
It makes my head hurt thinking about it, but it just means you ultimately have to make things for yourself and your friends, which is a good thing. It means you’re not trying to second guess anyone. In a weird way you can afford to be more personal I suppose.
Up There is having its sold-out debut UK screening at the Glasgow Film Festival today (February 24th 2012). See the website for more info on future screenings.
Watch Laid Off (contains adult humour):
More info: Up There website