While you may get some instant survival vibes when reading the premise of Winston Azzopardi’s The Boat (a man finds a mysterious vessel floating in the ocean, only to find himself stranded and unable to locate help), there are also some other genre elements at play that begin to reveal themselves the more time we spend upon the eponymous water vehicle, making The Boat a quietly surprising viewing experience.
While at Fantastic Fest 2018, Daily Dead caught up with Joe Azzopardi, the star and co-writer of The Boat, to discuss how this project evolved from a previous short film he had collaborated with his dad on, and how they came together for this feature project. Joe also discussed some of the physical challenges he faced during production, as well as finding ways to tap into his character, who has very minimal dialogue, but appears in every single scene of The Boat, which wasn’t an easy feat by any means.
I’m sure you’ve heard a few comparisons to Dead Calm so far, but for me, I love the fact that it starts off there and then it ventures into what feels almost like a Twilight Zone or Christine kind of feeling, where this boat becomes this larger-than-life character, so, congratulations. Can you talk about taking the idea from the original short film and then translating it and exploring it even more for a full feature?
Joe Azzopardi: My dad and I, I think it was about just under two years from taking the short and making it into a feature film, and then completing the feature film—it was tricky to see how you could make 90 minutes of one guy on a boat entertaining for that long, but we managed to come up with an idea. My dad and I are both avid sailors as well. We've done big sailing races before. We spend lots of long hours on a deck of a boat going from Malta to Sicily and all around. So, when you're in it and doing it, there's always stuff to come up with where you’re constantly idea hunting.
I also suggest to all young filmmakers out there the importance of making a short as well. When you've got a good idea, and you've got a good concept and can get the money together to make a little, good short film, it's so worth it because then you can send it around to production companies and send it around to investors. And if you have somebody who believes in the idea, then they'll hopefully fund your dream and turn it into something beautiful, which is our feature film.
We always had the feature film in the back of our minds, although, it wasn't always openly discussed, you know, there was always, “Let's focus on this short, let's see how well that does, get some hype off it, and then if the feature can come, it will.” Which it did. But, yeah, it was hard to expand those ideas as well.
With your character, you have a handful of lines in this entire film, and we don’t know much about him, either, but we become invested in his survival. For you, just from that perspective, how challenging was it to embody this character, this fear, this paranoia that he's experiencing throughout this whole ordeal, but yet, you can't really rely on verbal communication to do that?
Joe Azzopardi: Yeah, there's no character history to this guy. There's no tie back home. There's nothing. There's no information you get from before. From an acting point of view for me, it was just all situation-based. It's just, "Play the moment as you’ve been thrown into it." From writing it, I've worked out what I would do in this situation, and I think the biggest challenge that we had was getting the audience to support this character, because why would you, if you know nothing about him? Why would you just go along on his journey?
Interestingly, I think the reason that you do support him is because you don't want to be him. You don't want to be in his shoes, and it's something. And the fact that you see him come up with all these ways to make it out of different situations is interesting. So, maybe that gives us a bit more leeway for them to support him, and then they can just be like, “You know what? All right. I support this guy. I want him to soldier on.”
When it came to the creative process, I always wanted to add a little scene in the beginning with a girlfriend or something. A little scene where he just says he's popping out, just to give him a tie back home, some connection, something to fight for, to get back. But I listened to a podcast with Christopher Nolan, and he was talking about Dunkirk, and he said, which is quite similar, that's a film where you're just thrown into the situation. You're thrown into not knowing these characters, not giving any history, but you do support them, and this was his point as well.
I'm actually sort of glad that you didn't go back and add that scene, because I don't necessarily think we need it.
Joe Azzopardi: I agree.
You go through so much in this film on a physical level, I can’t even imagine how that must have felt. Especially the bathroom scene; I was like, “My God, can it get any worse?”
Joe Azzopardi: Oh God, the cold was real. The cold was so real. It was freezing. We shot it in late October. Malta's a warm country in summer, but it does get cold in winter. We half shot it out at sea and half shot it in the filming tanks of Malta, and the filming tanks, for some reason, it's like an icebox, that place. For some reason the water's so cold. And when we started doing the whole storm sequence, we had to do it in this makeshift cabin, it wasn't in the boat. It was put on a crane and dumped into the tank.
With the first take, I got in the water, it was about 25 minutes in the water, and at one point, the director of photography [Marek Traskowski], he was in this big wetsuit, he's screaming actions at me, and I was just so braindead, I was so numb, and I just couldn't hear anything. And he was like, “Okay, we need to get you out.” I got out of the water, and I just collapsed. I almost hit a hypothermia level, it was so cold. But I kept getting back in, and I was in that water about eight times total. It just got harder and harder and harder, but I must admit that I was happy to do it because I was completing my dream.
There were a lot of technical challenges to this movie, and again, it's one of those things where you read the premise on paper, you're like, “Oh, this seems so simple and straightforward,” and then as you watch the movie you're like, “Holy crap, how did they manage to pull off a lot of the technical aspects?” Was that the biggest thing to this movie: getting a handle on all of these things going on with the boat itself?
Joe Azzopardi: Do you know what? Anything you shoot on the water, any water shoot is always complicated. Spielberg has always said that the most complicated movie he ever shot was Jaws. It was just a nightmare shoot because it's so hard, because it's never just as simple as putting a camera on a boat and shooting. You've got four other boats, safety rigs, camera boats, and they've all got to be going at the same speed at the same time and the coordination is ridiculous.
Plus, half the crew got seasick half the time, and because we were on quite a tight budget, if one person from one department goes down for the day, you lose that whole department. It's crazy. So it was a struggle, but this isn't the first time me and my dad have worked on the water. This is the first time we've written and produced our own material, but we've worked on submarine films, we've done pirate ship films, so we knew the drill. We knew what had to be done, so we had complete confidence in the fact that we had managed to do it before, so we could do it for this. We knew it was always going to be complicated, but like anything you do in life, I suppose, you just have to come at it with a lot of confidence, so you can smash it.
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