Zahir Omar’s first feature “Fly By Night” has already screened at
23rd Busan International Film Festival, Santa Barbara Film Festival, New York Asian Film Festival and Jogja-NETPAC Asian Film Festival. On the occasion of the release of the film in Malaysia on April 11th, we speak with him about his career, the underworld of Kuala Lumpur, his extreme method of casting, Malaysian cinema and other topics.
Can you give us some details about the path that led you to your first feature film? (education, apprenticeship, short movies etc)
I grew up surrounded by production. My father was a commercial director and my mother was a makeup artist. Because of the long production hours, they would leave a stack of VHS tapes for me to watch. I’d be glued in front of the telly for hours. As I grew into a teenager, I often got into trouble at school. And when I did, I would be put to the studios to clean production equipment. I was always on set from a young age, which explains why I’M most comfortable when I’m in one.
My father tried advising me against going into production and put me in an ad agency to do my internship. Call it fate but one day we were on set with a director named Barney, he picked up on my curious and inquisitive nature and gave me a chance to call the shot – Which I gladly did. The shoot lasted 48 hours and he told me at the end of it that if I wanted a job, I had to come back in 4 hours to understand and experience the editing process.
I accepted the job without even knowing if I would get paid but that was the intensity of my passion for the industry. I worked as I was expected to, accumulated enough credits and then went off to Queensland to further my studies. After a semester, I dropped out because I missed being on set – Came back and went straight into production again. The next year I got offered the position of second AD for a feature film called “Sepet” – My first taste in long form
I started off as a runner and Director’s PA and eventually worked my way up to Assistant Director. One day, my father asked me co direct with him in Indonesia, that helped me build my showreel. I came back and began working on small commercials for free before I was recruited by a company called Axis. During my tenure, the first BMW Shorties competition was announced – With little expectations, I took part, won and as they say the rest is history.
Why did you choose the underworld of Kuala Lumpur as the main theme of “Fly By Night?”
It’s a world that I have been fondly observing. I’m not claiming to be a gangster but I might have friends- who wouldn’t admit that they are. They would bring me to meet other people of that “industry” and they seemed perfectly normal. There was no stigma. Then it dawned on me. There is no black and white. They are humans just like us.
The protagonists of the film, although criminals, are portrayed as victims of their life circumstances, while the police, in the face of Kamal, looks much more evil. Why did you choose this approach? Did you have any issues with the censorship board for this approach? What is the situation with the police in Kuala Lumpur?
I needed to balance the humanity aspect in this film, yet wanted it to be as true and hard-hitting as possible with how society really is.
We got PDRM involved really early in the development stage and we worked really well together. They had some guidelines that we had to abide by. At the end of the day, as long as the things you are trying to say and portray comes from a place of truth, you can dress it in a millions ways and it will still be the truth.
LPF has been extremely kind and accommodating. We didn’t have any problems at all, besides some of the swear words and violent scenes that had to be removed because the producers were aiming for a PG13 rating.
The police in Kuala Lumpurwere extremely helpful with the research and assistance when needed. They had taken the trouble to read all the different versions of the script and kept on telling us that they were entertained by it.
The film also deals with social divisions, as in the case where the police gets a green light from HQ to deal with the taxi gang only after a Dato falls victim to their schemes. Can you elaborate on this?
It ties back to the theme of grey areas and blurred lines. That at the very core we are all the same, good and bad. In order to do this, I had to set up the structures before i could break them down.
The film’s cast is impressive. How did you manage to have all those great actors in your movie, and how difficult was to direct them all together in the film?
I used my witty charm and good looks to court them and those who said no I camped outside their house, blasting loves songs from my boom box until they said yes.
Low Soon Keong’s cinematography is impressive. Can you give us some details about the way you cooperated with him and the locations you shot the film?
Keong Sifu, is a master craftsman. A GOD in my books. We first met on the set of Sepet back in 2002. I managed to work my way up to Commercial Director, to get to a point where I had access to work with him on my own commercials. My game was instantly raised once he came on board. His experience and zen composure allows you and the actors the space to express yourself and your full potential. Healso has a gift of seeing all the different shades of black, greys and whites and exposing the film just right. He is amazing.
What is your opinion of Malaysian cinema at the moment? Does the change in government already has some benefits for filmmakers?
I’m really happy to be part of the booming Malaysian cinema scene. We are all coming together and collaborating as an industry. For example,We have SKOP and Jazzy Picture on this project. Two ends from the opposite language spectrum working together. There is open dialogue now and we are all progressing forward together by creating an ecosystem where we are not trying to eat each other up but build each other up
8Are you working on any new projects?
Yes. I’m working on 3 new ones. All very juicy. One is in the scripting stage already. All I can say is not a crime thriller but equally as fun.