Ian Ebright, the director of the brilliant From the Sky short film, is a rather eloquent, friendly fellow and obviously a passionate lover of all things film. It’s been a pleasure to chat with him about his film debut, his goals and wishes, as well as all the stuff that matter the most on his way to attracting the attention and respect from the film-worshipping community he rightfully deserves.
What made you fall in love with the world of film? When and how did you know this was what you wanted to do?
EBRIGHT: It began with movies like Die Hard and The Abyss, seeing those in theaters and experiencing that feeling of young adrenaline from the kinetic energy of those films. It felt like floating out of the theater when they were over with a mixture of euphoria and the best kind of exhaustion. But it was definitely Patriot Games in 1992 that did me in. I was 13 when my parents took me to see it. For whatever reason, that movie had such a grip on me that I sat there during the credits in silence. It was the film that made me believe I could make a similar impact on an audience and that I had to try. Ironic that my first film includes a critique of US foreign policy conducted in the shadows whereas Patriot Games is a staunch proponent of US foreign policy in the shadows, including a scenario that plays like the 90s version of a drone strike. In that film, the CIA hit a militant camp in North Africa based on Harrison Ford/Jack Ryan’s “best guess,” and from a satellite feed we watch as special forces kill a bunch of people and still don’t get their man. Whoops.
Which filmmaker would you call your greatest inspiration and why?
EBRIGHT: I can’t pick one, but I can tell you the small group of filmmakers representing aspects of the kinds of films I aspire to create. David Fincher for his cinematic aesthetic and sure-handed approach to directing. Steven Soderbergh for the way he moves the camera and that he continues to take risks to develop his visual style. JC Chandor for his embedded sense of morality and remarkably poignant and illuminating dialogue. Bennett Miller for his ability to cultivate stories patiently until they are ripe, and then to execute that story flawlessly. Miller, like Chandor, only tells stories that really have something to say, that are about something bigger than any given plot, and I find that endlessly commendable. David Mamet for mastering poetic, quotable dialogue. Laura Poitras for being the gutsiest filmmaker I can think of and for making three documentaries (My Country My Country, The Oath and Citizenfour) that were all perspective-altering for me. Joachim Trier for the way that he writes these incredible moments of everyday conflict and clarity. Nicole Holofcener for the sweetness and weight of her stories and the way that she writes women on her own terms. Werner Herzog for the way that he finds stories where other people wouldn’t look and maintains a tone all his own. Martin Scorsese for being an example of a master storyteller. I find myself returning to his films with greater and greater interest as I get older.
Watching the film, I got the feeling you cared deeply about this subject. What piqued your interest?
EBRIGHT: I had been blogging for a few years and was covering topics including human rights, and I was watching a lot of documentaries about the war on terror, and reading up. Some of the better reporting and research focused on the impact of drone warfare on civilians and concluded they were suffering from PTSD, struggling to sleep at night due to the mosquito-like buzz of the drones, and were seeing the social fabric of their communities torn apart out of fear that they’d be seen as terrorists or associates from the eyes in the sky. And these were the people who didn’t make the headlines for having been killed by a drone. When a signature strike makes a determination based on behavior and association, what does that mean for the hospitable culture living below? It all sounded like horror and science fiction and a story I needed to tell.
How did you get the idea to make From the Sky?
EBRIGHT: I saw an excellent student short film Thief by Julian Higgins which was set in Iraq and featured a young Saddam Hussein as its antagonist, played by Mohamad Tamimi. I wrote the role of Abbas in From the Sky specifically for Mohamad after seeing that film, and ended up casting Maz Siam (also from Thief) as Abbas’ father Hakeem. More than that, Laura Poitras’ documentaries My Country My Country and The Oath weren’t focused on the western perspective related to the war on terror, instead going to great lengths to understand and humanize people on the receiving end of US foreign policy. Poitras’ sense of genuine compassion and curiosity combined with her restraint and level-headed approach were all a great inspiration. In terms of how I would build From the Sky, I was thinking along the lines of Lessons of Darkness by Herzog, Picnic at Hanging Rock by Peter Weir, and Jaws, and how much that film doesn’t show us. These reference points helped to form a loose outer boundary of the kind of film I wanted to make, and it really helped so that I could focus on conflict and characterization, and getting my story tightly wound. I knew very early on, almost before I jumped into writing the screenplay, that I wanted my favorite ambient electronic artist Loscil to create a creeping, ethereal undercurrent of a score, and believed his music would be a perfect fit because it includes a mechanical, industrial quality that would stand in for the drone we never see. I was unbelievably fortunate to have him score the film.
We’re you afraid people would consider From the Sky a political movie, not see all the humanity in it the way we’ve seen it?
EBRIGHT: Absolutely, but I began to feel better about that as the production came together, and the story was refined in collaboration with American advisers on the Middle East, interpreters and the remarkable cast. What grew out of those sessions was a clear indication that this was a story about growing up in conflict, the cycle of retaliation and the cost of peace, and that we had four very different actors bringing this to life in an incredibly powerful and diverse way. Drones are just the catalyst.
To what degree did you care about authenticity? To what lengths were you prepared to go in that direction?
EBRIGHT: I think more in terms of credibility than authenticity, but that sense of grounded realism—regardless of what we call it—was hugely important for this film, and continues to be a focus as I develop my next project. I’m interested in narratives that have some connection to reality and topical, true events, but for the sake of cinematic storytelling, try not to get too on the nose in my writing or else I’m doing something in the style of a movie of the week. Ideally, I want to tell stories that are both somewhat familiar and contextual but ultimately about universal, timeless themes. There also tends to be an association between authenticity and specificity, and one doesn’t necessarily require the other. The fun part for me is in learning where the story benefits from specificity, and where the story is getting bogged down because of it, while attempting to maintain authenticity throughout. As an example, From the Sky touches on religion, but we don’t go deep or too specific there, because it always seemed like it would create an unnecessary hurdle for some of the audience without helping the story along. But what we do acknowledge in terms of religion is credibly represented for that region and those characters. At times, we were authentic in a way that compliments and expands the narrative without getting in its way. In working with the film’s fantastic production designer and costume designer Kristen Bonnalie, we discussed back story, geography, texture, color and dived into these kinds of things in great detail, leading her to create an aesthetic that I believe is functioning as authentic for the audience without the audience being mindful of it in a distracting way.
All in all, we put a serious amount of time and effort into location scouting, production and costume design, cultural/religious/political considerations whether spoken or implied, and the Arabic language and English subtitles. All of it needed to be as accurate and believable as we could accomplish, and I’m really proud of the feedback we’ve received there as people find the film.
I realize this is a tough question, but what is the greatest film ever made and why?
EBRIGHT: My first thought is The Godfather, and I’ll stick with that for the scale of the story it manages to tell and for the number of iconic scenes and richly-drawn characters. I confess to having holes in my viewing history, especially when it comes to the older classics, but I’m working to correct that. And I can’t ignore my own history which had me growing up in the late 80s and the 90s. During that time, it was films like Clear and Present Danger, The Insider and Out of Sight that stuck with me for the skill or style in their storytelling. Those are still some of my personal favorites, and I’m unable to watch them outside of the perspective of the teenager I was at the time. They do hold up, though.
What do awards mean to you, as a filmmaker? When you made From the Sky, did you tell yourself, yes, this film is definitely going places?
EBRIGHT: During principal photography, on the strength of the performances and what was being captured by DP Ty Migota, I felt like we had something special. I had heard some rough sketches from composer loscil and had those in the back of my mind, and couldn’t wait to see these components assembled in post production. It was a cathartic creative experience unlike anything I’ve ever been a part of. We hustled throughout post to get the film finished in time for that year’s Sundance submission deadline, and all of the sudden, the thing you’ve been working on for over a year is done, and you love it, but everything goes quiet. Then the rejection letters start coming in. Maybe my ego got in the way? Maybe the film wasn’t as good as I thought it was? We received a bunch of festival rejection letters in a row including Sundance, and everything sat still for about six months. I felt depressed. I worried that the film was failing to translate or capture people, but at the same time, I was incredibly proud of what we’d built, and it was exactly the film I had hoped to make. Then it started getting accepted, and about six months after that, the festival reception snowballed. At the same time, I was developing my next project with a creative team and that has had its own ups and downs. I had left my employer of eight years and my wife and I had sold our house to get this followup project made, and there was plenty of time to question myself, being that we bet so heavily on this full-on approach to filmmaking. The awards, like the acceptances from festivals, never came in a way I would’ve expected, but they have felt like a life raft keeping me afloat at times or a marker on a trail telling me to keep moving in this direction. They have helped the film get seen and hopefully will help everyone who worked on the film. I’m really grateful for the awards for those reasons.
Where do you see yourself in five years’ time?
EBRIGHT: I am superstitious in this area and always feel like a lightning bolt is headed my way when I start seeing myself anywhere beyond the near future. That’s a dodge, but I can say that I’m working towards a body of cinematic work that I can be proud of and has something to say, and my hope would be to have a couple of those projects completed in that timeframe and connecting with an audience. In my 20s, I was mostly about the filmmaker lifestyle and wanting to be known and wealthy, and trying to write stuff that would sell. I’m not saying I’m immune to those impulses, but now, 15 years later, I’m focusing on story and finding subject matter that I actually care about and want to explore. The audience is a privilege, and I believe story and character will always be the things an audience wants to find and return to, more than any gimmick or new concept. An idea is not the same thing as story, and the audience knows it. So I want and hope to travel in the direction of good storytelling, to learn and improve in that arena, and to collaborate with a great cast and crew. That’s what excites me creatively.
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