17 year old filmmaker, Muhammed Malik, opens up about the art of film, the impact of youth in the creative realm, and his latest project, “Godspeed”

As technology continues to grow by the second, and such things as cellular device cameras becoming “industry standard”, more and more people are now able to capture beautiful shots and create astonishing visuals with nothing but an iPhone and the right applications. However, what is not available at your local Apple Store or available on the app store is a vision, creative drive, skill, and work ethic to produce a truly impactful work of art. These are the characteristics of 17 year old filmmaker and visual artist, Muhammed Malik (but, we can call him Moe).

Hailing from Northern Virginia, the young multifaceted creative began shooting films at the tender age of 8 years old. Since then, he’s studied and honed his craft, and pretty much knows his way around any camera set up and soundstage. He works with nothing but the best equipment in the business, such as the latest Sony and Black Magic digital cameras, investing thousands into lenses, rigs, industry standard softwares, and more into his craft to produce the highest quality films he can.

Screen Shot 2017-06-25 at 3.42.34 PM
Still from a short film directed by Moe, currently titled Home.

 

However, as all filmmakers (should) know, the pricetags on your equipment does not depict the overall quality of a film. No matter how crisp and clean a film may look and sound, it’s the storytelling that truly brings it home. Luckily for Moe, he has implemented this important law into every project he’s touched. Telling stories of love with intriguing character development have allowed Moe to gain mass acclaim for many of his recent projects. Specifically, his latest short film entitled Godspeed, which he released via Vimeo not too long ago.

The 3 and a half minute short film was welcomed with nothing but praise, amassing close to 1,000 views within the few days of release. The film is a dark romance which focuses on the internal growth and demise of  a young couple.

I had the pleasure of speaking on the phone with Moe to discuss his new project, as well as his views on his craft, creativity amongst the youth, and plenty of other topics.

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READ OUR DISCUSSION BELOW.


So Moe, tell me about yourself. Who are you? How would you describe yourself, starting from where you’re from?

An Autodidact. A self taught filmmaker. I don’t really prefer discussing age even though it’s the first thing in my bio because I don’t really believe it matters.

Why do you think it doesn’t matter?

In the last near two decades everything has sort of flipped on it’s backside. If you look back at like the late 60’s, there was no importance or relevance to youth. We were never- I guess kids were never noticed or respected for our concepts or ideas. We were never really taken seriously because of course we were just kids. The media was in the hands of the adults. Anything you wanted to do, any way to grow as an artist- you had to go through specific channels that would require you to answer to someone who was irrefutably older than you. Now that we have the modern computer, the internet, YouTube, and Vimeo; all these different viable platforms, it’s created this room for kids to indulge in their interests. And indulge n anything they’ve really wanted to. And I think that fluidity, in terms of what adults can now do, and what kids can do via the internet has created this passé look on age. I guess it doesn’t really matter now, because everyone has everything in their hands. Everybody can do everything now regardless of age. You have 16 year olds who have millions upon millions of subscribers on Youtube, and then you have adults who also run multi-million dollar corporations. There’s no longer a cosmic disparity. Now, kids are finally on the same wavelength.

“…everything I’ve ever made has been in direct correlation to how I felt at the time.”

Ah, that makes sense. Definitely. And you were describing yourself?

I was born here in, I believe Fairfax. I think Fairfax.

(chuckles, almost in disbelief of not knowing his birthplace.)

Growing up I moved around a lot. I think somewhere at that time I developed this heightened sense of emotion.

Really?

How do I describe it? There was a part of me that thought I felt more that what the average person could. I was always, you know, my emotions were always fluctuating because circumstantially I was forever moving. I think that along with being raised in a household where emotions were always something we talked about and how we felt was something we always spoke about. I think it helped shape me into the multifaceted I am today. I think it manifests largely in my work because a lot of my work is contingent to emotions, relationships, loss, and man’s relationship with loss. I think in some way it is the mainframe for my work.

Yeah I have noticed that really creative people tend to be very emotional.

Oh yeah! Definitely! You’ll never find a creative person that necessarily can’t feel because their work is going to become meaningless. You know, there are people that I know that hope to go through pain and hardship so that in turn makes their work somewhat more meaningful. I think we’re all in some way very grateful for being able to feel what we feel because it definitely manifests in our work.

Exactly. It’s like a blessing and a curse, depending on the situation.

Absolutely.

How would you say you implement your emotions into your work?

Well everything I’ve ever made has been in direct correlation to how I felt at the time. The idea that I had for Godspeed was in a nutshell just loss and how man would handle loss. I at the time was going through a really rough point in my own life. Thankfully, things always do get better. Although at the time, I was in a state of mind where I wanted to create characters who wouldn’t necessarily go in the same direction I did at the time. Not to portray some false sense of an alternate reality, but just in a way to describe, “You know, things could’ve gone this way. I could’ve lost this person.” Not that anyone was about to die, but the point was to dramatize it as much as possible and blur the line between documentary and stylistic short form filmmaking. There’s probably only one thing I’ve wanted from my own work. The thing is, I’ve been so ‘unrelatable’ my entire life. When I was sixteen, none of the other sixteen year olds at my high school, I was able to actually speak to and consciously relate to. They just didn’t worry about the same things I did. Not that their worries or interests were in any way of less value or importance but I definitely was not worried about the same things. I wasn’t concerned about the same issues. I was thinking about my next film, how I was going to grow, how my work was going to stand on it’s own, and my independent brand’s business plan.

Screen Shot 2017-06-25 at 2.30.14 PM
Still from Muhammed’s latest short film, GODSPEED.

I relate to that.

I grew up very quickly. Growing up very quickly, I developed this need to have other people relate to me through my work. Everything I’ve ever made, and all I have been trying to do is to get people to look at my work and feel what it is that i’ve been feeling. I recently had a person message me and tell me that [‘Godspeed’] really hit home with them and I think that meant more to me than any compliment because it defined the strength in my work.

I feel like, you know, from one filmmaker to another that’s all the feedback you need from a film.

Absolutely.

That’s what you were going for. You were looking for that emotional connection to the audience and a reaction. So, Godspeed. Tell me about the process of making that film. You told me about some slight changes that went on to make it specifically Godspeed. Can you explain those?

(Laughs) Well do you want to hear about the production or the technical changes made at the end?

Before anything, what sparked this idea?

This basic idea has manifested in a lot of my other unfinished projects. One in specific, ‘Delusions of Grandeur’, which I was working with you on early 2017.

Yes.

This idea, I coined, I’d say 6 months ago. I initially came to you and I said, “Okay, let’s do this.” That never happened, so it was revamped and altered to fit a shorter storyline. I knew I had to do something with it so I rewrote it in one night. It was between the hours of 4 in the morning and 8 in the morning. Around 8 am, I contacted my incredible Assistant Director on this project, Zabih Yousef. I sent it to him and we immediately began scouting locations, the following week, we began auditioning actors. About two weeks later, we got in contact with Simone Satchell. She’s been a long time friend of mine. We decided we’d involve her. That’s how production started. It was three months in pre production, and all of a sudden, in about two weeks time we had everything shot.

“I threw up once while editing because I was working from 6 PM until 9 AM.”

Wow. It came out beautiful. I was looking at you Instagram story daily and you all were on a straight grind non-stop. I’d be watching your story at 2 am you guys were still working. What was that like?

Oh, man. It was unbelievable. It was probably the most freeing experience in my entire life. We’d start working at 2 PM and wrap at 2 AM. Those hospital scenes you saw in the final project were shot at around 2 in the morning. A lot of footage was being scrapped. We didn’t have time in the final project. It was essentially cutting out a lot of footage and we ended up shooting 4 times the footage we actually needed for the final project. On set, it was truly unbelievable. I had so much fun with my cast members. It was a small production, but it was truly a valuable production to be apart of. Despite all the work we were doing, everyone was so involved and so interested in the project. The actors were not just my actors. They were also my script supervisors, set designers, art directors. They were doing way more than what they should have done and they did it without complaints. They did it without any hassle. I never felt like I’d had to compromise my concepts for anyone and I am truly so grateful for just that. It was wonderful on set.

As a director, were there any challenging moments or situations when making this film?

Oh absolutely! There were a bunch of challenges during editing specifically. We were shooting uncompressed 2.5k RAW. All the footage you were seeing, was essentially 750GBs worth of space. I was having to bring my laptop to set to copy everything from my SSD and transfer it onto my MacBook pro to save space. When I would get home, I would have to transfer everything from my laptop to my SSD, and then onto my main editing desktop. That was easily one of the most frustrating issues. Along with that, and I think any director will tell you, when you’re editing, you’re worried about everything you’re doing. You’re concerned about everything. One wrong cut and you’re screwed. I can’t tell you how concerning it was. The story had to be told the way it was written. I wasn’t going to deviate from that. On set we shot 4 angles for every one shot. And, it was becoming excessive. It was becoming tiresome to go through all the footage and I started becoming nauseous after a little while. I threw up once while editing because I was working from 6 PM until 9 AM. I was fasting as well and I got very little food. I regurgitated from the sheer stress.

That’s crazy! Woah. Knowing that, have you ever worked insanely hard on a film and you don’t really get the response you expected?

Always. This is probably the first time I am getting a larger response than I initially expected. (Laughs) The best part about a film, and I always believe this, is while you’re making it. Distribution is the most difficult thing. Getting people to care about your work is so hard. Which is why making your work relatable is so important, because distributing your work amongst kids and teenagers, primarily millennials is almost impossible. Nobody cares enough to sit down and watch a short film that’s three minutes long, unless their favorite actor is in it, unless it’s relatable to them, and unless it really hits home with them. I’ve always wanted my work to be so relatable and simultaneously gravely ‘unrelatable.’ I’ve always felt that every single time I release a film, I always think that no one is going to watch this. I was sitting in the room when we decided to publicize the film last night, and I said, “No one is going to watch this, guys. Nobody is going to care about this. This is just going to be another project down the drain.” And within an hour or so, we amassed 100 retweets and 150 likes. It was sort of insane. I wasn’t expecting such a response. But, I definitely think that for the rest of my life, I’ll always believe that nobody will care about my work up until it actually happens.

“The thing with artists… we’re really territorial about our work. So, when someone defames our work or undermines it, it makes us feel inadequate.”

And how did it feel getting that response?

It was exhilarating.The best part was speaking to people, one-on-one and hearing their direct reactions to it. It was the most fulfilling thing I’ve ever encountered particularly because I never sat down with people who cared enough about my work to talk to them about it. Some people were analyzing it. Some people were commenting on it. Most were relating to it. Everyone had something to say. I’m just glad I didn’t get a truly negative response.

How do you think you would’ve handled a negative response?

The thing with artists is that we’re really territorial about our work. So, when someone defames our work or undermines it, it makes us feel inadequate. For a lot of us, this is our job so when someone does in fact negatively respond, not out of criticism or intent to help me grow, it does affect me. You always have to listen to criticism though. The people that are criticizing you are indubitably going to make you better, even if it’s out of envy, hatred, or distaste. Whenever I get criticism, I always listen. I always take it into account, but I don’t always implement the change into my work if I don’t feel it’s rational.

Why did you choose Godspeed by Frank Ocean?

I think Frank Ocean’s discography is truly so transcendent. I think it’s a revelation for a lot of people.

This song in specific flows so well with the story. It defines the story in such a truthful way. To pick any other song would’ve been a gigantic mistake on my part.

How many previous film projects have you done that you’ve released this way?

Ones that are still out? Probably two.

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Muhammed Mailk / shot by Allen Wilson

Is there any advice you want to give to yourself when working on your next project?

I think the one thing I tell myself is to work hard at everything. You need to work hard at everything you make. To make anything good, you have to work hard. Never let trivial things cause a disparity in how hard you’re going to work. Never let the audience or a lack of one discourage you from working.

So, do you know what your next project is?

I do! Yeah, my next film is going to be about a boxer. We’re already in early pre-production.

Is it a short film or a feature?

It’s a short film.

How would you describe your creative process?

I go through a series of stages. The first thing I like to do is look at visual references. I try to create moodboards to start. What works really well for this is actually Instagram. It has this archival tool that allows you to save other people’s posts into your app. It allows you to also create collections. I refer to all those saved photos when I am making my own project which helps define the look I’m going for. I think that visual references and cues are super important to your own projects. Then I go into scriptwriting, usually with some sort of score that either I’ve written or one I’ve come across online to help set the mood for the story. It usually takes one night of pure brilliance and ten nights of pure idiocy.

What do you think is the most challenging part for you?

It’s always been getting on set and not having a sense of surety. The reason it happens for me is because I am always afraid I won’t do the script justice. Mid production the worry usually subsides and I continue working at ease. It’s truly a liminal feeling.

I absolutely get it. It even happened with (my film) Dovetail. The script was actually like 20 pages. There were scenes in the script that never got made. Some reasons being timing and availability. Which is why I think when you’re writing the script and you think you have everything down, you’re sure it’ll be great. In the end it’s not exactly how you pictured it initially.

Exactly.

Regarding the cinematography of Godspeed, Did you DP it all yourself?

I DP’d it I’d say majority myself. Around four scenes were DP’d by Zabih Yousef, the fantastic Assistant Director.

Shoutout to Zabih Yousef.

Yep!

So did you utilize a storyboard or was it all spur of the moment?

Actually we did. We had a super abbreviated version of a shot list. It was color coded with information on shot width and shot type. It also had basic references to the aesthetic of each shot. It was a supplement.

Do you think it’s easier with a shot list or without?

Definitely easier in terms of guiding the production and keeping momentum strong.

What did you shoot this beautiful masterpiece on?

We shot on the Blackmagic Cinema Camera 2.5K using uncompressed RAW.

Any specific lenses you shot with?

Jupiter 85mm, Helios 58mm, and Vivitar 29mm. All very cheap glass.

Were there any shots you used any sort of stabilizing method to capture?

Yes. We used tripods for the opening stable scenes, and we used a Glidecam for the running shot.

What NLEs did you use to edit this project?

I cycle between about three. What I used throughout the entire production was Davinci Resolve 14. I was shooting in RAW and it was the easiest option for me without re-encoding in DNxHR and potentially loosing detail. After working in Davinci, I rendered a master AVI and then from there to an x264 re-encoder to preserve the quality and lessen file size when uploading to Vimeo.

You seem to have the true industry standard package.

I hope so! (Laughs)

Before we wrap it up, you’re working on a feature film as well?

Yes! A long time friend and fellow scriptwriter, Ethan Santana and I are getting together to create our first feature film. It’s definitely a secret for now.

 

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