The father/son directing/producing/acting team of Winston and Joe Azzopardi are back in Malta following the success of their short film Head. They spoke to Paula Fleri-Soler about the making of the film and its award-winning reception in a couple of US-based film festivals.

In 24 tautly-written and tightly-directed minutes, a solo sailor (Joe Azzopardi) is crossing the Mediterranean Sea from Sicily to Malta. Along his journey he comes across an obstacle and is not sure if it is accidental or something sinister is happening on board…

That is the premise of Head (the maritime word for ‘toilet’), written, produced and directed by Winston Azzopardi, and co-produced and starring his son Joe.

Winston and Joe Azzopardi.Winston and Joe Azzopardi.

Through his company Latina Pictures, Winston is synonymous with the film industry, attracting, facilitating and co-producing numerous large-scale production such as Troy, World War Z, 13 Hours (The Secret Soldiers of Benghazi) and Assassins Creed.

After years in the producer’s seat, what inspired him to create this short?  “Way back in the dark ages I trained to be a director… It was film in those days and non-linear editing,” he says.  “I was actually surprised how quickly it all came back to me. That said, I knew from the outset that I needed help with new technology. I was lucky enough to engage the very talented Daniel Lapira, Ryan Gatt and Aleks Bundalo who were instrumental in making Head.”

Winston adds that since Joe graduated from the Mountview Academy of Arts in London, they had been toying with the idea of doing a film together. Both avid sailors, it was natural they would make a nautical film. They started developing the script in October 2015… going through 10 drafts until they cracked it. Equally natural was that Joe would play the role of the hapless sailor.

“I’ve watched him developing as an actor and was totally convinced that he can carry the picture,” says Winston. On his part, Joe says that being directed by his father offered both good and bad moments. “It’s nice to have someone directing you that you can trust blindly which for an actor is beyond important,” he says, “but it can also be very weird going to such emotional extremes in front of your old man!”

My biggest headache was the wellbeing of the crew while out at sea

Most filmmakers are put off filming at sea as it is quite complicated, yet Winston claims that for them it is more natural than shooting on land. “I’m obsessed with prep and we prepped this like any major Hollywood film,” he says.  “We bought down Marek Traskowski our Director of Photography, from Poland to recce.  We camera tested with Joe out at sea until we were happy this would work.  We didn’t want to build sets as wanted to capture the claustrophobic effect of being on a sailboat when faced with peril. We also took the crew out sailing a few times to familiarise them with the confines of the boat.”

The film was shot over four days last January. “My biggest headache was the wellbeing of the crew while out at sea. Thankfully, only a couple of them got seasick!” says Winston.  “Although what still amazes me to this day is how we managed to get a six-foot, two inches tall cameraman and Joe in a toilet that is less than 1 meter square!”

Adds Joe, with some feeling: “The biggest challenge for me was trying to give the most genuine performance I could within that space. Being locked in the head of a moving boat for such a long time with an unknown yet imminent danger outside is no joke. Before we shot the film I would go on the boat and spend as long as I could in there without any water.”

Head won the Best Short Film and the Audience Choice Awards at the Rome International Film Festival in Georgia and the Best Director in a Short and Best Overall Actor at the Best Actors Film Festival in San Francisco. “We are very happy that it’s doing so well, although the main objective of the film is to make it into a feature,” says Winston. He reports there has been serious interest from major Hollywood players who loved the originality of the film.

Joe agrees the response has been incredibly rewarding, adding: “it has also given me a newfound sense of patriotism following social media comments saying ‘we made Malta proud’.”

What about winning the Best Overall Actor award at a festival dedicated to ‘best actors’? Joe says with disarming honesty: “believe it or not I’m more proud of my role as a producer than an actor. Nevertheless, being rewarded for something I studied intently for three years is a great pat on the back.”

The Azzopardis hope that Head will be screened for the Maltese public in the near future. “We are in discussions with other Maltese filmmakers to collect five short films for the cinema with a total running time of around 90 minutes.”

Currently, Winston is prepping an Italian film called Invisible Boy 2 with Oscar-winning filmmaker Gabrielle Salvatores. He then goes straight into the star-studded remake of Murder on the Orient Express directed by Kenneth Branagh. Joe will be on hand working on Invisible Boy 2, before heading back to London to continue what he describes, with a hint of droll sarcasm, as the glamorous life of an actor…

Hopefully, he’ll return soon should the feature-length version of Head become a reality.

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