The British Legion in Valletta on a balmy night. The billiard table is well lit under a haze of smoke. A group of men huddle at a table watching a horserace on TV. A man leaning against the bar passes an obnoxious comment to a woman who has just walked in. In reply, she nonchalantly spits into his beer and walks away.
“Cut!” says director Abigail Mallia, “let’s do another.”
The actors do as she asks; the clockwork precision with which she calls the shots rather striking. It is day 40 of the Limestone Cowboy shoot; the latest Maltese-themed and feature film currently in production by Take 2 Entertainment.
“We need to up the pace a little,” adds Mallia unruffled, “because technically we are an hour late.” Considering her confession when we first met that the first day of filming was such a shock she wasn’t sure she could continue, she exudes Zen-like calm that seems to permeate all those around her and belies the notion that film sets are a chaotic place.
Limestone Cowboy tells the story of Karist, a 55-year-old un-sophisticated man who decides to run for office in the general elections, convinced he has what it takes to lead the country. He is egged on by Tommy, a self-serving man who becomes Karist’s campaign manager, while Karist’s son John has to contend with the embarrassment caused by his father’s actions.
The character of Karist is clearly inspired by a couple of eccentric characters who have over the years added some much-needed colour to Maltese elections. Head writers Carlos Debattista and Jon Mallia devised the story assisted by Mallia, who emphasises that the characters and events are pure fiction. “We don’t know these people personally, however they certainly challenged our way of thinking. We also observed that it’s not just about them, but about how other people respond to them. We also asked ourselves – if he were our father, how would we react?”
The writers then began to explore the idea of delusion. “Our guy, Karist is a delusional character. He suffers from arrested psychological development after experiencing a trauma at age 10, and he developed a childlike, delusional way of facing the world,” Mallia explains.
I believe the actor has to understand the energy of the character
“Moreover, we started questioning the idea of delusions and why certain delusions are seen as madness – like Karist’s; while others are considered socially acceptable, as is the case with John, Karist’s son. John lives a life where he is great at his job, is successful, popular and a good father. Yet, he suffers from a delusion that burdens him and it is very exhausting to keep it up.”
It took Jon Mallia and Debattista a year and a half to write the script. In the meantime, they had to raise the finance. In this, they were supported (amongst others) by the Malta Film Fund and all at the Film Commission and associate producer Dirk Hili, who came on board after loving the script. The team put together the budget.
The casting process came next and Mallia says the team saw over 600 people; some of whom they saw over and over again.
“Casting and script are the most important elements for me,” says Mallia emphatically. “I believe the actor has to understand the energy of the character; and there were moments when we knew immediately that that person could fit the character. Like Paul Portelli – when he auditioned we knew that this guy was Karist. ”
She animatedly describes how Portelli captured the mixture of a man who is delusional but cool at the same time; funny and a bit macho; while recalling her anxiety until he accepted the part.
Other names in the cast include German actress Irene Christ as Karist’s Romanian partner, Davide Tucci as John and Paul Cilia as Tommy, the man who becomes Karist’s campaign manager.
As Mallia sets up her next shot, Portelli ambles over to say hi. “It’s very well-structured with nothing superfluous in it,” says the actor of the Limestone Cowboy script, as he strokes the thick grey beard that covers his normally lean, clean face. Portelli is clearly enthused by what he has seen so far, recalling some jaw-dropping shots he has seen the Cowboy crew put together over the past few weeks. He further confirms that they are all having a really good time – despite the relatively tough shoot.
The film is scheduled to wrap sometime this month with post-production hopefully completed by March. The producers will then begin the arduous task of entering it into overseas festivals before a Maltese release is announced.
At this early stage, can Mallia anticipate the audience’s reaction? She pauses for thought. “I like to mix genres and I think people will laugh while asking themselves whether they should be laughing; and crying and wondering whether they should be cry-ing. I like that rollercoaster of emotions, that’s life!”
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