Interview with director Zak Harney

BIO OF THE DIRECTOR: Having started as an assistant director, Zak made the leap to directing in 2017; starting initially with online content and music videos, before branching out into short films. His first short film ‘Bubbles’ won ‘Best Foreign Short’ at LA Short Film Festival and was selected for the Clermont-Ferrand Short Film Festival in 2018. Zak was featured as part of the annual ‘UNSIGNED’ exhibition at BBH in 2019; A showcase for unsigned talent across all creative industries. Zak has since directed 6 short films, his love of toying with cinematic convention has lead to experimenting with different genres. 

  • Was there a particular event or time that you recognized that filmmaking is your way of telling stories?

In hindsight, probably yes, but I would never have known at the time. I was ill a lot as a child (long term kidney issues), which meant I was up at least a few nights a week vomiting. But that also meant that when I would wander downstairs for pity, my parents were often watching a film. These films were often not age appropriate, which meant I was exposed to films like American Werewolf in London or Heat, WAY sooner than I should’ve been.

  • Do you think it is essential to go to a film institute in order to become a successful filmmaker?

This is something that comes up so often in the pub after wrap. Personally I think its 6 of one, half a dozen of the other. The contacts that you gain from universities or film school while working with peers, you could just as easily gain by entering the industry earlier. One luxury you are given at film school that you may not get on a professional set is being allowed to fail (which you undoubtedly will at some point).

  • Is it harder to get started or to keep going? What was the particular thing that you had to conquer to do either?

For me it was getting started. Years and years of low paying jobs, struggling to pay rent and survive in London were the hard parts for me. I’m from a working class family in the north east, so handouts are just not a thing. I watched so many of my friends give up on the industry over those years, but all that did was make me more determined.

  • What was the most important lesson you had to learn that has had a positive effect on your film? How did that lesson happen?

An attitude that I adopted with First One Away was ‘just try it’. We had so many ideas for creative transitions, or playing with the tone. In particular there is a transition that I had an idea for the day before we were shooting our library scenes. I called and spoke to our production designer Nuha Mekki, and asked her to ‘bring a duvet set, and a pillow – I’ve got an idea’. Luckily, she’s amazing and pulled it out the bag, and the end product speaks for itself. We propped it up around Angus, so it looked like he’s lying in bed. When they then drop away, Angus was fully dressed and in the library. I think it ended up being quite a fun little moment in that montage.

  • What were the production realities from casting through editing that you had to accommodate? How did you navigate those compromises or surprises and still end up with a cohesive film?

Long story short, there was a mistake made when backing up the footage on day one of our shoot. This meant that we were missing approximately half a cards worth of footage. Annoyingly this was the portion of the card that included some inserts and transition shots that were integral to the edit [they were meant to be match cuts every time we travel between timelines]. This lead us to some creative thinking in post-production, which lead to us condensing entire sections of the film down. We also ended up having to shoot some insert shots on my living room table to slot into the edit.

  • What was the hardest artistic choice you made in the making of a film, at any stage in production?

We actually lost an entire section of the script. We were meant to come back to the pub for an additional sequence, which included an Inbetweeners related joke, but we removed it for pacing. In comedy, it’s way more about keeping the pace up than how many jokes you include.

  • You are a collaborator. How have you discovered members of your team and how do you keep the relationship with them strong?

At this stage I’ve been in the industry long enough to have worked with plenty of talented filmmakers, from all sorts of departments. It’s safe to say that we are not short of talented crew! Personally I prioritize working with people who I enjoy spending time with. Just genuine and good people. We all know how hectic, tiring and stressful a film set can be, so its important to surround yourself with people that are calm, friendly and helpful in these heated moments. Also, if I’ve got to spend 12, 13, 14 hours with people, cramped up in a house, I want it to be people that I enjoy spending time with. Personally I try and keep my relationships wrong by just staying in touch. If a collaborator has worked on a new project and it looks great, it doesn’t take much to drop them a line or slide in their DMs and say ‘Well done!’ Or ‘Keep smashing it” etc.

  • What do audiences want? And is it the filmmaker’s role to worry about that?

I think every audience member’s need is different, depending on SO many variables. I’m researching my next short and I’m deep diving into my film collection, my needs are going to be very different than when I’ve ordered a takeaway and I’m having a night in with friends. I think if a filmmaker makes something that they feel passionate about, and have something to say, that bleeds into the film. An audience can feel that and hopefully gain a reaction from that.

  • What role have film festivals played in your life so far? Why are they necessary? How do you get the most out of them?

Short films don’t make money. We all know that. But we make them anyway! Getting recognition for your work is what it’s all about. I’m still relatively new to the world of festivals, but I’m already starting to feel the effects. With my films like First One Away, Echoes and even Masks, we’ve started to get some acclaim. When you’ve cashed in every favor possible to get a film made, it nice bonus to be able to email the crew to say ‘all your hard work paid off!’.

  • Do you believe that a filmmaker should be original and fresh or he/she should stick to classic but safe cinema style?

Weirdly my entire university dissertation was on this, but I won’t bore anybody by regurgitating that. The conclusion that I came to then, was that conventions and ‘safe cinema style’ exist for a reason. They exist because there is a cinematic shorthand that filmmakers have and audiences recognize. Deviating from these conventions is a great way to draw attention to a moment or scene in your film, but I my opinion it needs to be justified. There’s no point crossing the 180 degree line for example, without rhyme or reason.