"As an artist you have to belong to the world": 'How I Got There' award-winning filmmaker Zeyad Alhusaini

In his feature debut, Kuwaiti-born Zeyad (Z) Alhusaini manages the impossible -- he creates a blockbuster for the Arab world which premiered at this year's Red Sea International Film Festival where it deservedly received the coveted Film AlUla Audience Award for Best Saudi Film.
"As an artist you have to belong to the world": 'How I Got There' award-winning filmmaker Zeyad Alhusaini

While most filmmakers will tell you that reviews are important to the life of a film, as a film lover I find what the audience feels about a movie much more important. Lacking an agenda, and voting with their wallets, audiences can make or break even the most impressive masterpiece, if it fails to connect with them.

So while it is unsurprising that How I Got There, the Kuwaiti-Saudi action comedy blockbuster walked away with this year's Film AlUla Audience Award for Best Saudi Film, it was also a great confirmation of my own mantra: listen to the audience.

Of course, some would argue that the algorithm needed to calculate an audience award is written somewhere in the Black Hole. And I agree. There are many variables at play, particularly when the voting takes place online. But in the end, the best film won, in my humble opinion, because of its filmmaker's courage, vision and craft. And the Red Sea IFF team's insight, programming the film in the lineup of their second edition in Jeddah, Saudi Arabia.

How I Got There is a buddy comedy adventure action film about two young Kuwaitis, Salem and Asad, who are friends since childhood and who stumble upon a get rich quick opportunity they cannot resist. Asad is a one-hit wonder rap artist who is convinced that someone put the evil eye on him thus ending his career, while Salem loves the smell of burnt matches and married the best friend of his high school sweetheart after a tragic accident killed his original beloved. Everything in this wonderfully entertaining epic story is told through a series of flashbacks, and I mean constant flashbacks. It's a technique which, in the hands of a lesser filmmaker and his trusted, world renowned editor could have turned the film into an illogical blunder.

What it does instead is turn How I Got There into something so fresh, so cool, so intrinsically Khaleeji but also perfectly worldly that audiences and critics alike simply could not resist it.

And we didn't.

I caught up with Zeyad Alhusaini, or "Z" as he likes to be called and asked him as much as I could, about his mission, his inspiration, the rap movement in the Gulf and why he chose his filming location -- thousands of miles away from his native Kuwait. It is a long interview but a must-read, just like How I Got There is definitely a must watch!

This is a Kuwaiti Saudi epic, which is a rare thing in the Region. Did you set out to make a blockbuster?

Z: When I first started writing this script, I wanted to create a film the way I like to watch films. It was a film that combined comedy, with action, with drama. And if you really look at it, it’s how people in Kuwait live their lives — a mix of these three. 

I wanted to create something of high value in the action world, I belong to that world also. I belong to an action group and we choreograph action films and do a lot of that stuff. And I’m a huge fan of the action genre, as well as action. When I first started I wanted to create a view-worthy film … that it turned into a blockbuster, I guess was in the process. We wanted to create something people would relate to and feel represented.

Perhaps I should explain that a blockbuster to me is less about box office returns and more about creating a movement, and a relatable film. 

Z: That’s exactly what we wanted to do. We wanted to create a film that would create a cinematic wave. Iranian cinema, it all starts with one film that changes the mindset and inspires people to do more. Mexican cinema also had that in the 1990s. With all the struggles, we knew that if we did this right, hopefully this would be the start of something new. 

You mentioned Mexican cinema which brings me seamlessly to the next question as you filmed in Mexico, substituting for Kuwait. Can you talk about why you choose it as a location?

Z: There were a few reasons. One was that Ron Perlman [the American actor who plays The Merc in the film] was easier to bring down to this part of Mexico, which was a two hour drive from him. The second reason was the amount of action scenes we had and the size and scale of them. To make the film in Kuwait, we would have had some issues with that. And finally, we loved the Mexican crew, they were experienced, the locations were fantastic and the landscapes are similar in look. 

What were the challenges of filming an Arab story in Mexico?

Z: One of the biggest issue was we had a hurricane hit the set, while we were filming. We had continuous rain for four days which limited the amount of outdoor scenery. It also caused leakages on set but aside from that we had the usual challenges of production. We filmed in an abandoned building in Rosarito and that was a bit of a logistical nightmare.

Was there any security concern, with crime so rampant in Mexico?

Z: We had that concern but the Mexican government and the film commission were amazing. We had security with us the whole time and they had special security for Ron [Perlman] when he came down to Mexico. Honestly it was quite safe and comfortable for us.

As a person, you have one foot in Kuwait and the other in the US, both part of your overall culture. How does it feel having this dual citizenship, which makes you unique — not fitting into any one box really -- in a world that loves to put people in specific boxes?

Z: That is very true actually. A friend told me something once, he said “I belong to the world.” Personally, I don’t belong to one place and I live by that. I love Kuwait, it’s my country and I also love the United States, it’s where I live and I learned filmmaking there. I love what every country has to offer. 

As an artist you have to belong to the world and create for the world. Make your local stories but share them with the world. That’s the beauty of cinema.

Zeyad Alhusaini, center, with Ron Perlman at Red Sea IFF

The way your final script came about could be the premise of your next film. It’s a sad story but very cinematic. Can you talk about it?

Z: What happened, I was at Columbia University Film School, doing my MFA and I had a screenwriting class with David Shaber, the great screenwriter who wrote The Warriors and The Hunt for Red October. One of the best writers who ever lived and I learned a lot from him. I wrote the first version of How I Got There and I didn’t like it, it didn’t work. And he said, “I know how to fix the script and I’ll tell you next class.” Next morning, I went to class and everyone was like “Dave Shaber passed away last night.” I was really sad of course. 

So I put the script on hold for a while, and then one day, while I was living in Los Angeles, I woke up and realized I was looking through the wrong window. And everything lined up, everything in the story and it only took me four weeks to write the script. 

Rap music in the Middle East, it’s quite a movement in the Region. Can you talk about it and its presence in your film?

Z: There is a thriving rap scene in the MENA region and the Gulf and what I love about it is that it's highly influenced by the American rap but it’s also a very authentic Arabic rap. Just like our movie, these are songs made for the world but with a local flavor. Kuwaiti, or Gulf songs or Arabic songs but they are for the world to listen to. And we wanted to showcase that and share it with the world. The kind of music these artists make could be played on any radio station in the world.

Plus it’s the right vibe for the film.

The look of the film is so specific, who did you hire as an art director?

K: I’m very specific about everything I do and I storyboarded the whole film. Every single shot was storyboarded. But I had an amazing director of photography, Dominique Colin, who helped shoot A Very Long Engagement and Amélie

Since the beginning we talked about the fact that I wanted to create an artistic action film. So how do you make that? What is the look that feels different? It’s about this Region but it’s different from anything else you might have seen. If you see one frame, you recognize this is the film.

We worked for many, many months discussing that, but honestly, the day I saw the first shot I was blown away. I knew this guy was someone very special and unique. You can talk all you want but when you start filming, that’s when the magic happens. And we shared such energy between us, up until the end when he was color correcting, with an amazing colorist Lionel Kopp, who also did The Fall [by Tarsem Singh], and Amélie

Is it difficult to find Arab crews, to work behind the scenes and not just as filmmakers, actors and producers?

K: You definitely can find them, not as present in the Gulf region, but we had an amazing Arabic crew, a lot of them came from Morocco to work with us. Also what I’ve done with this film is I started to train young Kuwaitis in all departments. To me, it was not only about making a film, but how do you create an industry. 

And one thing about the film, even the cutting of the film and Jordan Maltby is my editor, we spent hours before even cutting a scene discussing the energy of the film. What we were trying to do, what was the story for… That relationship is crucial when creating such a non-linear film. 

Describe what having your premiere here in Saudi, at the Red Sea IFF has felt like?

K: I was going to say unbelievable but it’s not even that. It’s everything I wanted, what I’ve worked for all my life, finally here. 

Kuwait, Saudi Arabia, 2022, 135 mins.

Written & Directed by: Zeyad (Z) Alhusaini

Produced by: Abdul Aziz Al-Yaqout, Hamzah Jamjoom, Meshari Alawadhi and Zeyad (Z) Alhusaini

Executive Produced by: R. Paul Miller, Stephen Strachan

Director of Photography: Dominique Colin

Editor: Jordan Maltby

Music by: Reza Safinia

Production Designer: Martin Damian Sullivan

Costume Designer: Louise Stjernsward

Supervising Sound Editor: Doug Mountain

Visual Effects Supervisor: John Nugent

Colorist: Lionel Kopp

Casting by: Hussain Al-Haddad

Cast:  Ron Perlman, Hamad Alomani, Yaqoub Abdulla, Rawan Mahdi, Bobby Naderi, Ernie Reyes Jr., Faisal Alameeri, Abdullah Bahman, Hala Al-Turk, Jassim Al-Nabhan, Jaaved Jaaferi, Khaled Miami and Hessa Al-Loughani

All photos courtesy of Red Sea IFF, used with permission

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