Kuwaiti director Zeyad (also known as “Z”) Alhusaini worked for years to bring to the screen “How I Got There,” an action movie with a comedic undertone about two best buddies from childhood, Salem and Asad, who stumble upon a gun shipment and try to seize this opportunity to get rich quick. This groundbreaking pic, which won Saudi Arabia’s Red Sea Film Festival’s audience award, is set entirely in the Persian Gulf and provides a relatively realistic glimpse of Kuwait’s present-day melting-pot of cultures, and its underworld of gun-running mercenaries, gangs, and terrorists, plus the local rap scene.
At the Red Sea fest in Jeddah, where the film world-premiered, Variety spoke to Alhusaini about his stated intention to make “How I Got There” bridge the “cultural gap” between Kuwait and the rest of the world. Edited excerpts.
Let’s start from the beginning. How did the film germinate?
The whole thing started when I was going to film school at Columbia University. There I started writing this story based on characters I know, from different lives I have lived. I was actually in Dave Shaber’s class. Dave Shaber was the writer of “The Warriors” and “Hunt for Red October.” After a few drafts I knew the script wasn’t there, but did not know how to correct it, so I approached him. He said, “Listen, I know how to fix it. I’ll tell you next time, next class.” But unfortunately he passed away that night, so I put the project on hold for a while. Then one day, while I was living in L.A., I looked at it from a completely different point of view and everything just lined up. I could see it. I could feel the characters. Everything made complete sense.
Meanwhile, though, you became a commercials director. I guess it was tough to break into the film biz.
Yes, I am from a commercials background. However, I come from a film background first. So I actually studied film all my life. I directed around 30 short films before I ever did a commercial. You’re right, but commercials to me have always been a means to get back into film. And a lot of the things I did in this film, I tested them in commercials. A lot of the technique, a lot of the movement, I tried it out in commercials, thinking: how would I do it even better in the film? It was always a means to get to this film.
“How I Got There” takes the viewer into the underworld of Kuwait. There’s even the island of Failaka, which is where Iraqi forces invaded Kuwait in 1990. It seems to me it was very important for you to depict your country on screen in a gritty realistic way.
Yes. Well, I look at it in two different ways. One is, to me it’s about representation for young people. When young Kuwaitis or young people from the Gulf look at the screen, they usually find characters that they don’t relate to. It doesn’t matter if they’re good or bad, it’s just there’s no relation. There’s no representation in the sense that they don’t want to be represented by these characters. So I wanted to have great characters with whom they could feel a connection and an affinity. But I also wanted to put onscreen this whole underground other world in Kuwait. I spent around three months hanging out at all these different places, that actually exist. Like the underground club in a tent that I shot. It’s real, I’ve been there. The place got closed down because it got caught [selling alcohol] due to the fact there were like a hundred cars outside a small tent and the cops were like, “What’s going on here?” There are a lot of great things about Kuwait. And there are parts [of the country] like this that people don’t talk about. They’re interesting, they’re different, but they are usually avoided.
Talk to me about your casting choices
I studied acting for 10 years in New York, with Lenore DeKoven and was at Columbia after that. To me it was about learning the language of acting, so that I could direct actors. For this film, I used mainly local stars such as Yaqoob Abdullah, who plays Asad and has been my friend for over 30 years. I used a local casting agent Hussain Alhaddad, who is also an actor, to pick other young local talents. But I also sought out international stars. We were lucky enough to get Javed Jaffrey, from Bollywood, who was a friend of our producer, Aziz AlYaqout. He loved the project and wanted to support it. He flew out just to do a very important scene in the film. And then of course there is Ron Perlman who has a meatier role.
How were you able to get Ron Perlman to play The Merc, a shady American mercenary
So when it comes to Ron, we were actually talking to different actors. We never thought we could get Ron. But we decided to speak to his management and give it a shot. They said: “We will have him read it, he likes to read everything. Then he called us and said: ‘Listen, I love the script. I want to do it!’ I met with him, and we just hit it off. He’s been amazing. Obviously, he’s a fantastic actor to work with. But the amount of power and strength he brings to the film with his performance is truly phenomenal.