A conversation with Zam Salim, writer-director of Up There

Paul Risker chats with Zam Salim, writer-director of Up There…

Up There, the debut feature from Zam Salim, is released on DVD tomorrow. Graciously, Zam put some time aside for a short interview, full of humour and offering a more personal insight his thoughts on his directorial feature debut…

Paul Risker: You have been quoted as saying that you wanted ‘Up There’ to feel ordinary. What was the motivation behind this aesthetic and narrative choice? Was it in anyway a response to other more fantastical takes on the afterlife and the supernatural?

Zam Salim: Yes I was just interested in human nature and how brilliantly funny and absurd it is. No matter how extraordinary the situation is, we’ll be able to dwell on the most trivial of things in order to cope. It’s like how people function on a plane. There they are soaring through the heavens, at the absolute pinnacle of man’s abilities and achievements, and they’d rather fill in their Sudoku than take in the majesty and wonder just outside their window. You’ve got to love humans for that, and I knew it’d be the same thing in the afterlife. After all the metaphysics, folk would just kind of get on with it and cope the best way they could. You’d get a sense that hierarchies and pecking orders would also emerge- even in limbo or heaven. I think the film was also an attempt to look at every day things – loneliness, friendship, loss, bereavement but do it in a different and interesting way. We’re dealing with death so you’ve got to laugh, really.

PR: It seems to me that Burn Gorman was born to play Martin. How did Burn become involved in the project, and were you at any point writing with certain actors in mind?

ZS: No, the casting was a difficult process to be honest, finding someone we could all agree on. Getting that balance right between comedy and drama was really difficult – essentially being deadpan in approach but still having a sense of movement and urgency ‘behind the eyes’ as it were. The film was based on a short which featured John Paul Hurley in the lead. He’s a brilliant actor, and was a great Martin, but things didn’t work out for one reason or another. Burn was originally suggested to us by Debbie McWilliams who cast the Bond movies, and she had a brilliant eye. He came in and that was that. He just fit with the character, had layers, and a fantastic eccentricity to his delivery and approach that subtly pulls you into his story, and importantly makes you believe that world from the very first frame. He did a brilliant job. There’s a nuance to his performance that I hope people appreciate.

PR: The ordinariness of Purgatory in the film mimics the ordinariness of the world of the living the characters have just departed, suggesting that reality is in fact Purgatory. How would you respond to such a reading of your film? Was this something that was intentional on your part when writing the script?

ZS: Oh yeah definitely. I think we’re all kind of lurking about waiting for some higher force to pull you serenely in to the light- or at least you are if you work in the film industry. Yeah, it’s definitely about that sense of yearning for something better, some kind of release and that question of what you might have to do, or who you might have to step over to achieve it. I love the idea of Heaven’s pecking order being as cynical and as human as it is down here. Why wouldn’t it be? It’d be full of humans, wouldn’t it?

PR: Could you discuss the emotional and physical challenges you encountered on your feature debut, from the creative, to the business challenges of financing, marketing and distribution? How would you assess the UK film industry?

ZS: Oh I’m not sure where to begin in terms of the challenges, but I’ve really got no complaints at the end of the day. Why should I? I got to make a feature film, so I’m blessed. I really am in spite of everything along the way. You could say that serene light allowed me to be one of the few to walk up those hallowed stairs, to follow the analogy.

PR: With the DVD release of ‘Up There’ imminent, what’s next for you?

ZS: I’ve got a few things I’m currently working on that I’m getting excited about. It’s just fun being able to return to fleshy people who can easily involve themselves in things like fights, drinking and car chases, after the time I’ve been spending with Up There’s ephemeral spirits.

This interview was originally featured on EatSleepLiveFilm.

Paul Risker is co-editor in chief of Wages of Film, freelance writer and contributor to Flickering Myth and Scream The Horror Magazine.