We join Shahbaz Shigri at his home in Islamabad to get to know the assistant director behind the much anticipated Pakistani film Verna. From using his own house in the film, to the bond he made with director Shoaib Mansoor, we get to know this now must-watch individual in the Pakistani entertainment industry. Of Slackistan fame, Shahbaz made his mark as an actor in this Islamabad based, 2010 indie feature directed by Hammad Khan which had an extremely limited release and was eventually banned in Pakistan, but did the festival circuit abroad, including the Cannes Film Festival in 2010. Slackistan captured the imagination of many with its on point survey of the social and political norms of a schizophrenic society imbedded with political turmoil, seen through the eyes of young 20-somethings.
Tell us a bit about ‘Verna’ and how you became part of the project?
Verna is an upcoming feature film written and directed by Shoaib Mansoor, starring Mahira Khan, Haroon Shahid, Naimal Khawar and Zarar Khan. The movie’s got a great cast and is directed by one of Pakistan’s OG filmmakers. Shoaib Mansoor is like a filmmaking machine, I’ve never met anyone
who works harder than he does. Funnily enough, I initially met with Shoaib in an effort to grab a role in the movie. Most of it was already cast, and Shoaib wasn’t entirely impressed with my Urdu. I don’t blame him, I’m as ‘Burger’ as they get. When I met the team initially, they were lacking an assistant director for the movie, a job I felt I could take on, given my experience with producing and shooting music videos and commercials for the past seven years. Shoaib and I gelled really well, we share a similar temperament and it was easy to bond with him. I was terrified at first, meeting this legend of a man, but once I got settled into the production, it was practically like a big happy constantly stressed out family (laughs).
What drew you to the project?
Instantly, what drew me to the project was the fact that this would be one of the most valuable learning experiences I could ever get. To be able to work in such close proximity to such a highly experienced filmmaker beats going to any film school. Aside from that, I was drawn to the uniqueness of the narrative and the strong cast that was coming together. The best part of the production, for me, was the environment we worked in. As an AD it’s extremely important to me to have a friendly, safe and fun work environment, above anything else. Everyone felt comfortable, stayed professional, and it was always fun.
What was it like working with Mahira Khan?
Is it possible to live in Pakistan and not be a fan of Mahira Khan? Working with Mahira was a large part of what made the shoot so much fun. She would always come to set with great energy and was always focused. I don’t watch a lot of the serials on TV, but I’ve seen enough of her work to have known, even before meeting her, that she would bring a whole new layer to the character and the movie. She did exactly that and more.
Part of the shooting happened at your own home in Islamabad, how did the scenery lend to the story?
It did indeed. We had a seven to eight day shoot at my house. In fact, we started the first spell of the shoot there, which really helped speed up the process of the crew and cast getting to know each other. We were shooting in house, for seven days, between takes we’d hang out in the one warm room – it was the peak of winter. We were scouting for a potential house to use for one of the families in the film, we wanted something open, well designed, and lived in. Shoaib is very particular about locations, they have to be real, a sentiment I completely agree with. Real locations have so much texture and character that you lose in sets. My house was not only a good visual fit, it was also very convenient. It didn’t hurt that after wrapping each
night, all I had to do was walk upstairs and pass out on my bed.
What elements of the filming surprised you?
Any production, whether it’s a music video, feature film or commercial is packed with surprises. You always go in with a seemingly foolproof plan, but it never pans out like you plan. Filmmaking is an extremely adaptive process, if you’re not adaptable, it’s impossible. So there weren’t elements of the
filming that necessarily surprised me, we hope for the best, and expect the worst. Makes us prepared for anything.
How will ‘Verna’ stand out amongst the films that have been released as of late in Pakistani cinema?
I think it will definitely stand out and possibly even surpass the success of the films released recently. Written by Shoaib Mansoor, a powerhouse performance by Mahira Khan, and a brilliant cast of new talent, what could go wrong? I sound like I’m trying to advertise the movie on a blog or something. Basically it’s going to be absolutely awesome.
What makes an engaging script?
Dynamic and active characters. That’s really the first and foremost thing. The story, the decisions, and the roads those decisions take the characters on, all stems from there. I like screenplays with active protagonists instead of passive ones who mostly react to the antagonist. Also, a great and complex antagonist who is uniquely suited to go up against the protagonist.
What types of films would you want to see more of in Pakistani cinema?
Action thrillers. Ideally I’d love to see Pakistani movies expand across all genres, but more than anything, I would love to see more thrillers made in Pakistan. It’s exciting to see the number of action movies being made in the coming year. For a lot people, the 60s, 70s, 80s are their reference periods for movie influences, for me, it’s the early 90s. Terminator 2 and Robocop are two movies I saw as a child, and I didn’t know it then, but I think those two movies sealed my fate as a filmmaker then and there. So I hope to see, and hope to make, movies that stretch the boundaries of our imagination and tell stories that are larger than life.
What was your first defining moment with film?
I think I kind of answered this by mistake in the last question. I don’t remember which one I watched first, but my first definitive moment with
film was between Terminator 2 and Robocop. This was when I was probably 4-5 years old. So I obviously didn’t realise I’m going to be a filmmaker now. That happened way later. I was always into creative things. I draw a lot, I picked up a guitar when I was 14 and been playing ever since, even before I wanted to be a filmmaker, I wanted to be a music producer. In 2008, after two years of not finding any purpose in what I was doing, I began researching music colleges, which stumbled me on to the New York Film Academy. At this point, I still wasn’t sure if this is what I wanted to do. But I went anyway. From the day I stepped into film school, it became immediately apparent that this was my purpose. Everything fit. The work wasn’t
work, it was fun. The hours were never tiring, because I’m doing what I love. It was a feeling I wasn’t aware of before that. Whether or not I succeed is something else entirely, but filmmaking is the mission. That got a little deep there.
Are there plans for other films from you coming up?
I’ve got a lot of plans, hopefully some of them pan out. I’m currently finishing up the screenplay for my first feature, which we’ll hopefully begin preproduction on by the end of 2017. I’ve got a bunch of really cool music video projects coming up in the next few months. We’re also working on a TVC unlike any you’ve ever seen. More immediately though, I think I’d like to focus on acting for a while rather than being behind the camera.
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