‘We need to market our stories’ | Jean-Pierre Magro

Film producer Jean-Pierre Magro on opportunities (and tribulations) of trying to make a high-quality, international standard historical movie about ‘Sette Giugno’ in a country which lacks the logistical capability to tell its own stories through film

Jean-Pierre Magro
Jean-Pierre Magro

There is a lot of interest surrounding ‘Storbju’: enough to attract at least two major Hollywood names, Harvey Keitel, and Malcolm McDowell. Do you think this interest will be shared by the international cinema-going public? What is it about ‘Sette Giugno’ that has global appeal?

It has always been my dream to make films about the realities I see and live through myself: films that tell a story about where I’m from. But we have to be realistic. This is Malta, not Hollywood; we don’t have the budget or the logistical capability to make blockbuster movies about superheroes, for instance. But that doesn’t mean we don’t have stories to tell. Essentially, a good story is always going to be about human beings.

So whether it takes place in Malta in 1919, or anywhere else at any other time: if it’s well-written, it will resonate. If you were to take the story of Sette Giugno, and transplant it to any other country in Europe… it would work. Because it is the story of an oppressor that is subjugating people; and people rebelling against that oppressor. You will see the same basic pattern in a hundred other historical episodes, anywhere in the world. For example: when I was talking to Harvey [Keitel], he told me that: ‘Listen, we were a colony as well. We rose against our oppressors, too. I feel what the struggle is…’

Would you say, then, that making ‘Storbju’ represents a lifetime ambition of yours?

Not really, no. In fact, when they [the Malta Film Fund] approached me with a proposition to make this film, I originally said no. I said it was impossible to do, with the budget and resources available. But they kept insisting… asking me to ‘be creative’. So I started thinking about the market; about how I would sell this film. And there were two things I felt would make a difference. First, to do it in both Maltese and English… which helps, even because it means fewer subtitles. Secondly, to attract a name that would help sell the production.

So I spoke to a sales agent I already knew from before, and we started looking at potential actors. And when it came to the script, the idea was to split it into four interweaving stories: the story of the acting governor Walter Charles Hunter Blair – to be played by Harvey Keitel; his assistant Col. Saville, played by Malcolm McDowell; the story of the soldiers who opened fire on the crowd… because, for me,  it’s also about that 22-year-old man, thrust into the middle of a situation he doesn’t understand, faced with a crowd of some 15,000 angry people shouting at him in a strange language.

There is an element of fear there, too.  I don’t want this to be an ‘anti-British film’. The soldiers, I imagine, were just pawns in a much bigger game. Then, you have the story of Carmelo Abela – one of the victims – who was killed because he went to stop his teenage son from protesting. He tried to pull his son out of the crowd… and got shot himself…

Historically, however, there are a lot of doubts surrounding what actually happened that day. Descendants of the families of millers, whose homes were ransacked, have a different story to tell. Does ‘Storbju’ go into any of these controversies?

No. I was after something different, to be honest. Because let’s face it: history is always written by the victor. But this is not a documentary. It’s a film about nor-mal people caught up in an extraordinary situation. Because an uprising is an extraordinary situation.

Take that 15-year-old son of Carmelo Abela, who went out to protest. What was he protesting about? Did he believe he was going to change the world? Was it ‘machismo’? There are a lot of elements like that. But one of the things that intrigued me most, as I was doing the research, was that after the event, 115 people were arrested and imprisoned for their involvement.  To me, that is horrifying. Even because I simply didn’t know that detail before.

And I get the same impression speaking about it with other people. There are some details that most people are familiar with… but that 115 people were arrested? Nobody, except maybe historians, seem to know that.

Even in terms of documented history, there isn’t very much. Only two photographs of the incident itself are known to exist. So the film is based largely on published books about Sette Giugno; but also on the original reports. These reports were questioned, even at the time. Among the testimonies by the British soldiers, for example, there were claims that the Maltese had fired at them first... but nothing we can consider conclusive.

It’s as though our collective memory is a little distorted, to a certain degree. This is why I feel that ‘Storbju’ is, first of all, an ambitious project; but it is also an important one. So I feel very proud to have eventually changed my mind, and accepted to make this film. 

Given that the facts themselves are debatable: does ‘Storbju’ present any form of interpretation of its own? Or is the intention to use the historical events as a setting for a fictional story?

Neither, I would say. I wouldn’t want to patronise people, by telling them ‘this is the truth’. Nor do I have Godlike faculties, to know what the truth even is. The narrative is based on historical facts, yes… but I’m interested in the human beings at the heart of the story. How would people react under such circumstances? This is how the script was developed… and it seems to be working, insofar as scripts go.

But it is still in development: and one of the most interesting things about this production is the feedback we’re getting from actors. We are lucky to have a director [Davide Ferrario] who is open to quite a lot: and even now, the script is developing with the actors. Not just with Hollywood actors like Harvey or Malcolm; I’m seeing this with Maltese actors, too. I was surprised, for instance, at how some of the ones who have small parts – just one or two lines of dialogue - have built up an entire character.  Just yesterday, one actor came up with an idea for his role – something I hadn’t thought of myself – and we’re even changing the costume to suit the new part. Because it makes more sense, his way.

I have to admit this is something I wasn’t really open to, say, 10 years ago. I used to consider a script to be like the Bible: it had to be followed to the letter. But I’m a lot more open to it today… it is important for actors to have that kind of passion, if they’re going to tell a story.

Earlier you mentioned the lack of resources hampering the industry: does that extend to actors? How easy is it to find local actors who can hold their ground on a set with major movie stars?

One of things the director said at yesterday’s press conference was how surprised he was at the talent he found in Malta… something which, at times, we don’t appreciate ourselves. If you only look at the output of local television, you might use that as a measure of the general quality; but I don’t think it’s an accurate reflection. Because there is also lack of producers and directors.

Maybe local actors are not being properly directed. So if actors who are more used to stage-acting go a little over the top with their screen performance… there will be nobody to bring them back down to earth. But it doesn’t mean they’re not good actors… 

This leaves us with financial resources. You’ve already explained the artistic reasons why you changed your mind about producing ‘Storbju’ – but the budgetary limitations still remain. How much is the budget, anyway?

The original budget was €250,000: which is nowhere near enough for a production of this nature. That is partly what put me off, at the beginning. But then I started bouncing the idea off a number of producers abroad; we gave the project to a financier; and eventually we raised private investment to add to the government funding. It’s still a low budget movie; but we’re trying to do a proper production all the same.

There is, however, a school of thought whereby a low budget is actually an ad-vantage: in the sense that it forces you to think outside the box, and be more creative. Some even argue it makes for a better end-product. Do you believe in that yourself?

[Laughing] I need to believe in that!  Let’s start from there… but yes, I do. Both myself and the director keep challenging each other: ‘We can’t do this because we don’t have the budget… so let’s find another solution’. And again, we are lucky to have this director, because he is constantly telling me, ‘I am here to find solutions’. And you have to be creative even in your scheduling.

We tried to arrange the shooting schedule around locations that are close to each other… and do all the specific location shooting at one go. So if there are scenes at Verdala Palace… we’ll be shooting them all over a period of five days, and then move onto the next location…

Being the size it is, all Malta’s locations are going to be fairly close. Is this one of the advantages we have to offer in the film industry?

Well… we do have advantages, and that may be one of them. But there are disadvantages, too. My issue with Malta is that we need more pride in what we’re doing. For instance: when I tell the people I deal with locally that ‘I’m making a film’… for starters, they react as if it’s something unimportant; like ‘making films’ is just a hobby, and not a real job at all.

And it hurts, to tell you the truth. But then, they also make comparisons with what they think a film is. Either they don’t take you seriously, or – even worse – they assume you’re Hollywood… in which case, they expect a lot. I was once charged €1,000 just to shoot a scene in the balcony of a private house for two hours. By what standard do you charge €1,000 for two hours? ‘Because it’s a film’, I was told. And just recently, the owner of a location we planned to shoot in decided to triple the price. We had only just agreed on the amount… then he said, ‘Ah, but you guys are making a film.’ As soon as you mention the word ‘film’, the price of everything just skyrockets…

Would you say that Malta’s experience as a location for overseas productions has reinforced that impression? When Steven Spielberg shot scenes for ‘Munich’ in Malta, he paid all the businesses in the area to remain shut…

Well, Spielberg has the money do that sort of thing. We don’t. But yes, there are these expectations, even of local productions. I have to admit, I expected this side of things to be easier. I was hoping that we would all get together and try to do something: because if this model works… it will not work just for me, but for other filmmakers as well.

And we need other filmmakers. We need to be ambitious. If government really wants to create a local film industry… it needs to focus on local filmmakers. Because, in those periods where there are no foreign productions being made in Malta… who’s going to pay the gaffer? The electrician, the set designer, etc? It has to be the local industry to keep those professions going...

Yet my impression is that the bulk of the local film industry is geared towards servicing foreign productions…

Yes.

And we have clearly created a niche for ourselves, as evidenced by major films and TV series choosing Malta over foreign competition. So… why is it such a big step, between servicing foreign productions, and creating our own film industry?

I think it’s partly the result of not having permanent structures in place. People who work in film in Malta – including those who are building our sets, working on props, etc. – have to rely on films being made here to get work. When there is a production, they might work on it for, say, four months… but then, they’ll have eight months with no work until the next production comes along.

So we need to have a system in place, especially when it comes to funding. We have to be like every other European country, where there is decent funding available to filmmakers. Right now, there isn’t. That’s the reality. What we need is a system that is reliable, so that people can actually make a living out of film.

To be viable, that presupposes that the industry can generate enough money to sustain permanent employment. Is that realistic, though? You said it yourself: we’re not Hollywood…

But it’s not just about money. If government invests in film… what are the cost-benefits? We can already see some of the returns. We no longer sell our tourism product merely on the basis of ‘sun and sea’: today, there are organised tours advertising all the ‘Games of Thrones’ locations. People come here specifically for that… and we could have done it with ‘Gladiator’, too.

Let’s take our own film, ‘Storbju’: if, for argument’s sake, it ‘does something’… if it is successful, as a film… then ‘Verdala Palace’ would automatically have an additional, different meaning.  This is also what it’s all about.

Ultimately, by investing in film, you’re not just selling the films themselves; you’re selling the story of your country. So I always say, we don’t only need to market Malta… we also need to market our stories. And this is something we are not doing, at the moment.

More in Interview