Nour Wazzi has quite the portfolio of accolades and shorts to her name, from a host of awards and nominations from festivals like London Film Festival, Palm Springs and Underwire; boasting collaborations with actors such as Maisie Williams, Emilia Clarke and Alexander Siddig; to being commissioned by BBC Three for their short film series The Break II. Her science fiction short about artificial intelligence, human nature and authoritative manipulation, titled Lab Rat, is soon to be released on streaming platform Dust, so I had a chat with the award-winning director about the project and her career.
“Lab Rat was a funny one because, at the time, I had written off shorts,” Wazzi tells me when I ask how the film came about. Including two for the BBC, Nour already had nine directing credits to her name and was taking the steps into features and TV. “Then Amanda Brennan at the Central School of Speech and Drama approached me and said ‘we’ve got seven, eight grand; we’d love for you to direct a piece for us.’ The brief was for an ensemble cast with their students. I suppose I thought… if someone just offers you eight grand to make a film, it’s a bit hard to say no, honestly,” she laughs. “So, I went in, met all the students and went, you know what let’s do it. It takes so long to get your feature stuff off the ground, so I thought why not. One last one.”
“I recruited Neil Chorida to produce, and a writer I was already working with (Matt Brothers), and we came up with some concepts – I wanted sci-fi, which a lot of my feature and TV slate focus on. Then, once I chose the actors I liked, we improv-d the story with them and created characters based on them in a way,” Wazzi goes on. “We effectively wrote the script through rehearsals, which is something I’ve never done before.” Of all of her projects, this is perhaps the most ambitious, combining a hard-hitting character drama with stylistic visuals and emerging talent, with the entire process from conception to completion taking six months. “I really allowed myself to experiment with this one. I wasn’t planning to make a masterpiece; I just wanted to do something for myself, something that I was excited about.”
“It’s the exploration side of it that I love. At the end of the day, it’s a collaboration, and I love playing to find something truthful. That’s the most beautiful part of the process,” Wazzi reveals about the work with the actors freshly picked from the school’s students, some of which had little to no on-screen experience before the project. “Taking all the work you’ve put on the page and translating it to something else, it is one of the most beautiful experiences of being a filmmaker; directing the actors, for sure.”
Kirsty Sturgess acts as the anchor of this ensemble piece as Alika, who observes a group of scientists trapped in a lab until they can discover which one of them is actually an A.I. Her mother, portrayed by Abeo Jackson, sits at the head of the company, and across the film will pressure her daughter to question whether her friends, and even her secret lover (Matt Harris), are what they seem to be. “They were all quite new and emerging and hungry,” Wazzi continues of her cast. “It was a different investment from them than other actors I’d worked with.”
“I wanted to put Black women in roles that we were not accustomed to seeing. Like in Westworld – one of the only sci-fi shows I’ve seen in recent years that have allowed for these really wonderful, strong Black female roles,” Wazzi mentions. “Lab Rat was an opportunity to do that; put a badass Black female at the head of the company. It was refreshing to cast actresses that you wouldn’t normally see in those parts in a story that has nothing to do with race.” Indie filmmakers have undeniably been the driving force for diversity in recent history, and this film is perfectly timed for the industry having to face the reality, once again, that their representation still leaves a lot to be desired. “Now it’s a trendy thing to want diversity, but I come from an Arab background; I was raised in Cyprus, grew up with Hollywood and am married to a Black Brit. It’s always been important for my films to reflect the world we live in – both in front of and behind the screen.”
Wazzi’s commitment to this was made clear in 2008 when she founded Panacea Productions, a production company specifically geared towards telling stories blending diversity across different nations in order to create commercial films that touch audiences internationally. “I do think it’s absolutely necessary,” she says. “I find it remarkable that films with Black characters or any people of colour were deemed to not be financially successful. I think the industry is starting to see that that’s not the case.” But, as Wazzi observes, it’s only the first step in a long journey towards proper representation. “It just seems mad that it’s a new thing: why is there so much racism and bias in the industry? Well, you know, welcome to the world.”
I ask if things are at all shifting, and she replies, “small steps are being taken in terms of quotas to get us in the room. But a lot of the time it seems like tokenism, and a lot of the time you’re the only one.” More opportunities are vital for change, but if you’re only ticking the box by hiring one Black writer, one producer of colour, one female director, things won’t improve enough anytime soon. “I feel like the US is a bit ahead of the UK. They do take a lot more risks,” Wazzi interjects. There, “people really felt excited about a diverse female director who wanted to do genre and sci-fi and blockbuster. Surprisingly, they hadn’t met a lot of emerging female directors like me, that had these big ambitions and a slate of projects to back them. I want to make epic projects at a much bigger level, and I don’t know if people have the courage to say that necessarily when you’re climbing as a woman of colour – but we are out there and more than capable.”
On Lab Rat, the production consciously tried to prioritise hiring women and people of colour below-the-line (in technical roles), and while they had a 46% woman and 28% POC team, they found the UK’s infrastructure lacking that access to diversity altogether. “At first, I thought is it just that I’m unlucky or not looking in the right places? But over time, and when I started shadowing on bigger productions and started seeing the higher-end landscape…” She pauses. “All these articles have come out, and even Sandra Oh has talked about her experience on Killing Eve and how she was literally the only person of colour in a sea of a hundred people. It’s a systemic issue that runs deep.”
All of Wazzi’s films hold very human issues and complexes at their centre, so I ask why science fiction has become her chosen means to explore those stories in. “Sci-fi I think is my biggest passion. I’ve always been fascinated with the possibilities of existence and the ‘what ifs’. I really feel like sci-fi allows you to explore the big essential questions within an intimate framework,” Wazzi explains. “I realised that I kind of came full circle. Everything I’m fascinated with – time, memory, genetics, biotechnology, artificial intelligence, all kinds of questions about what it means to be human and alive – science fiction was the perfect vehicle for all of that. But also, no matter what story, what genre it is, the most important thing is to have an emotional response to that material.”
Despite her impressive filmography, Wazzi didn’t expect directing to be the way her life would go. “As is the case for a lot of people, most of us just don’t realise you can make a career out of film when you’re younger,” remarks Wazzi. “I left home when I was sixteen and went from Cyprus to Beirut, and I thought I’d get into medicine and genetics and all that.” But things went in a different direction when she started exploring her creative side more and more. What made the difference was taking a filmmaking course at the New York Film Academy. “That changed everything for me,” she says. “Once I directed for the first time I realised that was what I wanted to do for the rest of my life. Everything made sense.”
“It’s a funny thing, the moment you realise you can make a career out of it. It’s not an easy ride, don’t get me wrong; it’s taken a long time to even get my foot in the door, to get my big break – that’s finally happening this year on a high-end sci-fi show. But I don’t know any vocations in life where you can just explore things that fascinate you, that emboldens us to rethink old ideas, but that also keeps you on the edge of your seat, that will drive you to tears,” she says. “There’s that quote from Maya Angelou that stuck in my head from an early age, and it’s only now that I’m starting to really grasp it: ‘people will forget what you said, people will forget what you did, but they’ll never forget how you made them feel.’ That’s definitely a philosophy I’m trying to carry over.”
With shorts as an art in themselves to take the audience on a full journey in ten minutes, I’m curious to know what the jump into television and features has been like – a television adaptation of Lab Rat is in fact in development. “Features and TV shows have allowed me to delve into so much more detail and depth that I have never been able to do in my shorts,” Wazzi divulges. “I find it really hard to think small with my writing. That’s always been the biggest challenge; coming up with features that I could’ve done earlier in my career that were small enough for me to take control and just make them. I found it impossible to do that with my sensibilities, so I decided to hold out and tell the stories I want to tell, the way I want to tell them. Takes relentless perseverance and patience, but it’s only a matter of time.”
Lab Rat is available to stream on Dust from July 9th
by Daisy Leigh Phippard
Daisy (she/her) studied film production at Arts University Bournemouth and freelances in the industry with the aspiration of becoming a director and screenwriter. A lover of independent and foreign film with female perspectives, her favourites include Pan’s Labyrinth, The Handmaiden, Frida and anything that has ever come out of Hayao Miyazaki’s brain. You can see her work on her website and follow her on Twitter, Letterboxd and Instagram.