Interview with Filmmaker, Richard Card

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Field Notes Interview #88: Richard Card, Filmmaker

We chat with Director, Richard Card, about his acclaimed film, Zawadi, where he found inspiration for the soundtrack and how he prepared for filming in a country and culture other than his own. 


Where fiction meets reality. 

There's a lot of unknowns in any given project, and the element of filming in a different country adds both literal and figurative uncharted territories. Director, Richard Card, welcomed the opportunity and challenge in his striking film, Zawadi. Crossing language barriers and time zones, Card gleaned a story the inner confines of Kibera, Kenya, one of poorest areas of the world. This is a distilled story of life, family and connection, all surrounded by the dense environment and cultural context of Kenya. 

We talked with Card about how he came to this project, what went into filming on the road, and where he got inspiration to create the unique soundtrack. Enjoy.

Marmoset: Have you noticed any shift after the release of the Zawadi and it being a Vimeo Staff Pick?

Richard Card: Vimeo Staff Picks are always a bar for what I would consider quality content, so of course it’s amazing to be selected for that. Also the fact that you now have 100,000 creatives looking at your work -- that in itself is worth so much. It went from 15 views to 50,000 views in a matter of a couple days. The Vimeo community is a very strong art community. These are all filmmakers, content creators, people that are extremely involved in the industry in some way.

M: Did this come as a surprise?

RC: Yes and no, I guess. The film first got into Seattle’s International Film Festival last year. At that event, a lot of people from Vimeo were there -- they’re big sponsors of that festival. I met with some of the people there and was able to learn about the staff picking process and how you can better suit your film to make it through. So, like you would do with any short film in any festival, I also took the time to send over blurbs to Vimeo, treating Vimeo Staff Picks like any festival and trying to get a submission in that regard.

M: So there was an intentionality in pitching the film to them directly?

RC: Absolutely.

M: Is this your first Vimeo Staff Pick?

RC: It’s my first as a director, but as a director of photography I’ve gotten a couple of other things out there.

M: How did you assert yourself into the role of director? Did you always know you’d be a director?

RC: I would say I’m first and foremost a director, and that’s always been my end goal. I started making movies -- like a lot of people in this industry -- when I was in high school. I started out as a skateboarder making skate films with friends, which led me to taking a film class in high school, which then led me into making a short film for the final project and then realizing that I loved it so dearly and wanted to do it again and again and again. There’s two ways you can answer the question of “can you do this for a career?” A person can say “yes, it’s very hard,” and “yes, here’s how to do it,” and I had a teacher who did that.

M: Have there been any major shifts in how you make films over the years?

RC: I have a lot of films I’ve shot over the last 10 years -- and when I say “a lot” I mean, like, five. Two I’ve considered legit and the other ones are me learning as an artist. The thing I’ve taken most from my experience is simplifying the process in a way that boils the story down. Literally breaking the story down until it’s in its absolute bare necessities to convey the emotions you’re trying to get to. There’s been an evolution in my cinematography style, with more complex camera movements and overall better image quality. However, the biggest thing that’s evolved is my ability to see the story's meaning from the beginning and then going forward, rather than shooting a bunch of stuff and then never using any of it. I’ve gotten very far from that -- I never want to do that anymore.

M: So enter with a story instead of going in and seeing what happens during a shoot.

RC: Yeah, I would say that. I’ve gone into shooting short films with a script that could’ve used another five passes of removing excess scenes and dialogue. With Zawadi, I really spent a long time working with the writer. The original script came back at 20 pages, and there was all this elaborate stuff that was not true to what the story was. So we spent a lot of time refining, refining, refining and got it down to an 8 page script. That brought the heart of the story out. All of the other parts would have made it feel contrived or just not as true to form.

M: Going into filming Zawadi, why did you choose this story over other stories?

RC: There’s a couple ways that I can approach this. First and foremost, I was in Kenya working on a documentary as a cinematographer. We spent about a week in Kibera, which is the landscape you see in the film. Kibera is seen as one of the largest slums in the world. Most Westerners go into the slums with a little hesitation, fear and anxiety because you don’t know what to expect. The first day, you’re just terrified. The second day, you become more calm. And after spending a week in the slums, you realize that although it’s a terrible living condition to endure, people are just living life. It’s not all depression and depravity. People are happy and smiling and they go to the movies. The movie theater might be a room with six chairs and a TV, but they still go to the movies. So I was really struck by that.

After being inspired by this experience, I wanted to take some kind of story and tell the side that I had seen that I was very surprised by. One of the producers of the film pitched a story about a guy who collects bottles to get a girl a gift on her birthday, and I thought this was a beautiful idea -- so perfect and so simple. The other producer and writer, David Kinyanjui, started building the narrative. I’ll say one of the things that I found really shocking and loved about the story was that we would be spending a lot of filming with bottles -- they’re part of the story in how the main character gets the money to get the gift. The moment we would walk away from the bottles to film them, someone would try to pick them up and we would say “No, no, no, please, we need those for our shot.” So it’s a very true story.

Photo by Richard Card

M: How did you get to know the actors in this film?

RC: The production company that I teamed up with out there put together a series of casting sessions. We sat down and had a lot of people come in -- probably about 50 people -- for many of the roles. Except for the children. We only had about 8-10 kids come in. It was very tough. And then Jeremy Prince Kamau and Peitrah Wanjiru Mwaura came in and everything just clicked. That’s really how I came to know them. Jeremy, as any kid, wants to be playing, and doesn’t want to be doing work. But we managed to have some fun and some laughs and pull something beautiful out of him.

M: In what ways was it tough for Jeremy?

RC: He was a theatrical actor without a background in film, so I had to coax his performance and keep reminding him after his lines to stay in those moments -- to continue being present the whole time. Keep in mind that all of this was done through a translator. Although Kenya is a bilingual country -- they speak Swahili and English -- they speak a hybrid of the two. English alone would not get the more detailed points across. So all of this was done through my script supervisor, and we would throw direction back and forth. I would look at Jeremy and give him the direction directly, then the script supervisor would repeat and reinforce it in Swahili.

M: As a filmmaker, how do you prepare to film in a different country and culture?

RC: Experience is really the only thing that preps you for it. I’ve been extremely fortunate that ever since I’ve been in the film industry, I’ve been traveling on jobs that have gone to other countries. I’ve experienced the process of walking through how other productions make it work, so I knew what I had to bring to the table. So how do you prepare? You find the local resources you can get to. I read up on cultural things and learn as much as I can. I like to be a chameleon and a sponge anywhere I go. Any time I travel, I try to learn the language with the people -- it brings a bond. I’m never going to speak Swahili, but I can learn 15-20 phrases and make people laugh.

M: How did you land on the music for this project?

RC: You’d walk by these record stores in the slums blasting this amazing music and I’d walk up and buy the CDs right then. I’d use these CDs to influence the type of sound I wanted to get to.

Lukas Behnken, one of the producers of the film, introduced me to the composer, Zachary Ross. His forte is eastern-African music and instrumentation. We sat down and started talking about the music, he threw ideas my way and we went through a long process of playing with different instruments and plucking sounds. He would put something together and we’d try the same melody on different instrumentation, like the kalimba, or the djembe. I would give a tone and a mood that I wanted and then he would come back with something. I’d listen and give notes. He very rarely missed it -- we got a lot of it on the first pass.

He took a lot of the visual representations of the film -- it’s very industrial. You hear a lot of these sounds that are textured in -- grinding metal and things being dragged across metallic surfaces. That, along with the driving beat of trying to maintain the true sound of African drums in some way, really helped suture the visual and the score.  

M: How do you balance work and personal projects?

RC: It’s a very tough balance. In all sincerity, just don’t take time off. When I’m shooting a movie, I’ll be on five days a week for three weeks straight, 12 hour days. Then you also have to do your laundry. You just don’t take time off if you really want to do these things. After shooting the documentary in Kenya, I was going to take a vacation and backpack around east Africa to explore. I was so drawn to make a story, that I did both at the same time. I was on a tiny island called Zanzibar off the coast of Tanzania taking phone calls and giving script notes. It was very odd. I found myself thinking “I should be going to this spice farm, but I gotta get notes out, phones calls and I gotta wire money.” It was a nutty project. 

M: What’s coming up next for you?

RC: I’m in development on a couple different shorts and evolving them into feature roles. I’m always looking for new scripts to read. Cinematography is very important to me. Directing is the end goal, but I also need to honor the integrity of my other passion for cinematography and see how that part of my career grows.