Screen International Star of Tomorrow Mustapha Kseibati has directed five short films funded by various bodies including UKFC, BBC, SKY, BFI and the Metropolitan Police. He has a slate of fun features in script stages of genre feature scripts in development including Super G’s (Comedy Drama), Danger Close (Action Comedy) and Amarok (Supernatural Horror.)
Mustapha was selected for BFI’s NET.WORK@LFF and Guiding Lights, where he was mentored by Paul Andrew Williams. He has directed various television shows including Coconut and Oi, Pussy for BBC Three, Apple Tree House for CBeebies, Jason Manford’s Little Cracker, Humza Arshad’s Xmas and Three Kinds of Stupid for SKY.
Mustapha grew up in West London consuming endless hours of American and British television. It was during this period (’80s) that he fell in love with film and television, Genre, Marvel comic books, action figures and cartoons. After completing a BA in Media Production he landed a job at urban music channel Channel U as a Director before moving on to directing content for MTV.
When did you know you wanted to be a director?
I knew when I hit my late 20’s officially but I picked up my first camera in my mid teens. As a first generation Arab Muslim male I had no idea film schools existed. I just consumed tonnes of television as a child with autism – we’re talking 10 hours of television a day during the ’80s. I caught up on so many TV shows like Bewitched, I Dream of Jeanie, The Walton’s, Little House on the Prairie, Mission Impossible, Murder She Wrote, Magnum P.I., The Fall Guy, The Golden Girls, Planet of the Apes, Quantum Leap and Godzilla to name a few. I also watched a loads of cartoons and Hong Kong martial arts and action flicks, like Transformers (G1), Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles, Jayce and the Wheeled Warriors, Dungeons & Dragons, X-Men: The Animated Series, Thundercats, BraveStarr, Hard Boiled, Akira, Fist of the North Star, A Better Tomorrow 2, Wheels on Meals, Police Story, Armour of God, Snake in Eagles Shadow… I can go on and on – Jackie Chan is a legend! And not forgetting movies like Back to the Future, A New Hope, Jaws, Aliens, Hellraiser, The NeverEnding Story, Ghostbusters (84), Flight of the Navigator and Dead Poets Society. VHS stores were also a great source of education as were special features on DVD’s. I binged on so many ’70s and ’80s B Movies. I have a soft spot for Critters and Don’t Tell Mom the Babysitters Dead… Classics! Hanging around in comic book shops in the ‘90s also informed my love of storytelling. Marvel all the way!
When I hit 16 I had my first proper Mini DV camera and I used to go around my neighbourhood shooting kung fu flicks on top of tower blocks with plastic guns and ketchup. I soon segued into music videos shooting some of the best UK hip hop acts like Roll Deep. I then went on to work for MTV. I officially wrote my first short film Big Tingz at the age of 29 by entering a competition.
From that moment I knew filmmaking was the one even though it was present throughout my life.
Once you knew you wanted to pursue a career as a director, what were your first steps in achieving this goal?
It was the competition / scheme that allowed me to make my first short film back in 2009. It was focused on grass root support for diverse filmmakers and was run by B3 Media. The support was incredible both in development of the script, production and post production. It has to be said that at the time I wrote my first short film I was working in a call centre after having nowhere to leapfrog to, after my time at Vertigo Films editing.
Going back though – After obtaining a BA in Multi Media Production I landed a job at Urban Music Station ‘Channel U’. This was off the back of a music video I directed as an end of year project. I spent three years there directing, shooting and editing shows like The Ace and Viz Show, The Tim Westwood Show, flying out to New York to meet various Hip Hop acts like Terror Squad, Jay Z’s label, Q-Tip and others. After my time at Channel U I started running over at production company Partizan as I wanted to branch out. At Partizan I began working behind the scenes on high-end commercials for Shell and music videos for Lily Allen and Mark Ronson to name a few. At Partizan, and from my time at Channel U, I met a friend (director Dan Sully) who worked over at MTV. They happened to be looking for interns and I landed the gig. I was producing, editing and directing content for people such as Scissor Sisters, Lethal B, Wu-Tang Clan, Plain White T’s and more.
With digital online media taking dominance and changing the way consumers engaged with music, MTV’s advertisement revenue took a big hit and they had to scale down, meaning I was out of a job. But I met someone at my time there who knew people at Vertigo Films; he put me in touch and I found myself editing behind the scenes footage for some of their movies. That lasted a year and with nowhere to go, I got a job in a call centre handling angry customers over the phone. That’s where I wrote my second short film Skateboards and Spandex.
My third film Painkiller was also commissioned by B3 Media as well as the BBC Writersroom. It stars the rather brilliant Benedict Wong (Moon, Prometheus) and Franz Drameh (Attack the Block). I also worked with a great producer Michael Berliner. I think we both grew together over making those early shorts and we really complimented each other. He’s one of the most hardworking and honest guys I’ve had the pleasure of working with. We shot Skateboards and Spandex on £10k, and Painkiller on £3k! He’s put in so much hard work into all our films and there’s no way the films would be as good as they are without him. Surrounding yourselves with the right people is so important!
I feel incredibly fortunate to have been supported by B3 Media in making my first three short films. Off the back of Skateboards and Spandex I got picked up by an agent. However, I knew I still had to graft myself and keep making work, so off the back of Painkiller, I submitted a draft of my latest short film Mohammed for the BFI Shorts scheme. It was run by the good guys at Lighthouse Arts in conjunction with the BFI to help give standout filmmakers a stepping-stone toward their first feature. Sixteen films were selected in the end, including the outstanding SLR by Stephen Fingleton. After an interview, I was chosen to attend a workshop with my peers. Then we had to re-submit and I was lucky enough to be awarded funding. The BFI were so supportive every step of the way from script development all the way up to the shoot, production, post-production and delivery.
What obstacles or setbacks did you face in becoming a director?
I’ve never really wanted to make dark, depressing or social realist movies like many of my British counterparts. I grew up with action figures, American pop culture, Spielberg and comic books. Making fun meaningful movies was and still is my jam, which can be quite tricky in a country which frowned upon genre movies, an indie scene dependent on public funding and an American dominating cinema. This was the biggest challenge and still is in some ways but I do see slow positive change toward supporting more fun, distinct genre auteurs.
The films I love have elements of action, adventure, comedy and drama, something the Marvel and Disney films do expertly. But balancing them together is extremely difficult. I want audiences to have a good time and connect with the themes of my films. For me, a film should be like a rollercoaster ride, fast, slow, exciting, moving and enjoyable. I love that feeling of walking out of a film and immediately afterwards thinking, “that it was so much fun I want to watch it again.” Or I want to buy the action-figure or t-shirt. I’m a big kid at heart.
ew up with action figures, American pop culture, Spielberg and comic books. Making fun meaningful movies was and still is my jam, which can be quite tricky in a country which frowned upon genre movies, an indie scene dependent on public funding and an American dominating cinema. This was the biggest challenge and still is in some ways but I do see positive change with wide audience focused auteurs being supported.
With this I find creating and balancing tone within my work can be challenging but also fun. The tone on Muhammed for example was the hardest thing to nail and really came together in the edit. The films I love have elements of action, adventure, comedy and drama, something the Marvel and Disney films do expertly, but balancing them together is extremely difficult especially when you have a well-known comedian playing someone with learning difficulties. Sticking to the truthfulness of the character was key.
At one stage within the film we had a really dark moment and one totally over the top, silly moment in the film. But by letting them both go I got to what felt was a good balance tonally. Patrick Jonsson’s (Virunga) beautiful score also really helped. We stayed away from piano and stuck with guitars and organic instruments in order for it not to be overtly sentimental and also not to let the comedy lose the heart of the film.
I want audiences to have a good time and connect with the theme of my films. For me a film should be like a rollercoaster ride. Fast, slow, exciting and enjoyable. I love that feeling of walking out of a film immediately afterwards and thinking that it was so much fun I want to watch it again. Or I want to buy the action-figure or t-shirt. I’m a big kid – it’s true!
Being captivated by the magic and wonder in films is what I love the most. But I also want people to think and be moved in a positive way. I have no interest in spending £12 to feel depressed about life. Don’t get me wrong I highly respect and think blisteringly visceral, obscure art house films and dark dramas are important. But they don’t do it for me. That’s ok isn’t it?
How did you develop your voice and hone your craft?
When it came to my own voice it was all about embracing who I am unashamedly, what I loved, and telling personal stories in my own way – not imitating others, as much as my peers and I have been influenced by the greats. Making shorts was how I honed my craft.
I’ve become more and more experienced as I’ve made each film and I’m now more confident in my work and the types of films I want to be making. I’d still say Painkiller is technically my strongest piece, but the heart and soul in Mohammed is one of things I’m most proud of along with Hate. I toured this film across London schools with Humza Arshad, alongside the Metropolitan Police Anti-Terror Team, to spread the message about the dangers of hate crimes, gang violence, knife crime, extremism and the essence of hate to young people.
How did you get your first break?
My first break was because of B3 Media. The UK Film Council (now BFI) exec at the time really didn’t understand my work. She was a few generations older then me and her taste wasn’t in line with mine. If it wasn’t for B3 Media pushing for me to be given the chance I’m sure my journey would’ve been different – but I know I would have arrived at the same destination… Big Tingz.
Making movies is a daily grind. You have to love it more then anything else and keep going, even when you’re broke and down in the dumps. You have to keep pushing and that’s what I’ve always done. Kept creating, following my art and telling stories that are close to me. Movies are magical.
TV Credits: Little Crackers (2012), Tree Kind Of Stupid (2015), Coconut (2017), Apple Treat House (2017), Oi, Pussy (2019).