A few minutes with a rising star, Tony Sebastian Ukpo

Although you have probably not yet heard his name, Tony is definitely someone to watch.  Despite having limited funding for his projects, he has been able to make some amazingly captivating films—such as Random 11, The Fighters Ballad and Paris 60.  Additionally, his short films have been creating quite the buzz and one of them, The Outsider: A Looper’s Story, was recently featured on Influx and the short can be watched by clicking here.  His films are jammed with creativity and style.  They also have been made on paper-thin budgets—yet are very satisfying and often are better than the mega-budget films in local theaters.  Because of this, I was excited to get an opportunity to interview the man.

Martin Hafer: What brought you to the UK?

Tony Sebastian Ukpo: I was there for the university and for film school, and I stayed on afterwards, continuing to work in film.  I worked in post production on the side, while developing my own projects.

MH: Apart from films, tell me about yourself.

TSU: We moved around a lot growing up—in Nigeria, England, the United States.  I am interested in the arts in general, music, I even run my own music video podcast called VTV, love comics, art, I dabble in painting and sketching on occasion…

MH: It sounds like for you, creativity is the key.

TSU: It is but it was not always the case while in school. I also had a business background for a long time.  I also love psychology, sociology and languages, with a great fascination for Japan.  I was even involved with the Japanese Society in college…

MH: Wait! I saw Random 11 and it was a Japanese language film! That’s why! A Nigerian-born guy living in London who made a film in Japanese!

TSU: I really like the idea of not doing the typical things that everybody else is doing.  So why not?  I am interested in Japan, the culture and the films and so I thought I’d give it a try.  I love the country.

MH: You quoted Martin Scorsese who said he makes films HE enjoys and I can see that in your films.  One is in Japanese and Paris 60 is an homage to the French New Wave films of the 1960s!

TSU: I just wanted to do it to get it out of my system, as I look to Jean-Luc Godard as one of my greatest influences, but wanted to get all my homage stuff out of the way.  I know these are not the sort of films that will usually get funded easily and for me Paris 60 especially, as it is a very personal project and possibly my favorite film I have made so far.  I took my time and made it exactly like I wanted, but with no expectation of success, having to please anyone, or make money

MH: I noticed in the film, the man playing the casting director was called Sebastian and looked a lot like you.  I am surprised you didn’t play him yourself!

TSU: I did!  I used my middle name in Paris 60, which I share with the actual casting director, but that actor is actually me.

MH: That WAS you?!  You sure caught me by surprise!

TSU: I thought it would be interesting to play around with the name—to try and get people more involved in how much of the story was fiction, and how much was reality; is this a real character or some construct. It’s actually a bit of both.

MH: Let’s talk about Fighters Ballad.  I know you didn’t write this one but your direction was superb.  Has this gotten much attention?

TSU: It’s coming out here in the States and Canada in limited release and will come out on DVD later in the year.  They are also talking about releasing it in Europe and Asia with the States on June 2014.

MH: It looks like it was filmed in a church—did that pose any special challenges?

TSU: Some.  The church was quite old and famous—where lots of great Shakespearean plays were performed over the century—St. Leonard’s.  It posed some technical problems–we had to pad out the walls because of all the echoes for instance.  But then filming in one location was nice because we could light small areas at a time but still move quickly enough for different setups.  We only had 10-days to film it.  Fortunately, the actor’s father actually had worked on the reconstruction of the church, and the actor knew the local priest so he helped give us the connection.  It was originally a play and was actually first performed at this same church and then we later filmed there.

MH: Wow!  And this was your first full-length film?!

TSU: Technically, yes.  I did finish filming Paris 60 first but didn’t release it until later due to post-production.  The Fighters Ballad did well in the film festivals and won several awards.

MH: So how did you and Peter Cadwell (the writer) get together on this project?

TSU: We had worked on s short project together before this where I cast him as an actor.  He had some offers from other folks with more money to film it after putting it on as a play in London, but they wanted to make big changes in the script.  When I first read through the play, I thought it was good, but wasn’t completely taken in by it.  But, when I saw the play—seeing how intense it could be and how much better it is performed, I could see that it could have a real cinematic quality—a theatrical but intimate film.

MH: I was impressed by how much Random 11 seemed like you were in Japan.  Haruka Abe and the rest of the cast were speaking Japanese—yet the movie was made in London.  I was really impressed by this–but I also was annoyed because when the film ended, I saw it was only part one!

TSU: Well, the sequel has been put on hold because I am in talks to actually film the next on in Japan.  I am hoping to get it off the ground in the next year or so.  The story is already there, so once I get funding it will be ready to go.  I am here in the States working on funding for this as well as for the upcoming release of The Fighter’s Ballad.

MH: Thanks, Tony, and good luck.

You can watch a short film of the man himself in the attached video.

Interview by Lead Entertainment Writer and Film Critic, Martin Hafer