An interview with NICK EPSTEIN, director of “Die like a Shark”

An interview with NICK EPSTEIN, director of “Die like a Shark”

Nick Epstein

To me, cinema is character, and true character is revealed through the impossible choices a protagonist makes under extreme pressure.”

Nick Epstein is a Visual Effects Supervisor at one of the world’s leading studios, Weta Digital, in Wellington New Zealand. He has been engaged in the field of visual effects for 16 years and has contributed substantially to Oscar winning and nominated films such as Avatar, The Golden Compass, Harry Potter and The Deathly Hallows, and The Hobbit. Nick has directed two short films, both enjoying successful festival runs, and his screenwriting has been recognised by a semi final placement in the Academy Nicholl Fellowship, and by becoming both a Finalist and a Winner of the Page Awards.
– “Die Like a Shark” is an incredible story, full of mixed and deep feelings. It is amazing that you managed to tell it in the space of a short film. In addition, the story has a truly moving realism, which manages to keep the viewer glued to the screen from the first to the last minute. What made you want to tell this story? Are there any biographical elements in the story?
The initial spark for this story was watching a (now famous and celebrated) MMA fight between Mark Hunt and Antonio Silva – two giant guys giving it absolutely everything they had, to the point where you wondered what the hell was keeping them standing. I thought to myself, what if it were something more than pure instinct and will, what if one of these guys had far more on the line than was immediately obvious? So the story grew from that, and Shane brought a wealth of real world experience to the fight scenes, which I hope meant we could deliver something that was multi-layered with an emotional core, but was also true to the gruelling realities of heavyweight MMA – and to hear you say the story has a truly moving realism is about the best compliment I could hope for so thank you!

– Many films on boxing have marked the history of cinema, and it is never easy to deal with cinema masterpieces. Yet you managed to give your film a strong authorial identity, reworking the archetypes of genre cinema in a completely personal way. In this period of great change and detachment from classical film fiction, what do you think will happen to genre films? Are they destined to remain mere entertainment or is it still possible that they cross the poetry of great authors? And will you continue to work in this direction?
I think there will always be a market for genre films, and I hope great auteurs continue to take chances on genre specific stories – I don’t think you can beat the feeling you get at the apex of fight films like Rocky, Raging Bull, I might even put The Wrestler up there, and it’s reaffirming to see someone like Ryan Coogler achieve what he did with Creed. I think when boxing/fight films are done right we connect with them because the fight is a metaphor for the struggle we all go through at times in our lives, it’s primal, and seeing a hero pushed to the limit of their physical and mental endurance is an inherently deep and truthful revelation of their character – and more than anything else, characters are why I believe we enjoy films. I love mixing genres, I think that’s how you keep things fresh, and that’s where I’ll continue to focus my efforts.
– Your direction is truly amazing. There are very complex sequences that you managed to shoot not only in the best way, but with great dramatic charge. Your artistic maturity is evident, in every aspect, from writing to mise en scène. What advice would you give to young authors, New Zealanders and non-New Zealanders, who want to pursue a film career?
Firstly I’m only part of the equation, and I want to thank my partners in crime – Shane Rangi who delivered an incredibly nuanced performance as Mark Otene as well as producing, Stephen Allanson who was our DOP, and Ben Powdrell our editor. Film making is a collaboration – and I think that would probably be my first piece of advice, to recognise and embrace that. As a director you should aim to foster an environment where everyone is able and wants to contribute their best, that’s where the magic happens. Secondly realise it’s really hard work, and unless you become very successful there’s not much money in it, so the passion and ability to operate without funds needs to be there – which again, is usually only possible through collaboration. Thirdly, be prepared to make mistakes! If you expect mistakes, problems, and having to find creative ways around such mistakes and problems, you can actually start to enjoy that problem solving process – I’ve been lucky enough to have two experienced and professional crews on both of my films and something I’ve learned from them is things will rarely go exactly as planned, and that’s ok! In fact solving unexpected problems is sometimes where the best ideas and/or parts of the finished film come from.

– The cinema you want to carry on is probably a cinema full of feelings, events, circumstances, dreams and words, ultimately a “romantic” cinema. It is not easy to “lock” all of this into a short film, but with “Die like a shark” you did it. What is your relationship with short cinema? Just a gym before the feature films?

Cinema is indeed romantic to me, and while a ‘cinematic story’ might mean different things to different people, every lover of cinema seeks out what that means to them and forms a personal relationship with the medium. I want to be moved by cinema and like you say it’s hard to do that in shorts, which is perhaps why my stories always end up on the longer side of ‘short’, but it’s nice that Die Like A Shark has managed to evoke the sorts of feelings I was hoping for in audiences. For my next project I am forcing myself to keep it really short, 3 minutes max! After that, who knows, I would love to do a feature and I have a couple of scripts ready to go, but I am also looking at other mediums such as games to tell stories – I’m a geek at heart and feel like I should find a way to combine my day job in VFX with my (hopefully decent) story telling ability!