Q&A with Matthew A. Brown, writer/director of Albanian Gangster

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Cult Projections: Was there a single movie or director that inspired you to become a filmmaker?

Matthew A. Brown: John Cassavetes. His life and work, and especially the book Cassavetes on Cassavetes by John Carney. But I’d say this was the tipping point. At the time I was still acting, and had just played leads in two indie features, was living in Hollywood, auditioning a lot, and all of the “sides” I’d get would literally make me feel ill, and I’d already stopped even prepping for the auditions, instead turning to coffee and writing. I was working on a script, very personal, something that really fed me. it’s all easy to talk about in retrospect, but at the time is was a burning. It wasn’t an option. I started to put the film together, I think I was 21 at the time, and I met with this actor who I wanted for one of the roles. In a way this moment was really the point of no turning back. I was telling him the story, and he stopped me, put a hand on my forearm and said Matthew you should forget about acting in this, you need to direct. Start watching two films per day. I think this was before I read the Cassevetes book. But while reading that book, it was already happening. I’d had money saved from my acting and I financed my first short and the moment I said action on the first take, I knew I’d never act again. Krzysztof Kieslowski was another major influence. In both cases directors who were after the truth. Articulated so differently through their own points of view, but uncompromising pursuits of that indefinable thing, that essence … of life.

CP: Your early short films seemingly reflect an international pedigree - South Africa, Italy, America, France, Germany, Canada. How did you come to make the four shorts across such a wide playing field?

MB: Well I was born in Cape Town and my family immigrated to the US, to New York, when I was 16. And to this day that was the most difficult thing I’ve lived. Then I left home at 18, went to drama school in London (Guildhall) with this dream of being on the stage. But already then the funny thing is I started skipping school to go and write in coffeeshops all day, and after 6 months was ‘invited’ to leave if I didn’t start conforming to their ways … another story for another time. I left school and moved to LA, and very soon after got the lead in this film God’s Army. Before drama school I also did six months of Eurail and bounced around Europe with a backpack. So my entire life experience before I was even 20 had involved moving, experiencing different countries/cultures/continents. As an actor I was also drawn more to European cinema. So it wasn’t a thing of making any intellectual decision about making films in these different places, for example, with my first short which we shot in Sarlat, France and did post in Rome, Italy. One of my best friends, Maya Sansa, the Italian actress, who I met at Guildhall, I knew I wanted her for the lead. i called her from LA and told her about what I wanted to do and she was into it. So I created the whole story around her and the locations I just had a desire to be in and shoot in, and that film was selected for Venice, which in turn opened doors to other international opportunities, saw me going back to South Africa to develop my first feature, and while there I made my next short.. then while at the Berlin film festival I met a girl (as things go) and that eventually led to my making two shorts in Berlin.

CP: Did you study film in university, attend a film school, or are you self-taught? What do you think is the best course of action for someone who wishes to become a filmmaker? 

MB: No, as I said, I was in acting school for a brief period. After that, attended classes at Lee Strasberg in NY, and started working as an actor at the same time. So most of my learning came from life experience and being on set as an actor where I was always more interested in the whole story and the whole mechanism than my small piece in it. After my first short, I did attend the Binger Filmlab in Amsterdam, but that was very much a working lab, in which the writer/directors were selected based on a feature project they were developing that already had producers attached and some funding in place. That was in Amsterdam so I ended up living there for a year going from the screenwriters lab directly into the directing lab. The most fundamental thing I learned there was how to craft a screenplay. Best course of action for someone who wishes to become a filmmaker?  It depends on the person, but ultimately whether or not you go to film school, if you’re a filmmaker you’re going to make films. I personally don’t believe in school, I think it’s a false safety net and I know too many filmmakers who went to top film schools and still haven’t made a feature in 20+ years since leaving school.. but then there’s the Darren Aronofsky’s who also went to film school and he’s probably the only filmmaker working today making truly personal films on a large studio canvas.  I think you need real life experience for one thing, and passion so strong that it burns down anything and everything in its path that could be considered a hindrance. Whether that’s self-doubt/the nay-sayers/so-called gatekeepers/middlemen. Any number of things you will have to deal with, you have to have courage, and really you learn by doing — the amount you learn from every film you make, whether short or feature, is so astronomical, you can’t actually explain that to anyone who hasn’t been through it.


CP: Are there any directors whose work you feel directly influenced by? 

MB: Initially, Cassavetes, but that keeps changing. Like before Julia I was watching a lot of Hong Kong crime cinema, Japanese and Korean horror, and came into contact with Jean-Pierre Melville’s Le Samourai, but underneath it all my real influences have always been writers/poets, like Rimbaud, Henry Miller, Kerouac, and the lives of radical or revolutionary individuals, people willing to put everything on the line for something they believe in. That’s where Cassevetes resonated so much with me. I’ve pretty much lost interest in film for film-sake.. and there aren’t any directors now that I look to, maybe that’s in part as a result of the seismic shifts in the industry, but it’s also my own life experience and perspective. Was interesting when prepping Julia, my DP and I watched a lot of films as we discussed the vision etc., but with Albanian Gangster, while my DP and I did watch a few films, we kept getting turned off, and abandoned that process. instead it was all about this particular film, and what the characters and the story world and the nature of the real elements demanded.

CP: Your first feature, Julia, is, ostensibly, a rape-revenge movie, but an ambitious, artful hybrid of character study and drama. A sub-genre of horror that is often vilified, but it can also be a hugely powerful, even transgressive, form of nightmare cinema. What drew you to making such a movie, and was it difficult to make?

MB: I never perceived Julia as a rape-revenge movie. I had never watched or even heard of this sub-genre of rape-revenge films and if I knew beforehand that Julia would be perceived through that lens, I might have re-thought the script, not really, but I’m glad I didn’t know about it til after. At the time I was actually a month away from going to South Africa to make my first feature, called Strong Bones, which ironically would’ve been very much more in the vein of Albanian Gangster; it was a crime film set in Cape Town’s notorious (for being the murder capital of the world) Cape Flats. What happened is an EP saw my short film Victim and asked me how I’d feel about adapting that into a feature, coz he felt he could get it financed. Strong Bones was something I was gonna do mainly on credit cards ‘cos I was at a point where I just had to make my first feature, and so in a way Julia fell into my lap.  I said earlier I’d been watching a lot of Hong Kong crime cinema, Japanese and Korean horror, etc, so when this opportunity for Julia came, I saw the potential to infuse all my then-passions  into it. but what most excited me was — and this is where my real inspiration from writers (like Genet) and life experience came in — was the real story, the story beneath the text, of someone whose soul is essentially ripped out from them — and this is where rape came into it, because I couldn’t imagine anything worse happening to anyone.. and which is also why I don’t dwell on the rape aspect in a gratuitous way like other films you know about. For me it was about this girl, this woman, this creature living in the darkest fear, and awakening to her own full and ecstatic potential. I’d had my own crises and awakening, and I channeled everything I’d lived and consumed film-wise and etc into the film. It was grueling, but not “difficult”, grueling more because of the physical conditions, shooting dead of night in the dead of one of NYC’s harshest winters. Starting days at midnight shooting til 2pm. I got sick during the shoot too.. but no matter how harsh, sick, cold. it was an ecstatic experience .

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CP: Did you always intend on making something quite different for your second feature? How did the idea for Albanian Gangster come about? 

MB: I knew during post on Julia I wanted to make a gangster film for my next film. And yes I wanted to steer clear of horror and particularly “rape-revenge”. I started researching and looking deep into all manner of crime worlds, but everything felt so played ou; italians, irish, yakuza, triads, etc, and I landed on this series of articles about an FBI sting where 80+ Albanians were taken down in the mid-2000s, and everything I read just made my blood boil.. not only the fact that I’d never seen a US-based Albanian gangster pic — or anything Albanian in the US, but more so the cultural aspect.. that these guys were to this day living by these ancient honour codes, which is why they were so difficult to penetrate.. why they’d never rat, in Albanian culture honor and respect trump all else, a man would sooner die or spend the rest of his life behind bars than be labeled a rat. Further, the gangsters to a T had come over to the US fresh from conflict and persecution going back centuries but still to the present day. So this war-torn psyche fused with this entrenched honour code, it all just sent shivers through me. I also really felt the culture ‘cos I grew up in a culture in South Africa where a man was only as good as his word, and his willingness to stand on his own two feet. Maybe that’s even more to do with my own father, who grew up in a small rural Afrikaans community in Worcester, blood, honour, loyalty, and brotherhood. It all spoke to me.  

CP: The movie feels very authentic, almost like a docu-drama. Tell me about the screenplay, how did you write it? Did it adapt much over time? 

MB: I spent about two years researching on my own, reading books, searching online, taking solo trips to the Bronx, the biggest hotbed of Albanians in the US, and wrote a first draft, but as I was working on it this feeling kept nagging at me like I just didn’t have the sound of these guys in my bones, that to do what I really wanted, something authentic and real and raw I had to know the actual guys, the way they live, breathe move. So I started to talk to anyone I knew to see if they had any Albanian friends. One thing led to another and I gained the trust of a particular guy who told me there’s a guy I can introduce you to, but then it’s all on you.. it was that guy who introduced me to John Rezaj. And once I met John the floodgates opened. I spent the next year and a half on the ground with him going into places you wouldn’t know exist in America.. and when you’re there you wouldn’t know you’re even in America in the first place!  So by now I had this “traditional” 120-page script and this feeling that I was missing something just became overwhelming , ‘cos everything I was witnessing and experiencing through John and the people, faces, places I  was coming in contact with were just so unique and captivating and not something that I could’ve just written from books or whatever. So a month before preproduction I completely abandoned the script, wrote a 12-page outline based on things I was hearing and learning, with all dialogue to improvised and I cast John himself as the lead. The entire film evolved out of this organic process.


CP: You’re able to elicit powerful, naturalistic performances in both your features, with your wife, Ashley C. Williams starring and co-starring in both. Do you have any particular method to directing actors? What was it like directing your lead actor John Rezaj, whois essentially playing a fictionalised version of his real self? Did you use much improvisation? 

MB: Thank you. Every actor is different and so you use different tools. I personally spend a lot of time just talking and hanging out with all my leads, just getting to know them, what speaks to them, their triggers..  and then you adapt on the set as you learn what’s actually working for each individual. I’ve worked with actors who are very by-the-book and only really respond to actions or objectives and so on, but I really just go for actors who operate from another place, like with Ashley I’d never give her an action-verb type direction, it was always deeply personal where I’d be whispering things into her ear before takes and talking to her during takes, things I knew she’d respond to but not risking sharing her personal stuff with anyone else because I knew she’d know what I’m referring to, and also a lot of metaphorical stuff, “as i” type stuff. Bottom line though, you really just have to pay attention to the human beings in front of you. So re: Albanian Gangster and John. as I said all dialogue was improvised. I knew what I needed to tell the story, so I made sure we got the necessary beats, but again no way I could’ve written the words that flow out of John, or any of the guys. And directing John, thing is by the time we shot I’d spent so much time with him. I was with him like 3-4 nights/week for a year or so, so we’d developed an extraordinary amount of trust and a bond, and I knew his triggers, things I was consciously storing for when I needed certain things out of him emotionally on set. I already knew John was captivating on camera because when were out I’d often break out my iPhone and grab stuff.. and he just has that ‘thing’ — he’s naturally magnetic on screen, and at same time just forgets—or doesn’t give a fuck—or both—there’s a camera waving in his face. So it was incredible, but also grueling coz I not only had to focus on the directing but also the constantly evolving story that was unfolding, there were some major changes even to the outline during the shoot because I gained deeper understanding of the culture and the guys in particular to the point I’d realize there’s no way given who this guy or that guy is that he’d do what I’d written in a certain situation..

CP: You’re currently in post-production on the sequel to Albanian Gangster. Tell me about why you split the story in half? Did you contemplate a much longer single movie? Will the sequel be any different in style or technique, or simply more of the same? 

MB: It’s actually not a sequel, it’s a completely different movie.  And yes it is different stylistically, a bit more conventional—only a bit !  We still need to do some additional shooting and meanwhile I’ve been approached to develop an Albanian gangster series, which is in active development, not based on Albanian Gangster, rather inspired by it.

CP: What are some of the gangster movies you hold in high esteem? 

MB: Of course The Godfather and Goodfellas. Also Gomorrah and City of God (though not really a gangster film). More recently it’s been tv shows like Narcos. Can’t recall when I last saw a quality gangster film though, but again things have just changed so much in the industry and the world really, we have so much more access than ever before ‘cos of social media and iPhones and so on, and then my close proximity to certain real elements, most gangster stuff just seems so superficial to me. But Narcos for example did it for me, likely largely due to Brazilian creator/director Jose Padilha who made the Elite Squad films, a guy who seems obsessed with authenticity and knows how to capture it.


CP: What’s your opinion on screen violence, do you find it exhilarating? How do you approach it as a director?

MB: Definitely do not find it exhilarating. It has to be born of character and situation.. and for me it has to be realistic. I have zero interest in ‘movie fights’, where a fight will go on for like a minute, and people just get up and keep going. Real violence happens fast and people get hurt. If John hits you, it’s unlikely you’re getting up.  In Albanian Gangster, we looked at what would actually happen in a situation. What would John/Leon do in a particular situation?, etc. That’s not to say I don’t think movie / fantasy fights don’t have their place.. but I personally switch off.  A filmmaker I really respect is Fatih Akin. When I saw Gegen die Wand (Head On) I was pretty blown away, and there’s a scene in there where the main character snaps and cracks a bottle across another character’s head. One shot, and the guy’s dead. You take a crack like that to the head that’s a very realistic result!—And every aspect of the whole scene and set-up are wholly authentic. But violence for violence-sake just bores me.

CP: Are there any taboos left in cinema? Should there be?

MB: I don’t know.  I don’t think about this.  One thing I’ll say tho, I don’t really see the point for example in doing things for shock value, but you know, to each their own.

CP: A recent movie, The Hunt, has had its release postponed, because of recent gun violence in the US. Do you consider yourself a political filmmaker? Do you think art should be exempt from political correctness? Why?

MB: I don’t consider myself a political filmmaker. I’m interested in human beings and story worlds that fascinate me, and I’m interested in telling those stories in an authentic and exciting manner that lights fire in the blood of the audience. I’m not interested in “message” movies. The closest I’d come to that is if I were making a movie about a character with a strong agenda, but I’d still tell the story in an honest light and of course there’s inherently gonna be a point of view ‘cos that organically bleeds into the frame based on all the choices you make as a filmmaker, but I’d let the character and the story speak for itself. Re: political correctness. I loathe it with a vengeance in life and art and I think it necessarily destroys any hope of authenticity. Imagine for example if I censored how John/Leon speaks in Albanian Gangster. Sickens me to even think of it.  


CP: What have you got planned for the next ten years? What boundaries are you prepared to push? 

MB: The next ten years hehe. I mentioned the TV series above, and I have other stuff, another two TV series in mind. For myself, I’m interested in cinema/tv that involves high degrees of risk or danger. The boundaries I’m prepared to push? That’s more about the situations I’m willing to put myself in to get at riveting and authentic stories.. and then I listen to the needs of the particular story and all it encompasses. I don’t approach it with an agenda.

CP: Would you be happier working with smaller budgets and final cut, or bigger budgets, but less editorial control? What compromises would you be prepared to make? 

MB: Both. I’m a filmmaker. I love being on set. I’d love to make something on a massive scale where I just jump in to direct, and get to play. Truth is though with tv / SVOD now, I think you can achieve the best of both worlds — big budgets and more risky character-driven and thrilling storytelling. That’s what I’m working on.  I like to surround myself with creatives - and business folk - who raise my game. For example, my editor Josh Melrod on AG, I left him alone much of the time. Most important was the decision to hire him specifically in the first place. I don’t know how many editors I met with, but I knew on first meeting Josh he was my guy.  So he’d work alone, then we’d sit together for say three days, and he’d go away and keep working. Of course when we neared picture lock, we spent more time in the same room. If it’s a smaller personal film, something the studios wouldn’t back anyway, something I have to be a producer on to get made, ie. raise the finance myself, I’m naturally going to have that control, but if it’s a big budget studio pic and the soul purpose is a wild entertaining ride or whatever, I’m not sure I’d be all that concerned with editorial control.

CP: Any actors or creatives you’d especially like to work with?

MB: Michael Fassbender. Aksel Hennie (the lead in the Norwegian tv show Nobel). 

CP: Finally, what three movies from the new millennium - the last twenty years - have really impressed you? Why? 

MB: Oslo, 31 August (2011, dir. Joachim Trier), The Hunt (2012, dir. Thomas Vinterberg), Nobel (2016, Norwegian TV series). In each case we’re dealing with truly authentic and for me riveting storytelling from top to bottom. In the case of Oslo, 31 August and The Hunt, truly uncompromising authentic storytelling with extraordinary directorial visions, filmmakers operating from the most real and raw place, void of any convention or trope, wherein every frame pulses with that intangible essence which is life and cannot be anything other than what it is. Nobel is just straight up masterful TV.


CP: Good luck with Albanian Gangster and Albanian Gangster II: Illyrian Blood. Thank you Matthew!

MB: Thank you!

Albanian Gangster screens as part of the Sydney Underground Film Festival, Saturday, September 14th, 6pm, at The Factory, Marrickville, with an introduction from yours truly. For tickets click here.