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Bidding for international recognition: Jac Mulder’s feature film “Twisted Blues”

Lending international flavour to Twisted Blues are some easily recognisable faces such as The Scientist’s Brittany Benjamin (seated right), LBJ’s Brent Bailey (top right) and Grey’s Anatomy star Josh Crotty (top left), pictured here with Director Jac Mulder.

With his second film, Dubai-based filmmaker Jac Mulder wants to make a mark in Hollywood. The veteran carries the hopes of a legion of supporters. In conversation with BroadcastPro ME, Mulder recalls the tumultuous days of conceptualising, writing and filming Twisted Blues.

“You want to be a good director? Make sure you know everyone’s job,” was a piece of advice Dubai-based South African Director Jac Mulder received in early 2000 as a twenty-something with dreams of making it as an animation specialist in the emirate.

His 2014 release Bordering on Bad Behaviour won laughs and laurels at festivals across the US, defining the audience and genre for his to-be-released film Twisted Blues. But making a film, even with an award-winning debut, is not free from perils, especially in a region that has every facility for the big-budget Hollywood and Bollywood projects, but very little institutional support for the resident filmmaker.

“Besides operating a camera and editing, including colour grading, I’ve also trained myself in makeup, wardrobe and music composition. I made it my business to learn every aspect of filmmaking. I started with animation, editing and visual effects, but I continued to study everything from compositing to graphic design. I have studied over the years in Los Angeles, France, Australia, South Africa … both offline and online courses – wherever I could learn.”

The depth in Mulder’s range of expertise was critical to the making of Twisted Blues. The skills came of use when writing and developing the script, on the day he had to stand in for the DoP and, most importantly, during the months he had to spend editing the film. And every day on the 21-day shoot in June 2018, Mulder ensured that precious time was saved on the need to colour grade during post-production.

“Everything is shot so beautifully, I did not have to grade it. I shot it on my RED EPIC-W Helium 8K with Xeen lenses, among others, with the intention of doing minimal grading. I like to do my colour correction on the monitor on the day of the shoot. I know what time of day it is, am very specific about the look and feel I want to convey, and I pre-grade before I edit.

“Everything was done on Adobe Premier Pro, with grading sorted on DaVinci Resolve. As the crew would set up the next shot, I would grade in the interim period. It would take me five minutes and eventually ended up saving me five hours of work in post. Also, I chose the EPIC camera for a reason. You have so much more latitude. I can control my blacks, highlights, roll-off, skin tones, and changing of filters is made seamless.”

A women-centric film is not easy to write or direct. My script doctor Eric Berg, who is a nephew of actor Nick Nolte, was incredible in terms of helping me through the process” Jac Mulder, Director, Twisted Blues

Browse through Mulder’s work, including his TVCs from the early 2000s, and you get a glimpse of his approach to every frame.

He elaborates: “From camera positions to the script, I consciously stay away from cliché and the mundane. With an explosion, you do not always have to show the bomb blast. I want to see what happens to a person’s face, the cigarette he is smoking, what happens to the people in the room, the glass flying, and so on.”

The writing for Twisted Blues began in early 2016 with Eric Berg as scriptwriter. The idea came to Mulder two years ago, during an “inspirational conversation” he had with VOX Cinemas. He was reportedly asked to base a film in Dubai and portray believable expatriate characters.

“They gave me a series of challenges. The film must be quirky and relevant to the UAE. And as I sat listening, a line came up in my head – you tend to bruise less when you force them to miss.”

Professional fighters helped Mulder guide the actors through their fight scenes. They included Rim al Jabi, a professional MMA fighter who trained the lead actress “to throw a punch” among other MMA moves.

The single line brought together a woman protagonist – an American in Dubai – and the unlikely sport of mixed martial arts (MMA). It also explains the black eye he was sporting during our interview. But more on that later.

Mulder explains the journey.

“MMA is a big draw nowadays. I discovered the sport as I was filming an MMA event on the request of a friend, who was a judge at the event. I walked in there and looked around – seven out of the 10 present there were women. And when the guys were getting their faces punched in, the women jumped on the tables with enthusiasm. After overcoming my initial mortification, I realised the subject matter appeals to both target audiences.”

During the 18 months it took for the script to be fleshed out, Mulder had a qualified friend to operate as a sounding board and script doctor, all rolled into one.

“A women-centric film is not easy to write or direct. My script doctor Eric Berg, who is a nephew of actor Nick Nolte, was incredible in terms of helping me through the process. There are seven twists in the story, and the blues are the bruises; hence the title Twisted Blues. The challenge was MMA, a subject I barely knew, but I have friends who are heavily involved in the sport.

“This is a woman-centric film, and the UAE is quite interesting when it comes to newcomers who do not know all the unwritten rules. My story is about a woman who comes to the UAE and ends up in some trouble. While creating the structure and character arcs, I was conscious of the comedy element. People have enough drama in their real lives.”

Dubai’s starring role was not just a logistical decision, Mulder stresses.

“I have lived in the Middle East more than anywhere else in the world. Literally, my whole adult life has been spent here. I have become patriotic towards this region.”

Set to be released in September, the movie combines comedy, romance and action as the story of Mia (Brittany Benjamin) unfolds. She is an expatriate artist who rides a motorcycle and keeps to herself. At the advice of her best friend Johnny (Brent Bailey), she turns to MMA to protect herself but comes faceto-face with fighter Frankie (Josh Crotty), who refuses to train women.

He immediately squashes any suggestion of being inspired by Fight Club or Million Dollar Baby. From the setting of the film to the protagonist’s journey through domestic violence and finally the comedy elevating the serious underlying issues, Twisted Blues is unique, says Mulder.

The biggest hurdle for any filmmaker, especially expatriate filmmakers in the UAE, was yet to be crossed: financing. The man with the chequebook who believed in Jac’s vision was Dubai-based businessman Kish Pagarani. He is also the Executive Producer of Twisted Blues.

Speaking to The National while Twisted Blues was undergoing pre-production, Pagarani said: “I really think this can go all the way and make a big impression in Hollywood as well as locally. I believe this film has all the ingredients. We have a great story, a good script and wonderful actors.”

Lending international flavour are some easily recognisable faces such as The Scientist’s Brittany Benjamin, LBJ’s Brent Bailey and Grey’s Anatomy star Josh Crotty.

“My story is about a woman who comes to the UAE and ends up in some trouble. While creating the structure and character arcs, I was conscious of the comedy element. People have enough drama in their real lives,” says Jac Mulder.

Instagram also played a critical role in helping Mulder cast a global net to unearth talent, including a makeup artist from South America and lead actress Brittany.

Recounting the moment of ‘discovering’ her, Mulder says: “I had already sent the script to six or seven actresses. One of them responded within hours that she wanted to do what she described as a dream role. The enthusiasm was a great endorsement of the project, but it was when I was looking randomly at an Instagram account and I scrolled down to an image of this girl who gets up and goes at a punching bag, that I knew I had found my Mia. I liked the way she looked. She had a little ditsy air, which was perfect. The kind of character I imagined. It is easier to recognise a character than find a character.”

All film projects, big and small, are leaps of faith. With Twisted Blues, Mulder is attempting to become one of the first local directors to break into Hollywood – “aiming for the moon”, in his words.

Offering a critical vote of confidence in Mulder’s abilities is Assistant Director Chris Roland, whose work includes Hotel Rwanda. He also worked on Bordering on Bad Behaviour.

“I came here because I believe in this guy. I produced his first film and it’s actually one of my favourite films I’ve ever worked on,” Roland said about Mulder in an earlier interview.

Help also came from unlikely sources. Luxury hotel Palazzo Versace in Dubai offered free accommodation for the entire cast, and certain crew members offered to work at nominal rates. The National Media Council helped approve the script in record time, Triumph supplied “a really beautiful” motorbike and Sony helped with phones and electricals.

Mulder also makes a special mention of the police: “During the shoot, the Dubai police went out of their way to be supportive. They turned up on set on time, coordinated traffic during the numerous driving scenes and even helped drive the cars at times.”

“I shot the film on my RED EPIC-W Helium 8K with Xeen lenses, with the intention of doing minimal grading. I like to do my colour correction on the monitor on the day of the shoot” Jac Mulder, Director, Twisted Blues

Platform Gym provided space for the shoot, and six professionals from Al Quoz helped Mulder guide the actors through their fight scenes. They included Rim al Jabi, a professional MMA fighter. Acknowledging her help in the making of the film, Mulder recalls: “I needed a female to train my lead actress. Brittany only knew yoga and had no idea how to throw a punch. Rim had just two and a half weeks in which to train her. There were times when the actors would balk at throwing punches and I would stand in and ask Rim to punch me. It was all very intense but fun.”

Rim, until now a silent spectator at the interview, interjects: “I remember the moment well. Jac stepped up and said punch me or elbow me and I will show them how to do it. We demonstrated it, but the fact that he made me elbow him in the head; that killed me. That was the most difficult part for me.”

Support from close friends has clearly motivated Mulder to move the project along, despite the challenges of handling more than 50 crew members at a time.

“The belief from the few that stood by me during these months, my investor and scriptwriter among other core crew members, has helped me immensely. I am looking forward to the global release of the film.”

In a notable scene, Mia inspires her child (played by Mulder’s sixyear-old daughter). “I’m learning how to fight, Mum, to protect you from Daddy,” the little girl says.

The movie tackles weighty issues of domestic violence but the message is uplifting, Mulder insists. Revealing that he and several crew members have taken to MMA, kickboxing and Muay Thai – accounting for the black eye – he believes the movie will inspire with its larger message of fighting back.

“Domestic violence is rife globally, and the theme of empowerment that this movie conveys should inspire the audience.”