The Directors: Haya Waseem
Haya Waseem is a Pakistani-Canadian filmmaker, raised in Switzerland and living in Brooklyn. Constantly adapting to new environments and people, Haya developed a keen sense of observation that she weaves into her work. Haya's intuitive sensibilities absorb the undercurrent of a moment and concentrate them into singular frames, creating a dreamlike, sensory experience.
She began her career as a documentary editor, allowing her to shape stories and interact intimately with rich, character-driven narratives. Haya carried those principles of honesty and perspective into her creative work as a director. Her short films have screened at prestigious festivals such as TIFF, Cannes, Berlinale and across all Air Canada flights. She is an alumna of the Director’s Lab program at Norman Jewison’s Canadian Film Centre. Most recently, Haya wrapped principal photography on her first feature film through Telefilm Canada's Talent to Watch program.
Name: Haya Waseem
Location: Brooklyn, NY
Repped by/in: Epoch in US, OPC in Canada, BWGTBLD in Germany, Eddy in France
What elements of a script sets one apart from the other and what sort of scripts get you excited to shoot them?
Haya> Human elements in the storytelling always get me excited. Often, when the scripts are open for interpretation, I get excited. If there is a relatable message or theme at the centre of the script, there is a built in North Star. The stronger that feeling emerges on the initial read of the script, the more confidence and excitement I have towards the project.
How do you approach creating a treatment for a spot?
Haya> I think about the hook, structure, or shape of the spot. I remind myself of those initial impressions that instinctually arose from the spot. I come from an editing background so films take a particular shape in my mind. Not defined, but there is usually symmetry involved, and patterns that define the parameters of the spot for me. As I flesh out the details of every aspect of the approach and production for the treatment, the ideas unfold more and more precisely until I feel I have written out the majority of my thoughts on paper.
I find writing to be a very useful tool.
If the script is for a brand that you're not familiar with/ don’t have a big affinity with or a market you're new to, how important is it for you to do research and understand that strategic and contextual side of the ad? If it’s important to you, how do you do it?
Haya> Yes, I like to do research on brands or subject matter I am not familiar with, but more important to me is understanding the underlying values. Especially if I am unfamiliar with the brand, I take account of the initial impressions. Logic and details come afterwards. First is the emotional response and instinctual understanding. After this, I research the brand and look for clues and connect threads between what I felt and what they embody. The details are then borne out of this process and solidified.
For you, what is the most important working relationship for a director to have with another person in making an ad? And why?
Haya> As the director, I feel you are the neural network of the project. You better have strong, reliable, and focused relationships throughout every system. It’s tempting to prioritise one over the other, but each is critical. Get everyone to a healthy place and maintain balance as best as possible, shifting attention as required. You need a lot of stamina and resilience because I don’t feel there’s any way around it.
What type of work are you most passionate about - is there a particular genre or subject matter or style you are most drawn to?
Haya> I am passionate about telling stories. Honest, emotional, grounded. But that can come through fantasy, drama, horror… So long as there is a strong theme at the centre of the piece, the approach and genre is what compliments and uplifts the project the most.
I like to go all in, so if it’s a project driven by character, the emotions must be there. If it is style driven, the symmetry and shape better resonate. I must dive as deep as I can.
What misconception about you or your work do you most often encounter and why is it wrong?
Haya> I don’t know if there are any misconceptions. I like working on human projects, but I also love the craft of cinema, and those tools can be applied to a range of projects. I have strong roots in documentary but first and foremost, I am a filmmaker and storyteller. The more worlds I can disappear and float through, the better. I would say I have a strong centre of gravity that allows me to expand in any direction. My tools keep me prepared.
Have you ever worked with a cost consultant and if so how have your experiences been?
Haya> I have not.
What’s the craziest problem you’ve come across in the course of a production – and how did you solve it?
Haya> I am protective of casting. Especially if I am brought on due to my background and familiarity with different cultures. I believe, as the director, I am at the front line of sensing and protecting the human qualities about and around our performers.
Recently, I put together a culturally specific family through casting - beautiful, strong performers that would be a powerhouse on screen. At the last moment, someone deep in the ecosystem commented on the roots of our lead, and it snowballed into recasting with less than 24 hours to shoot. Being of the same cultural background of the characters myself, I immediately shared renowned actors of the same background to compare their looks, and emphasised that though it is commendable to be respectful of diversity and inclusion, there is a limit to how extensively you can criticise an actor's ancestry. They are actors after all. We are not making a documentary. We are representing a story that is human and universal. We were all on the same page, and believed in our actor strongly, but sometimes when it comes to sensitive conversations around race, inclusion and diversity, I feel very fortunate to be able to speak with confidence and be grateful for the opportunity that we are granted today, while vocalising an appropriate balance to protect that undefined boundary between performance and representation.
Long story short, it was a unifying event and I am grateful I could weigh in on something I found critical for the well being of the project.
How do you strike the balance between being open/collaborative with the agency and brand client while also protecting the idea?
Haya> It goes back to communication. I work as hard as I possibly can. I share my thoughts. I listen. I absorb as much as I can. I like to be of service. There is no ego. There is only the promise of a strong project that will resonate and communicate the way we all hope to achieve.
What are your thoughts on opening up the production world to a more diverse pool of talent? Are you open to mentoring and apprenticeships on set?
Haya> I am open to mentoring and apprenticeships on set. Opening up the production world to a more diverse pool of talent is only going to improve and invigorate the stories we tell. Stories in essence are always the same, but it’s the evolution and perspective that reflect that story that keep the dial moving forward. It’s an asset to diversify the pool of talent.
How do you feel the pandemic is going to influence the way you work into the longer term? Have you picked up new habits that you feel will stick around for a long time?
Haya> I love being able to have video calls. It’s way better than a faceless conference call.
Your work is now presented in so many different formats - to what extent do you keep each in mind while you're working?
Haya> I believe focusing on the primary format is best. I understand the nature of content consumption spans many formats, but having a singular source to then adjust and manipulate based on additional needs maintains the right balance.
What’s your relationship with new technology and, if at all, how do you incorporate future-facing tech into your work?
Haya> I have done a virtual shoot from NY to Paris, successfully. Having a dedicated tether to set makes it possible. It’s incredible that it is even an option. That’s big. I am interested in new technology. I would approach it like any other project, starting off with the premise and how the ingredients we have available contribute or dictate their nature.
Which pieces of work do you feel really show off what you do best – and why?
The Ballad - We shot this on 65mm film, with real couples, scouted on the streets of Toronto, to old friends, to extended circles. It’s technically a documentary but it feels unlike one. I feel this is cinema; something you can only achieve in this medium of storytelling.
Zabiha Halal: Meal of Gratitude - I haven’t seen stories of this nature represented in this way. I find it to be beautiful, human and again, a piece of cinema. There is a lightness to it. It is a story of a family, and their spirit comes through.
Nike: Denis - We shot this in Berlin with a very small crew and quick prep and turnaround. Sometimes, those projects are very energising. Powerful moments come out of the focus required in the process. Denis was a great subject and powered through with us and our demanding schedule like a champion.
Lyft: Jerry - It’s hard to pick one of four from this Lyft series. Each one had a strong subject and the process of shooting was intuitive and intimate. Jerry’s story, spanning across borders, and dealing with identity really stuck with me.