Exclusive: Interview with writer/director Yesser Laham

Interview with Yesser LahamForeword by Adam Brannon: it’s fair to say that the world is going through troubling times, and where many of us would find solace at the cinema, we are no longer able to do that. I’m sure, like me, many of you are feeling anxious about the months ahead, but we will get through this.

With that in mind, we’re trying to up the content on Movie Metropolis as much as possible, giving you interesting content to read, digest and share with your peers. We’re starting with a fantastic interview from writer/director Yesser Laham, who’s film Landfill stars The Exorcist’s Linda Blair. Read on to find out more about his incredible career.

How did you get into the world of film-making and when did it all start?

I’ve always been fond of movies and the world of cinema and TV, ever since I was little. At the age of 8, I remember vividly wanting to be an actor, and imitating actors from movies and TV shows. It developed a strong strive in me to want to entertain and perform for the public. I got to do a couple of school plays when I was in elementary school.

With where I grew up though, the UAE, there wasn’t much I could’ve done then with my liking to want to be an actor. I ditched the idea altogether for a while, while I still kept that desire in me throughout the years, that only evolved to me writing stories too. I focused on getting my education and finished high school. It took me a minute before I figured out what I wanted to study after that, for I knew it had to be something artistic and creative, and not what I called then, a generic major that most people around me went for- as I come from a family of artists.

Still from Landfill

© Yesser Laham

Having said that however, and while film related studies weren’t available at the time, I had to find an alternative that was at least somewhat close. So I went ahead and studied art, I majored in graphics design to be specific. Not too long after I graduated and got my bachelor’s degree, I heard of the “New York Film Academy” from my older brother. I went to check out their campus in Abu Dhabi, which is the capital city of the UAE, and that’s when I knew instantly that I wanted to enroll, and my family was very supportive.

To me, it was another form of expressing art; the art of cinema and telling stories. I completed my first year there. I then transferred to Los Angeles to complete my program, where I earned my masters degree in filmmaking. In the process, I got to learn all aspects of making a film, from writing, to being part of the crew on my peers’ films, acting for one another and directing of course. I learned what the term “wearing many hats” really meant. It definitely was a lot more work than I thought it’d be, yet I still loved everything about it with all the hustles, I think it’s the tough part that makes it worthwhile and great at the end of the day.

Tell us about Landfill, how did you get from script to production?

One of the genres that I really like, is suspense and thrillers. Not necessarily just straight horror and gore, but psychological thrillers. The type that’s eerie and unsettling, that keeps you at the edge of your seat with just its ominous atmosphere and setting. Without necessarily having to rely on factors like having somebody come at you in the dark with a knife, to make the scares work. Although, these could be fun too depending on the story.

I first came up with the premise at the age of about 19, having visited an active landfill that an old family friend used to work at as a manager. He asked me one day if I wanted to go with him to work and I was like sure. Not expecting anything, I thought it’d be a fun afternoon type of thing to do. I was dumbfounded by what I saw. The amount of trash that humans produce, the grossness of the whole thing and the god awful smell, even though I never left the truck he was driving; that place grossed me out and gave me the creeps! I thought to myself as I watched the bulldozers plow their way through trash, what if there was a dead body lost somewhere in here that was never found? Granted this experience didn’t serve me then, it was still always kind of hanging around my brain.

Then at the age of 24 is when I started going to film school. Having made a couple of short films, I decided it was time for me to transition and start writing a feature film. It was a big jump for me. I chose the feature track program at school and put short films behind me. We were a class of just 5 people in the feature track. I started thinking about what I wanted to write about, I wanted something that would ideally have the potential to strike the audience as unique, and somewhat original. So I kept thinking and coming up with ideas. Then all of a sudden and out of the blue, I remembered my experience with the landfill and the disturbing theory that came to my mind that what if a body went missing in there? I pitched the idea in class, and received really positive feedback. All of my instructors were intrigued and thought it was an interesting premise to turn into a film; and it was well received, that’s when I started writing the screenplay.

Linda Blair and Yesser Laham

© Yesser Laham

Linda Blair is a great addition to the cast, how did you go about getting her involvement?

In 2016, when I was still going to film school and in the process of writing my script, I met a friend named Clive Pearse. He was walking his dogs in the Toluca Lake area, and I was on a little walk taking a break from writing. We instantly clicked and started chatting away, as I petted his dogs. We talked a bit about the industry and film in general before he’d told me he was on his way to go see one of his best friends, Linda Blair.

I was taken aback, not knowing if I heard him right. He casually asked me if I wanted to tag along and say hi, and with no hesitation, I said yes. I was delighted to have met her in person, being a big fan of her classic The Exorcist, yet I did not want to fan out on her. She was very friendly and nice in person and we had a nice little conversation after he had introduced me saying that I was studying film.

Months later, as my story was progressing and I started looking for potential talents to cast for my film, I thought of her. As crazy and ambitious as it sounded, I thought I’d give it a shot anyway, that it wouldn’t hurt to ask. So I messaged my friend Clive asking him if there was a chance Linda would be interested in just reading my script and letting me know what she thinks. No pressure, and no expectations. I just had to put myself out there and ask.

He did ask her, and while some were skeptical about the whole thing and didn’t necessarily believe it was something that was going to happen, she did give it a read. And the best was yet to come, she wrote back saying how impressed she was and how much she loved the script; saying there was so much promise and that it was unique and original. After a few text exchanges with Clive being the middleman, she eventually gave me a call and talked to me on the phone about it. As a nice gesture, I made a donation to her dog rescue campaign “The Linda Blair Worldheart Foundation”, and she really appreciated it.

One we ask everyone here at Movie Metropolis, what’s your favourite film?

I don’t really have one favorite movie per se- I have a few favorites. Here’s a list of some of my favorite movies: My Girl, E.T the Extra-Terrestrial, The Fifth Element, Forrest Gump, Back to the Future, the animated The Lion King, Brokeback Mountain, Rosemary’s Baby, The Shining and The Ring.

Production on Landfill movie

© Yesser Laham

And another: your favorite cinema snack?

Regular popcorn, slightly buttered. I also like raspberry Icee/slushee.

What advice could you give to those looking to start out in the film industry?

Persistence, perseverance, patience, a lot of hard work and never giving up. I say whatever happens, just never give up or quit. I, for one, would rather try and fall and pick myself back up and try again, and maybe even fail after all than quitting halfway without knowing what the results might have been, had I gone full on. Because things will most likely continue to get tougher and chances are you’re going to be going through roller coasters, both on emotional and professional levels. But that’s ok. Nobody said it was going to be easy. If it was easy, everyone else would be doing it. Another important key for me is being enthusiastic and diligent about the work.

Yesser Laham

Yesser Laham

Also, don’t let factors or concerns from the technical side of certain things in your story limit your creativity when you’re writing. I’ve had some people read my script and then ask me things like, the script seems very ambitious, almost like a studio budgeted film with entire rooms turning into trash tunnels and other sophisticated visuals. How are you going to execute this and that? As much as thinking about stuff like that challenged me, and at times even scared me, as a writer I was focused on the creative, artistic side of things. I did not want to be hung up on how I was going to make a certain thing work, or let it dictate or confine the extent of my thoughts as I wrote my story.

That stuff was secondary to me. And while I picked my fellow filmmakers’ brains who had years of experience over me, I also had to learn to tune out the negative minds and naysayers. To me, their own experiences, when they couldn’t make it in the industry, had no bearing on me and my success.

Can you tell us about anything you’ll be working on in the near future?

I have a few other projects in the works as we speak. One of which is a drama and different from my first feature Landfill. The other is a bit more personal, and I also started putting together some ideas for a potential horror/thriller film; so it isn’t as fleshed out just yet.

Who would be a dream actor/actress to work with and why?

Just like trying to pick a favorite movie in an ocean of great movies, I find this to be a tough one as well. But here’s a list of some actors I’d be honored to work with one day: Tom Hanks, George Clooney, Brad Pitt, Anna Chlumsky, Robert De Niro, Meryl Streep, Jake Gyllenhaal, Drew Barrymore, Dylan Mcdermott, Morgan Freeman, Jeffery Dean Morgan, Robert Downey Jr, Dakota Fanning, Jim Carrey, Bradley Cooper, Octavia Spencer, Naomi Watts, Charlize Theron, Cameron Diaz, Julia Roberts, Armie Hammer, Jennifer Connelly, Kevin Bacon, Diane Lane, Richard Gere.

If you could direct a big budget movie from an existing franchise, which franchise would that be and why?

The Jurassic Park franchise. It was a big part of my childhood with a great story and production values. Back when they relied more on animatronics and less on CGI. Robocop, Terminator and Back to the Future franchises are also a huge part of my childhood that I’m attached to.

I’d like to thank Yesser for taking the time out of his busy production schedule to take part in this interview, and wish him the best of luck with all his future projects! Plus, he loves Jurassic Park – so that’s a big yes from me!

Be sure to check out all our other interviews for more great content!

Leave a Reply