Guided vision: Get to know ‘Greatland’ director Dana Ziyasheva
Dana Ziyasheva, isn’t just a world-class filmmaker, but she has “day dreamed” about touching the hearts of cinephiles everywhere! In fact, Ziyasheva is a triple thread as she’s a writer, screenwriter, and currently a film director. Starting out as a local TV journalist for the Press Office of Foreign Affairs in Kazakhstan to taking America’s film industry by storm, she’s currently celebrating the success of her latest film Greatland.
Not only does Ziyasheva represent minority groups in her films, but with Greatland, she enters a new form of storytelling using a deadly virus as a “political construct” to determine who has freedom and who’s ultimately lost in a violent world. If you haven’t already watched the intense sci-fi film, don’t worry, Amazon Prime has got you covered!
We sat down with the legendary Dana Ziyasheva, to find out more about her & her spectacular film Greatland. Let’s take a look!
Tell us about your journey into film. What did you do before becoming a filmmaker?
My background is journalism. In my home country Kazakhstan, I worked as a reporter for the morning news on a TV channel and as A.D. at a video production studio. Then, for twenty years I was an international civil servant with the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) headquartered in Paris.
I had to navigate complicated diplomatic situations. For example, when in North Korea, you are brought in front of the golden statue of Kim Il-Sung in the heavily guarded palace that serves as his mausoleum, would you bow as required by the North Korean etiquette or not?
When working in Iraq, China, Costa Rica and other countries, I was an active agent of change through my communication and information projects, as well as an observer of historic figures and events. In 2013 these two parallel tracks merged when I decided to direct my first feature about women of the indigenous Ngabe tribe in Costa Rica. I was training them on the use of communication equipment and computers; we became friends and decided to make a movie about their lives.
Did any particular film or TV show inspire you to become a filmmaker?
Probably, The Discreet Charm of the Bourgeoisie, a surrealist film directed by Luis Buñuel. I saw it when I was twelve. It was unlike any other movie experience in my life: I was day-dreaming about strangers I never met as if they were my close family. It didn’t make any sense and at the same time made perfect sense.
What five movies do you think everyone should see in their lifetime?
Greatland, of course, is the first movie that comes to mind😊
The other four are The Discreet Charm of the Bourgeoisie, One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest, Stalker by Andrei Tarkovsky and The Fall of Otrar.
Who are your current inspirations?
Korean cinema & TV series. The level of sophistication in story-telling & production design, be it a costume drama, fantasy or contemporary action, is just mind-blowing. I also watch Bollywood & Teluga blockbusters. I love discovering new types of characters and aesthetics.
What was the first project you ever worked on? What did you learn from the experience?
It was Together with Tsaatan, a short feature, shot by young filmmakers of Mongolia’s Education TV in the framework of one of my communication projects. The Tsaatans are a small minority of people in the north of Mongolia. They are reindeer herders; during summer they migrate from the plains to the Altai mountains to keep reindeers cool.
We had to fly a small plane to the beautiful Khövsgöl lake and ride a jeep off-road across grassland for three days. For the final ascent to the Tsaatan summer camping grounds, we rode specially-trained horses on really steep mountain ledges and rocky edges of a glacier. It was an anthropological expedition as much as it was a film project. We had to be completely self-sustainable in terms of food and energy sources for camera batteries.
At midnight when we were supposed to film a shaman ceremony, we climbed down the hill in complete darkness and had to wade through an icy river carrying equipment and kid actors on our backs. On the other bank, we were surrounded by angry dogs, and those were not chihuahuas but dogs used to hunt bears . . .
For me the real discovery was how game Tsaatan were to shoot a movie with us. They opened their homes to the Education TV crew, helped us to “dress” the sets with reindeers & bonfires and acted naturally in front of the camera. They had fun, and it reminded me of school plays when we were just giving it all for the pure joy of it. The Tsaatan experience inspired me to direct my first full-length feature with the Ngabe tribe in Costa Rica.
Do you have any experience with mentors? If so, do you recommend them for up-and-coming filmmakers?
I wish somebody mentored me but no one did. I think, up and coming filmmakers should just follow their instincts and learn from experience. Truly creative people are independent. I know people who, for years, worked as ADs on big productions but never crossed the line into directing even though that was their dream.
Walk us through your creative process.
I watch events unraveling, observe people’s reactions to it, meditate, listen to music, dream, letting the idea, the intrigue and the protagonists mature and come together in my mind. Then I just sit back and let the characters interact in the script.
Do you listen to any music to help you create?
My sons will laugh at me but heck, I have nothing to be ashamed of! I listen to (oh boy, here it comes): Depeche Mode, A Studio, t.A.T.u., Justin Bieber, Selena Gomez (I still think these two should have stayed together!), Nicky Minaj, BTS, TXT (which is basically a second coming of BTS) and Q-Pop group 91.
Why did you feel like you wanted to write a film surrounding the COVID-19 pandemic?
I wrote the Greatland’s script in 2017. Back then, I thought that after the Cold War and Islamic terrorism, a new threat to the Western world would emerge, and the idea of a virus came to me naturally.
The Evil Nation invented the virus to deprive Greats of their “hard-earned immortality.” As Clerk says, “a common enemy is the best way to unite the people behind its government.” Remember George Bush’s Axis of Evil and Trump’s “Chinese virus”? In Greatland, the Virus is a purely political construct.
Did you know Greatland was going to be a sci-fi dystopian epic when you were brainstorming, or did that idea come along later?
I find it much easier to express complex concepts through allegories. From the get go, I wanted to show the twilight of an empire. Although initially you’re overwhelmed by “Glory to Greatland!” chanting hysteria and screaming colors, you can’t help but notice the crumbling infrastructure behind bright posters. There ought to be a different way forward than putting glow stickers on a festering wound.
What was your experience like working on Greatland?
Intense. Many around me didn’t understand where we were heading. As an indie production on a shoestring budget, we were moving at a neck-breaking speed, no time to explain. On a good day, I had children, animals, stuntmen and VFX supervisors working on set. But we had a great and talented team and it all came together in post production.
Producer Igor Darbo is just as crucial to the production of Greatland. What was it like working with him?
Igor is a pleasure to work with because he’s steady, constant and a problem-solver. In Greatland, to save production some money he played an Invisible Mr. Lee and a Woof party member in the Bracelet Studio audience. In between the takes he was making sure the catering service had a vegan non-gluten option while sporting a green wig, pink brassier and a dog mask.
Greatland is the second film we’re doing together. Our first movie Defenders of Life was shot in the middle of the rainforest in Costa Rica. Igor organized all the logistics such as crewing, filming equipment, location scouting, catering and accommodation for our crew. He also liaised with Ngabe men making sure they didn’t oppose our production. Once we had to drive actors and crew across a harrowingly narrow bridge. I just froze. I had women and children sitting in the back and was petrified to press the gas pedal. Igor took my place and drove two cars full of people across that bridge.
At some point, after one month in the jungle, our 4-men crew was falling apart under pressure and Igor managed to bring us back together. He’s a true peace-maker. As our Cuban sound engineer told me: “Estoy aquí por este hombre!” (“I’m here for this man!”)
While working on Greatland, you wore a lot of hats on set. How did you juggle all the responsibilities?
I make sure everybody is guided by my vision. Of course, not everybody was singing from the same sheet. Sometimes when you hit a dead end, it’s good to just retire for five minutes and think about something else, to find a solution.
How did COVID-19 affect your projects in 2020?
When we were editing the teaser in May 2020, the editor and I met on the corner of a street, both masked and unrecognizable, he quickly passed me the hard-drive and retreated into his building. It was such a stark contrast to when we were editing the movie, crammed in a small editing suite. COVID-19 cancelled screenings for distributors and our theatrical release. During the Moscow Film Festival in November, they had to limit audience capacity to 25%. That sucked.
Do you think the film industry will eventually be able to recover from COVID-19?
The way many Americans perceive Hollywood is changing. Does Hollywood still understand what the audience wants? The Hollywood recovery from Covid-19 depends on the answer to this question.
Where do you see yourself in five years?
Hopefully, making movies I want to make and working as a screenwriter and film director for hire.
If any director could direct the story of your life, who would you choose and why?
Werner Herzog in the Aguirre, the Wrath of God style. Many times, I found myself drifting down a river in a far-away country, with people I barely knew and uncertainty hiding on river banks. Although I didn’t go mad like Aguirre, I understand his confusion when pondering over the question, what is home? And where is home now?
What has been your biggest success and failure in life to date?
I hope my biggest success lies ahead. As for failures, the Asian in me tells me to shut up and not lose face so publicly😊.
Do you consider yourself an indie filmmaker? If so, do you want to be one forever?
I’m definitely an indie film-maker. Both Defenders of Life and Greatland belong to author cinema. In the future, I would like to alternate personal projects with bigger studio productions. I imagine it would be nice to lean into an established institutional framework and drive a well-oiled, high-performance machine.
What’s next on the docket for you?
I’m pitching a fantasy feature Grassland as a co-production, to the State Center for Support of National Cinema, back in my home country Kazakhstan. My two features Defenders of Life and Greatland are available on Amazon Prime. I hope it will be possible to make an Amazon Studio movie.
With my friend, veteran reality producer Maegan Philmore, we are prepping a documentary project titled “In the Cut” and set at the Summit County Juvenile Detention Center in Akron, Ohio. We are reaching out to LeBron James Family Foundation which is based in Akron, hoping that they could support our initiative.
What advice do you have for up-and-coming filmmakers?
Own rights to your work. If you see a big studio executive in an elevator but you’re not ready with your pitch, just let the elevator go and take the next one (kidding). Personal shortcomings can’t be fixed in post production. The most likely producers of your first project are your family. Cherish them.