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Sasha Nathwani on directing 'Last Swim': "I wanted to make something true to my experience of growing up in London."

Sasha Nathwani on directing 'Last Swim': "I wanted to make something true to my experience of growing up in London."

David Knight - 20th Mar 2024

The Caviar director has overcome huge obstacles to make his first feature - which won a Golden Bear at the Berlin Film Festival last month. We spoke to him about the journey from music videos and commercials to making an acclaimed new independent movie.    

Having directed numerous music videos - most recently, the UKMVA-nominated promo for Priya Ragu's Adalam Va! - and commercials, Sasha Nathwani was ready to make the leap into longform, with a story that was close to his heart. It was a long and difficult road to get there, but he has done it - and the reaction has been extraordinary.

Last month, Nathwani's debut feature Last Swim opened the Berlin Film Festival's Generation 14Plus category for new filmmakers. A few days after the premiere, Last Swim won the prestigious Golden Bear for Best Film in its category, also winning the AG Kino-Golde-Cinema Vision 14Plus award.

Months before its general release, Nathwani already has two awards under his belt, and is basking in rave reviews for Last Swim, which centres upon Ziba, a British-Iranian teenager as she confronts a life-changing decision on a hot August day in London.  

Produced by Campbell Beaton, Nisha Mullea and Sorcha Shepherd; Helen Simmons and Bert Hamelinck, the team behind Last Swim consists of numerous HoDs and other crew members who have come up through the ranks of music videos, including DoP Olan Collardy and production designer Julija Fricsone Gavriss. And finally it was Caviar, the company Nathwani joined in 2022, who ultimately provided the crucial support to get it made.

A few days after the tumultuous reception the film received at Berlin we spoke to Nathwani, to find out more of the background of how Last Swim made it to the screen.

Above: Last Swim director Sasha Nathwani: "I had never seen anything authentic to my own adolescence captured on film."

PROMONEWS: What was the inspiration for writing the screenplay for Last Swim? Was this something you’ve been working on for a long time?

SASHA NATHWANI: More than anything, I just wanted to make something that was true to my experience of growing up in London. I had never seen anything authentic to my own adolescence captured on film.

I also wanted to tap into my identity, and tell the story of a British-Iranian person and his/her group of friends on a hot summer’s day. London has a unique energy when the sun shines, and we really wanted to tap into that energy with Last Swim – something that breaks with the usual convention of monochromatic films depicting life in the capital. 

In total, it took about five years from the time of the first draft to getting the film made. It’s a film about lost youth, an exploration of the different set of choices a young person might make in the face of an irreconcilable change of circumstances. And it’s no coincidence that it was written during the pandemic, when young people all over the world were having their seminal years snatched away.

It took about five years from the time of the first draft to getting the film made.

What were the crucial things that happened that enabled the film to be made?

SN: Well, we did the rounds with the public funders over a two-year period. First, we applied for Development Funding, which we didn’t get. Campbell Beaton [the film's producer] and I went ahead, and developed it independently. We brought Helen Simmons on-board as my co-writer who later also became a producer. We later applied for Production Finance from the usual sources, and after waiting for many weeks for an answer, we were again unsuccessful. By this point we had secured a third of the budget in private equity, but the soft money we so desperately needed in order to be greenlit for production was frustratingly out of reach.

While all of this was happening, I was speaking to Caviar about commercial representation. Their EP Nisha Mullea took an interest in the script and she shared it with [Caviar MDs] Sorcha Shepherd and Bert Hamelinck. They eventually took the place of the public funder, and the film was to become the first to be produced by Caviar’s London office, to supplement the amazing films they have produced in the US and Europe (Sound Of Metal, The Rider, War Pony, Rebel).

How did you find your lead actor Deba Hekmat for the role of Ziba?

SN: It’s funny you should ask. I met her on a music video I directed many years ago now for Alex Hepburn. Deba struck me then as having an interesting sensibility. She has a striking look and is very comfortable in her own skin. When we came to casting Ziba, she is someone I had in mind. However it wasn’t until her audition that I was sure she was perfect for the role. She has this unique ability to communicate a great deal with her eyes alone. The character arc for Ziba required the actress playing her to really shield the outside world from her internal conflict – this demanded a certain kind of performer, someone with emotional instincts, and this is a talent that Deba has in abundance.

[Public funding bodies] were disinterested in our experience in promos and advertising.

When did you shoot the film and how long was the shoot?

SN: We filmed across 22 days of principal photography in May and June of last year (2023). It was undoubtedly the most challenging shoot I’ve ever done. The pressure of achieving a daily page count of 4-6 pages was relentless. It’s a similar kind of pressure to a music video day, but on a larger scale.

The story takes place over a 24-hour period on a hot day in August (A-Level Results day) so we were at the mercy of the weather, and luckily for us we had 18 days of sun across that shoot window which was a real touch!

Have you directed any narrative drama before this?

SN: A few shorts. However most of my experience until now has been in short form: music videos and commercials mainly. This was one of the issues we experienced when trying to get public funding. We were competing with director/producer teams with much less experience, but something that they had that we didn’t was a Sundance short. The commissioners were completely disinterested in our experience in promos and advertising.

You have considerable experience as a music video director. How did that prepare you for making your first feature?

SN: Along with many of my HoDs, we all cut our teeth on music videos. That’s particularly true of Olan Collardy (DP), Julija Friscone-Gavriss (PD), Campbell Beaton (Producer), Eve Coles and Gaby Winwood (Hair & M/U), Nathalie Caroline-Wilkins (Costume Designer) and Joseph Bicknell (Colourist). Caviar too has a rich history of groundbreaking music videos. Collectively, we’ve worked on hundreds of promos, and this experience has been hugely beneficial.

There’s a required resourcefulness that comes with music video filmmaking that is useful for narrative work. But more than anything, it’s the ability to think on your feet and weigh up the time available to get the coverage you so badly need to cut the scene. However, it needs to be executed in a way that’s interesting and original. I often had to make pivotal editorial decisions on set, knowing fully well that I was never going to have the time to achieve lots of conventional coverage. That kind of on-your-feet decision-making is synonymous with music videos.

I think of the generation of filmmakers who made up the Criterion collection DVD box set of music videos: Jonathan Glazer, Mark Romanek, Spike Jonze, Michel Gondry. More recently the Daniels and Aiofe McArdle are more contemporary examples of directors who have successfully crossed over, but there simply aren’t as many as in previous years. It does feel particularly challenging to make that leap right now.

Being in a 1000-seater auditorium with that large an audience is a very vulnerable place to be, but also incredibly exciting.

By the end of shooting, how confident were you that you had the film you wanted to make?

SN: Oh man, this is a humdinger of a question. I read recently that filmmaking is an editor’s medium, and having been through this process with my long-time editor Stephen Dunne, I feel that is a very true statement. It was really in the edit that we discovered what kind of story we were trying to tell, and some of my favourite and most beautiful scenes/shots ended up on the cutting room floor. Kill your darlings, they say!

You’ve now had some great reviews and won a prize at the Berlin Film Festival. Silly question perhaps, but how are you feeling right now?

SN: I’m still coming to terms with the last few weeks. The experience has really galvanized and reinforced my love of filmmaking. And to have gone on the journey with so many great people has been amazing.  But I’d be lying if I said it was easy, but rather it was undoubtedly the hardest thing we’ve ever attempted.

Above: At the Last Swim premiere in Berlin: Nathwani (front row, third right) with Cambell Beaton (front row, far left) with cast and crew. Photo credit: George On A Boat

A key distinction between short form and longform filmmaking is that when you make a film rather than a commercial or a music video, you get to experience it with a room full of people, and that’s a really special feeling. The night of the premiere we were screening the film in a 1000 seater auditorium (the amazing Haus De Kulturen Der Welt). Being in a room with that large an audience is a very vulnerable place to be, but it’s also incredibly exciting. Hearing those moments when the audience laughs, shrieks or cries is exhilarating. 

Having come off the premiere and the Crystal Bear, along with my amazing producers and HoDs, we’re all buzzing. And if there are any music video directors out there reading this who need a little push to open up Final Draft and write that film that’s been percolating in their heads, the fact that you’re reading this right now is a sign that it’s possible. So what ya waiting for? Get a hurry-on, and write that script!

• Sasha Nathwani is based at Caviar for commercials and music videos - watch his work here.

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