Bryan Buckley is known as the “King of the Super Bowl.” He’s directed over 50 of the high-profile commercials, but when you talk with him, he sounds like he’d prefer to backpack around Africa for the rest of his days. The director’s debut feature (after making Oscar-nominated short Asad) Dabka is based on journalist Jay Bahadur’s experiences and investigations into the rise of the Somali pirate.
He sat down with Paste after Dabka’s premiere at the Tribeca Film Festival to talk about immersing himself in that culture, working with stars Evan Peters and Barkhad Abdi, and the stylistic flourishes that make the film so great.
Paste Magazine: You’re primarily known as a commercial director. How was adapting to the process of making Dabka?
Bryan Buckley Well you saw the film, so you know it was quite an undertaking. I will say it’s been almost a seven-year process, from learning to making the movie—getting into Somali culture, learning it and breaking it down.
Paste: Seven years? So right when Jay Bahadur published The Pirates of Somalia. Were you on that from the beginning?
Buckley: It’s been a long time coming. I went off and did a short doc for the U.N. in 2010 because they were having a hard time with the refugee camps and getting foreign funding, both from countries and individuals. So they came to me because I came out of the commercial world. They said, “Look, what we’re doing isn’t working. Do a doc [2010’s No Autographs], but find the marketing angle to wrap this thing around.” And then we got there and found out the doc had been double-booked with the BBC.
While we were down there we met a lot of Somalis and a lot of Sudanese in the refugee camps, but the Somalis, they were just coming in droves. Once you’re in that camp, we learned, the average time you stay there is 17 years. It’s like coming into prison. So all that information is coming in, and we were like “I can’t believe we’re both shooting the same doc” with the BBC. We did get to become friends with their correspondents, who couldn’t go into Somalia. They weren’t allowed to go in, too dangerous, they weren’t insured—whatever. They were fascinated and so was I. Meeting all the Somalis and our translator and making friends, that’s what started this process.
So we finished the doc and no one saw it. It flopped. It was so watered-down, we couldn’t say what we wanted to say. The U.N. is just a big organization that can’t piss anyone off and you’re stuck there frustrated saying, “God, I can’t believe this.” We wanted to get out of that mindset.
After the doc came and went, I remember reading a story in The New York Times a year later about Somalia where the guy said, “I’ve never seen it worse than this.” I read that and saw the U.N. was dropping food in there that the Somalis weren’t allowed to eat and, well, they were also shooting U.N. workers. So that weekend I wrote Asad. The next window I had from commercial shooting, we were gonna go down there, to Africa, and shoot it. Take a narrative approach to it and, by virtue of being in the location, have a cast that is authentic. So we’re not selling the refugees’ story, we’re showing it and then talking about it. When we were shooting the short, Jay’s book was literally the only reference material we could find.
My whole crew read his book and were like “Holy shit, this book is amazing.” So detailed, so dense. Jay was appearing on The Daily Show and I found out that nobody had bought the book. Well—OK, nobody’s bought the rights to the book. Nothing gets to the best-seller list without people buying the rights! It was divine intervention. So I reached out and told him the story was amazing but I didn’t want the story to be about the book, I wanted it to be about him, about Jay. They were into that, so we developed the script. In the wake of Asad winning Tribeca and going on to the Oscars, I got to give speeches about South Africa and how they hated the Somali refugees because they were taking jobs. When we were getting ready to shoot the film, they were literally burning Somalis.
When we got there, there was a lot of expectation from the locals that we were some assholes there to do a whole “Kumbaya” thing because we were Americans.
Paste: Here come the white people, right?
Buckley: Exactly. They thought we were going to do some feel-good story and you could just feel all this animosity. It was crazy.
Paste: I think you get how badly you didn’t want to make the same old Western heroism story by how cocky you make your protagonist who is…I don’t want to say “a dick,” but…
Buckley: (laughs) Right, well, let’s say arrogant. Reckless and arrogant—but there’s a sweetness to him. The real Jay is reckless, with blinders on. Very authoritative and definitive in his personality. You know, I don’t know if you’ll get to talk to him, but he’s intense. He’s the kind of guy where you go out with him and be telling a story and he’ll be Googling what you’re saying, like “Oh really, that was in ’08? Because I’m seeing here it was in ’09.” Whatever! You have to be careful what you say around him. [That] character had to [reach the audience] super hard and we have to understand that a lot of that is bravado.
Paste: It takes a lot of bravado to open a film with basically the “freeze-frame, yep that’s me” scene, but you pull it off.
Buckley: That was the plan, but I think it’ll also piss a lot of people off. And Evan [Peters], playing Jay, well later in the film he grows a beard so during the shoot he’d have the beard on and off. And when the beard was on, he was another person. Completely. On set, everywhere, a different guy. Some advice: If you’re gonna be hanging with Evan, I definitely recommend no beard.
I’d be going “what the fuck is wrong with him?” And then I’d notice: “Oh shit, he’s got the beard on.”
Paste: Another ballsy stylistic thing you do in the movie is animating the two piracy sequences. What was the rationale behind that?
Buckley: I wanted you to go into the head of Jay. The narration, that’s one way. Breaking the [fourth] wall, you know. But that first pirate scene, the animation was necessary for story reasons…but also if I’d just told it, if you’ve seen pirate movies, you’d be rolling your eyes. So I knew it could be more interesting [animated]. You get more into the action hero self-perception of these pirates. Then adding the irony of Notorious B.I.G., that old school rap and, well, who doesn’t like Biggie? And then having shutter shades on the pirates, well, [there] was new-school Kanye in there too. So that was layered in there for that sort of heightened self-image.
The second sequence, that was later. I liked the first one so much and I felt like we needed to make a statement about the whole Captain Phillips moment. I went to my animators…and we’re obviously a low-budget film, so when you say, “I just had this thought: Could we do another animated—” you get a lot of blank stares. But I put it out there and offered to outsource it but they were so into it that they went along with it. Using those as set pieces was an evolutionary thing. One was already there and another one came along.
Paste: How was working with your gigantic Somali cast, which you lay out so poignantly in the credits with the dates each became a refugee?
Buckley: It was powerful. When we did Asad down in South Africa, I don’t think there had been any Somali films. It was uncharted territory and we learned an incredible amount. Things you can say and couldn’t say. Case in point, we wanted people to look like a certain tribe and wear certain colors and they just wouldn’t, they walked off my set. That’s very serious. It doesn’t matter how much money you have, they don’t want to be observed while praying. In the U.S., if someone’s going to church, nobody says anything, so [we had to learn] that kind of stuff here.
We had a casting director down there training people for three months just to audition. Just to try out for the parts. Eye in the Sky shot down there, so they had a record of people and everyone knows everybody. It was like directing a really big high school play. We both did not have a huge pool of talent, and people can’t earn a living by acting. Sabrina Hassan Abdulle, who plays Maryan in the film, she said, “I think I’m not gonna do [the movie] because I have to work those days you’re shooting,” and she was the lead female. It doesn’t matter because there’s a real challenge to survival. Hollywood ideas aren’t even there. Even after auditioning for months, they could just walk away over seemingly nothing because it didn’t really mean anything to them. Understanding those priorities was essential.
When Barkhad [Abdi] came in, who’s like the Marlon Brando of Somalia, he called me after he read the script and said, “I heard about this script and everyone was asking me if I was in it. I said of course not, another pirate movie is the last thing I want to do.” But he liked it and I was thrilled. He came in and did a lot of workshops with the actors. He is so pro-Somalia and so special. He made so much easier.
“Every man is his own sultan,” that quote from the movie, is basically Barkhad. Somalis are like New Yorkers. You gotta work your way into the culture. And I wanted everything to be authentic. I didn’t want to use subtitles because I wanted people to feel like they were there. So we wrote the script and then the script with translations and you’re looking at it going, “Holy shit this is going to be a seven hour movie.” Because remember, one character would say a line and the translator would repeat the line, double it up and double the time. But it all, in the end, worked out.
One of my favorite moments was one of our night shoots. I’d told Evan before the movie, “If you go along with this thing, it’s not a movie. You’re gonna go along with this world and you’re gonna change. You’re not going to go back in the box.” You just want to stay there. So this night shoot was in the middle of the night and Evan and Barkhad I think were done shooting, and they were hanging outside walking around with everyone. Nobody got in their car or got in their trailer, everyone was just hanging out on set shooting the shit, laughing. That was really special.