In 2012 he directed his first feature “Right to Love” which included a diverse international cast and written and produced by lead actress Amina Zhaman. The movie received a standing ovation from the critics during its private screening in January 2013 in New York. The movie also features the famous Mexican actor, comedian and TV Host, Omar Chaparro, the star of “Black and White” and “Big Brother VIP 2”, “Suave Patria”. Another household name for Albanian-American cinema is the iconic Pavlina Mani, winner of the "Best Actress" Award for her role as Vera in "Bolero".
Director Paul Kurti, Producer Amina Zhaman and lead actor Shpend Xani
CEM had the privilege to talk with Paul Kurti about the film “Right to Love” and his other projects.
Tell me a little bit about yourself and your background, and what led you to the industry.I was born and grew up in Tirana, Albania during the unstable times of the country's transition from communism to democracy. When I was a teenager my family moved to Toronto, Canada. Both my father and grandmother are actors, so maybe subconsciously I was always going to be involved in films. But it took me some time to realize that. I was always attracted to drawing and visual arts so I decided to study architecture in university. During this period, I made short films with my friends on weekends. Finding the filmmaking process fascinating, I decided to enrol in a short film course in New York in order to learn the technical skills that I was lacking. One of my short films ended up winning an international award and was accepted at a various festivals. That led me to believe that I had something to say and give to the film world. Over the following years I continued working on short films, music videos and web series. These experiences prepared me for the day I would get the chance to direct a feature film.
What is “Right to Love” about?In a few words, “Right to Love” tells the story of Amina, a Circassian Muslim actress, who moves to New York with ambitions of performing on Broadway. She meets and falls in love with Tony, an Albanian Catholic man. However, his disapproving family goes to great length to oppose their relationship.
How did this whole project come together?I was contacted by Amina Zhaman, a Circassian artist, who had written a screenplay and the music for a film. She had seen some of my previous work and asked me to direct a feature based on her screenplay. I was intrigued by the story and the idea. Because we both lived in different cities and countries, we went through long email and Skype sessions over the following months, working on the story and characters. When we thought that the script and preparations were at a good point, we decided to meet in New York and start filming. It was a leap of faith to start filming that way, but I believe that hard work and faith made it possible to complete the film and share it with audiences.
Was there a single inspiration for the film, or was it a combination of several themes you wanted to bring together in this story?On the surface it seems like a modern Romeo and Juliet story, but there are many themes that make this story special. The film touches upon questions such as: How much are we willing to sacrifice to follow our dreams? Would we sacrifice our families, our careers, and our love? Why do some people continue judging others based on their background, nationality and religion? Is this a mass mentality or is it different in each individual based on their past experiences? Will certain prejudices ever change?
Where was the film shot?The movie was shot in New York during the summer of 2012. New York is the city where the lead character comes with dreams of performing on Broadway, and is also a city that has been built on the dreams and hard work of many generations of immigrants from all sorts of backgrounds and nationalities. It embraces perfectly the spirit of the film. The film took roughly 2 months of preproduction, 6 weeks of filming and 5 months of editing.
How did you choose your actors for “Right to Love?”Amina Zhaman who wrote the story also plays the lead character. We auditioned a few actors for the part of Tony and felt that Shpend Xani would be the right choice for the part. Shpend's portrayal is different from Tony in the script; he has a much more intense presence on screen. However, I thought that was a very interesting take on the character and I spent plenty of time with him reshaping Tony.
We were also extremely happy to be able to work with Pavlina Mani, a great Albanian actress that I grew up watching and admiring. She gives an intense performance as Maviola, Tony's mother, leading the audiences to feel both contempt and compassion for her character. Other actors include Theodore Buloukos, Luan Bexheti, Omar Chaparro, Ariot Myrtaj, Karina Ivanova and many more. Because it was an independent film shot on limited time and budget, we had little time to for rehearsals. But every actor in the film understood the challenge and brought their best to the screen.
What was the most difficult aspect of making this film?I have never heard a filmmaker say that it was easy to make a film. Each film brings upon itself many difficulties but this is also part of the challenge. In our case the biggest difficulties were working with a very small crew and a limited budget. Our crew members had to perform different tasks simultaneously, but they worked hard to make this film look like a big-budget production. Part of the credit goes to our tireless cinematographer. We filmed in the middle of the summer and New York gets really hot during that period. We often worked in small, unventilated locations with the owners threatening to kick us out. But I think that, given the circumstances, we managed to finish filming on budget and on time.
What was your favorite moment?My favourite moments are often ones that are created spontaneously. One day, a person who was supposed to lend us his car to film did not show up. So the crew and actors found themselves at the location frustrated and unable to film. I went for a 10 minute walk into a nearby park to clear my head and I came across a beautiful bridge underpass. I knew immediately that I wanted to film there. I called the lead actors and we filmed one of the most important scenes right there and then, without any rehearsals and differently from the description in the script. The scene turned out beautifully, and to this day that is one of my favourite moments of the film.
You have directed music videos and short films before. How is directing “Right to Love” different?Apart from the obvious differences, such as dealing with many more locations, actors, crew and time, I have to make sure that every person on set is on the same page at any given time. I think that the most important thing is not to lose track of the story and what I am trying to communicate. I have to constantly ask myself “Where is your audience now?” to remember that there is also an emotional storyline being told to the audience and I have to make sure that my actors are always aware of where their characters are in that storyline at any given moment. In short films and music videos this is much easier.
What motivates you when directing? Is there something a film has to have, a certain quality, in order for you to attach yourself to it?I believe that just as every actor is attracted to certain roles, also every director is attracted to certain stories. I cannot say for certain what exactly attracts me to a story; it could be a detail, an image that I envision, or a character. I often write about social outcast characters during an existential crisis point in their life and then try to follow the journey on which they lead me. It is important to have strong ideals and beliefs, but keeping an open mind to the stories that come your way is also an essential element to growing as a filmmaker and artist.
How important do you think the critical/media response is to film these days, be it a large production, independent film or festival title?I think that critics and the media are essential to the success of a film nowadays. With the continuous improvement and affordability of tools and technology it has become easier than ever for filmmakers to make movies. That is why the number of films and documentaries produced in the world increases every year. However, at the same time, it is harder to market your work because there are so many films out there. I believe that it is critical for a film to have the support and the exposure brought upon by critics and the media in order for it to reach wider audiences and be successful.
How do you quantify success? What makes a movie that you direct a success in your eyes?The stories that interest me are the ones that don't give answers but ask questions. I try to analyze stories based on all characters' points of view, even the unpopular ones. It's up to the audience to formulate opinions based on what is presented to them. If the movie starts conversations then I have been successful.
Right to Love Synopsis:
Amina (Amina Zhaman), a Circassian Muslim actress, moves to New York with ambitions of performing on Broadway. When she falls in love with Tony (Shpend Xani), an Albanian Catholic man, his disapproving family goes to great length to oppose their relationship.Will their romance survive and will Amina realize her acting dreams amidst social and religious prejudices?
Pavlina Mani, Luan Bexheti, Omar Chaparro, Karina Ivanova and Theodore Buloukos co-star in a film directed by award winning director Paul Kurti.
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