Part 2 in our Filmmaker "Spotlight" Series
The Moving Picture Institute has supported hundreds of filmmakers via fellowships, internships, masterclasses, and productions since our founding in 2005. This year, we are beginning an interview series that checks in with our filmmakers
Our “Spotlight” series continues with MPI-supported director/producer Cyrus Saidi. In 2013, he co-wrote, produced, and directed a MPI-supported short-film titled L1TTL3 BR0TH3R, a political thriller with a sci-fi twist. He recently completed a major documentary feature titled What We Started—taking on the subject of global electronic music culture. The film features some of the biggest names in music including Martin Garrix, Carl Cox, Tiesto, David Guetta, Dubfire, Usher, Ed Sheeran etc. What We Started is now available for streaming on Netflix. Follow the film on Facebook.
Lana Link (MPI): Your compelling feature electronic music documentary, What We Started, premiered last summer at the LA Film Festival. In March, the film will enjoy its theatrical premiere and go nationwide. Can you tell us a little about this project and how people can watch it?
CS: What We Started explores the rich history of the widely misunderstood and well-insulated dance music industry that began as an underground movement and has soared to become one of the most popular genres in music. The film follows the rise of young superstar Martin Garrix (#1 DJ in the world), and industry pioneer Carl Cox. The cast also includes Tiesto, Erick Morillo, Moby, David Guetta, Steve Angello, Afrojack, Paul Oakenfold, Usher, Ed Sheeran, Richie Hawtin, Seth Troxler, Pete Tong and more. After a theatrical run (March–June) The film will be available exclusively on Netflix worldwide.
MPI: How did your background in the music business shape this film? Is this something you always knew you wanted to make?
CS: I always wanted to make this film and tell the incredible story of EDM (electronic dance music), which at its core is about freedom of expression and unity. I have worked in the EDM industry for 15 years and knew a lot of its history, politics, and key people.
MPI: Billboard recently shared the updated trailer and wrote: If you're a music geek or a student of dance history, this won't be one to miss. What do you think will draw audiences to the film who aren’t as familiar with dance music? What do you want them to take away from the film?
CS: My co-director on this film, Bert Marcus, and our producer Cassandra Hamar brought an angle to this project that hugely enabled an objective view needed to make this film attractive to non-fans of the genre. They are extremely good at making commercially successful documentary films such as Teenage Paparazzo, Champs (Mike Tyson), and How to Make Money Selling Drugs, etc.
I think people will have a deep appreciation for the dance music community's struggles in fighting for their rights, the persistent efforts to continue to love what they have done despite overwhelming odds, and all the challenges that dreamers overcome. All this while being highly entertained at the same time. That is the film’s goal.
MPI: Many of our filmmakers seek to involve high-profile interview subjects or stars. Your film features some of the most prominent players in the music world today, including Martin Garrix, Moby, David Guetta, Tiesto, Usher, and Ed Sheeran. Do you have any advice for how others can attach big names to their projects?
CS: For us, this came down to two factors: relationships and offering value. Relationships are obviously something we had built over years in our field of work, so making a film about something in which we were deeply involved helped. Value however, is more important; if the film subject is compelling and the your dedication is evident—not only to make the film great but make its release a success—nothing can stand in your way. With this film, even with all the contacts we already had, it took us six months to convince big names to get on board. Once a couple joined, the rest followed.
MPI: You first started working with the Moving Picture Institute team on your dystopian sci-fi short, L1TTL3 BR0TH3R. The film explores themes such as the role of technology as a means to fight oppression in society. Can you talk about why you wanted to tell that story?
CS: I have always been fascinated with dystopian “big brother” films. Usually the story is about using technology to take power away from people. I wanted to tell the opposite story where technology was used to take power back.
MPI: What’s the biggest difference between directing a narrative project and a documentary? Which do you prefer and why?
CS: With a narrative you need to have the story down tight. Whereas with a documentary, the story kind of takes shape as you go along. All you need is a very strong subject and and solid “why”—as in why you are dying to shed light on that subject.
MPI: How about the difference between shorts and features?
CS: Features are a ton more work!
MPI: Is there anything you learned on your filmmaking journey that you wish you’d known at the beginning? Or something particularly valuable that will inform your next project?
CS: I have made two films so far, and each time the most valuable lesson I have learned is the value of collaboration. Being open to new perspectives can really bring out the best in a project. I have learned that lesson twice. So I will definitely be more flexible as I grow as a filmmaker.
MPI: How has your Moving Picture Institute fellowship, support from our staff, and participation in our programming, like masterclasses, helped develop your career?
CS: Being part of MPI is like being part of a family. Knowing there are people who believe in what you are doing is not something I can put a price on. MPI is and will always be a part of my film career because it is driven by people who deeply care about their mission.
MPI: As you know, our mission is to promote freedom through film. How do you navigate telling authentic stories that deal with current events and big ideas?
CS: Telling freedom-oriented stories is in my creative DNA. Having been born in a country where freedom of expression was so scarce, then growing up in Canada and now living in the US where the idea of freedom is so much more respected—that has had a huge impact on me. Both of my films have freedom as a central idea. I am also working on a feature screenplay that revolves around this theme.
MPI: For fun, share a film that you love that everyone else seems to hate. (Or a film you hate that everyone else loves).
CS: I love Solaris (2002), and most people have never heard of it, don’t understand it, or hate it.
MPI: Any final advice for our filmmakers?
CS: I don’t think I am qualified to give advice as a filmmaker to all of the talented people in the MPI network. But perhaps as a talent manager, which is my day job, I can say: Only give your time to projects you absolutely love.
More about Cyrus Saidi:
Director/producer Cyrus Saidi has always had an insatiable passion for film, music, freedom of expression, and the crossroads at which they all meet.
Starting his entrepreneurial career at 18, Cyrus challenged legislation and produced Canada’s first fully legal electronic music event. Over the past decade he has gone on to manage international acts and produce tours in 30+ countries.
Growing up inspired by the great masters of cinema, Cyrus found his true passion in film. He spent a decade extensively studying screenwriting and directing, and optioned his first feature screenplay in 2012. In 2013, he co-wrote, produced, and directed a Moving Picture Institute-supported short film titled L1TTL3 BR0TH3R. A political thriller with a sci-fi twist, the film has received international attention and won several awards in festivals. The short was also featured on CBC, Canada’s national television channel.
Cyrus recently completed What We Started, a documentary feature about global electronic music culture. The film features some of the biggest names in music including Martin Garrix, Carl Cox, Tiesto, David Guetta, Dubfire, Usher, Ed Sheeran etc. What We Started will open in theaters in March 2018.