An Interview with Zahir Omar on Fly By Night (2018)

Self-described as a shit-hits-the-fan heist film, Fly By Night takes its audience on a wild ride through complex family ties, shifting loyalties and testy power dynamics, complete with explosive shoot-outs and the much anticipated car chase scene. Most notably, regional audiences will be delighted to see the familiar landscapes of Malaysia forming the backdrop of this debut feature by Malaysian director Zahir Omar. There is something exhilarating about watching a car chase scene, so often only present in mainstream Hollywood movies or Hong Kong cop films, play out so close to home. 

Film buffs will be recognise the myriad of influences underscoring this film, from Godfather-esque confrontations to gory clashes reminiscent of Old Boy. Indeed, Omar asserts that Fly By Night is a concoction of the best bits of his favourite genres, a sort of homage to the films that have entertained him, and an attempt to entertain other people with the same tools.

It is a worthy attempt, a daring leap into the heist genre. However, despite the allure of its premise, the film seems to unravel nearing the end, escaping with convenient plans that are never quite explained or settling for shallow resolutions of its characters. In particular, it is a pity that greater revelations of characters are left unexplored, just as they manage to spark a deeper curiosity about individual backstories.

Nevertheless, Fly By Night will surely leave audiences in determined discussions long after the credits have rolled, and the presence of a film that straddles the line between arthouse fare and mainstream audience appeal makes one hopeful for future works from the Malaysian filmmaking scene.

SINdie conducted an email interview with director Zahir Omar on his debut feature.

SINdie: I understand that it took four years from conception to completion – how did the story develop over the years and what, if anything, changed from the initial genesis of your idea to the final script?

Zahir Omar: The first draft, which was written by Ivan, was very solid and the themes were very strong.  We spent the next four years developing the characters and building the world around it, trying to make it as humanistic and fun as possible.

Fly By Night features many action packed, stunt intensive scenes – from a bar going down in flames to the car chases complete with gun shootouts. Was it stressful to work on such scenes, especially on your first feature film? How did you handle the direction of these scenes?

We were fortunate to have very good support from the production house, Planet Films, who has been doing commercials for over 20 years. The fire scene and the shoot-out were very specific scenes that I had in mind from the very early stages in the script. I spent most of the years figuring out how to shoot them with the limited resources that we had. Besides that, we had a very experienced director helping out with the stunt sequences, Farouk Al Joffrey, and his team shoot the car chase scenes, which made the film insanely slick. Thanks Chief!

You work with a lot of household names (Sunny Pang, Frederick Lee) in the film. Was it challenging to direct veteran actors? What were some of your takeaways from working with them?

Firstly, I’d like to say, I was very blessed to have them on this project with me. They were really cool cats, who knew their craft. I knew I had to make sure that in order to jam with them I had to be on my “A” game at all times because they would give nothing less.

One thing that strikes me is the ethnic diversity in your film, especially linguistically. How did the cultural landscape of Malaysia inform that choice?

At the time that this script was written, there was a lot of “us” vs “them”, which I believe with all my heart is not who we are. The keyword has to be “we”. Like it or not, we are all stuck on the same boat. Only when we accept this can we start progressing.

Are you hopeful about the Malaysian filmmaking scene? Where do you see it in the next few years?

Very hopeful. Some people have said that Malaysian film audiences are quite shallow. I believe the complete opposite. The Malaysian film audience have very in-depth film knowledge and taste. Story telling has been entrenched in our culture for centuries and we have been exposed to so many good films over the decades. Furthermore, our film industry in the past five years has sky rocketed in quality. I can see everyone is trying to be better at their craft, and that’s what matters the most. Exciting times!

Lastly, how did Joko Anwar end up making a cameo in your film?

I’m a fanboy with no shame. I called him and asked him. He said yes!

Fly by Night opened in Cathay Cineplexes (Singapore) on 11 Apr 2019.

Written by Jessica Heng
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