Angela Sarafyan starring in James Bird's indie film "We Are Boats"

Interview: ‘We Are Boats’ Director James Bird

Anybody recently saw a movie that left them in puddles of eye sweat? ‘Cause I did.

I got to watch We Are Boats – an indie fantasy film with a 50% female and 41% people of color cast, along with 45% women crew— directed by James Bird. And I’m sure you’ll recognize a lot of familiar faces among this super cast as it’s got Angela Sarafyan (Westworld), Uzo Aduba (Orange is the New Black), Luke Hemsworth (Westworld), Jack Falahee (How to Get Away with Murder)—just to name a few.

"We Are Boats" official movie poster

I know what you’re thinking: those are some sexy statistics.

Yes, but that’s not all. We Are Boats represents the first completely vegan set ever—which started a trend in Hollywood, and now the Avatar sequels’ sets are said to be taking this path as well.

The thing that made me most excited for this movie was when I learned that the director is of Native American descent and ba da bing ba da boom I am too. Although this is off-screen, it’s still the representation I’ve been yearning for.

We Are Boats summary

The story follows Francesca (Angela Sarafyan), who gets killed at the beginning of the movie, but fear not, the real journey actually begins after her death. Her spirit is assigned to these jobs where she encounters the troubled living individuals, whom she either helps steer in a direction of which their fate will be changed—or helps make their exit an unregrettable one. She’s not only doing this for others, there’s also another reason as to why she took this job—to say a proper goodbye to a piece of her.

Watch the trailer

I had the opportunity to ask Mr. Bird some questions regarding the film. You can check out the interview below.

Q&A with Director James Bird

How was the idea conceived? 

The idea for We Are Boats was first conceived as a film about animals and the hardships they face day to day living in a world where they are viewed as food for humans. Each character was a specific animal; cow, pig, chicken, sheep, turkey, fish, etc… And as I started writing, I changed each animal into a human and gave them a name. The animal hardships soon became human problems and the setting changed from slaughterhouse and farm, to city, bars, and houses.

I wanted to show that animals and people are more alike than we realize.

How in the end, we all just want a good life and to be happy. We all want family. We all want to love and be loved.

Booboo Stewart in James Bird's film "We Are Boats"
Booboo Stewart starring in James Bird’s “We Are Boats” / Photo credit: Breaking Glass Pictures

Aside from the compelling plot, another major thing I noticed was the casting. This cast encompasses an abundance of diversity, as well as quality. You have Luke Hemsworth, Booboo Stewart, Angela Safaryan AND Uzo Aduba, who played one of my favorite characters on Orange is the New Black—just to name a few. To have this kind of combination for a cast, was it intended or things just serendipitously turned out this way?

I didn’t use a casting director for this film, so I was able to cast the entire film myself, which I loved because I had the opportunity to cast actors and actresses from all over the world. I think the more colors you add into your art, the better. Always. And it also shows what America really looks like.

We are a very beautiful colorful country that isn’t often represented in films. I wanted to show the audience that skin color doesn’t matter for any character.

In fact, not one character in the script stated a specific race. We have actors that are Australian, African-American, Asian, Native American, Canadian, French, British, Armenian, Argentinian, Nigerian, Swedish, and Russian. And our crew was even more diverse.

Uzo Aduba starring in James Bird's "We Are Boats" film
Uzo Aduba starring in James Bird’s “We Are Boats” / Photo credit: Breaking Glass Pictures

How important was it to you to showcase such diversity?

It was very important for me to showcase the diversity because this is what America really looks like. I think if every film showed on screen what we really see in our day to day lives, the world would be more open minded to people who look and speak differently than them. 

Compare to your other films (Eat Spirit Eat, Honeyglue and The Circuit), in what ways was this project different?

We Are Boats was different to my other films because it was made on a larger scale. The budget was higher and the cast was larger. And with more to work with, the more responsibilities there are. But every film I have made deals with magical realism, so we weren’t completely grounded into a drama… We still got to run away with our imaginations. This film also had a score with a orchestra, which Anya Remizova was really excited about. She’s composed all our films, but this time she got to write for an orchestra and watch very talented musicians play her music.

This movie was filmed on a vegan set. Could you elaborate a bit on what that means?

We Are Boats is the very first cruelty-free film ever made. That means no animals were harmed, eaten, or worn during the entire production. Even the hair products, make up, catering, and wardrobe were all vegan.

What made you decide to go with this choice?

The film is about compassion. It would be very hypocritical to make a film about kindness and compassion but at lunch time we all go and devour a bunch of innocent animals that never had an opportunity to live the life they were given. Animals deserve a shot at happiness just like we do.

Luke Hemsworth joins his "Westworld" colleague Angela Sarafyan in James Bird's "We Are Boats"
Luke Hemsworth joins his “Westworld” colleague Angela Sarafyan in James Bird’s “We Are Boats” / Photo credit: Breaking Glass Pictures

If any, what obstacles or advantages did this choice create for filming process?

Having a cruelty-free set was much easier than we thought. My dream is for this way of film making to catch on throughout the industry. In fact, James Cameron just announced that all the Avatar sequels will be made on 100% vegan sets, which makes me super happy.

How was it working with your wife, Adriana Mather, who plays Ryan?

I love working with Adriana Mather. She’s such a great actress and brings so much unwritten details to each character she plays. We have many stars in the film, and it’s cool that almost every review so far has mentioned how great Adriana was. She works really hard and takes each role to heart in a way that would make any director extremely pleased.

Gaias Weiss starring in James Bird's "We Are Boats"
Gaias Weiss starring in James Bird’s “We Are Boats” / Photo credit: Breaking Glass Pictures

What was the most enjoyable moment for you in the duration of making this film?

My most enjoyable moment making this film was, and probably always will be, meeting new people. The more friends you have, the happier your life will be. And on this film, I have made many new friends (cast and crew). And each person, no matter which position they hold in the film, was free to share their ideas on scenes. I love hearing ideas from everyone. It makes the film better when you have people excited and eager to add their input.

I understand the message for this movie is that all it takes is just one swift moment of interaction with a person for your entire life to be changed completely. Is there any person like that for you in your life?

My life has been changed, saved, and brightened by many strangers. The first time was when I was a three or four years old. Late at night, when our car broke down in the center of the highway, my mom thought there wasn’t enough time to save us because there were huge trucks driving so fast, and we were on a curve where there wouldn’t be enough time for them to swerve and not hit us, so she turned around and just hugged me, my brother, and my baby sister. She said she loved us and squeezed us tightly. One truck flew by and we all closed our eyes, but it was able to narrowly miss our car.

But another truck was coming fast. And all of a sudden, we heard Spanish. My mom looked out the window and saw three Mexicans in a gardening truck pull up beside us. They hopped out and quickly pushed our car to the shoulder of the highway, risking their lives for us strangers. They no doubt saved my entire family’s life that night.

Movies have also changed my life for the better. Never having a dad, it was how I learned how to be a man. My goal is for my films to help and inspire kids that don’t necessarily have someone in their life to guide them. Every film I make will be made to give a sense of uplift and hope to the audience.

Conclusion

Graham Greene starring in James Bird's "We Are Boats"
Graham Greene starring in James Bird’s “We Are Boats” / Photo credit: Breaking Glass Pictures

Sometimes, all it takes is just a simple interaction with a stranger, and that moment could turn out to be the miraculous exchange you didn’t think you needed. With this film, James Bird wants to remind people to stay connected to the humans around them—to make our lives better, fuller, and more colorful.   

We Are Boats was a winner of Best Feature at AFI Cannes, Opening Night film at Orlando Film Festival.

Featured image credit: Breaking Glass Pictures

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