An Interview with Matthew Michael Wasiewicz ("Assassin League")
Before we chat about your latest film, Assassin League, we'd like to learn a bit more about your background. How did a professional marketer and data scientist become a writer, director, and artist?
Hey Roy, thanks so much for having me!
Being a professional marketer helps with promotion and being better organized with data. I’ve learned a lot from the corporate world and enjoy marketing and data science. This environment also inspires stories and characters that have realism in a certain context. Assassin League is very different from other short films and there’s a focus on the branding of Assassin League throughout the story. We built a real prototype for the app the protagonist uses in the plot. I was also happy to discover a confluence of themes in high culture, money and power that emerges especially from the music. We’re all musicians at heart on this team and that played a big part in the timing and pace of the film.
Did you take any formal filmmaking training, or did you mainly learn from hands-on experience?
No film school. I did start taking online certification courses for directing but I really learned by just throwing myself into the fire. Nowadays, a lot of photographers and filmmakers have YouTube channels that are in-depth and teach you exactly how to film and edit. I also love watching film essays.
What was the first piece of filming gear/ equipment that you owned?
Technically, probably an iPhone which I used to film myself play drums for YouTube. I then purchased a Canon EOS M50 for vlogging and used this camera for preproduction on this film and location scouting. My favorite camera right now is the Insta360 ONE R which has three different lenses that attach like Lego pieces. You can shoot 360º videos, VR as well as have a great 4K action cam. We used this camera sparingly in Assassin League but there’s a cool shot of that camera moving through the driver’s side car window all the way out to the passenger side window.
You're known for your visceral music videos, which were featured on MTV and VH1. These music videos stand out for their practical effects, location, and clever cinematography. What influenced you to include these elements? How has your signature style developed over the years?
I learned that practical effects are more visceral than special effects. Moreover, having some pyrotechnics like flares, colored smoke grenades and the good-ol fog machine add that Kurosawa effect and show movement in the frames. When I first started the official filming of Assassin League, I added what I learned from planning music videos and in the opening montage you can see some flares, LED lights and, of course, the good-ol fog machine. However, later on in filming I learned that sometimes music video techniques are better left for music videos. Everything is balance.
Let's talk about your latest film project, Assassin League, which you wrote and directed. You've mentioned you wanted to create something that would involve your fellow friends, actors, and musicians. When you wrote the screenplay, did you already have an idea of who is going to play each character? In other words, did you write for specific actors?
Yeah, I did. I wanted to make something cool and fun for my friends so, you know, an action or thriller movie. I pitched the idea to Taj and Omari when we filmed the music video for Ultraviolet. I knew that Taj had experience acting and that he was perfect for a role with action. Taj possessed the subtleties of emotions that someone entering a new dangerous field of work would have…as an assassin. Alex was intrigued by the concept of the film and he, Brandon and Kamil were impeccable as paramilitary guards. Michael is a professional actor, and I admire his performance and how he brought his character to life from the script. John knocked it out of the park and anchored a believable character in this universe. We all really had fun with the roles.
As a reference to the main character, you mentioned a young James Bond or John Wick being trained by a veteran. Did these movies influence you when approaching the story and the character?
Yes, I’ve seen John Wick dozens of times. It’s one of those movies that I know a lot of people can watch on repeat. Casino Royale is another of my favorite James Bond films. That movie is also a big influence for the next Assassin League.
How did you manage rehearsals with the actors, and was there any improv on set?
Yes, we took rehearsals very seriously. John and I would go to the locations many times and act out the scenes. We set rehearsal days for the whole cast and crew to film preproduction scenes, fight choreography and camera movement. There was definitely some improv that originated from rehearsal. One fun example was the “are we just going to sit here” line in the Jeep before scene 2.
It's always tricky to create a futuristic/ alternate universe world. What were some of the steps you and producer Alex Scott took to make sure it feels cohesive and realistic?
Alex and I really wanted to avoid cliches with the whole Assassin concept. Instead of some ancient cabal of assassins, what if Assassin League was a technology company. A privatized version of the CIA or MI6 that operated similar to a company like Uber with micro-entrepreneurship or Apple where there’s a complex legal set of terms and conditions and it has to operate for the public.
Can you talk about your collaboration with cinematographer Omari Davis, how did you communicate your vision to him?
Omari is the man and it’s to his credit as Cinematographer and Director of Photography that we’ve won 2 awards for Best Cinematography so far in the festivals. Omari runs O Visualz and shoots incredible music videos and that’s how we first collaborated. He really understood the vision and we both at the time wanted to evolve from making music videos into film. His YouTube and Insta channels have really blown up and we’re excited for collaborating on another film.
What was the most challenging part of the production?
Making it rain on set. I mean actually getting water to fall from the sky. To my knowledge, it is the most expensive and one of the most difficult things to do in filmmaking. I planned on a scene where it would rain and purchased some water sprayers to try but I failed spectacularly and had to adjust the production. It’s a challenge to control the weather.