[Fantastic Fest INTERVIEW] Co-writer/star Joe Azzopardi rides a tidal wave of tension in ‘THE BOAT’


Preston Barta // Features Editor

AUSTIN – Trapped-at-sea movies have been done before, and quite well. But none have quite tapped into the fear of the sea while also throwing in a curve ball of its own: a horror twist.

THE BOAT is a simple story that centers on a sailor (Joe Azzopardi, who also co-wrote the film with his father, director Winston Azzopardi) who goes out on the water for a morning fish and comes across a seemingly abandoned vessel in the fog. The unnamed sailor climbs aboard, checks the deck and searches the cabin below – nothing and no one. However, when he goes back up to the surface, he finds that his motorboat is gone! Someone or something has taken it and challenges his survival skills.

I had the unique opportunity to speak with Joe Azzopardi about the intense film, how smart its main character is and how well-calculated its story is.

Also, check out my review of the film via DentonRC.com.

What I love most about this film is how it doesn’t dismiss the audience’s intelligence.

Joe Azzopardi: “We were depending on audience’s intelligence. It depends on not just their eyes but their ears as well. What really helps tell the story of this film is the sound design. It’s all about those intricacies of what he hears on the boat, and what he hears leads him to believe that someone might be maliciously alive messing with him on this boat.

The natural feel of it is all on the water, and you want the audience to ebb and flow with the water. From a storytelling point of view, my dad and I had many fights about it. I wanted to consider the audience’s intelligence more, while my dad wanted to feed more to the audience. So lots of back and forth, but I feel we found a nice middle ground. If I would have had it my way, there probably would have been things lost to the audience. Thankfully, our editor was a good mediator and found that nice middle ground.”

The film doesn’t provide any sort of exposition either. We just follow him, without any dialogue, as he journeys out on the water and finds this boat. I loved that because the character is a blank canvas for us to project ourselves onto. Was it a discussion of whether or not to include any character background?

“In the scriptwriting phase, my argument, and it was probably the biggest argument between my dad and I, I felt he needed some character history. I initially wrote a scene where he has a girlfriend at the beginning and that he was just popping out for an early morning fish. My intention was to give him something to go back to. But then we listened to a podcast with Christopher Nolan about DUNKIRK. It’s quite similar [to DUNKIRK,] actually: You’re thrown into a situation, you don’t know anything about the character and you’re following him.

My argument was, ‘Yes, but why are the audience going to support these characters?’ The reason why the audience supports these characters is because you don’t want to be in their shoes. The fact that you don’t want to be him is why you support him.

Also watching the intelligence of the character – the things he comes up with to stop the boat, all those small things to make the audience stop and say, ‘Oh, I wouldn’t have even thought of that’ – makes him more compelling. It was a big question at the beginning [deciding how we were going to portray the character,] but I feel as though we made the right decision in the end.”

Joe Azzopardi in ‘THE BOAT.’ Courtesy photo.

How did you film in the claustrophobic spaces? A good chunk of the film takes place in the cabin’s bathroom, yet you and your father make it intense all the way through. What were the challenges of that?

“We had a makeshift cabin set. We literally took the model of the cabin from the boat and built a whole set where we could take walls or floors out to fit cameras in there. This was then put on a crane, so we could film the storm scenes. We shot half out at sea and half in these tanks. The cabin was dunked into the water, right up to my neck at some points. It was freezing cold water, too.

The first take I did, I was in the water for 25 minutes. The director of photography was in a wetsuit, so he was fine. They were telling me to do all these things, and, at that point, my brain was so dead that I couldn’t hear them. They had to immediately take me out of the water to let body warm back up. Then, I had to keep going back in the water. It’s an indie, arthouse, very low budget film, and it’s my film. There’s nothing going to stop me from doing what I need to do. It was a big physical struggle.”

Well, at least you get real reactions.

“Yes. The cold is real, as is the fear. There’s a scene where the boat comes to run me over and I have to duck out at the last second. It’s scary to see a boat coming toward you with a big anchor on it. It’s good for film, though. That’s what you want from acting.

I had a conversation with Tom Cruise once and I asked him about doing his own stunts. He said, ‘It’s the most real you will see me.’ I brought that aboard this film. It really adds to the intensity and makes for really great moments, like the one with me and the dolphins.”

Because the film is so wrapped up in mystery, did it worry you about eventually letting the audience know what’s going on?

“That’s what I always worry about with horror movies: as soon as you see the ghost, the monster or whatever it is, everything is killed. You know what’s happening. So yeah. That was my main writing point for it: dragging it out until the very end. Don’t give anything away too early. It was a significant worry. I can’t wait until people see it, so we can discuss what they thought of it – just story wise, to see what their interpretation of the ending is.”

How about the research process? Because, it seems pretty well thought out.

“My dad and I are average sailors. I’ve been sailing since I could lift a rope up, and so has he. The main thing about this is knowing the sea. We want sailors to be able to recognize the accuracy.

JAWS is notorious for being a very complicated shoot, because so much of it is on the water. Shooting anything on the water is such a headache. You have like five boats on the water, including the one at the center of the film. You have the camera boat, safety boats and divers. People get seasick and you have to stop, because often with indie films you only have one person doing a certain job, like recording sound. There’s so much to take in. Water protection, too. Everything needs to be harnessed in, so we don’t damage equipment.”

Did you watch other lost-at-sea films to see what works and what doesn’t, and to see how you could cut your own path in the genre?

“The Robert Redford film ALL IS LOST comes to mind. It’s a similar story of one guy on a boat, trying to survive and there isn’t much talking. We didn’t use it as a template; we used it as a reference to give audiences something they haven’t seen before. We have the horror element to make it new experience.”

THE BOAT has an encore screening at Fantastic Fest on Wednesday, Sept. 26 at 5:20 p.m. Screening information can be found on fantasticfest.com.

Feature Photo: Co-writer and star Joe Azzopardi at the world premiere of ‘THE BOAT’ at Fantastic Fest. Courtesy of Fantastic Fest and Waytao Shing.

About author

Preston Barta

I have been working as a film journalist since 2010, dividing the first four years between radio broadcasting and entertainment writing in the Dallas-Fort Worth metroplex. In 2014, I entered Fresh Fiction (FreshFiction.tv) as the features editor. The following year, I stepped into the film critic position at the Denton Record-Chronicle, a daily North Texas print publication. My time is dedicated to writing theatrical film reviews, at-home entertainment columns, and conducting interviews with on-screen talent and filmmakers, as well as hosting a podcast devoted to genre filmmaking (called My Bloody Podcast). I've been married for seven happy years, and I have one son who is all about dinosaurs just like his dad.