An island in the darkness

Moin Hussain on creating the world of Sky Peals

by Jennie Kermode

Faraz Ayub in Sky Peals
Faraz Ayub in Sky Peals Photo: Muslim International Film Festival

An extraordinary first feature which comes out of nowhere like a service station glowing beside a dark, lonely road, Moin Hussain’s Sky Peals tells the story of a lonely man struggling to to come to terms with his identity after the death of his estranged father. Adam (played by Faraz Ayub) has always known that there was something different about him, but only now begins a serious process of trying to figure out what it might be – a process which sees him drifting still further away from the people who are trying to connect with him. The film screened as part of the 2024 Muslim International Film Festival in London, and shortly before it did so, I spoke with Moin, beginning by asking him about the ambiguity central to the story.

“Ambiguity is an important thing for me in this film,” he says. “As a filmmaker, I don't really want to fall down one side and say ‘This is a film about this,’ or ‘The character is diagnosed with this disorder or neurodivergent way being.’ For me, it's important that Adam as a character has no diagnosis. He doesn't really know what he's going through. I want the audience to go into the film and watch it through his eyes.

“I've had lots of people give me their reading on what he's going through – different things – and I have my own take on it, as I had when I was writing it, but it's really interesting to see and hear a range of different people's experiences and see different things in Adam and the film.”

It was a lengthy casting process that eventually led him to Faraz Ayub.

“I wasn't familiar with his work before the film. When you're casting a film like this, you’re given a very short list of very obvious names, and that wasn't really something that I was interested in doing. I wanted to make sure that he's a very specific character and a very specific person. 98% of actors, I wouldn't believe in this role.

“While he isn't saying and doing a lot, it’s a very specific kind of performance. So when Faraz sent a tape in, the more I saw him, the more I became convinced that he was really the only person that could play this part. We had the luxury of having a fair bit of time before we shot, just being in conversation and talking through the character, talking through the script and building it up with him. It was a great experience working together.”

He has a fantastic supporting cast as well, I note.

“Yeah, we were really lucky with that. We built everything around Faraz. After finding our location, the very first thing we did was to cast Adam. So it was a combination of actors whose work I was familiar with, like Claire Rushbrook and Steve Oram, who play Adam's mum and his boss, as well as – well, a lot of the other cast are very experienced, but people who I hadn’t come across before, but became aware of during the casting process.

“Natalie Gavin, who plays Tara, I saw her work and I was convinced. I thought she felt really familiar and I realised I'd seen her in Clio Barnard's [film id=18506]The Arbor. It's a very interesting, unique film, and she has a really central role in it. I realised in retrospect that I was a big fan of hers. I had Natalie and Faraz read together and they had great chemistry. So, yeah, it was a really great casting process and Heather Basten was a casting director who worked super hard with us. I was really happy with how that turned out.”

Going back to what he said about the location, I remark that I find that environment fascinating because it's a liminal space and people pass through it but hardly anybody really spends time there. Has he always been intrigued by service stations like that?

“Exactly,” he says. “I think what you said just then is it's what fascinated me a lot about a service station space, a kind of liminal in between space that people pass through but that nobody ever really stays in. And I guess Adam, as a character, is somebody who feels stuck in between things and doesn't feel he has a natural home anywhere, really. So it felt like if somebody was going to be living and working in this place, it would be him.

“For years and years, I had this idea of setting a film in a service station, knowing in my bones that it needed to be a sci-fi because I've always felt that a service station feels like a spaceship, that you're in this bright, artificial thing floating in the middle of darkness. The isolation of it, the strangeness of it, that was something that I had knocking about my head for a long time, but it was only really when I discovered this character that I put two and two together and saw ‘Oh, there's a film here.’

“In terms of finding a location, that was a very lengthy process. We looked at pretty much every service station in the UK. We did our due diligence in trying to find one that might work for us. I think we realised, though, that it's just an unworkable location, because you can't shut it. You can't really put a film crew in the car parks, they need the car park for cars to stop in. So we realised very quickly that we'd need to almost create our own.

“It ended up being a mixture of interiors from a shopping center in Wakefield called The Ridings, and exteriors of a disused leisure centre in Bradford. Through the work of the locations team and Elena [Muntoni], who's our production designer, and Nick [Cooke, the cinematographer], we managed to fuse the two together. It worked out really nicely, actually, because in the end, instead of being stuck with the parameters that the location gave us, we were able to create a service station that was specific to my own desires.”

Something else I wondered about with Adam is if part of his feeling about not fitting in relates to having been raised amongst white people in a white majority country and always being aware of looking different.

“Yeah. I mean, he is a mixed race character. I think there's always been a lack of stories about mixed race people – in the past anyway. I think it’s changing now. But I think, especially in the culture these days, where everything is about identity and, you know, are you this or are you that? And what box do you kind of tick or fall into? It feels very strange in a world where we are becoming increasingly more diverse and more mixed. He's a person who feels that he doesn't fit neatly into a box, you know?

“He's living in a white area, in quite a white world. At the same time, in the scene where he goes to his father's funeral, it's like the first time he's ever stepped inside a mosque. He turns up in the wrong clothes and he doesn't know what he's doing there either. I was interested in him as a character who is kind of out of place wherever he goes, which kind of leads on to this idea of him becoming convinced that he must be an alien.”

We talk about the film’s careful, slow pacing, and the different cinematographic techniques that help viewers to connect with Adam’s experience.

“I think pace was a very important and big question as we made the film,” he says. “We felt it was important to allow space for him and allow the time to sink into his world. This lonely world that isn't really going anywhere. Obviously, that changes as the film develops. But especially to begin with, it was important to ground us in this slow, unmoving world.

“Compositionally, we were always talking about space and allowing space in the frame, and a sense of isolation in that. But also, I guess, leaning more into the genre side of things as the film develops. Leaning into sci-fi imagery and allowing ourselves a little bit more latitude to experiment and to play with colour and light and that sort of stuff, as his world opens up and he goes deeper into this identity that he's carved out for himself.”

But then there are also the moments when he loses control and things speed up very fast and there are montages of imagery. How were those sequences constructed?

“Those short sequences and moments were something that I was developing and playing with pretty early with Nick,” he says. “We went through loads of different approaches and experiments with that. Before we started shooting, we were watching a lot of kind of Stan Brakhage films. Dog Star Man is a series of shorts that turn into a feature, but he was working in the Sixties and Seventies and getting film and carving into it and doing all this crazy stuff, and painting on it and creating this montage that feels very otherworldly and very alien. And we were inspired by that. Well, we didn't quite cut the camera open, but we were building contraptions and doing all sorts, really. We ended up with a combination of techniques, bits of the film, cuts at the end of the 35mm that we shot, a whole range of stuff, really. And it took a while. It was the first thing we started shooting, in terms of early experiments, and it was probably the last part of the film that we locked, so it was a very long process.”

It seems like a film that he would have learned a lot from making.

“Yeah, definitely. Obviously, it's my first feature. You feel the same way every time you make a film short, but obviously you're in a whole different realm when you're making features. There was a whole host of things that we were doing for the first time, so it was definitely a learning experience.

“I’m developing a few projects at the moment. One is set in a textile mill in Yorkshire in the Seventies, and one is set in Burma during the 1940s. So they're different stories, but there's a connected thread through the ideas that I keep coming back to, which excites me.”

He’s really excited to have been invited to screen at the Muslim International Film Festival, he says. “We can be ghettoised in the British Asian filmmaking world. I think it's interesting that somebody's putting these films together in a positive light and starting a conversation in that way.”

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