When most people head for the Hollywood hills, they never look back. But just the opposite is true for Malta’s very own Hollywood star Jon Cassar. Despite a successful 35-year career in film and television, his eyes are set on the shores of Malta – and he has some exciting plans to share.
The multi-award winning film and television director/producer, who gave the world the international smash hit series 24, returned to “the rock” this week with dreams of immortalizing Malta’s intricate history on the silver screen. But only after he finishes doing the same thing in Florence with the new season of Medici.
Your family moved from Birkirkara to Toronto, Canada when you were five years old, is that right?
That’s right. Actually a group of us, five families – all related – got on a plane and emigrated to Canada together, where of course we didn’t know anybody, and had to start new lives. But by the end of the first year everybody had their own business.
That’s the Maltese work-ethic right there – something that which I still hold to this day. So I grew up in Canada, but I didn’t necessarily grow up Canadian. I still have Maltese parents. Y’know, you’re still eating timpana, and pudina, and pastizzi! You’re still growing up in a Maltese household. I also had a tonne of relatives living beside me, and across the street from me, so when we got together it was like we were still all living in Malta. So I still really feel that I grew up Maltese. And I’m very proud to be Maltese. I’ve got a Maltese passport. And my dream is to come and shoot a movie in Malta. That’s my biggest dream.
Do you have any memories from your childhood here?
A few. But it’s hard because I was so young. I do have very fond memories from when I came back here when I was 10 years old, and again when I was 17. And I’ve been coming back about every seven years since.
My father had about 12 siblings on his side, my mother had 9 on her side – so I’ve got a MASSIVE family. Most of my early memories were of being surrounded by family, huge numbers of people!
I had tonnes of cousins my age, always hanging out together and swimming down at Għadira bay, or Buġibba. There’s a club down in Buġibba – The Bogner Beach club – that I still go to till this day. In fact, I was there just yesterday! My family has been going there for the past 67 years – we all feel like we grew up there.
So what was Malta like when you returned as a 17 year old?
It’s a whole different thing when you’re here as a teenager! It’s much more fun, in a different kind of way. But Paceville wasn’t around back then. By the time Paceville came into existence, I had been long married with children… so I never really got to enjoy that!
When you were 17, did you already know that you wanted a future in the film industry?
I was just on the brink of it I think… In high school I thought I would be an architect. That was sort of my goal career. I was always a huge movie fan as a kid, but I didn’t really start to think that way when I was 17. I didn’t really think it was possible to do it, quite honestly.
I took a little bit of time off after high school – I was living in Ottawa at the time, and I realized, ‘Hey, there are film schools here…’. So I went for it. There were some problems though because I didn’t have the marks, and I was from a different province – and they only really took people from one province. So I tried for 3 years – and again perseverance is a huge part of this business – and they finally let me in.
And of course, the year they let me in was the year they cancelled the course! It ran out of money. But out of the goodness of their hearts they said ‘Hey there’s this television course too, radio and television…’ and I said, well I definitely don’t want to be in radio, but television, yeah I guess that’s close, so I went into their two year television course, and then eventually I worked my way back to film through the industry.
It’s funny how things work out, eh?
It’s really funny how things work out. Everything for a reason I always say. Every negative, every rejection – really sets you up for the next thing. You have to be optimistic in this business.
You’re best known for your work on 24, a 15-year international action/crime/drama success. But throughout your career, you’ve managed to touch on virtually every single genre there is. Children’s programmes and thrillers, sci-fi and historical dramas, kung fu and westerns – you seem to have covered it all! What’s next?
I actually just did Seth MacFarlane’s new comedy show The Orville, which is a Star Trek spoof that’s like nothing you’ve ever seen. It’s so brilliantly done!
And what Seth MacFarlane wanted to do on The Orville, was he wanted to make it a comedy – but he didn’t want to use comedy directors. He specifically wanted it to look like a one-hour drama, have the tension and action of a one-hour drama, yet every now-and-again he’ll drop in this hilarious Seth funny-line. And so it’s this weird combination that I think people are gonna really dig! As Seth MacFarlane said, “It’s Star Trek with a shot of comedy-Whiskey every once and a while!”
Which genre has been the most satisfying to work in?
What’s really satisfying to me is a good script, and a good story, and good characters. We’re storytellers.
24 was perfect for me, because it had good action but it also had incredible drama and suspense. I couldn’t have been luckier than to be on a show like that. If you really isolate the action of 24, it’s a very small percentage of the show, an incredibly small percentage! Everyone remembers it as being like full-on action all the time, but what it was, was full tension and suspense all the time.
A huge congratulations is in order regarding Medici. We’re all very excited to see what happens next. Does the new series have a subtitle yet?
I believe “Medici: Lorenzo the Magnificent” will be our subtitle for this series. We’ve jumped ahead almost 50 years, so all of the characters from the first season are either dead – or if they’ve made it, they’re much older now. Lorenzo was really the Medici that everybody remembers. In Italy, that’s the hero. And there’s an amazing story with him and something called the “Pazzi Conspiracy” where they tried to murder him inside the church that his grandfather built! It was unbelievable. I mean you couldn’t write this stuff.
And we have Sean Bean on board, so we’re very excited about that. I worked a little bit with Sean on his show Legends. I re-shot some of the pilot for that, so I’ve a bit of a working relationship with him. He’s and unbelievable professional actor. I can’t wait to be working with him again.
You seem to be very loyal to your cast and crew. You guys all tend to work together on various projects quite often. You’ll be working with Stargate Studios again here in Malta for Medici: Lorenzo the Magnificent, is that right?
Yeah! Stargate Studios is originally a Vancouver company, so I’ve been working with those guys for the past, I don’t know, maybe 20 years. So it’s very exciting that now they’ve incorporated this unbelievably talented Maltese group. This is one innovative, unbelievably professional Maltese company that is making waves around the world right now. The quality of their work is as good as anything. If you’ve seen Medici: Masters of Florence – that’s their work. It’s incredible. They’re just these young, innovative guys who did it themselves, which I’m just blown away by.
I remember 10 years ago, I did this little talk about getting into the film business – and they were there! Just these two eager kids. And here I come back 10 years later and they’ve got this world quality visual effects company that they built from scratch. It’s really incredible to see what they’ve done.
Have any of your younger relatives here in Malta shown interest in the film industry?
Oh yes. There are a few guys that are very talented who I really want to help. There’s no doubt. One of my relatives in particular is a very gifted photographer. Unbelievable talent – his name is Dylan Odom.
What advice would have for anyone who wants to become Malta’s next Jon Cassar?
Both of my boys are in the creative arts. One’s a photographer, and was a roadie for Kiefer Sutherland’s band actually during their European tour he just did. And the other is a concept artist for movies. He worked on Prometheus, and he worked on the Scooby-Doo movie. But y’know, I tell all of these people arts is one of the hardest things to get into. Not that becoming a doctor is easy – but at least by being a doctor, you do the studying and at the end you come out with the title of “Doctor”. It’s not quite like with films. You can go to film school, but that doesn’t necessarily make you a director. You have to put time in.
So I tell my boys, my younger cousins, everyone – this: You have to do it, and you have to do it everyday. If you want to be an actor, you’ve got to be in production, you’ve got to be doing theatre – even it’s not paying anything. The more you can do it, the better.
For those interested in directing – if you can get small jobs, like shooting a wedding for example. That’s still better than being a waiter. Because when you’re a waiter you’re not going to learn anything about the film business. When you’re shooting a wedding, you’re going to learn. Because you’re shooting, you’re editing, you’re dealing with a client, you’re trying to make it visually beautiful. You’re doing all the same things I do on television shows – just on a smaller scale.
Since you’ve been getting a taste of the Island every 7 years or so, what changes have you noticed in Malta over the years in regards to Arts and Culture? Have you noticed much growth?
Oh absolutely! First of all, just infrastructure-wise it’s just unbelievably different. It’s really become a beautiful island, and really fixed up a lot of stuff. And even in the arts – these guys who started up their company [Stargate Studios], there are some very talented young actors, which is fantastic, obviously you’ve been servicing some huge movies lately – especially in the past five years. It’s all been very high-quality work. All of those things make Malta a very viable film-community. You’re missing a studio here though, that’s the one thing we need. And I keep pushing-pushing-pushing for it every time I’m here. I’m like a broken record. It’s like, “Oh here’s Cassar asking for a studio again…” But I really think that’s the final step to make production here a complete and regular thing.
I can see it all getting better, and better, and better. Malta’s on the map, there’s no doubt about it!
You mentioned earlier that you’d like to shoot a film here in Malta – but have you ever considered shooting a film that was set in Malta?
Oh that is precisely my life’s dream! And I’ve got two films. One is about World War II, a love story based on a book called The Jukebox Queen of Malta by Nicholas Rinaldi that I’ve been trying to make for a long time.
And the other is the story of the Knights of Malta and The Great Siege. I have a TV series version of it, á la “Game of Thrones”, and then I have another film version of it based on many books written about The Great Siege – like James Jackson’s Blood Rock.
So one of those projects I really want to finally get going. If I have one dream project – that’s it. I’ve never asked any of my actor-colleagues for anything because I’m saving it all for this! This is the one where I get down on my hands and knees and go, “Please, for me. You’ve got to do this movie. It’s Malta – come enjoy, and be part of this!”
You’ll have an all-star cast so!
If I gathered an all-star cast from my whole career it would be fantastic! Part of it is this, though: I’m a Maltese director – and there aren’t too many of us – who wants to do a Maltese story, and I want to shoot it in Malta! That’s just, ah man, it’s the dream.
But hey, I’m getting closer. I got to Rome!