By Patrick Y. Lee
There’s nothing stopping Sanzhar Sultanov ’07 from achieving his directorial dreams. “If you know what you want, and you’re willing to do whatever it takes, there’s nothing stopping you,” he says, after directing his ﬁrst feature ﬁlm, Burning Daylight, at age 21.
Since then, he has had his feature theatrically-released, written two big-budget screenplays, and co-produced Upper Canada College’s 100 million dollar “Think Ahead” fundraiser, securing Academy Award winner Christopher Plummer for the narration. But it has deﬁnitely not been an easy task for Sultanov, only 24 now, to have his ﬁlms placed on Netﬂix and iTunes.
Initially, he began acting at age eight, spending time in England and then moving to Toronto in Grade ten to attend UCC. However, it was only when Dr. Churchward, an English teacher at the school, offered him an opportunity that his passion in storytelling emerged.
“Basically I was always into acting ﬁrst and thought that that was going to be my thing. And then in my last years at UCC, Dr. Churchward gave me an opportunity to assistant direct the senior play that year which was Macbeth. And from then on, I really fell in love with it,” recalls Sultanov, later involving himself heavily with the theater program and creative writing.
In 2007, Sultanov enrolled in the two-year directing program at the Lee Strasberg Institute in New York, after deciding that spending double that time at the NYU Tisch School of the Arts would not be effective. He was compelled to expand the nonextensive program at Strasberg, transforming it from merely a few small ﬁlm labs to a full-ﬂedged program with screenwriting, editing, camera, and lighting classes.
“At Strasberg, I learned more about directing than ﬁlmmaking. I learned how to work with actors, how to create the story, environment, characters, and ultimately, the camera was just an observer of that world,” says the avid director, after creating four short ﬁlms and assistant-directing two plays at the institution.
His ﬁrst professional ﬁlm came immediately after he graduated, when he casted former teacher and working actor, Paul Calderon (Pulp Fiction and Four Rooms), for his twenty minute short, Makes the Whole World Kin. With the help of a New York-based producer, Sultanov ﬂew down to Toronto with his actors and ﬁlmed the story of a father-son relationship.
The now-more experienced director admits, “I really didn’t know what I was doing. I enjoyed what happened on set and how the characters and the world played out while we were ﬁlming, but it wasn’t captured as well as I would have liked to have been, and that was the big learning experience from that ﬁlm, learning the ﬁlmmaking side.”
Shortly afterward, his ﬁrst white-collar ﬁlm, with a budget of 30 000 dollars, proved worthy of being placed on TV in Asia. But the young ﬁlmmaker already had plans to make another ﬁlm. This time, it would be much larger.
Itching for inspiration, Sultanov ﬂew back to New York in 2008 when the depression hit. The Wall Street crash would serve as an “eye opener” for his ﬁrst full-length ﬁlm.
“It was a very very dark city time in New York, in the US, at the time. And it was sort of sad to see that greed, corruption, and the love of money had really changed a lot of people’s lives, not in a good way. I wanted to show with a story that greed and corruption exists in all level of society and that it doesn’t matter where you are; there are still people out there that will screw you over for a buck.”
Blending his experiences in New York and three short stories by Jack London, he was able to complete an adapted screenplay that incorporated three distinct lifestyles during the 20s, each depicting the constant rivalry within the low, middle, and high classes, respectively. Sultanov worked closely with the Jack London Foundation in order to successfully push through a 250 000 dollar budget and an intense six month process from photography to print. After working with nearly 150 people on the ﬁlm, his vision pulled through and Burning Daylight ﬁnally premiered in San Francisco, the birth place of Jack London.
Sultanov’s debut ﬁlm, however, didn’t stop there. Public screenings in California, New York, and Toronto, as well as its selection in the Eurasian Film Festival, provided a strong foundation for its theatrical release in Kazakhstan, Russia, Ukraine, and Toronto.
“It gave me a lot of credibility in the industry just having a feature ﬁlm on my back. When I was in LA when I was 21, I was able to get meetings with most major studios just because they saw that a young guy made a feature ﬁlm and that was something they valued.”
Age was also a big-selling point for media outlets, especially as the lead actor, Robert Knepper (Prison Break, Hitman, and Transporter 3), was vastly dissimilar to the director in industry experience. Building from his collaboration with co-producer Loudon Owen ’76, Sultanov partnered with the 300 million dollar ‘Microsoft slayer’ in establishing a Toronto-based production company called “Know Rules Media”.
“And Loudon, he has been an incredible mentor. He has really taught me a lot about business, a lot about working, a lot about running your own company, and what it really takes to maintain the value of working really really hard,” says Sultanov, before departing to Kazakstan to direct sixteen stark television episodes that investigate our transformed past and values during the 70s.
Saultanov has also recently ﬁnished the screenplays for two bigbudget feature ﬁlms, the ﬁrst, i4i vs Microsoft, based on the true story of a 300 million-dollar lawsuit, and the other, Queens of the Maroons, a tale of the ﬁrst ever black slave rebellion set in 1700s Jamaica. He has set aside these projects for the near-future.
When not working on conventional ﬁlms, his company releases some digital content, which includes promo videos, commercials, and web-based interactive shows. Whatever the content is, however, Sultanov always manages to deliver promising material while remaining humble.
“It’s very easy to get a big-head when you’re directing or producing a movie because you think you’re like God’s gift. There were a lot of people working for me, who were much much older than me, much more experienced than me, and they were helping me every step of the way. Without my crew members, I wouldn’t have been able to have done the things I have done in the past.”