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Abu Dhabi, UAEFriday 14 December 2018

Catching up with Dubai-raised Hollywood ­director Elia Petridis

Dubai-raised director Elia Petridis discusses his latest film and working with the late, great actor Ernest Borgnine.
Director Elia Petridis, left, alongside his late star Ernest Borgnine. Joe Scarnici / FilmMagic
Director Elia Petridis, left, alongside his late star Ernest Borgnine. Joe Scarnici / FilmMagic

The Dubai-raised Hollywood ­director Elia Petridis returned to the city this week to promote a special screening of his most recent film, The Man Who Shook the Hand of Vicente Fernández.

The movie features the final performance by the legendary American actor Ernest Borgnine, the Oscar-winning star of classic movies such as The Dirty Dozen and The Wild Bunch, who also won over new generations of fans with roles in the 1980s TV favourite Airwolf and the cult classic movie Escape from New York.

Borgnine was 92 years old when he filmed Vicente Fernández, but his on-screen presence remains huge – and his final scenes take on an unexpected poignancy when armed with the knowledge that he died soon after filming was completed.

It’s not just in the wonderful casting that Petridis has excelled himself with this movie – ­behind the scenes, we find Ruy Folguera, an apprentice of Ennio Morricone, writing the score; J J Abrams’s and Steven Spielberg’s production designer Curt Beech, and the Little Miss Sunshine editor Terel Gibson. The cinemaphotographer Eric Beech, meanwhile, is best known for his work on Quentin Tarantino’s Kill Bill.

So how did a largely unknown Lebanese-Greek filmmaker who grew up in Dubai gather the cream of Hollywood around him?

“I was lucky in that I’d written a good script, to start with, and Ernie’s involvement helped persuade people to get on board,” he says. “We won a grant from Panavision [which let Petridis shoot the film on 35mm film] and had investors on board, so there was no question about how we were going to do it. We just had pieces that fell into place and when one fell in, another would follow.”

His choice of casting director helped, too.

“We used Ronnie Yeskel, who cast Reservoir Dogs and Pulp ­Fiction, to help us,” he says. “She went to Ernie and he accepted it, then we found out after that we actually had mutual friends – LA can be a small town sometimes. I think before he accepted he called them up and said: ‘Hey – is this guy all right?’ and they were like: ‘Yeah, he went to University of Southern ­California film school with my son.’

“So it was partly just being in the right place at the right time, but mostly Ronnie – she’s a ­legend.”

Borgnine plays Rex Page, a retired radio DJ who has spent his whole life convinced he’s a failure, dreaming of playing the lead in the classic Westerns he watches over and over again on VHS tapes. “Radio – where failed actors go to die,” he witheringly says.

Following a stroke, he’s forced to live in a care home, where a real-life opportunity to ride into town on a gleaming white wheelchair and save the townsfolk from the evil banditos presents itself.

Page becomes a celebrity to the abused Latino staff when they learn he has shaken the hand of “The Mexican Frank Sinatra”, ­Vicente Fernández.

He subsequently makes it his mission to save the put-upon staff and fearful residents at the care home from the evil clutches of the top-dog resident and patriarch of the owners’ family, Walker, played by the No Country for Old Men star Barry Corbin.

The Western pastiches come thick and fast, from the stylised, The Good, the Bad and the ­Ugly-esque cut-out animated opening credits, which feature wheelchairs and drips galloping across a silhouetted western landscape.

It’s clear from talking to Petridis and watching his film that he’s a big fan of classic Westerns, so was he a little overawed to be working with Borgnine, one of the all-time greats?

“He was a legend,” he says. ­“Before I met him, when I was driving to his house, I was so nervous, but he was so down to earth, gracious and selfless.

“He took on a patriarchal role on set very quickly and made me feel in charge. He’d hand me the baton all the time and set the precedent for the rest of the set and the cast.

“He made everyone stand tall and work hard because nobody wanted to let Ernie down. ”

Petridis is now back in Dubai on a dual mission, as he looks to split his working life between the city and Los Angeles.

He has invited regional distributors and broadcasters to tomorrow’s screening in the hope of getting one on board – the film has so far only had an American theatrical release, but is available to stream online globally via Vimeo on Demand – and is also meeting producers and industry professionals to offer his services as a director for hire in the ­region.

“I want to show what I’m capable of and hopefully I can merge with existing crew here to make film that’s greater than the sum of its parts,” he says.

“Something really globally and commercially successful that’s come out of ­Dubai.”

The Man Who Shook the Hand of Vicente Fernández screens at Reel Cinemas, The Beach, Dubai, Tuesday (January 6) at 8pm (red carpet opens at 7pm, followed by a press conference at 7.30pm). Invite only. For an invitation and further information, contact Ece Barlah ece.b@rawajinternational.com

artslife@thenational.ae