From Detroit to Park City – A Filmmaker Heads to Sundance for the Second Time
February 6, 2023
When Qasim Basir reflects upon the time a few years when he watched some of his old movies, his faces brightens up. He recalls the innocence of being in his twenties and roaming around Detroit shooting movies.
Basir recently returned to Detroit from the Sundance Film Festival where his second film, To Live and Die and Live, premiered. The film follows Muhammad, a man struggling with depression and addiction, as he returns home to bury his stepfather.
As Basir set out to write this feature, he found the theme of dealing with grief as a catalyst for motivation.
“It’s something that so many are dealing with,” Basir explains as he set forth creating a narrative that he believed would resonate with people right now. “In a day when every person I know has lost 2-10 people in the last few years, I thought this might be a good time to talk about grief and what to do with it. A lot of people don’t know what to do with it — they’re abusing drugs and alcohol to push it down.”
Basir recalls how relatable To Live and Die and Live was at the Sundance Film Festival.
“For days, people were coming up and embracing us saying, ‘My mom is going through this,’ or ‘I’m going through this’. This guy came up to me at the last screening I was at and said he knew 10 people going through what Muhammad was going through and they’re all dead.”
It’s proof that the power of a well-told story can touch people’s hearts and let them know that they aren’t alone in their grief and pain.
Basir Chooses Filmmaking
Basir was never going to be a filmmaker, although he did take a class in high school and instantly fell in love with the craft.
“The idea of making movies was so far away – who does that?” Basir had thought, so he did it as a hobby over time. He went to school to become a lawyer majoring in criminal justice and pre-law. He played football well enough that he could try out for the Detroit Lions, Indianapolis Colts and Pittsburgh Steelers (spoiler alert: he didn’t make it).
In the summer before his senior year, he was involved in a major car accident in which he flew through a window of a truck and landed in a swamp. He almost died.
“To face mortality young was a gift,” Basir shares. “It said to me, if you don’t survive this, this is it. This is all you’ve done and had to say to people and the world. I wasn’t okay with that.”
He promised that if he made it through, he was going to do something he really loved. Being so close to graduating college, he completed his studies but shifted into the world of filmmaking.
“At the time it was a tragedy but in retrospect it was probably the best thing to ever happen,” Basir says.
Basir started shooting movies around Detroit with friends and sold DVDs wherever he could. He sold DVDs out of his backpack at the African World Festival and went into liquor stores and gas stations to see if they would sell them. He eventually rented a theater and filled it up.
“I haven’t stopped since.”
Basir was living in Los Angeles in 2020 with his wife and child when the pandemic hit. In fact, the city went into lockdown on his child’s first birthday. At the time, Basir had two projects set up with studios but they fell through like countless other projects at the time. Amid the uncertainty, he and his wife decided to move back to Detroit to be closer to family.
One day, his mom mentioned the movies he made long before he was working with the studios and insisted he rewatch them. He did and saw the films as a great reminder of the time he had the audacity to walk around Detroit shooting movies.
“It gave me the boost I needed,” he says. “That was the genesis for making To Live and Die and Live.”
A Sundance Filmmaker’s Writing Process
“I absolutely outline,” Basir states. “I didn’t before but as soon as I did I understood why. It’s really important for me now to outline.”
Basir’s realization of the importance of outlining came when he was working with HBO. He saw how studios required detailed outlines even with pitching. It has since become a natural part of his writing.
For character, his films ideas always start with a love story at the core so he starts the character creation process with the two lovebirds. When he understands who they’re going to be, he begins to build other characters around them. These supporting characters often come along as he’s writing the outline and each one includes a journey of how that person got to the point of the story.
He finds this exercise helpful when casting or talking to actors who come with lots of questions.
When it comes to writing the script, Basir says, “I’m not the guy who can write at Starbucks. I have to be completely alone. Depending on the genre, I have to create a playlist that supports me getting into that mode.”
Lessons from the To Live and Die and Live
Like many writers, Basir had found that he had written too much dialogue and could rely on his actors to get the emotions across with looks and movement. He admits that nearly one-third of the dialogue in To Live and Die and Live was probably cut out.
“The actors were so on, there was so much in the looks and the moments, that I was taking the dialogue out — we didn’t need it,” he says.
After shooting the film, Basir found whole scenes that he could cut from his original 2.5 hour first pass. Even the best filmmakers will find whole sections of shot footage and edited scenes that aren’t necessary to telling the story.
Basir’s lesson that he will take away from making this film is that he has to do less.
“I did too much on this,” he admits. “I was producing, writing, DP, operating the camera at times, and all while I was directing. It was way too much. I knew it going in. I won’t ever have that many roles again.”
Amid all the hard work though comes the satisfaction of having his second film at the Sundance Film Festival and knowing that his story has, and will continue to, touch the lives of countless viewers.
Written by: Steven HartmanSteven Hartman is an award-winning, optioned screenwriter. He was a Top 5 Finalist in Big Break’s Historical Category in 2019 and won Best Action/Adventure in Script Summit’s Screenplay Competition in 2021. He holds a Bachelor of Arts degree from Columbia College and had internships at Jerry Bruckheimer Films and Village Roadshow Pictures. Steve is a full-time writer and creative video producer by day and a screenwriter and novelist by night.