How to Bring Together 200 People and Make a Film

It’s not often you meet someone with a story like Maha’s –  fleeing the dangers of a war torn country with her family, starting with absolutely nothing in a foreign city and working tooth and nail on a path to success in a cut throat industry. Did I mention that she’s also been making a feature film over the last 4 years?

I met up with Maha Wilson at Fox Studios to talk about her first film Damaged, as well as her life as a director and actress with everything it entails. With sage advice on managing over 200 people to knowing how to get ten-fold returns out of relationships with Mentors – there’s a lot to be learnt from Maha. Check it out below:

Tell us a little bit about yourself:

My name is Maha, I’m 27 years old, a filmmaker and actress. I was born in Iraq but fled the country with my family when I was very young to escape the dangers of the Gulf War. We became illegal immigrants in many European nations in a bid to get to Greece, where we could make safe passage to Australia.

In 1994 when I was 6 years old we arrived in Australia. We basically had to start over in a new country as we had left everything behind in Iraq. My family didn’t have any money and relied a lot on charities like The Smith Family to give us things like bed sheets and clothes- they didn’t want us to feel disadvantaged at all and provided us with scholarships which allowed us to go to school and then Tafe or University. The wonderful team at of the Smith family appointed my siblings high profile  mentors in our chosen fields and even organised a workshop for me at NIDA during my younger years! That was around the time I fell in love with acting. Fast forward 20 years and I am an actress, director and producer sitting in the editing suite at the lavish Spectrum Films in Fox studios!


How did the Damaged project start 4 years ago? What’s your vision for it?

I had a lot of acting friends who were complaining about the lack of work in the Australian film industry and me being the go getter that I am decided I wanted to create work for everyone!

In terms of the subject matter for Damaged, one of my family friends was shot on his doorstep in the Western Suburbs where I had grown up. I started worrying about young people in the area and the horrible paths they could travel down when they became involved with the wrong crowd. I thought: what is the best way to reach out to young people? I knew it wasn’t through books or newspapers, it was film.

While the story of Damaged has taken twists and turns in the past four years one thing remains the same – at its core it is a story about creating beauty from chaos, playing the cards you are dealt and using positivity to turn you life around. It’s about making choices to better your life. I want to show young people that one wrong choice can have a domino effect on the rest of their life: but ultimately you can turn this around!

Maha working with Producer Summer Nicks
Maha working with Producer and Co-Writer Summer Nicks

How were you able to bring together so many people together on the project – particularly such a young crew?

I got sick of hearing about how there wasn’t enough work in the film industry – so I found out what my friends were good at and gave them jobs! I then posted an ad on Star Now and received over 500 applicants who wanted to be involved. Over 200 people have worked on Damaged so far: while people have come and gone I think what has drawn them in has been the originality of the script and a magical word called PASSION.

Maha with some of the cast of Damaged
Maha with some of the cast of Damaged

The project has spanned over almost 4 years, were there any lulls?

There’s always quiet periods in filmmaking. But I won’t lie, a portion of this has been down to lack of funds, for a first time filmmaker nobody was giving us any money – but I think a trust is gradually forming.

We are well under way now! You need to just trust the creative process and plan as much as possible during these times so that when you’re on you’re on.

The really positive aspect of this extended filmmaking period was being able to track our main actor, Nicholas Burton, from puberty as a 13 year old, to adulthood at 17. The film is largely flashback based, so the audience gets to see Nick grow and develop as a character and an actor.

What did you learn in these tough periods?

That it sure ‘aint easy! People who you least expect will let you down but my gosh there are some gems out there!

Always treat people with respect, whether it’s the assistant or the CEO of Universal, no one remains an assistant forever and their father could be George Clooney!

Just when you think you’ve had enough set-backs, you’ll fall again. Hang in there because most of the people will find it too difficult and eventually drop off. Which means really, at the end of the day there’s not that much competition. Be the 5% not the 95%.

You need to stop making things about you. Next time you meet someone see what you can do for them and you will be rewarded ten-fold.

It’s okay to have little OCD – if you know you can’t walk on a film set before you have your peppermint tea with honey and a quick meditation sesh – do it!! You are not being precious and who gives a s**t if people call you a diva. If it works for you, use it. And yes I’m speaking from personal experience.

Be good to your mentors, they will save you. If you don’t have one then stop reading and go get one right now!

A fight being acted out on the prison set
A fight being acted out on the prison set

In parallel to Damaged you’ve been developing your career in the film industry – how do you think your approach differs from other young people in the film industry? 

I’m willing to work extremely hard and really go the extra mile for people, I began my career in this industry through numerous internship positions and have relied a lot on word of mouth! Basically I have worked for free more often than been paid. My entire career in the film industry is based on building solid relationships and contacts rather than my fortune. I have a three year rule, you cannot ask for excessive help from individuals in high places for three years, that way they know you are invested in them rather than using them for anything. More often than not you will find they will ask you for help first and you can build this fantastic reciprocal relationship.

Don’t get me wrong, there’s nothing wrong with asking people for help – I have succeeded many times, but meeting a director for the first time at an awards night and sending them your showreel without them asking for it is just desperate and people can smell it from a mile away.

This tactic has gotten me pretty far – I have moved from an assistant position to producer faster than is the norm in this industry.

You went to Cannes last year? How was that for an experience? 

I went to Cannes with a production company I was working for at the time called Xeitgeist Entertainment Group – my ticket was booked two days before I flew out. We were absolutely spoilt and I am so grateful for the experience. You get to watch amazing films and network with people from all walks of life from all around the world. I took 14 pairs of heels and 12 dresses because I was a little bit naive and thought I would be at a party every night – but when you have a meeting with an investor on his fabulous yacht the next morning a hangover wasn’t ideal! One of my mentors gave me two words of wisdom before I flew out, “pace yourself”- I couldn’t agree more!

A shot of Cannes from Maha's Instagram
A shot of Cannes from Maha’s Instagram

Was there anything surprising about it/different to how you thought it would be?

Cannes was very interesting and very glamorous, but you need to have your filter on! There are just too many people who talk shit. They will claim to be millionaires and invest in all sorts of things – a lot of them are bullshitters.

It was way too glamorous for me. I’ve come from nothing, so a 1400 euro bottle of wine paid for by a company doesn’t impress me as much as it would impress someone else.

You’re currently crowdfunding for the final stages of Damaged – why did you choose to crowdfund? What will the money help you achieve?

I first chose to crowd fund because being a first time filmmaker, you’re not going to get much funding from investors! You need to prove yourself and that’s what I’m all about.

But ultimately, I think we chose to crowd fund mainly because at the project’s core, Damaged is a film built on the generosity of other people. Starting out 4 years ago and to this day, the film has been very low budget and the actors, crew and extras signed on knowing this. A lot of our facilities, locations and equipment have also been donated or provided at a discounted rate. People have agreed to give these things because they believe in the spirit of this film and we have achieved so much in terms of the look of the film with the materials we have at hand. With the Pozible campaign we wanted to continue this thread or theme of human generosity. Plus, it will be so lovely when we can sit down and watch Damaged at the end of this process and think, wow, so many people have touched this film in some way.

The Pozible campaign money is really vital for us for a whole list of post-production expenses including colour grading, editing, ADR and sound design. Without it we cannot perfect the material we have filmed!

Actors walking to the set of Damaged at Fox Studios
Actors walking to the set of Damaged at Fox Studios

Damaged will be premiering in early 2015 – how do you think you’ll feel when the lights dim and your film starts to play?

Wow, you just gave me goosebumps! I don’t think I’ve yet envisioned the premiere night! I mean that in a good way, because for me it’s never been about that, and if there’s one thing people should know, and I know it’s cliche, but it’s not about the end goal, it’s about the journey. I have finally learnt that.

But going back to your question, all I ask for is to feel present (and maybe a little bit tipsy!…I don’t have a problem,  it’s just to calm the nerves of course!)

What’s next for you after Damaged?

In my future I’d like to reach a point where I can empower young people in some way – that has always been my life’s ambition. Career-wise, my options are always open. At the moment I have about 5 feature films in development which is keeping me busy.

I used to be a planner but my plan is to not have a plan anymore. Yes of course have set goals but don’t hold onto them so tight you’ll strangle them! You have to be prepared for plans to fall apart, when they do fall apart it will almost always be for the better.

Maha overlooking the cast and crew.
Maha overlooking the cast and crew.

If you could assemble anyone in the world for a new film – firstly what role would you take in the film (director, producer, actor) and who would you want to be a part of it?

I’ll let you in on a little secret Jacob. I have this fantasy of playing Robert DeNiro and Aishwarya Rai’s daughter in a “Fast and Furious” meets “Taken” crime thriller with a Bollywood twist. When they find me after a kidnapping, we can all break out in a Bollywood dance… Okay maybe not that last part! I would leave the directing to Pierre Morel and Baz Luhrman – they can collaborate! I will definitely play producer because I’m bossy and I always have a say!

Contribute to Damaged | Like Damaged on Facebook | Maha’s Instagram


P.S. When going on set to get photos photos for the article I got my big break as a professional actor and will be an extra in Damaged. Expect to see me feature on IMDB’s top 100 actors of 2015 ;)

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Photos by Cameron Horne

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Jacob Horne

Entrepreneur. Minimalist. Winging it most of the time.