Drafthouse film’s latest, Amira and Sam, tells the unconventional love story of Sam (Martin Starr), a recently discharged soldier, and Amira, an undocumented refugee of sorts from Iraq. The earnest film is driven by strong performances from its small, talented cast. Everyone feels like they found a connection with their characters, and those characters are what drive the movie. It’s not so much the plot, it’s just that things naturally happen the way these characters probably would have interpreted the situation in their life. It was with this kind of connectivity in mind I sat down with the cast and director Sean Mullin at ForeverFest, the female driven film festival in Austin, Texas.
The characters are thrown into quite a bit of chaos as Sam is tasked with keeping an eye on his friend’s niece, Amira. At the same time, Sam’s cousin Charlie (Paul Wesley) is doing everything he can to help Sam get a leg up on Wall Street. If it’s a beneficial situation for Charlie too, all the better. Amira’s entry into their lives creates a marble break that makes the everyone in Sam’s orbit have to look at their lives and reexamine their lives.
Nerdist: How much of the chaotic energy in this film was in the script and how much of that came from finding the characters together? Across the board, how did this kind of wonderful, accidental, beautiful film happen?
Sean Mullin: Man, geez. I don’t know. It came together – I mean, was it all in the script? No. I mean, I feel like you can only get a script – a script is a blueprint. You can only get a script to 80, maybe 85% – in my head, that’s my own little metric I use. Once you get over 70 you can start showing your friends. Then you get over 75, then you get over 80, you can show it to a casting director. At 85% you can show it to actors, and that’s really – you top out, you know, because there’s that intangible, through improv or through locations or through whatever that is going to be added. I have to admit I feel like the movie turned out much better than the script. I feel like it’s a testament to the talent I was able to attract, thankfully.
Improvisation is a big part, whenever needed. I also work-shopped all of the characters with everybody. I allowed them to – anything that didn’t feel authentic, it doesn’t matter how big – if anything doesn’t feel right to you guys, we aren’t going to do it. We just won’t do it. We’ll just make sure it feels right.
N: One of the big surprises of the movie, right off the bat, was with your performance, Martin. You managed to strip that character of – your characters and what you’ve been traditionally known for is a lot of that cynicism and smart-aleckiness, but really the sarcasm always oozes through in your characters, and it’s refreshing to see you be able to eliminate that completely, even as early as the scene where you are dealing with an elevator of assholes. Any other performance you’ve done in the past, you could totally see how those characters would have reacted to that. In this scene, it was much more calm, it kind of set the tone to see something very different from you. How did you first get involved in this? How did that conversation start, of what it’s not going to be or what it would be? Did it come from you, did it come from the director’s side?
Martin Starr: Thank you. No, I don’t know. This was probably more me than anything that I’ve done so far, because of how much I’ve put into it. From the beginning, Sean and I were very collaborative and open and talked probably way too much about the movie and the script and figuring out the character, and then took a couple of week hiatus, and then we just started shooting. But it was a lot of – it was in the script innately, it was in that character innately, all of the details that you’re laying out, and I’m glad they come across. Because that sense of humor wouldn’t fit in this character.
Nerdist: There’s something about the movie, and Dina, especially with your character being involved – I’m going to make the weirdest comparison, but it will make sense in a second – but Modern Family was that thing that got put on television that everybody said, “No, this is the new modern family, this is the new America,” when it feels like that’s a facsimile of what people want to believe the modern, new America is, when the reality is the new America is dealing with the realities of being in a war that’s gone on almost a decade – over a decade, sorry.
It’s just one of those situations where this is a film that seems to be very much people finding their ways in something closer to reality than what we daydream reality to be, and your character, being an undocumented immigrant, that’s a reality that more and more people are facing as Americans – people who think of themselves as Americans. How did that resonate with you in your portrayal of the character, and how did you come about finding that?
Dina Shihabi: Umm – well, I happen to be an American citizen, but I was born in Saudi Arabia and raised in the Middle East. My family is from the Middle East. A couple of years ago I spent a lot of time in Bay Ridge, actually, where we shot some of the film, with a lot of the Palestinian people there and Assyrian people there. There are a lot of immigrants there that are trying to escape the world that they’ve had to leave behind, not out of choice, but out of necessity, because of what’s happening in the Middle East politically.
And so I feel very connected to that. What’s happening in the Middle East is my story at the moment, you know? My family is there, it’s what really is affecting me on a very large, worldly basis on a regular day. I connect to Amira. I haven’t been through something as harsh as she’s been through, obviously, with her brother and having to really leave a place that’s falling apart in such a catastrophic way.
I have a lot of empathy for that. I also have a lot of excitement for the kind of character that she is, and the fact that she has the guts to be out in America, being her own person. She’s kind of a loner. We haven’t seen her fitting in with Americans or with the Muslim community in New York.
Nerdist: I appreciate the movie’s ability to have multiple points of view without anybody feeling like a bad guy. You get a sense of how people came to those perspectives. I think, Paul, your character is definitely not a villain in any way. He wants to support his cousin the best way he knows how. In finding a role like that, what excites you about being able to play something that is so neutral, but also not really seen that often?
Paul Wesley: Well, what do you mean by neutral?
Nerdist: Well, he does questionable things. In some movies, you could see him getting played very much…
Nerdist: Yes. But also he’s not the romantic comedy best buddy that’s right there, and the only reason he’s there is to help his buddy find a girl. It’s that he is his own person. Neutral to the story line of he’s not trying to hurt you. But he’s definitely looking out for himself as well.
Paul: Right. Sure, yeah. Exactly. Well, I have a lot of friends who graduate college and go sort of venture into the stock broker/Wall Street world, which I know nothing about. They all are – it’s weird, they just become part of this weird system, and they lose a sense of – it’s not that they become bad people; it’s just that it’s just sort of expected. It’s like making money is sort of – there’s really no set of rules. It just becomes this – it’s like the Stanford prison experiments. You put people in and they just start to play their roles. They just play these roles.
I looked at Charlie as a guy who’s just given this set of rules, and he’s just abiding by the rules that everybody else is playing with. I never looked at him as negative, I just looked at him as doing what the system is providing him with. And that is his justification, and he doesn’t understand why he has to stand up to that.
He maybe doesn’t have the objectivity to stand up to that, and I didn’t want to judge him for that, but that’s – a lot of people just don’t. They just go with the flow, and they want to make them support their family, and so that’s how I saw it. I had a lot of really good friends who are in that business who could potentially be doing questionable things, but I know that they’re great guys. They’ve just graduated, this is what they’ve been told to do, you know.
Sean: I’ve got a lot of Wall Street – I also put him in touch with someone on Wall Street. Most people graduate West Point and then go on and get their MBA and go do real things with their lives. Not me. I went to film school. But one of the things – one of the key traits is that guys on Wall Street they identify assets and they leverage those assets. That’s really – he identifies an asset, and he leverages it. He’s not, in his mind – it’s definitely what you’re saying, he’s not doing anything bad, it’s just how he sees the world.
Paul: It’s also like – I don’t know, I suppose in our professions, money’s important to everyone. It always is. We have to survive. But this guy, literally, his life is money. That is, there’s nothing else to it. Whereas we make certain decisions that aren’t financially – strictly financially based, this guy literally his whole life is money, so it’s like he’s almost like trained to think in money. The right and wrong is money. That’s all. He goes in the morning, he thinks about money, he goes at night, he thinks about money – that’s it, there’s nothing else, which is crazy.
Nerdist: There’s something that the film does in a very interesting way in the color choices and the way it’s shot in New York and the places you chose to shoot, that it’s not – a lot of romantic films are shot to where you feel like you’re being swept up in love, and this movie does something a little different, where you can actually see a little bit of the harshness in the color palette, and you can see that this love – the film kind of has that balance in the narrative that this love isn’t finding itself easy. It reflects in the film as it softens a little bit as the film progresses.
How did that kind of decision to not lean into the tropes of the genre you were working in play out during the making of the film?
Sean: Well, it was really me sitting down with all of my department heads, you know – Sara White was my production designer, and Donna Maloney was the wardrobe – costumer designer, and then Danny Vecchione, my cinematographer. I sat down with all of them and I gave them reference films that I really loved, and we talked about a lot of stuff.
I loved the gritty underbelly of New York City, so I made a really conscious decision. I didn’t want to – I had seen all those romantic comedies. I hate glossy, fake – that sheen that gets thrown on a lot of these movies. I wanted it to feel authentic and real. So I just had very in-depth discussions with each department head. And they, again, just like everybody else, it was collaboration. They brought stuff to me, and I ran with it.
Nerdist: The movie is very unique, and I have to imagine that a lot of that was what attracted you to the roles, but on the page, it’s not exactly a movie that you look at and go, “Yes, this is the next thing that’s going to hit huge!” There are a lot of things in this movie that are kind of canceling out its marketability at the gate, if you would.
Sean: Like what?
Nerdist: I think just subject matter – I think a lot of the middle of America will tune out just because it’s not a message they want to hear. I think it’s a ballsy movie to make right now, but I do think that it’s a movie that – it’s a movie that I think needs to be made, but not everybody in the country, I think, is going to want to know that it exists. I’m curious about your personal reasons for wanting to do this movie. Sometimes it can be different for everybody, and I’m always curious as to what actually led you to want to make this movie and not just want to see it be made? Because I know with this type of movie, that’s a distinction. There are a lot of movies that will come across people’s plates and they’ll say “Wow, that’s great. I don’t want to do it, but I want to make sure it gets made.” This is one of those movies where you know you’re actually signing on to something that it might not get made if you aren’t the person that says ‘Yes,’ if that makes sense. I’d really like to know your thoughts on that. There’s some weight to saying ‘Yes’ to a movie like this.
Martin: I have a feeling there’s a weight to saying – it was more about the way in which we defined our relationship as collaborators on this as an actor and a film maker, because I like to be really involved, and I think there were some things that were more heavy-handed in the script that I read, specifically about the military aspect of it that we pulled the reins on, in a way that makes it more available to an audience. So that’s something that drew me to it, because we could see the movie the same way. This wasn’t an advertisement for the military. It was an opportunity to tell a new story, and this was a big part of the story. And so I feel like once we had that conversation, it made the most sense for me to be a part of telling the story, because we saw it in the same way.
Dina: I feel the same way about Amira’s character. This wasn’t an opportunity to, you know, politically say something about the Middle East, or about America’s place in the Middle East, necessarily. It was more about a young woman trying to – falling in love and doing her thing, and trying to just figure it out like everyone. I find that it’s relatable to anyone, wherever you’re from. It’s not just about showing the Arab story. It’s really about the person.
Paul: I grew up in the New York area and spent a lot of my childhood there, and I don’t know, I just support – it sounds a little cliche, I support independent film in New York. I talked to Sean on the phone, and we had this wonderful conversation, and I – look, man, any opportunity just to be blunt and to play and to do a great independent piece when I’m not shooting my show, that is a completely different genre, is for me like water in a desert. I just jumped on it. It wasn’t really much of a thought process for me.
Nerdist: My final question to kind of wrap things up is more towards the film coming out through Drafthouse, which is another company that is kind of showing the different ways you can release movies and still make an impact. Things are changing at an accelerated rate. CBS is launching VOD now and HBO is no longer going to be attached to cable. There are so many different ways of being able to take on this content, it has to have opened different kinds of content you can be a part of.
How do you balance what you’re making in your personal and professional lives? What is it that – what projects are you looking forward to making…I’m not wording this in a very clear manner, and I apologize for that. How much of the way people take in the content that you make is affecting the decisions that you make in what you create?
Sean: That absolutely is – I mean, I just had this conversation. I understood everything you said. It must be the southern Ohio thing. [chuckling] I just had this conversation talking with my agents about, like, TV now. They were like, “Listen, you’re an independent film maker now, and independent films are great, and I’m still going to be going out for independent, or hopefully even studio directing jobs, but look at TV, look at web series, look at stuff that’s any way to define your voice and work.” The big thing is just working with quality people.
That’s my big thing. I’ll do, I don’t care how it’s disseminated, I don’t care how it gets to the audience, but I want to do quality work with quality people. If you’re doing quality work with quality people, I feel like the playing fields are really leveling, and that’s what’s going to separate yourself, is really just focusing on the quality of the work.
People are hungry for content. I mean, all this stuff – people want to watch good stuff. So it’s an exciting time – it’s a scary time, but it’s an exciting time. I’m open to working in any kind of, any level of the medium, as long as it’s something that’s inspiring. Look at Transparent on Amazon, you know. It’s just fantastic! It’s an Amazon show, but who gives a shit? ` It’s going to sweep the Emmys probably. It’s incredible, it’s a singular voice, and this auteur television movement is super exciting.
Paul: It’s exciting to think that a little movie like this that potentially could be seen by millions of people via whatever – Netflix and the internet, and that’s such a great – you know, you can make movies relatively inexpensively now because of technology, and so many people can see it via the internet. I think that’s an amazing thing.
Amira and Sam releases for a limited engagement in theaters and on Video on Demand today.