How to Make a Successful Indie Rom-Com: A Peak Inside ‘Amira & Sam’

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by Angela Bourassa

If you’re fortunate enough to live in a town with a Drafthouse, you’ve probably noticed posters for a wonderful little film called Amira & Sam (watch the trailer). It’s the classic boy meets girl, girl hates boy, boy and girl fall in love story, but these two characters have some particularly big challenges in their way. For one, he’s a US veteran just back from Iraq (played by Martin Starr) and she’s an Iraqi immigrant (played by Dina Shihabi).

The story unfolds against the backdrop of New York City, and these two characters manage to charm each other and everyone who watches this delightful film. The film comes to Drafthouse theaters tomorrow, and it can be streamed right now via multiple platforms (scroll down this page for links).

We had the chance to chat with writer/director Sean Mullin, a veteran and graduate of West Point and Columbia University. Sean and I discuss the Hemingway method of writing, the joys and challenges of being a writer/director, and how to make it as a screenwriter.

LA Screenwriter (LA): Amira & Sam is rather ambitious for a romantic comedy, not only finding a way to bring two opposing characters together but also addressing issues of race, class, religion, and the treatment of veterans. When you were writing this story, were there many moments of “How the fuck am I going to do this?”

Sean Mullin (SM): Every moment was a “How the fuck am I going to do this?” moment.  If I would have shot the first draft of the script, I honestly think I would’ve ended up killing myself.  It was that bad.  I’m a big believer in the Hemingway school of writing: the first draft of everything you write will be shit, so embrace the process.  The key is knowing which 90% sucks and which 10% might be worth keeping.  In the 18 months leading up to production, I had written 33 drafts of the script — and then I kept tweaking it through production (and post).

LA: You both wrote and directed this film. How much did your story change as you shifted from the writing process to directing? Which role do you prefer?

SM: It’s very difficult for me to separate the two.  Since I knew from the start that I was going to direct this film, I wrote it with certain shots in mind (like the long take in bed with the two of them).  I’ve been hired to write screenplays for other directors and, for those scripts, I try not to put in too much shot-specific information.  That being said, regardless of who is going to direct the script, I love ending important scenes by “holding tight” on a shot of our protagonist in order to allow the reader to imagine him/her processing the fallout from the scene.

LA: There are moments in the film where the dialogue doesn’t feel like dialogue at all — it feels real. Martin Starr & Dina Shihabi have a beautiful flow and seem to be responding to one another, not acting.

Does acting as both writer and director on a film give you more freedom to let the actors play around without fear of losing your original intent?

SM: The best thing about being both the writer and director is that you can rip on the writer and say stuff like, “Who the hell wrote this shit?”  During our shoot, anytime a scene wasn’t working, I would tell my actors that Lee wrote that scene.  Lee was one of our Production Assistants who I really liked — but I also liked to fuck with him.  Martin and Dina ended up getting in on the joke as well.  They’d be like, “Lee!  This isn’t working!  What were you thinking?!”  Lee was such a good sport.  I like to run a loose/fun set — and so this helped.

LA: So you let the actors do some improv during the filming?

SM: I have an improv background from studying and performing at UCB Theater, so I’m all for it.  Your number one job as a director is to put on a bullshit detector and anytime a beat feels inauthentic, you need to step in and investigate.  I was good at stepping in and recognizing the issue, but I didn’t always have the solution.  For those moments, I let my actors take a stab at solving it and — since all of my actors where so incredibly talented — they usually came up with the perfect solution.

LA: While this story is fiction, I imagine you used your experiences in the army to build these characters. What’s your approach for creating characters? Do you picture an actor or a person from your life when you write, or do you work entirely from your imagination?

SM: It’s a little bit of both for me.  With Amira, I would just have to imagine her completely because I didn’t know any actress who would work in the role — which is why finding Dina Shihabi was one of the happiest moments of my life (seriously).  I would have fake conversations with Amira all of the time — and sometimes she would just creep into my subconscious.  I remember waking up one morning and hearing Amira say to me, “Sometimes I punch people.”  I don’t know where that came from, but it ended up on the film.

For Sam, I had numerous veteran buddies who I could picture saying the lines — and he also has a similar voice to me — so he was a lot easier to picture in my head.  Once I cast Martin, I took another scrub through the script and tailored it to his voice, and that really helped.

LA: You got your MFA in Filmmaking from Columbia. What are your thoughts on film school for screenwriters or screenwriter/directors? Do you feel like your other work experiences inform your approach to writing and directing?

SM: Every person’s journey is different. If you want to be a straight up writer, I think there’s something to be said for moving to LA and just writing your ass off for a few years to hone your voice.  For me, I definitely wouldn’t be where I am without attending Columbia’s MFA program.  I was coming straight from the army and I had absolutely zero film background.  Also, Columbia’s program caters to writer/directors — which is what I knew I wanted to be — so it was the perfect fit for me.  Again, each path is valid in its own right.

LA: Where can folks go to see Amira & Sam?

SM: We’re playing theatrically in about 20 cities starting January 30th — people can find more info on the Drafthouse Films website — as well as a nationwide cable VOD and iTunes release.

LA: Final two questions. These are my standard end-of-interview questions. First up, if you were trying to become a professional screenwriter today, what would your strategy be?

SM: First and foremost, I’d make sure I had enough life experience under my belt so that I had something to say.  If not, I’d travel as much as I could, work shady jobs, meet shady people, get drunk, get arrested — basically do whatever I could to lead a full life.  Once I checked those boxes, I’d move to LA (or attend a top-tier writing program) and just write my ass off until my voice emerged.  Sometimes it happens quickly, sometimes it takes years.  When you’re first getting started, if you’re not knocking out a new script at least every six months, you’re probably not a writer.

LA: And finally, what are the scripts that you think every budding screenwriter should read?

SM: In addition to the obvious classics — such as The Apartment (1960), Chinatown (1974), Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid (1969), etc. — I would recommend Marty (1955), which might be the cleanest, most elegant script I’ve ever read.  Michael Clayton (2007) is a great, thrilling read.  Swingers (1996) is also a really fun read, and a great melding of both character and structure.

~

Be sure to go see Amira & Sam this weekend!

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