Celebrity Interview: Cherien Dabis Talks on the Realities of Filmmaking in the Middle East, Bill Pullman and Inspiration

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"May in The Summer," the coming of age family drama from filmmaker Cherien Dabis, takes a challenging look at modern family drama weaving contemporary modern lives, hopes and loves into the old world family structure faced by most second generation Arab Americans.


Dabis, who is celebrating the release of her name the number film "May in The Summer" recently participated in the media days to promote the comical and yet deeply resonating film.

Having the chance to interview Ms. Dabis, our conversation in part is below. She is talented, interesting, highly engaging and very intelligent. Her films and characters bring an insight into the struggles and dynamics of family responsibilities and bonds in the Arab community.

Janet Walker:  Congratulations on "May in The Summer."  After reading a little bit about I wanted to ask how much of the story of May is autobiographical?

Cherien Dabis: Well not much of the story is autobiographical – but it is inspired on the summers I spent in Jordan growing up as a kid. My parents are Palestinian but they immigrated to the United States right before I was born. I was the first in my family born in the US. However, we returned to Jordan every summer. So I really saw the country grow and change over the last 30 some years.  And I spent a lot of time there traveling around there , spent time at the Dead Sea and all of  those places and n a way really grew up there and cam to discover myself and who I was there. So there is a lot of inspiration. Jordan and my summers in Jordan were a big inspiration and as was my family, my sisters.  I have four sisters so in a way they are always inspiring me.  Family is the best material, fodder for great material.

JW: So tell me about the characters, I guess the question really would be, which runs into my first question, when does May does become fictionalized?  But you mentioned that a little bit that it is based on that so you did go to Columbia so all that material is draw from your own life?

CD: Yes, on some level. I did go to Columbia.

JW: You did go to Columbia film school, so the whole Columbia experience. So how did you build the characters of your sisters? Are they based on your sisters? How did you build the characters?

CD: There not based on my sisters. But some are characters have traits of my sisters. I think they are archetypes of the three sisters. The oldest one May, being the sort of responsible one; the glue who holds the family together, the kind of parental older sister, to her younger ones, the successful author, but she's in a crisis in the film. Even though she is a successful author, with an adoring fiancé, she is really reached a point where she's having a hard time saying what she means and figuring out what she wants. And part of her journey is to figure out how to become vulnerable enough that she can to build future on her own terms outside of parental expectation and societal expectations, familial, even political expectation as an Arab American. So that's kind of her journey throughout the film.

The other two sisters, one of them is the quintessential rebel child, who is a little lost, questioning her sexuality, questioning life in general, questioning what she believes in, her faith, dabbling in Buddhism and I know many people like that.

The third sister is sort of the party girl, the one that is really care free, fun loving and ignores the politics of the region and lives in the moment and just wants to have a good time.

Choosing The Perfect Cast

JW: I'm a fan of Alia Shawkat. I think she is truly underrated. So tell me about working with her?

CD: I adore Alia and I worked with her on my first film, "Amreeka." We just had a great time working together. I think she is exceptionally talented.  I was a fan of hers from Arrested Development. It was really exciting for me to cast her in my first film. She is half Iraqi so she does have knowledge of the region and a real passion for stories from the region. And that was really important to me. That was really great. She is just so smart had has a great wit sardonic, sarcastic funny.

JW: what made you decide on Bill Pullman?

CD:  I love Bill. Who doesn't love Bill? He is an amazing actor. What I discovered is he is also such a great warm generous person. I really thought of him for this part because I was looking for someone you could believe worked in diplomacy capacity for the US government someone who is in a foreign post, who lives in the Middle East. And someone who as the character Dalia says in the movie, someone who has a "foreign fetish," his first wife is Palestinian and second wife is Indian so someone who is really intelligent really worldly and really well traveled and he really came to mind for that part.

And he just really came to mind for that part. My producer sent his agent the script and much to my surprise he read it really quickly and wanted to play the part. It was really great.

Challenges of Filmmaking in Jordan

JW: And what were some of the challenges of making the film?

CD: Well, you know there is definitely the challenge of acting and directing at the same time which was the first time I had embarked on that. That was a challenge and I tried to prepare myself for as much as I could for that. I spent a year and a half working with a friend, an acting coach who really, you know the goal was to gain as much experience as possible in that back and forth. It's a huge shift in perspective from acting to directing and back and forth and back and forth.

As a director you are looking the widest possible lens you're seeing every aspect of all of it. What the characters are doing and what they want you know all that. And the next moment you are the actor you have to zoom in through the longest possible lens and just immerse yourself entirely in details of your character and the point of view your character and to forget everything you know and just let go.

So that shift in perspective was a really huge challenge and on certain days was incredibly fulfilling. On the days where I thought we had enough time and it was working and then on other days it could be e frustrating.   When I thought we were being rushed and I didn't have a moment. When I thought I needed to talk to my actor and I was the actor. So I needed to go somewhere and talk to myself and remind people that I needed to talk to myself and figure out what to do next. Communication was imperative at those moments. So it was a really interesting experience and really grew as a person and as a filmmaker from that experience.

You know, also there were a lot of challenges shooting in Jordan. It is a country that doesn't have a lot of film resources. We had to fly a lot of elements in, equip which we brought in from Lebanon, to our key crew, cinematographer, and costume designer even our sound people. All of our main cast and secondary cast came from outside the country as well. It was a huge undertaking, an international co-production. The Ramallah film commission was great. They definitely facilitated production.

We shot at the height of summer time. So at one point when we were shooting at the Dead Sea it was 118 degrees. So keeping the cast and crew hydrated in that kind of heat was a full-time job. We had people basically fall sick of heat stroke, food poising, we had theft at one point, we had two lawsuits, things that were specific to the country others specific to filmmaking and the challenges of filmmaking.


JW: If you had to narrow the highlights from this project to one or two memorable moments what would they be?

CD: Oh wow. The movie opens with a scene on the airplane. It is just before May lands in Jordan. Royal Jordanian sponsored us so they were kind enough to allow us on their aircraft to shoot. Shooting on an airplane was absolutely amazing. We met with the pilot before hand to plan it all out. We decided we were going to fly from Amman to Aqaba in the south of Jordan; it is about 45 minute flight. The pilot said I can slow down for you so just let me know if you need to slow down and make it a 55 minute to one hour long flight, if that's what you need. I told him what I was going for that I wanted to sun to flare into the airplane window and so we chose an evening flight with sunset

Basically, it was just so cool, we're sitting in Business Class and the captain had the door open and I basically would say "Captain could we get the flare" and he would tilt the plane and we would get this burst as the sun would beam right into the window.

"May In The Summer," featuring Cherien Dabis, Bill Pullman, Alia Shawkat, Nadine Malouf, Ritu Singh Pande and Hiam Abbass, is playing in select cities.


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