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

AddThis Social Bookmark Button

"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.


Haute Tease

  • UPDATE/Photos: Eleven Survivors Pulled from Italian Avalanche; Six Confirmed Dead; 23 Still Missing

    AddThis Social Bookmark Button

    First-responders in a desperate race against time are meticulously digging through the mountains of snow covering the Hotel Rigopiano, hoping to detect in the demolished Italian luxury resort additional signs of life even with hope slowly fading.

  • Lavazza Announces Gourmet Restaurant to Complete Turin, Italy, Headquarters; Oscar Winner To Design Interiors

    AddThis Social Bookmark Button

    Lavazza announced a new restaurant concept opening at the future Lavazza headquarters in Turin, Italy, CONDIVIDERE developed in collaboration with Ferran Adrià, features a setting designed by three-time Oscar-winning art director, Dante Ferretti, and the brilliant Italian chef, Federico Zanasi will lead the kitchen.

  • The Power of Sports Metaphors in Politics: Trump vs. Clinton as The Main Event

    AddThis Social Bookmark Button

    Gender norms influence not just what we think, but how. Consider the presence of sports metaphors in American politics. Metaphors are not merely figures of speech. According to the cognitive scientists and philosophers George Lakoff and Mark Johnson (1980), human thought processes are largely metaphorical.

  • Five Dead and Six Injured in Aurora Warehouse Shooting

    AddThis Social Bookmark Button

    An employee with a feeling he would be terminated entered a conference room where the human resources manager, an intern, on his first day of work, the plant foreman, and a few others were meeting to discuss his tenure.

  • Beltway Insider: Clinton Projected to Secure Tuesday; Apocalyptic Flooding; Jobs; AIDS at 35; Mohammad Ali

    AddThis Social Bookmark Button

    Presumptive Democratic Presidential Nominee Hillary Rodham Clinton, a title she should secure over this next week, and her hard-charging democratic challenger Vermont Senator Bernie Sanders are in a fight to the finish line.

  • Beltway Insider: Obama/SCOTUS/GOP Wars; Justice Scalia; Election 2016; Sanders/Cruz; Eliot Spitzer

    AddThis Social Bookmark Button

    President Obama moved ahead sending out clear signals, through the hailstorm of political wrangling, of his plans to nominate a successor to fill the vacated seat of Justice Antonin Scalia, who passed away this weekend.

  • Fall Film Preview 2015 - Studios Heavy on True, Compelling, Dramatic, Stories

    AddThis Social Bookmark Button

    As OSCAR Season is approaching a worthy group of yet to be released titles are surfacing with pre-release buzz. In no particular order these are the must see upcoming films and most likely to be mentioned during Academy Award Nominations.

  • Fifty Shades Darker Review – A Steamy, Romantic, Sex in Seattle, Romp

    AddThis Social Bookmark Button

    Fifty Shades Darker, from Universal Pictures, brings to the screen a steamy, sex in Seattle sequel, that has our two young lovers rekindling their romance, refining their technique, revisiting boundaries and taking things to a whole new level.

  • Justice Watch: Cold Case Murder of San Diego Family Solved

    AddThis Social Bookmark Button

    Charles McStay, his wife and two small children disappeared four years ago, vanished is the better word, snatched from their suburban home. Today authorities arrested Charles Merritt, a business colleague, for the four murders.

  • Black Box Recovered from German Airline Crash

    AddThis Social Bookmark Button

    The black box from Germanwings A320 containing the last data recordings from the doomed airliner was recovered, mangled, twisted, and scarred, from the debris field that ended the promise and hope of the 150 citizens onboard.

  • The Peace Collective Releases “All Together Now” Commemorating Century Mark of Christmas Truce

    AddThis Social Bookmark Button

    The Peace Collective, a group of well known British musicians, commemorating the century mark of the World War I Christmas Truce when not a shot was fired, have re-recorded The Farm's "All Together Now" for December 14, 2014 release.

  • Two NYPD Police Officers Executed in Gangland Style Ambush

    AddThis Social Bookmark Button

    Two NYPD Police Officers, in a gangland style hit, were shot at point blank range while sitting in a marked police cruiser outside the Tompkins Housing Project in Brooklyn at around 3:00pm Saturday.

  • Beltway Insider: Airstrikes Begin in Iraq/Syria; Scots Vote; WH Tackles Sexual Violence, Ebola

    AddThis Social Bookmark Button

    President Obama addressed two global epidemics this week as he traveled to the Center for Disease Control to implement Ebola prevention and announced a second initiative in the anti sexual violence campaign initiated under his leadership.

  • 4 Cool Summer Tools That Make Entertaining a Breeze

    AddThis Social Bookmark Button

    With summer just around the corner, temperatures are heating up and it’s time to think about some ways to get the most out of the season, including cool tools that make summer barbecues, soirees, and family time sizzle.

  • LA Lakers Great Tommy Hawkins Pens Reflections from the Soul

    AddThis Social Bookmark Button

    Tommy Hawkins, former Los Angeles Lakers legend who helped shape the dynasty of today, recently launched his first ever narrative book of poetry, Life’s Reflections: Poetry for the People.