Not Another Rom-Com
Sean Mullin brings a light touch to heavy material in Amira & Sam
Love stories make the world go 'round, but sometimes only deadpan humor can smooth the edges of star-crossed amour. That pairing of romance and comedy has produced some of the best movies ever made, but also, yes, some of the worst, which is maybe why filmmaker Sean Mullin would prefer a different term to describe Amira & Sam, his feature-length debut.
Screening at this weekend's Forever Fest, Mullin's fast-paced, heartwarming film tells the tale of a U.S. Army veteran and an Iraqi woman, recently immigrated. They're both struggling with starting over. Sam (Martin Starr), a wannabe stand-up comedian, discovers the ugly truths of Wall Street when he takes a gig helping his cousin Charlie (Paul Wesley) broker a $25 million deal with another veteran; meanwhile, Amira (Dina Shihabi) tries to make ends meet selling street-corner DVDs. After an awkward impromptu dinner, the two part ways until Amira gets busted and faces deportation. When Sam's friend Bassam (Laith Nakli) asks Sam to keep his niece Amira safely hidden from police, despite her obvious distaste for the guy, the romance and humor start rolling in. A shared twin bed, a bar brawl, a cherry-red hijab and matching plunging neckline, an out-of-place uniform – this is the stage for Amira and Sam falling in love.
Before becoming a filmmaker, writer/director Mullin served as a captain in the New York Army National Guard, graduated from both West Point and Columbia University, was a stand-up comic and early presence at New York City's now-famed Upright Citizens Brigade, and was even a 9/11 first responder. The Chronicle spoke to Mullin over the phone about the influence of his unique background on the script and the challenge in mining comedy from tough issues.
Austin Chronicle: Are there autobiographical undercurrents at work in your film? And do you think telling these stories in a lighthearted way – not documentary – helps shed better light on these issues?
Sean Mullin: I would never call them autobiographical, but you tend to write what you know. Being down at Ground Zero and rubbing up with the Wall Street guys, I definitely got a sense of a few of the characters, both the Charlie character and the Sam character. ... Some guys come home from war and they are really [suffering from] post-traumatic stress, but I thought there were more people coming home who were actually okay. They just wanted to get going with their lives, you know? Every "soldier coming home from war" movie is always about a soldier grappling with post-traumatic stress. I thought an interesting, fresh take on that would be, "What if a soldier comes home from war and he's fine and it's the country that lost its mind?" ...
I hope the film challenges some perceptions that are held about immigrants and veterans. I think that's the biggest thing I can do: Just kind of [help people] realize that not every veteran is a loose cannon, not every immigrant is a criminal. I feel like these are the things that are being pushed by the media on both sides. These are huge issues – immigration, re-integration, and veteran issues – and I felt that the best way to tackle these huge social issues was just tell a love story about two real people who are [dealing] with these issues. Not make any huge political statement out front, or preach.
AC: It's a great balance of emotion, but it's also really funny. How did you use comedy to keep what could've been a heavy subject so light and relatable?
SM: I guess my whole life I've always been into comedy. I've always been able to make people laugh – it's just kind of second nature to me. ... I didn't really fit in at West Point because they didn't think I was funny, but I like to think that they really did and just won't admit it. I've just always been the guy to make people laugh, so when it came time to write a script I knew I needed to find a comedic actor. I had watched Martin Starr for years and I've never seen him hit a false note, ever. I just knew he was the perfect guy to take over my voice.
And in many ways Amira is dealing with her own post-traumatic stress, just not in your typical ways. She's really strong. I like strong women and strong female characters and I don't feel like there are enough of them in film. I feel like they get shortchanged a lot of times in romantic comedies, which really pisses me off. So I really wanted to have a strong woman who just never apologizes. ... I said, "Dina listen, you don't apologize for anything. Ever. You are who you are." But she also wears her heart on her sleeve, which is really wonderful. [She's] incredible, just really a freak-of-nature type actress.
AC: The chemistry is fantastic. Did you stick to the script or was there some improv going on?
SM: Absolutely. I mean, I come from studying with the Upright Citizens Brigade for three years. I used to do a show there called Instant Cinema where we would improvise an entire feature film on the spot, so I absolutely encouraged that. I mean, in filmmaking in general I feel like the script is the most important thing in the entire process, until it's not. If that makes sense. You need to get the script in the best shape you can, and get the actors prepped. Then when you're all set, just throw the script away 'cause it doesn't matter anymore. ... I just let 'em run with it, as long as it feels authentic. Your job as a director is to put on your bullshit detector and make sure everything rings true.
AC: This film is screening at Forever Fest, which is billed as a celebration of girlie pop culture. But it seems like that's just one aspect of this film. Any thoughts on that?
SM: Listen, I 100 percent trust Drafthouse. I think they're one of the premier, if not the premier, indie distributors in the business. As a filmmaker there comes a time when you just have to turn things over to your distributor and know that it's in the best hands possible. ... I hate the two words "romantic" "comedy," but it is a love story, a comedic love story. I don't know. We've gotta come up with a new term. Today, while you're on the phone.
AC: What's next?
SM: Well, I've got some ribs in the oven and some friends coming over for dinner. That's, like, the immediate plan.
Amira & Sam screens at Forever Fest on Saturday, Nov. 15, with Martin Starr, Paul Wesley, Dina Shihabi, and director Sean Mullin in attendance. Drafthouse Films will release the film theatrically and on VOD Jan. 30.