Interview: Martin Starr, Paul Wesley, Dina Shihabi and Sean Mullin Talk the Wonderful Romantic Comedy 'Amira & Sam'

Interview: Martin Starr, Paul Wesley, Dina Shihabi and Sean Mullin Talk the Wonderful Romantic Comedy 'Amira & Sam'

Feb 05, 2015

"The conceit started with Sam, which was that a veteran comes home from war and he's fine, but the country has PTSD."

War and PTSD aren't exactly the first things you'd associate with a romantic comedy, but that quote from writer-director Sean Mullin helps reveal why his debut feature film, Amira & Sam, is such a smart and utterly delightful entry in the genre. If you like rom-coms, but think they're more or less all the same these days, then you are definitely going to want to check out Amira & Sam, which is out now in select theaters and available On Demand.

It's about a soldier, Sam (Martin Starr), who finds himself trying to readjust to civilian life in New York City with the help of his banker cousin, played by Paul Wesley. Meanwhile, Amira (Dina Shihabi), the niece of one of Sam's friends, is threatened with deportation. Sam steps in to help keep her stateside, and while the two initially get off on the wrong foot, things quickly blossom between the two.

We spoke to Mullin, Wesley, Starr and Shihabi last year at Forever Fest, and now that the movie is out in the wild, we wanted to share it with you. There seems to be some overlap between the Sam character and your own life, but is the movie actually autobiographical?

Sean Mullin: It's definitely not an autobiography in any way, but you write what you know. I was in the military, I was a stand-up comedian. I lived in Manhattan post-9/11, I was in the National Guard. I was the Captain in charge of the soldiers down at ground zero. So I'd spend 12 hours at ground zero during the day, then do stand-up at night. There was a new theater called the Upright Citizens Brigade that opened around 2000 and I was kind of in the first wave of people through the doors there. I was rubbing elbows with Wall Street guys, but I felt guilty because a lot of my buddies from Westpoint were off fighting in the war. So I wanted to tell the story of a veteran coming home that wasn't the typical story. Whose side of the story did you conceive first, Sam's or Amira's?

Mullin: I would say Sam's, but since I knew it was going to be a love story, they were in conjunction. The conceit started with Sam, which was that a veteran comes home from war and he's fine, but the country has PTSD. I was like, "Okay, there's a movie there." and I started rubbing elbows with all the Wall Street guys while I was at ground zero, so that's where the Charlie character comes from. He's actually named after Charlie from On the Waterfront, one of my all-time favorite films. Brando's brother is named Charlie, and his brother uses him in a very similar relationship.

I never wanted to paint him as a villain, though. I think you never want to do that. The villain is always the hero of their own story, so you need to consider it from their perspective too. For the actors, when it comes to being in a smaller movie like this, which is of more concern: the strength of your character or of those you'll have to be playing off?

Martin Starr: I always care more about the story and the value of it first, and then I look at the character that I'm supposed to play and look at it from where I am in my life and whether it's something that scares me a little bit and thereby being a reason I should try to take it on. That's what I think about. What in particular scared you about playing Sam?

Starr: A lot of things scared me, beside the hepatitis water of jumping in that river.

Mullin: Yeah, that's not safe to swim in.

Starr: Definitely not. And I did it twice. It had taken me a while to warm up to the idea of wanting to take on the romantic lead in a movie, and this was by far the best opportunity I've had so far. And it only got better from there. I think the initial script I had issues with, but because of how open Sean is as a writer and director, the collaboration allowed it to grow to become something I'm really proud of. And that's all thanks to him and everyone else that was part of it and the collaboration that ensued. We all had takes on the story and our characters that had value, and allowing those kinds of contributions is crucial. It's not a solo project. How did everyone come to the project? Did you approach people directly or did you have a casting director?

Mullin: We had a casting director, Billy Hopkins. He's done all of Oliver Stone's movies. He did Precious. He's an iconic NYC casting director. Martin came on first, and then Dina. She was in grad school at NYU at the time and I saw her audition and it just blew me away. And then Paul came in through Terry Leonard, one of our producers who was working on a movie with him called Before I Disappear. We were sharing a production office.

Paul Wesley: Before I even met Sean, I just saw him in a corner plotting his movie in this f**kin' tiny room, and I just thought, "Who is that guy?" And then Terry called and was like, "Remember that guy in the tiny room? Read his script." And look, for me... I've been on this sci-fi-ish fantasy show for six years, and this was some grounded, beautiful material and I thought the story was great. I knew Martin's work, and I saw Dina's audition tape, and was just in.

Though you don't want to judge the character, he is an antagonist in a way, which is different from what I do in my day job, so that drew me in even more. What scene did Dina do for her audition?

Dina Shihabi: It was the Facebook scene. I remember thinking I'd made this decision to take a very long time to start. I went in and stayed quite for too long of a time, letting them wait for me to start the scene.

Starr: It probably felt like forever but was really only four seconds.

Wesley: I had seen Sean's short film Sadiq, which I really liked. I saw her audition. I knew who Martin was. I said "F**k it, I'm in!"

Starr: If you liked the movie, you should definitely see her audition tape. You guys managed to feel like more of an intimate, uniquely New York production than movies with a hundred times the resources. How'd you pull that off?

Mullin: My father was born in Brooklyn. I grew up in Long Island. I went to undergrad at Westpoint, which is just right up the river. Every weekend I could, I'd take a train down to the city. And then being a first responder after September 11, New York is just always going to be a part of me. Plus, thematically, there's things like the bridge connecting the two outer boroughs, because it is about outsiders. His borough is Staten Island, hers is Brooklyn, and they're connected by this bridge. They don't fit in, so thematically it was very important to me.

I even stole a shot from Woody Allen's Manhattan. If you Google the poster for Manhattan, it's the shot of them sitting on the bench in front of the bridge. But instead of being 59th street, I flipped it and they're in Brooklyn looking at Staten Island. So they're not even looking at Manhattan, because they're outsiders. Meanwhile Charlie, the insider, is in Manhattan. When constructing the movie, did you actively try to deconstruct your typical rom-com?

Mullin: I just don't even like the term rom-com. I'd rather call it a comedic love story, though that's kind of clunky.

Starr: So... like a romantic comedy?

Mullin: [Laughs] The second screenplay I was ever hired to write was for Britney Spears. She hired me to write a romantic comedy and I kind of flipped out because I didn't know what I was doing, and I went back and started with Frank Capra and It Happened One Night to His Girl Friday right on up to pretty much every romantic comedy that's ever been made. I did that in like a two-month span and hopefully learned what not to do. You still want to hit certain beats, but I hope we have a fresh approach to them.

The very first scene I wrote for Amira, in order to get her voice down, was the DVD scene. I don't want to fall into a trap of loving my characters too much, so I try to give each of them something I don't like, and so for her it was being a pirate. I'm a filmmaker, so the idea of her being a movie pirate would piss me off a little bit, which I like.

I think the second thing I wrote was "Sometimes I punch people." I don't know where that came from. That's weird when it comes to you, but I love it for the character. And then I love that bed scene. Did you decide in the script stage that that scene, which is perfect, would be done in one long take?

Mullin: It was always going to be one take. The thing with a long take is that you can lie with cutting. And that's the scene where they fall for each other, and so it had to happen in real time for me. I didn't want to cheat, I just wanted people to see them. And they prepared fantastically. For me that scene is the linchpin for the whole movie. If you pull it out, everything just kind of crumbles.

Starr: It took us like four or five takes to really hit our stride. It's hard, but not because of the dialogue. It's about choreographing these little moments. So once we had those on film and could figure out what was working for Sean behind the camera, that's when we could take the notes and keep integrating them.

Amira & Sam is out now in select theaters and on VOD platforms everywhere. Head to Drafthouse Films for more specific release info.





Categories: Features, Interviews, Indie
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