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Fall in Love with AMIRA & SAM

Get the scoop on this delightful film from director Sean Mullin and stars Dina Shihabi and Martin Starr! Plus: a mini drinking game!

Fall in Love with AMIRA & SAM

(All photos courtesy of Drafthouse Films)

Back in November, I was part of the lucky Forever Fest audience that saw a preview screening of Amira & Sam. In a story centred on an undocumented immigrant and an army veteran, the heart of the film is a sweet and intimate portrayal of two outsiders finding their way -- their anchors, their constants -- in this often messed up world. Oh, and it's funny, too. Take a look at the trailer and just try to resist this movie's charm. (Nope, CAN'T BE DONE.)

After his return from a lengthy tour, former Green Beret Sam is adjusting back to civilian life, working while pursuing his life-long dream of stand-up comedy. The niece of Sam's translator back when they were in Iraq, Amira is untrusting of all soldiers, having experienced family tragedy by their hands. When Amira runs into immigration trouble, she reluctantly accepts Sam's help. It's a funny, uplifting, swoonworthy movie -- and one that's surely not to be missed.

The idea of defying expectations -- about immigrants, about vets, about romantic comedies themselves -- is as entrenched in the story as it is in the casting. Fans of Martin Starr and Paul Wesley will see both actors in a different light: Starr as the noble romantic hero, Sam; and Wesley as Sam's cousin, the slick and opportunistic Charlie. Newcomer Dina Shihabi is radiant as the headstrong Amira; she's a true find, and the chemistry between her and Starr is electric.

At a brisk but never rushed 89 minutes, Amira & Sam makes every second count, packing each moment with unflinching honesty. This movie is so, so beautiful, you guys. It might not be a tearjerker, but I def. shed my share of tears because it's just so darn lovely.

During Forever Fest, I had the chance to speak with director and writer Sean Mullin, and actors Dina Shihabi and Martin Starr. 

On what inspired the story: 

SEAN MULLIN: It's not autobiographical, but you still write what you know. I was in the military; I went to West Point for my undergraduate, I was on active duty in Germany during peacetime, transferred to New York National Guard, and I was a first responder on September 11th. I was down working at Ground Zero during the day, but I was doing stand-up comedy at an improv theatre at nights and rubbing elbows with Wall Street guys, so some of the seeds were planted then.

And then I went to grad school, and I made a few short films and they were all kind of military themed. I was thinking about all my friends, I have some very close friends who did multiple tours overseas. I think I felt a little guilty that I wasn't over there with them, and I wanted to tell their stories. I also wanted to use my comedy background and make it funny and hopefully fresh and unique.

It took a while to come up with the idea. Once I wrote the script, I rewrote it and rewrote it a ton of times until I got it to where it was actually presentable. I was also fascinated by displaced Iraqis who had been helping the Americans over there. And with the soldier angle: every soldier-coming-home-from-war movie is about a veteran who's grappling with post-traumatic stress. So I tried to flip it on its head and say, "What if the veteran is fine, but the country has PTSD?"

On preparing for the role of Sam: 

MARTIN STARR: I talked to Sean a great deal, but also one of his close friends, Brian Anthony [the film's military advisor], who went to West Point.

SM: And Patrick Callahan, who's our co-executive producer and an investor in the film, and is a veteran who's done multiple tours.

MS: I spent a long day with him when we visited West Point. Patrick and I talked for hours about his experiences. And he actually went off again, didn't he? Did he go on another tour?

SM: No, what ended up happening is he did a bunch of tours and then he got out. But then he joined a contracting company that sells anti-mine vehicles back to the government of Afghanistan. So he goes to Afghanistan, he's in the Middle East all the time. He met with Karzai [the former president of Afghanistan], so he's a high-level guy but he's one of our EPs. That's the cool thing about this story, too. A lot of the investors were veterans, and I'm a veteran.

On preparing for the role of Amira: 

DINA SHIHABI: I speak Arabic fluently, and I grew up in Dubai. What's great about Dubai is that you grow up around so many people from all around the world. I grew up being very good at picking up accents and mimicking them. So learning [an Iraqi accent] was really, I just had to write it down and then work on it. But it wasn't too difficult to pick it up; it was challenging not to want to answer in the Arabic that I speak. To just stick to the script, as opposed to wanting to add lines in Arabic that I would say that wouldn't be Iraqi Arabic.

On the language barrier (or lack thereof):

SM: I wrote [the Arabic scenes] in English, and then I just worked with the actors. The actor who plays [Amira's uncle] Bassam is Laith Nakli, a very good friend of mine who was the lead actor in my thesis film from graduate school, so I knew him. I worked with both Leith and Dina and said, "OK, here's what we're looking to do." It's a sign of a good project when you can write a scene and the actors just went off on their own. They rehearsed it, they worked on the dialect, and they brought it in.

DS: We worked with the same person so that we would speak the same way. The same kind of Iraqi Arabic, so it sounded like we came from the same family. 

SM: That authenticity was important to me. [Directing is] all about emotions and beats anyway, and I trust them. If they messed up a line, they'd tell me. Laith was really hard on himself, I remember. So just trust your actors and watch them. As you always do as a director, you're just looking for any false note and any sort of inauthenticity that's just not working.

More often than not, I won't have the answers. Sometimes I'll have the answer on how to fix it, but more often than not, I won't have the answer but I'll know there's a problem. So I'll say, "This beat's just not working, so let's get to the bottom of it. How can we fix it?" And then they usually come up with the answer because they're great actors. I'm like, "Yeah! That's good, let's try that."

On the defining shot of the movie:

SM: As a screenwriting tool, you do everything you can in the first act to build empathy for your characters. [...] The idea is, you get the audience rooting for them, rooting for her. And by the time you build up to the long bed scene, which is the most important scene of the film. Now the audience is rooting for them. It's the movie, really. We did twelve takes, and that was the ninth take that we used. 

[Re: improv] Absolutely. The script is the most important thing until it's not. 

MS: There's a lot of little moments that changed every take.

SM: And that was hands down the best, though. Little stuff, like when to start kissing and when to stop kissing. And, "Oh, I put my hand on the hijab but that's too much and that pulls me back." [Dina] draping your arm across his chest was an issue early, it wasn't working.

Sometimes directing is really -- if it's just something like that, it's not these huge sweeping action shots. It's literally just those details. By take six, seven, it was really coming out great. I think after nine, we all kind of knew it. But then we did ten, which hit a peak. We came down from ten, and eleven was worse. I don't think we even finished twelve? I think halfway through, we were like, "We got this three takes ago."

Pay extra attention to this scene, 'cause it's AMAZE.

On the reception that the film has received: 

SM: I think the thing I'm most proud of the film is how it plays with veterans. Every veteran that's seen it is like, "Gosh, this is so refreshing." The chief public affairs officer of the army, Lieutenant Colonel Cole, I showed him the movie and he flipped out. He loves it, so he's doing everything he can within his scope of power to help us get the word out there about the movie.

It portrays veterans in a positive light. A lot of these veteran movies: the vets come home, they get drunk, they beat their wife. Which is stuff that does happen, but I wasn't interested in any of that. I was interested in flipping the script a little bit.

MS: Yeah, especially coming from a veteran who didn't have those experiences. This is coming from his experiences. This isn't some false portrayal; it's coming from a good source, which makes it really easy to bring that to life.

And because we're lushes us, here's a mini drinking game! 


•  Take a sip whenever Charlie says "man", "bro", or "dude"

•  Drink whenever someone's being an oblivious d-bag

•  Take a shot whenever a rom-com is mentioned

•  Chug for the duration of Amira and/or Sam running

•  Finish your drink when there's a callback to an earlier line in the movie

Amira & Sam will be available in theatres and on VOD on January 30th. (See it, see it, see it!) 

Psst! If you or someone you know is a service member, Drafthouse Films is offering a military date night for the opening weekend of Amira & Sam! Check out the list of participating theatres here

For more on Amira & Sam, check out Badass Digest's coverage of the movieAnd there's still time to enter our Amira & Sam giveaway here!

Mandy Wan's photo About the Author: Residing in Edmonton, AB, Mandy unabashedly loves YA lit, frozen desserts, and terrible puns.