Badass Interview: Director Sean Mullin On The Making Of AMIRA & SAM

The director of Drafthouse Films' newest release talks his inspiration, Martin Starr's natural hilarity and more.

Photo by Jack Plunkett at Forever Fest

Amira & Sam is Drafthouse Films’ latest release, a beautiful, hilarious film about two outsiders who find their place with each other. I got a chance to speak with first time feature director Sean Mullin -- a veteran like Sam, a Captain of the Army and Ground Zero first responder who’s also worked as a stand-up comedian and improv actor. That balance between hilarity and solemnity is what works so well in Amira & Sam, and it’s what makes Mullin such an interesting subject.

Sam is a different kind of veteran than what we usually see onscreen. Can you talk about how important that was to you?

Absolutely, I think that was the initial premise: to make a film about a veteran that hasn’t been seen before. I think every veteran role is usually in a war movie, and it’s always about a veteran with post-traumatic stress, at least every one that I’ve ever seen. So I wanted to flip that premise on its head and ask the question, ‘What happens if a veteran comes home, and he’s fine, but the country lost its mind?’ In many ways, it’s an exploration of the idea that the country has PTSD after September 11th, and Sam was fine. And I thought, in the way that I look at the world, that was inherently comedic. Some people might look at it as dramatic, but I thought there was some really great comedic potential in that.

There are some autobiographical elements to Sam’s character. How hard was it to cast that character?

It’s funny, Martin joked with me at least three or four times during the shoot. He would just look at me and say, ‘Sean, how many times did they have to tell you that you couldn’t play this role before you cast me?’ It was pretty funny. But no, I never, ever wanted to cast myself in the part. But, that being said, I did want to find somebody -- I have a background in stand-up comedy and improv theatre, and I studied at UCB, the Uprights Citizens Brigade Theatre in New York City in the first few years that it was built, and I was there basically around the same time I was working at Ground Zero, and I’d spend twelve hours a day at Ground Zero in the New York National Guard, and I’d spend my nights doing stand-up comedy and improv theatre, so it was kind of a balance between the two worlds. So when I was casting Sam, I needed somebody who had the gravitas and the stoicism of a vet, that Martin definitely had, and at the same time the timing and the humor, and really, Martin is a rare beast. He possesses both. And he’s never had a lead before! He’s never been a lead actor in a film, which blew me away, so it was really an amazing opportunity for me to give him that chance, and for him to give me the chance of directing my first feature. So as with any independent film, a director, when casting it, the key is that everybody involved needs to be getting something out of the relationship -- as with any relationship, you want it to be mutually beneficial. And I think for him, this being his first lead in a film was really exciting, and also frightening in some ways, and the amount of trust that he placed in me was something that I was extremely grateful for. But at the same time, it was a two-way street. We both had something to gain from the relationship.

With casting Dina for Amira, how did you know when you hit upon the right chemistry between the two characters? I’m assuming you cast Martin first.

I did cast Martin first, and then the chemistry was something that I just had a hunch about. Because we didn’t have time to get them together; we cast it so quickly, and the way it came together -- it’s the typical ‘hurry up and wait’ thing with independent films, where it took me a few years to get the whole thing together, but once we did get Sam and had our dates, we just didn’t have time. So Dina and Martin actually didn’t have a chance to meet until we were in rehearsal, so I just took a leap of faith that their chemistry would be amazing, but I based that leap of faith on what I had seen of Martin over the years, and then this audition that Dina had. She put herself on tape, and her audition was so incredible, it was one of those real kind of Hollywood moments where you see an actress and you’re like, ‘Wow, that’s her. That’s Amira.’ I don’t even think I made it through the whole audition; I think I stopped it about halfway through and called my producers and said, ‘I found Amira, and we’ve got to go with her.’ And then I met her in person, and she’s just such a lovely, smart, warm, strong, engaging human, that I just knew, I just knew that she and Martin would hit it off. I knew they’d hit it off, but I had no idea the kind of magic that they’d actually produce.

You have this long, one-shot scene with Amira and Sam, where they first share Sam’s bed, and it’s the crux of the movie. It’s sort of the moment by which the movie lives or dies. Did you rehearse it? Can you talk about staging it and filming it?

Yeah, hands down, that’s the most important scene in the film, and I always envisioned it as a director as one take with no cuts, because every time you cut, you have the opportunity to lie, and a moment like that had to be 100% authentic. Everything had to be just right, and the audience had to experience them falling for each other in real time, at least in my mind. I didn’t want to have to cut around anything, I just wanted them to see it unfold. And there’s a tension that exists with long takes -- that’s almost a seven-minute scene, and so, over the course of those seven minutes, you really see them falling for each other. So we got no coverage of it; it’s the only shot we got. It wasn’t the only take -- we got twelve takes, and we used the ninth. Well, it was the ninth or twelfth that we used. So it took most of the day to get, but it’s the most important scene in the film. And once we had that, I knew that we were onto something.

There’s a sort of running joke in David Wain’s They Came Together about romantic comedies, where they keep saying ‘New York’s a character in the movie!’ But the city really does feel like a prevalent part of this movie in a way that’s more organic than it often is in romantic comedies. How did you go about making the movie feel like an authentic New York experience?

You know, I lived in Manhattan for eight years, and I lived in all the grittiest parts. I spent my time in the areas where most people probably don’t spend their time. And so there’s this huge swath of Manhattan that I would just never visit, basically fifteen blocks north and south of Times Square. I would always spend my time in the grittier parts, and when I was in graduate school, I bartended, and some of the places I bartended weren’t the nicest joints. And also I drove a limo part-time out of Queens, so my fifteen-hour day included an hour commute out on the subway, and then a twelve-hour day, and then an hour, hour and a half back on the subway up near Columbia where I was going to grad school. So I just drove all over -- I drove to Staten Island, I drove to Brooklyn, all the parts of the city that don’t get represented. I feel like a lot of times people who make films in New York, at least romantic comedies or big, broad, studio films, they haven’t really lived in New York. And especially being down at Ground Zero, I feel like New York is such a part of who I am. My father was born in Brooklyn. I went to undergrad at West Point, which is right up the river, so when I was at West Point, I used to sneak on down to the city all the time, and go get drunk in shady joints. So the city’s a really big part of who I am, and then going to grad school in Columbia, as well, I’ve just spent a large part of my life in New York. I know it very well.

Are there any films that really informed you when you were writing and making Amira & Sam?

Yeah, absolutely. From a love story standpoint, there’s a film from 1955 called Marty with Ernest Borgnine, which is one of my all-time favorites. It’s about these two kind of outsiders that everyone’s really forgotten about, and they’re pushed together by their circumstances. So that was a big inspiration, and I went to rewatch it recently, and Marty’s a vet, which I hadn’t remembered. It’s not a big part of that film, but there’s this monologue that he gives about him coming home from the war and thinking about taking his life. It’s this really serious monologue that he gives, and it’s something that just slipped by me. So yeah, Marty really informed me, and I’d say that the original Rocky, the first one in 1976. You’ve got Adrian, who never talks, and Rocky who talks but doesn’t make too much sense, and they’re these two kind of, again, outsiders who just find each other. And I’m always fascinated by that, by love stories that are about people who are on the fringe of society. I’d say the third influence would be this movie called Once, this Irish film from ’06, a few years ago, about these musicians who are on the fringes. So I’m always drawn to people who are misunderstood, you know? I feel like that makes the most powerful romantic films, when you get two people who are misunderstood by everybody, but somehow, they understand each other.

When you’ve sat in on audience screenings, is there one joke or moment that you really hoped would land that you’re gratified to discover really does land?

You know, it’s funny, yeah. The film plays better with audiences than I ever really hoped for. You were there at the Austin screening -- I felt like we had wall-to-wall laughs. It was pretty incredible. So the film plays great as a comedy. I’ve kind of been talking about this one moment recently: the difference between a screenplay and a film is really evident in the film where [Amira] gives the prostitute line, she’s at the party -- you know that moment, right? What’s interesting about that is that on the page, that line is okay, it’s kind of funny, maybe, not really -- maybe you’ll give a little chuckle or a little smirk if you read the script, like ‘Oh, a prostitute, that’s so funny, whatever.’ But when you see it in a theater with an audience, it’s hands down the biggest laugh, consistently. I’ve seen the film now at 14 festivals, we actually won six best film awards at festivals this fall, which is awesome. And so, yeah, I was able to see the film with thousands of people now, and that line gets a huge laugh. And the reason it gets a huge laugh is, again, the difference between a film and a screenplay. In the screenplay, you’re reading it, it’s on the page. But when you’re watching the film, we introduce Sam and he kind of gets kicked in the face at work, and we introduce Amira and she gets kicked in the face at work, and so we’re rooting for both of them individually. And after that long bed scene, we’re now really rooting for them as a team. A primal instinct kicks in, and we’re rooting for them together. And they’re at the party, and they’re kind of kicked again. It’s just this kind of primal bark that comes out of the audience, you know? And it’s not because of what’s on the page, it’s because of the performances.

Is there one thing you really hope audiences take away from this film?

I would say just the idea that perceptions always need to be challenged, and stereotypes need to be challenged. The thing that interests me about storytelling is finding characters who live in this world between perception and reality, right? The way that people are perceived is not the way they really are, and there’s a tension that exists between that, and I feel like these characters live in that middle zone. And as a writer and a director, and a storyteller in general, I feel like if I can use this film in any way, it would be to have audiences rethink their perceptions of veterans and immigrants. Because there’s this narrative that’s being pushed by the media that every veteran’s a loose cannon and every immigrant’s a criminal, and that’s just bullshit.

You were an Army officer. Are there any similarities between being an Army officer and directing a movie?

Absolutely. I mean, more than you would think. I would get that a lot -- I remember when I first went to Columbia, I told them that I’d gone to West Point and I was a Captain of the Army, and they were like, ‘What are you doing here?’ and I told them, like, ‘Well, fuck you. I’m here to make movies.’ When you’re in front of your crew and you’ve got a plan and you’ve got to execute that plan, and things are going to go wrong and you need to lead without being an asshole, I mean, that’s really the first commandment of any sort of leadership: inspiring your troops. It’s very similar to being in front of your platoon and having a mission and knowing that things are going to go wrong. I think it was Eisenhower that said ‘When it comes to battle, plans don’t mean shit, but planning means everything.’ And that’s very similar to filmmaking, I feel like. And there are quotes about the army throughout film history where you have directors comparing themselves. Orson Welles said, ‘A writer needs a pen, an artist needs a brush, but a filmmaker needs an army.’ Of course, nothing compares to war, that’s obviously in its own world, but when it comes to the leadership skills needed, I don’t think there’s a better film school in America than West Point.

This was originally published in the February issue of Birth.Movies.Death. See Amira & Sam in theaters and on VOD starting this Friday!