The upcoming film Amira & Sam explores a unique angle on both the veteran and immigrant experiences by framing them within the context of a romantic comedy. Sean Mullin makes his directorial debut in a personal story that borrows from his own life as a vet. Cut Print Film spoke to Mullin about the autobiographical aspect of the film, New York City and extending empathy to every character.
CUT PRINT FILM: How do you balance the autobiographical aspects of the film with the fictitious elements needed to flesh out the story?
SEAN MULLIN: That’s a good question, though I would never call the film autobiographical. However, there’s no way anyone else could have made this film, if that makes sense. It definitely pulls a lot from my background. I’ve been writing screenplays long enough, I’ve been studying film long enough to know you can’t let the truth get in the way of good story. I did everything I could to take what was interesting about my background and get rid of all the rest.
CUT PRINT FILM: Given that you have been writing for a while, what was it about this story that made you want it to be your feature directorial debut?
SEAN MULLIN: When I say I’ve been working for a while, I’ve been working as a screenwriter for seven or eight years in Hollywood, writing scripts for other people. I knew I wanted to direct, I went to grad school at Columbia for directing. I had some short films that won awards and did well but I knew if I was going to do a feature I had to come up with a story that was financeable. So I looked at two things. I looked at, well everybody likes a good love story so if I can write a good love story that’ll at least be commercially viable. And love stories tend to be on the less-expensive side, because there’s no huge action set pieces, there’s the whole scene we have in bed where they’re talking for seven minutes. That’s inexpensive.
CUT PRINT FILM: How did you arrive at the idea of the meta-aspect of Amira selling pirated romantic comedies for a living?
SEAN MULLIN: One of my first screenwriting jobs, I was hired to write a screenplay for Britney Spears, so I worked with her for about a year. In order to prep for that job, I watched every romantic comedy that’s ever been made. There are so many horrible romantic comedies out there, and I learned everything not to do from watching all of those. I did want to take a couple jabs at them. I did think there was something kind of ironic about a character who sells these cheesy kind of movies on Canal St. and is unwittingly caught up in her own love story.
CUT PRINT FILM: The film is critical of America’s systems and problems, but it never succumbs to complete cynicism. How do you manage that?
SEAN MULLIN: I think if you’re going to approach any sort of political subject the worst thing you can do is preach. People don’t want to be told what to think. But they are more than willing to be open to what to feel. The best part about cinema is it can really affect people on an emotional level. So I figured these big, complex issues of immigration and veteran assimilation, the best way to tackle these stories in the context of an independent film was to create an intimate love story with universal implications.
CUT PRINT FILM: Going along with that, I like that the character of Charlie (Paul Wesley) can be a jackass but you never make him a complete villain. What did you do to ensure the characters were morally complex?
SEAN MULLIN: One of the best screenwriting adages I’ve ever heard is this idea that the villain is the hero of their own story. So, every character you write you need to write like they’re the main character in their own life. If you do that you don’t judge the characters, they just are who they are. Humans are complex and layered. I don’t view Charlie as a bad guy at all. He’s on Wall Street and what people on Wall Street do is they leverage assets. So sometimes they overleverage their assets and he views Sam as an asset and he leverages that asset, and he ends up overleveraging that.
CUT PRINT FILM: Given how many films about relationships are set in New York, what do you do to make sure you have a unique spin on the city either visually or thematically?
SEAN MULLIN: I had a real strong take on that actually. My background real quick: I had gone to West Point for undergrad up the river and I went to Columbia grad school after. After September 11th I was in the New York National Guard here in Manhattan, and I was activated on September 11th as a first responder, and I spent about a year down at Ground Zero as a captain in charge of the soldiers there during the day, and I did stand-up comedy at night. Those two warring worlds were really interesting and really fed into my love of the city. So, to answer your question, how did I tie it in thematically? I looked at the boroughs. You know, Charlie is Manhattan, he’s money, he’s the establishment, he’s the island. Then Amira, she’s diverse, she’s from the Middle East, so she’s Brooklyn. She really reminds of Brooklyn. And then with Sam, he’s this veteran who has kind of been forgotten about and marginalized so he’s Staten Island. That’s kind of Staten Island’s deal. So if they’re these three boroughs, what connects Brooklyn to Staten Island, well the Verrazano-Narrows Bridge. So then that bridge plays throughout the film, if you recognize it that bridge is all over the movie.
CUT PRINT FILM: Martin Starr is perfectly cast here; in every role he feels a little alien and out-of-place. How did his casting come about?
SEAN MULLIN: I’ve been a fan of his forever, you know? I knew I needed somebody who could pull off the comedy, first and foremost. So I was really scared, I was nervous, and some of the names that came up were more dramatic actors and I just got nervous casting a dramatic actor who could pull off the comedy. So I knew I wanted to cast a comedic actor. I wanted to cast somebody that people would see in a new light. I just knew he could do it. My thing with Martin, he’s just never hit a false note in anything he’s ever done. And I figured, why would he start with me?
CUT PRINT FILM: If your film could leave people having one conversation, what would it be?
SEAN MULLIN: I think challenging the perception of veterans and immigrants. I feel like they’re both marginalized in society and I feel like the media attempts to push these two narratives. You know, one narrative is that every veteran is a loose cannon and every immigrant is a detriment to our country. I feel like those two narratives need to be challenged.
Amira & Sam hits theaters and VoD on Friday 1/30. Click here for dates & times.