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'May in the Summer' Writer-Director Cherien Dabis on Hiring Herself to Star in Her Film

Women and Hollywood By Melissa Silverstein | Women and Hollywood August 20, 2014 at 12:08PM

"Authenticity was very important to me, and I was having a really difficult time finding someone who really embodied the spirit of the character, and also brought that cultural, linguistic authenticity."
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"May in the Summer"
"May in the Summer"

May in the Summer is Cherien Dabis' second film about people who live in two worlds. (Her debut was the Sundance hit Amreeka.) In addition to writing and directing, Dabis went in front of the camera for the first time in her sophomore film, where she plays May, a successful writer in NYC who grew uin Jordan. Much to the chagrin of her born-again Christian mother (Hiam Abbas), she returns home to get married to her Muslim fiancé. When she reunites with her family, especially her two young sisters, she confronts fissures in her identity and her relationship that make her rethink her life decisions.

Dabis spoke with Women and Hollywood about the year-long journey to find a lead actress ("I called myself back in for a second audition"), the importance of authenticity in a film like May in the Summer, and knowing when you just can't force the editing process. 

WaH: Tell me the logline to describe your film.

CD: I like to think of the film as a divorce drama disguised as a wedding comedy.

WaH: You cast yourself as the lead in this, although you hadn’t acted previously. How did that come about, and what was it like being writer and director as well as the lead?

CD: Well, I did not write the role for myself, so I didn’t originally have the intention of playing the part of May in the film, or playing any of the parts in the film. I spent about a year casting, looking for someone to play May, and I had a very specific idea of what I was looking for. 

Authenticity was very important to me, and I was having a really difficult time finding someone who really embodied the spirit of the character, and also brought that cultural, linguistic authenticity. At the same time, I had people who kept encouraging me to consider myself to play it, and I just simply thought that they were crazy. To put myself in my own movie and to have to direct myself in my acting debut just sounded like not a good idea! 

Finally, a friend convinced me to put myself on tape, and that was really the first time that I started to consider it more seriously. I watched the tape several times to get over that horror of hearing my own voice, and seeing myself and all of the little tics and things that you see yourself do. 

I called myself back in for a second audition, and I worked a little bit more in depth with myself to see if I could really get there, get to where I wanted the actor playing this part to go, and I surprised myself at certain moments, in that I started to realize I wanted to do it, and that the only reason I wouldn’t do it was that I was terrified.

I very carefully showed the tapes to my producers and to the casting director and to a few people, and much to my surprise, nobody protested! It was also very important to get the opinion of someone who didn’t know me at all, so I sent my tape along with the tape of a couple [of others] to an objective third person who didn’t know me at all, and that person actually chose me and made a compelling argument for why he would cast me in the film. So that was one of the final things that led me to be like, "Alright, this is the right thing for the movie."

WaH: When you were saying you couldn’t find the right person, isn’t that an indication that we need a greater diversity of women out there so that we can have the opportunities to see different kinds of people on screen?

CD: Oh yeah, absolutely. That’s so important. And authenticity is incredibly important to me in my work, so it really felt like the most authentic choice for the film. And, honestly, it started to feel like the best choice for me just as far as, "Okay, I have to accept that this keeps coming back to me for a reason and this is really just a part of my journey."

WaH: Talk a little bit about the challenge of being the director, being in the scene, dealing with the other actors in the scene, and trying to get your shot.

CD: That was an incredible challenge and one that I tried to prepare myself for as much as possible. It’s a very specific skill, the going back and forth between the directing and the acting. The director is seeing everything in the widest lens possible and knows what everyone is going to say and do. And then in the next moment, you have to become the actor and zoom in on the longest possible lens and only see the point of view of the character that you’re playing. So, it was that shift in perspective, the zooming back and forth, zooming out and zooming in, that I really wanted to try and gain as much experience in as possible. 

I worked with a friend and acting coach for about a year and a half on gaining experience in that specific skill, and putting myself on tape and getting used to watching myself so that I could try and be as objective as possible when I watched playback on set. I’m really grateful that I had the opportunity to do that because I think that that was a huge help. When we got to set, obviously some days were more challenging than others. On the days where we had enough time and I felt like it was working, it was great. And then there were days where we were rushed and there was no time, and it was really difficult to shift back and forth and it was really disorienting.

I really relied on the people around me -- my acting coach being one of them -- who were on set to help me figure out whether I got what was needed. But one of the things that was really cool that I discovered was directing the scene from the inside, and really getting what I needed from the actors by giving them something different, or something unexpected, as an actor within the scene. That was a really cool discovery that was something that I guess I had read a little bit about in my research on other director-actors who had done this before, but it’s not really until you experience it that you realize how much added control it gives you as a director. 

WaH: Talk a little bit about the process, after getting to Sundance and the premiere, when you wanted to then take it to another level, and the lessons you’ve learned. 

CD: Well, we shot this movie in July and August 2012, and then we rushed to start editing in time for, hopefully, a Sundance premiere. I got an early cut to Sundance, and they were incredibly supportive. I worked on this film at Sundance Screenwriters Lab, so they were eager to see a cut and to give feedback and go through the process that they go through with their lab fellows. 

So I got them a cut around the time that they were expecting it -- it wasn’t the final film because we were still kind of racing to get it done. We got in, and not only did we get in, we were invited to open the US Dramatic Competition section, which is an enormous honor. I was absolutely thrilled and absolutely terrified at the same time, because I knew that we were really, really racing to get to the finish line. 

There were a number of things that made editing this movie especially challenging, one being that I was in it. It would have been nice to have time away from the film, and then to go back to get a little bit more perspective on it. Then there were a few other things that also made it more challenging. We had a very truncated post-production. The sound was really raw when we got to Sundance. I had about a week to work with my composer, so the score was really not finished. I had been getting very little sleep for months on end, and I started to get a really bad feeling in the pit of my stomach around the time that we were in our sound mix.

And then we’re at the world premiere and I’m feeling that something’s just wrong; I just know that something is wrong. And the film starts to play and I just start to sweat. I just start to feel like, "Oh god this movie is not done, this movie is not done"; I start to have this total panic. And I was haunted by that feeling of "this movie is not done" for many months afterwards. 

It took me quite a bit of time to strategize and figure out how I was going to convince my team to let me get back into the movie and finish my cut to finish what I’d started. I knew my footage really well, and I just knew that there was a better movie in there. So it really took me about eight months to figure out how to strategize, and how to approach my sales agent and my distributors, and raise some money that I needed to go back in, and I finally did it. 

It was an amazing, amazing lesson. I’m so glad that I was persistent in it because there were many moments where I just thought, "Maybe I should just let this go, let it be what it is, let the movie go out into the world, move on to the next thing." But I stayed with it, and I was really kind of stubborn about it. I eventually got to go back in and spend four more weeks re-cutting, really finish cutting the film, working on the rhythm and the pacing. It’s a different-feeling film as a result. It’s a huge relief because, ultimately, as a filmmaker you come to realize that what’s most important is how you feel about your finished film. Because if you feel good about it, you know that you did the best that you could under the circumstances that you had, and that no matter what happens, you’re happy and you’re okay.

WaH: Do you like writing better, or directing better? Do you have a preference? 

CD: It’s interesting because writing is something that you can do every day, all the time, and so I do consider myself more of a writer because of that. Directing is something that you don’t get to do all the time, but it’s something that I find to be so incredibly fulfilling when I do it. Production is by far my favorite part of the proces,s because there’s something so fulfilling about going really that deep into concentration, and focus, and really being so present. 

It’s so much fun to be the very first audience of a movie; I mean, that’s how I see myself as a director on set when I’m watching a scene come to life. I am the first audience, and if I’m moved by what I’m seeing in some way, then it’s working, and that is so exciting when that happens -- when you feel something really come to life, and you feel something as a director, and you realize that, "Okay, if I feel something then hopefully other people will too." It’s a really great feeling.

WaH: It seems to me from the anecdotal evidence that I see that women have a much better chance of directing if they’re the writers too. Do you notice that? 

CD: That makes sense to me, and I think that, based on my experience, I could probably say yes.

WaH: Because guys get director-for-hire gigs a lot more than women. 

CD: A lot more. They definitely have those opportunities a lot more than women, yes.

WaH: As a director, you bring in your own material, but do your agents send you out to go meet with people for other projects? Or do you want to just do your own projects? 

CD: No, I absolutely get submissions from my agents. I’ve gotten some really great submissions, and I’ve gone up for some jobs. It’s been a really interesting experience. I’ve gotten close on some things, and there are many that have passed me by. There’s a couple that I have gotten to take on, which has been really cool. There’s a project that I was hired on to rewrite and am attached to direct, and that’s one of my upcoming films. It’s very different than anything that I’ve done previously. It’s an American film. It’s a romantic comedy. It’s with big-name actors. So, it’s definitely a different direction.

WaH: Well, you can handle that after all the stuff that you’ve just done! 

CD: Yeah, I’m really excited about it. It’s something that’s really different, and it’s not my original material even though I did take it on, and I did a major rewrite and I made it my own. That was a challenge in and of itself -- taking material that I hadn’t conceived of and making it mine. That was actually a really interesting thing. I wasn’t certain that I could do it at first, but it was really cool to see that I could.

WaH: Do you have any advice for up-and-coming women who want to break into this business? 

CD: It can be really, really tough, and I think you just have to approach it from many different angles. You have to have so many balls in the air at the same time, and it can be really exhausting, but I think that tenacity and persistence are some of the most important things. There are so many ways to get discouraged, but you just can’t allow yourself go there. You just have to always rise up and keep going. That’s the thing I keep telling myself. You just have to keep going. An interesting thing that I’ve learned is that "no" doesn’t always really mean "no," it just simply means "not now."


This article is related to: May in the Summer, Cherien Dabis, Interviews, Women Directors