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What many Americans consider foreign has always been familiar to writer/director, Cherien Dabis. Growing up between two vastly different worlds – that of the tradition-steeped Middle East and the pop-culture splashed U.S. of A. – she experienced first hand what it means to truly have your heart, and your loyalty belong to two places at the same time.

Fortunately, the talented filmmaker has never been afraid to let this dichotomy inform her work– from her days as a writer on Showtime’s groundbreaking The L Word, to her emergence on the indie film scene as a fresh, bold voice with 2009’s Amreeka. In her latest film, the deeply intimate, devoutly familial May In the Summer, Dabis takes us to stunning Amman, Jordan, where she reunites with some old friends (Amreeka’s Alia Shawkat and Hiam Abbass) to explore love, loss, and the complicated joys of sisterhood.

Recently, I met up with the talented writer/director to chat about her personal – if not exactly autobiographical-  new movie, her profound love of the desert, and how she finally became ready for her close-up…

What made you want to be in this one?

“It was not something that I planned to do. In fact I didn’t write the role for myself and I was very resistant when other people brought up (the idea) because even though I’ve always been interested in acting and taken acting classes all my life, I wouldn’t have thought to put myself in my own film. It was really the fact that other people brought it up so much that made me think, Alright, perhaps I’m meant to hear this.

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How did you go from simply thinking it was a possibility to actually knowing you could do it?

“I very reluctantly put myself on tape – and I was really thinking ok, let’s just do this as an experiment, but I was still having a hard time seeing myself actually do it – but I put myself on tape, I watched it back, and I was really surprised by what I saw—I looked completely different to myself. And even though I felt like I would need a lot of work, there was something there that was raw enough, that I recognized, and that I hadn’t seen– because I had spent a year casting-looking for someone to play the part. And so I recognized something in myself and I thought, ok, let me at least call myself back.

You auditioned yourself?

(laughing) “I put myself through a very rigorous audition process… probably more rigorous than most people because I needed to be sure that I could pull it off. It was a difficult decision to make and I spent a year and a half preparing myself.”

Were you worried that if you starred in it, people would automatically think it was autobiographical?

“I did worry a little bit that. What’s really interesting is that Amreeka was much more semi-autobiographical, and this film is not. It’s definitely inspired by my cultural experience – I have four sisters and know the sister dynamic really well – my mother did move back to Jordan. So there’s things that are inspired by my life, but my father’s not American, he’s Palestinian, and I have four sisters, and I’m much more Arab than May.“

“There’s a lot of differences between May and I, so I did worry about that a little bit, but ultimately, I thought, I can’t let that stop me from doing what it now feels like I’m meant to do. I was meant to go on this journey- it was a part of my work and my growth and my process.”

Was it difficult to be objective now that you were literally in each scene?

“It was absolutely a challenge… and I spent a year and a half really trying to get as much experience in that as I could. So what I did was I worked with a good friend who’s an acting teacher and who kind of became an acting coach. We would bring actors in to work with me two days a week and spend time working on either scenes form the film or outside material, but the goal was to always tape it so I was forced to watch myself and that was a very important part of my process because I had to break down all of those biases, all of those ego things that would stop me up.”

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Sounds therapeutic…

“Absolutely. Things come up like – I hate the sound of my voice! or Why do I do that thing with my hands? –all of this insecurity. You really learn to appreciate what actors do even more because you are confronted with yourself and who you are – the good, the bad, and the ugly – the ways in which you naturally act in life  – so it was really interesting and really opened me up and allowed me to discover myself in a way.  And I’m so glad that I did because it really helped when I got to set as well, because when you’re making an indie  film you’re totally rushed – you don’t have any time to allow things to settle or simmer or unfold, you have to really quickly go through your process and had I not really developed a process in that year and a half, I think I would have been a lot of trouble.”

Speaking of developing your process… how did the fact that you had previously collaborated with Alia and Hiam affect how you worked with them on this film?

“I love them, and had a great time working with them on Amreeka and we became good friends, so I was really plotting how I could do it again. And so when I came up with the story for May In The Summer, I had them in mind even as I was thinking abut what I could write and what I could move into for my second film.”

“Hiam is someone who really surprised me when I met her and got to know her because I had always seen her in these really dramatic parts, but she’s such a playful, young-hearted, really fun-loving spirit, and she has this great sense of humor, and I wanted to write something for her where she could showcase that. So it was really fun to be ale to write something with her in mind, and to bring that side of her out. Ad because I was in the film, it was great to have that continuity of working with people who I had a shorthand with, and who I knew were really looking out for me, especially since being on camera definitely made me more vulnerable as a director.”

When you know the actor so well, does that inform how you write the character, for instance allow you to make them less sympathetic if the performer happens to have an easy charm?

“I think when you’re creating really complex characters, you’re definitely looking for ways that you can push all angles of who they are – the positive things that we want people to feel empathy for, but also the questionable or morally ambiguous stuff that people might judge. I think the character of May’s mother for instance,  is very complex in the story so I wanted her to be layered. We sort of uncover her – peel away the layers and discover a really vulnerable person there. And I always kind of knew that Hiam could play that so I knew that I definitely could push it further. Even still, as much as you know someone, they always bring themselves to the part in a way that surprises you, so there are things that Hiam brought to the part that I didn’t imagine when I was writing it, and that was really cool too.

What changed about the way you speak to actors, after becoming one yourself?

“I discovered something really interesting as I was preparing for this movie and that is that I could direct the actors from inside the scene. So when the camera wasn’t on me and I was still in the scene with the actors, I could surprise them with something they weren’t expecting and get the reaction that I wanted from them – from character to character and that was really great – that was a fun discovery.”

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The scenes of the Jordanian desert are so gorgeous and evocative. Was that something you felt a responsibility to show- another side of the Middle East than a lot of Westerners are used to seeing — or was it simply a way to express your own love of nature… or both?

“I think the desert is such a special place and I definitely have a connection to the desert and the silence and the sort of vast emptiness of it. I think it’s really profound, and I wanted the character to have a revelation in a place where she could finally hear her own thoughts and really connect with herself and figure out who she is and what she wants because in so many ways this is a movie of self- discovery and May is a character who’s really struggling with all of this expectation around her—her own expectation, and certainly her parental expectations; Even societal and political expectations.”

“She has to sort of peel all of that way – all of the business of the things that we’re bombarded with on a daily basis and really figure out who she is and what she wants. And I always imagined that happening in a place where she could be confronted with her own inner vices and what better place to do that that in the desert? It’s a very internal journey that she’s on and it was way to externalize that and make it really cinematic, to put it in this landscape, where a lot of people could have really profound epiphanies, and I think a lot of people have.”