Thursday, October 2, 2014

Ali Selim on "Sweet Land"

The purpose of these interviews is to help demystify the filmmaking process ...

ALI SELIM: First, let me tell you, I can't help you de-mystify it. It's the most mysterious thing I've ever done, still to this day.

Had you ever written a screenplay before this?

ALI SELIM: No. I dabbled. I took a screenwriting class from Tom Pope in 1984, and I churned out something to get a grade. I can't even remember what it was. Then we had this idea when I was at Departure Films in 1989 that we were going to try and make a movie and I think I cranked something out then as well. But again, I don't even remember what it was. I just didn't know any better. I thought you slap some words on a page, got the camera out and that was that.

This was really my first effort at telling a story that was structured and constructed. But had I put words on a page before? Yeah. Had I ever done anything seriously or taken myself seriously? I think this was the first time.

Did you think about budget at all while you were writing Sweet Land?

ALI SELIM: No, I guess I didn't. If I had thought about that, I think the script would look very different. No, I just let it rip and left it up to (producer) Jim Bigham to make it happen. He was great. He's an old friend and he really connected with the script for a lot of reasons. He wasn't just a Line Producer, he was a guy who really wanted to see it made.

He was the one guy who would go through the script with me and say, "If we get rid of this, it will make that better." He was great about hanging on to the parts of the story that would drive it forward, and yet getting rid of the things that were a little too big. He was more budget conscious, and that caused me to re-write, I guess, but while I was writing I didn't really think about it.

Was there anything you were sorry to lose because of budget restraints?

ALI SELIM: There was nothing I was sorry to lose. I learned a lot from Jim Bigham about how to be efficient, not how to be cheap or just say no -- let's be efficient and talk about what the story is. When you don't have millions and millions of dollars and tons of days, I think you just naturally give up some of those shots that you would see in King Kong, which are great -- those big, wide street scenes of New York -- but I don't know that we need them in a film like this.

There were a lot of those little things along the way where, if we'd had the money, yeah, we'd get the train pulling away from the station as she was walking away, but you don't necessarily need it.

Did you re-write it at all after it was cast, to fit the actors you cast?

ALI SELIM: A little bit. I think I did a lot of re-writing for Ned Beatty, who was interested and willing to be a little more terse and mean. The character wasn't originally that way, and I like what he brought to it. And so I re-wrote a lot of his dialogue to reflect that.

I re-wrote Frandsen, too. My grandparents had a friend like that character, an immigrant living hand to mouth on a farm in Minnesota, and yet he was more influenced by what he heard of vaudeville and what he saw at the movies than what his real life was. It took Alan (Cumming) a little while, but when he got that, we re-wrote Frandsen to make him more fun in that way.

Do you think you wrote it any differently because you knew you would be directing it?

ALI SELIM: I don't think so. I don't know what writing another kind of script is like, so I don't know if I adapted this to the fact that I was going to be directing.

I do know that my writing is vastly more sparse or suggestive than most screenwriters. My Assistant Director was pulling his hair out, saying "It's not in the script, it's not in the script!" And I think, actually, that's what attracted the actors to it. It doesn't have the kind of screen direction that says, "She raises her left hand and puts it on the cool granite counter." There's none of that in there. It's more just a kind of rumbling suggestion, and I think the actors really seemed to appreciate that, because they all talked about not only the sparseness of the dialogue, which is as sparse as the script.

I'm writing another script now and I'm finding that it really isn't just the taciturn Scandinavian farmers that caused me to write that way, it's really more my writing style.

Are there any lessons from Sweet Land that you'll take to future projects?

ALI SELIM: I think I learned some lessons about dialogue -- how much actors really bring to the show. We did a couple rehearsal readings in Montevideo, once all the actors arrived. And immediately following those readings, I think I went through and cut about half of the dialogue. Just watching their faces I thought, Boy, they don't even need to memorize this stuff in Norwegian or German or whatever it is, they just need to act and look and work between the lines.

And then when we started editing, I bet we lost another half of what was left. And I'm finding that it's really helpful in writing the next script. Write it for the actor, don't write it for the producer who's reading it.

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