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SYS Podcast Episode 359: With Writer/Director Zeina Durra (transcript)

This is a transcript of SYS Podcast Episode 359: With Writer/Director Zeina Durra.


Ashley: Welcome to Episode #359 of the Selling Your Screenplay podcast. I’m Ashley Scott Meyers, screenwriter and blogger over at www.sellingyourscreenplay.com. Today I am interviewing Zeina Durra who just did an indie romance called Luxor. She talks about the project and how it came together for her. She’s a real passionate artist, has some great advice for writers on having the careers that they want to have. She went to film school here in the States, but lives in the UK now. So we talk about some of the differences between making films here and then making them over in Europe. Again, another interesting discussion. So stay tuned for that interview.

If you find this episode valuable, please help me out by giving me a review in iTunes or leave me a comment on YouTube or re-tweeting the podcast on Twitter or liking or sharing it on Facebook. These social media shares really do help spread word about the podcast, so they are very much appreciated. Any websites or links that I mention in the podcast can be found on my blog in the show notes. I also publish a transcript with every episode in case you’d rather read the show or look at something later on. You can find all the podcast, show notes at www.sellingyourscreenplay.com/podcast, and then look for Episode Number #359. If you want my free guide, How to Sell a Screenplay In Five Weeks, you can pick that up by going to www.sellingyourscreenplay.com/guide.

It’s completely free, you just put in your email address and I’ll send you a new lesson once per week for five weeks, along with a bunch of bonus lessons. .I teach the whole process of how to sell your screenplay in that guide. I’ll teach you how to write a professional logline and query letter, and how to find agents, managers and producers who are looking for material. Really is everything you need to know to your screenplay, just go to www.sellingyourscreenplay.com/guide. So now let’s get into the main segment. Today I’m interviewing writer, director Zeina Durra. Here is the interview.

Ashley: Welcome Zeina to the Selling Your Screenplay podcast. I really appreciate you coming on the show with me today.

Zeina: Thank you for having me.

Ashley: So to start out, maybe you can tell us a little bit about your background. Where did you grow up and how did you get interested in the entertainment business?

Zeina: I would say I grew up in London. I was born here, in London, England. From a really young age, I knew I wanted to make films and I’d heard about this film school called NYU. I was very… if only I knew about the Graduate Film program pretty early on in my life, like I believe when I was 12 and I really had my sights set on going there. So I went and did an undergrad at Oxford and then it’s amazing the timing actually worked out. I got into NYU Grad Film and I just started. That’s when I came to America and I stayed there for quite a while after from school, so I was there for over a decade. It’s really… I think the time just before going to film school I was really making films and then… like short films, and then at film school, obviously I’d never even doubted that this is obviously what I wanted to do. So yeah, that’s how I kind of got into it.

Ashley: Got you. I’m curious at 12 years old, how did you know this was something you wanted to pursue? What did that look like, what did that feel like? Like, how did you know internally that this was a career for you at such an early age?

Zeina: My father… Okay, my father ran the Middle East Desk, United Press International. In those days we grew up with a lot of film characters, because the news was shot on film, when I was really young, probably before I was 12, in the early 80’s and late 70’s. We had a lot of film around us all the time and my father was constantly filming, so I would film, but I didn’t want to do what my father did, which was News. Because I also saw how it did and how my father would do stories that [inaudible 00:03:46] didn’t want that story out there. So I realized that narrative was a really good way of doing it and I would make up stories. I remember for my 10th birthday we made a film with my friends and I was really upset with the performances I was getting, and I really wanted them to be better.

So that’s how I started. Also because I come from such a unique kind of place, I have always written what I direct, I’ve never directed something that I haven’t written. So for me writing and directing are very much linked. I know that there are other people that are just writers, but then go into it, but as for me, it’s definitely a process that… I am an [inaudible 0:04:25] of potential to [inaudible 00:04:26] down, and I write to direct, if that makes sense.

Ashley: Sure. So let’s talk about that period. So you went to NYU, majored in film. Was it a producing background, directing? What was your specialty there at NYU?

Zeina: Oh, no, it’s graduate. The brilliant thing about NYU Graduate Film, so I went to Oxford before I had my undergrad, but I knew I wanted to do graduate program. It’s very different than any of the other film schools around, because you get to where you have to write, direct, produce, shoot, edit, sound, do sound, and you know, record sound, and then sound mix. You can do everything. You then have a [inaudible 00:05:10] sound design. So I think that if you are a director, I really feel that it’s necessary that you know all these things, because in this movie that we’re talking about today, Luxor, actually I… the editor and I didn’t see eye to eye the first time we talked, for the first I think two weeks. I realized that he wasn’t the one, I hadn’t worked with him before.

My editor was in New York and he couldn’t come because of various family issues. So I basically edited my film on my own until I found this amazing Chilean editor that could come for three weeks to just sort of like go through it all with me, and I’d really done all of the auctions. So I don’t think… and editing is very much like writing the screenplay. So those two, everything sort of compliments each other, and I think it’s really sad when people just go to film programs that just make you focus on one thing, because you can’t possibly understand how everything else works, if that make sense.

Ashley: Yeah, absolutely. It does, and I think that’s a very, very point well taken. So let’s talk about then you’re out of NYU, what were some of your first jobs in the in the industry? I noticed on IMDb you have a short film, Seventh Dog and then you have a feature film, The Imperialists Are Still Alive. Maybe we’ll sort of walk through those. What were you doing once you got done with this graduate program at NYU? What were the first forays into professional filmmaking?

Zeina: It was basically, well, when you are there, it’s almost like a fast track, because you do get really good in these things. I was trying to make a screenplay, now, this is a really important part for the listeners right now. If you’re writing from a specific place which is new and hasn’t been seen before, people are going to try and control your narrative, okay? So it was really interesting after Seventh Dog. I had this movie called The Imperialists Are Still Alive, which is still, I mean, it’s wonderful because some of the programs was at Sundance, I remember to GoFundMe it which was chosen for… I think Robert Redford Tribeca, a show on the Sundance Channel about like his favorite Sundance moments.

So it was clueless because it came from at a really fresh voice. If you’re writing like that, it’s really difficult to not be swayed because everyone’s gonna be like, “Well, you need to get your movie made, you’re gonna make compromises.” You do not need to compromise. If you know your voice and you know that it’s special, don’t compromise. You compromise on set because you don’t have the money to take the crazy, whatever shot you need. That’s when you compromise. When you compromise in the sense that, okay, you can’t film the whole film in Africa because of money, but the essence and the way you write and the language and the real core of your story do not compromise, because that is the issue.

The issue is the cinema is so vanilla right now because they are so scared to back interesting things. They don’t know it, so they get worried, it’s not like the 70’s where it was really interesting to direct in terms of being backed. Now, hopefully with this whole diversity, it means two things, it’ll change, but honestly, I mean, in Europe, it’s way behind and hopefully in America it’s slightly better, but I won’t know until I’ve made my next film. So the reason why I made this next movie and Luxor. I mean, nobody was even interfering with it. I just went and I made this movie for no money. I literally wrote some themes on set during shooting. It was really fun.

Because we literally were making it like we’re making student film except we had some pretty phenomenal actors and a really amazing technical crew, because we weren’t a student film anymore. But it was like literally we were all really gritty, and I think when you make a film in a gritty way, you can really… it doesn’t even have to look good, if you look at my film it looks beautiful, it looks very polished, it looks like we already know what we’re doing, but if you… But we made it literally in 18 days and I made it in that way because partly I just had a baby and I wanted to do it quickly. Barely, we didn’t have any money and Andrea’s schedule, she could only put us in for 18 days, we meant to have 20.

I mean, talk about limitations, but we managed to do it. So I think if you just know… you have to really fight for what you wanna do. Anyone interesting has not made a film that sounds like anyone else’s films. That’s why they’re interesting. Not that it’d be interesting just for the sake of being interesting, but if you know you have something that’s special, you know you have it and you just have to really have so much self-belief. I have guys, really famous new producers, right out of film school [inaudible 00:09:47]. They were like, “Oh, that’s great Zeina, but where are the men in the script?” I’m like, “Well, I should have realized that men weren’t the focus of my script because it was about this woman.

In my first movie, is about a woman and her life [inaudible 00:09:58] in New York on the downtown scene. I was like, “What about the men? The men are in there, but it’s not about the men, it’s about this woman.” You get these really basic comments like that and I have to go home and try and write some men now. I was like, “No, I am not writing some men in it, this is my movie. They don’t get it, they don’t get it, great.” You have to believe that if your work is good over time, you will have a body of work and that’s what it’s about, about making good work, if that’s the kind of filmmaking you wanna be in. If you wanna go off and do the flashy stuff, which is an option. I’m not saying it’s not a good option, but if you wanna do that, then maybe you do a different route.

But if you wanna be like an auteur and you have a voice, you just stick to the work, you keep your eye on the prize which is your work and your body of work, and then you’ll have something hopefully interesting at the end of it. I’ve only done two movies, but that’s my plan. I have hopefully have an interesting body of work at the end, I try things out. Hopefully I get to work with better actors, because actually right now I work with like the best female. I get a real access to lots of huge very interesting actors. Neil Andrew is probably one of the best ones around so I really I lucked out. But you see what I’m saying, you can… you get to like, you have access, that’s what it means, if you just keep your eye on the prize.

Ashley: Yeah. I’m curious, something you said there strikes me, this idea that the US, we’re doing somehow better with these films. It’s an interesting comment coming from a European, a lot of the European filmmakers that come to the US. Because the US there is sort of a harsh business reality, where in the US there’s very little tolerance for just artistic merit. It’s all purely, “is this thing gonna make money”. I’ll just be curious to see, maybe on your next film you’ll come back and talk to me and I’d be curious to hear how your experience… I think there’s more tolerance in Europe for artistic, being creative and artistic, purely for the sake of being artistic and creative?

Zeina: I’m gonna say something, I think that’s a myth. Because I think that some directors can, but then in the end they are copying the American model, but they are not as good. So what happens in America is that the indie films have zero funding. They really are, because remember I come from an Indian-American background, but I became a filmmaker in America. So my friends from NYU Grad Film who’ve gone around the world and making films, are making really interesting stuff and in a much freer way, because they’re not dependent on government bodies. Remember a lot of our money comes from government bodies, like the British Film Institute, not mine, but the more artsy movies.

They really have opinions and about what is artistic, what isn’t, what… it’s not as… yes you can, yes it’s not as money minded, but we’re talking about like indie films here. I’m not talking about like Hollywood. I’m just talking about even American Indie cinema can be really interesting when it goes right, because it’s kind of like an outlaw sort of thing. I think in Europe, yes, it’s really interesting, it seems more artsy, but it’s just the vernacular of the place. So maybe it seems more artsy to an American, but if you’re in Paris making those films, I can guarantee you, you’re not the most edgy person there. It’s someone who’s considered more mainstream there, does that make sense?

Ashley: Yeah. No, absolutely. No, I totally get that.

Zeina: It’s the norms of where you are. So in Paris, if you have the opportunity to make films, most of the time, you are probably not the most avant-garde person unless you pretty [inaudible 00:13:40] in the way of someone, but he’s already had that body of work to be able to go off and do that stuff, you know?

Ashley: Yeah. And I just… I’m not operating at that highest level of the Darren Aronofskys or the Woody Allens, but sort of what we hear in the States is like Woody Allen, eventually he had to go to Europe to get his movies funded. Same thing we start to hear of stuff like Darren Aronofsky. Sort of these guys that are true auteurs that are working sort of the highest level here in the US. The word that we sort of get on the street is that a lot of their money is actually coming from European investors, not so much America. Because again, the investors in the US are gonna be so geared towards ROI.

Zeina: That is true, but who are you are talking about? To the most famous guys, right? Because if you talking about just your average person, no. But if you’re too super famous in America and you wanna make lots of movies, sure Europe will give you the money, they love that stuff. But if you’re not on that level, then I think actually Europe is, it operates on a very similar level. Obviously not like if you’re in Poland or somewhere like… you know somewhere fantastic, but in the sense of like with the Soviet cinema legacy, or Russia maybe. But I’m talking about Europe, France, Germany, Italy, all that stuff. It’s still pretty hard to get something really interesting made.

Ashley: Yeah. For sure. Well, let’s dig into your current film Luxor, maybe to start out, you can give us a quick pitch or a logline. What is this film all about?

Zeina: That’s so funny, as a writer, I really hate loglines [laughs]. I hate being like condensed. Okay, so what is it? It’s about a woman you don’t know much about her, should be deliberate. If it were for me, I wouldn’t let you know anything about her throughout the whole thing. She’s going through something quite dark and we realize that she’d been working as a surgeon on the Syrian border, but it’s really more than that. It’s about her and where she is in her life. She meets someone that we realize she was once madly in love with and then from that relationship, she almost uses her youth and remembering her youthful joy in her relationship with him like 20 years earlier as a kind of mark to see where she’d come.

Ashley: Got you. Where did this idea come from? What was the genesis of this story?

Zeina: I was super bummed out because British funding hadn’t come through for a really awesome movie that I’ve been trying to make. So I did what we said before, then I was like, “Oh my God, I can’t believe I’m gonna make this movie.” Because I had all the money, I just needed a tiny bit of a British government money and they didn’t give it to me. So my producer, he’s wonderful, he said to me… he’s very like old school, brilliant producer. He was like, “You know what, let’s just do something else and then come back to this. If you can make it, you’re gonna have to make something else first.” That’s another thing for the listeners, you know what, if something falls apart, don’t worry, because you can always go back and make it. That might not be the right time. Maybe go make another film, does really well then you can get back and make this film which is slightly more challenging. Yeah.

Ashley: Got you. So let’s dig into the writing of Luxor. Where do you typically write? When do you typically write? Do you go to Starbucks and need that background noise? Do you have a home office? Do you write in the morning? Do you write at night? What does your writing schedule look like?

Zeina: Okay. So when I didn’t have kids, I wrote at night. I wrote all night long. Then I would go to places like [inaudible 00:17:07] for speech, because it was across the street from me in New York, I was in East Village, and then I would come back. That was just the nicest thing. Now that I have kids, honestly, I don’t know how the hell I write, but I write somehow, somewhere. I could be writing in the car, I could be writing on my bed, it’s just like wherever there’s no noise. My office is always ambushed by them, so that doesn’t work. I’m trying to create this like “Hey, don’t come into mommy space,” but that just doesn’t work. I think I’m gonna have to ask them to, because [inaudible 00:17:36] and at the same time, I don’t wanna be out of the house.

Because for me it’s really interesting. I have this whole amazing routine. Well, I do think it’s a really good manual, but [inaudible 00:17:44]. I just remembered the other day, I basically started taking epic walks. So I drop my kids off at school and then I take this epic walk literally, for like an hour and a half through a park, and then I start working and that’s just been amazing. I think it’s also because the air is really crisp and cold at the moment and that’s been really, really helping my writing. So I try and write in the morning, but because of all the pressure for the movie, I’m all over the shop at the moment. But I do believe it’s really important to have, like I used to write in this café, so I used to write at night, I used to write also, I think I used to write 24-7 before I had kids.

Because [inaudible 00:18:20] or something and it was on 10th and 1st in the East Village, and I used to go there and to write, and I used to meet fascinating people. Like I met the actress, Catherine Morrison there, before she was, you know, when we all got kids. It was like I met really cool people at the café and we’d all be writing, or like reading screenplays in there. It was really fun. I think it’s really nice to find a café when you’re younger, where it’s like a community.

Ashley: Yeah. For sure. How much time do you spend preparing to write, doing an outline, doing index cards versus how much time do you spend in something like final draft, actually cranking out script pages?

Zeina: You ask me all the nightmare questions, okay.

Ashley: [laughs] Sorry.

Zeina: I used to write in those index cards. Now I’m like, whatever, just get it in, stop fussing about it. Just get it in, get it in, get it into the computer when it’s still fresh, because my memory is not what it used to be and I just have to just write it down and then I’ll come back and edit it. Now it’s very chaotic, it’s more like sculpting. I’ve never been one of those majorly organized people. What I do is I have like a… I’ll write down literally little arrows like the way that it’s gonna flow, then I’ll write little comments above that and then I’ll try and hit that. But sometimes that can waste your time and you just have to just go in and just write anything. I always like starting with a scene that I love. I don’t really start the beginning, middle and end now, I just start with a scene that I love the most and I try and understand why I love that scene so much. Then I kind of work from out of there. That’s a really interesting new way I’ve been doing.

Ashley: Got you. So once you had a draft that you liked, what were your next steps? It sounds like you had a relationship with this producer. But what were those next steps to actually going out and raising the money, once you had a version of this script that you were happy with?

Zeina: This film Luxor, was the worst example of how to make a film. It’s all about personal relationships. The film that had fallen through, good people listen to you, because this film had fallen through and I swear to god, it was casted but it has a [inaudible 00:20:15] a half Egyptian daughter in it. She is this beautiful girl, she was gonna be the lead of the road trip movie [inaudible 00:20:20], it was so awesome. I’m still, I’m gonna make this movie one day, but the point is that it had literally fallen apart. I was so down, I had this dream. In the dream, I tried to unpack the feelings I had in this, because I was really down and so I wrote this movie. I mean, I dreamt this movie, I dreamt the themes of this movie.

I had a chat with my DP, he wasn’t my DP at the time, but a very good friend who’s also gone to Tisch. We were talking about it and I said, “This might be a movie that’s gonna making nothing.” She said, “Yeah, sure.” Then I call 9up this Egyptian guy I know, I was literally about to self-fund this because I was like, I’m so sick of this, I need to get out and make movies, I hadn’t made one in a while. Called him up, he would, he’s in town for the London Film Festival. He’s got a movie there, we meet literally that afternoon for coffee, he’s down the road, even more kind of random and because… So I go see him and tell him about this dream I had, tell him about this movie. I literally had written out in an email kind of vaguely what the movie was, but not even, yeah, this sounds great, I’ll make it.

Text Paul Webster, my producer in England. He’s obviously done some brilliant movies. I say to him, “Can you exec-produce, can you be on board? He’s like, “Yeah, sure.” Then it came together. Then I went out on a location scout a month later. It’s because there was no money involved, you know what I mean? Because I wasn’t getting paid properly. Nobody was. It was like everyone was just doing it as a passion project. The minute… with my first movie, because there was money involved, it took a lot more time and a lot more meetings. And not only meeting these people that kill your soul because you’re seeing them and these people are like, “Oh my God, they’re not gonna get it, but maybe they’ll give you the money, but will they?”

It’s so painful because you’re grateful that you’re meeting to talk about it, but the same time you still cringe when you hear what they have to say about your work, because they just don’t get it. It’s just like, it’s so painful. It’s just the most painful process. But, you know, because I will say I am very involved in producing, so.

Ashley: Got you. How can people see Luxor? What’s the release schedule gonna be like?

Zeina: It’s December 4th and Samuel Goldwyn are releasing it, but sadly because of the whole theater situation in America we’re not gonna make it into cinema cinemas. But yeah, it’s gonna be available for everyone on December 4th, and then in the UK it’s been available and it’s actually the most watched film at the moment one the cinema platform, virtual cinema platform, which is really exciting. In France, if you’re in France if it’s Christmas, you can catch it in cinemas apparently. So let’s hope cinemas there actually will open.

Ashley: Perfect. What’s the best way for people to keep up with what you’re doing? Twitter, Facebook, a blog, anything you’re comfortable sharing I will round up for the show notes.

Zeina: Oh, I’m terrible at that stuff. I would just say google me.

Ashley: Okay, google you. Fair enough.

Zeina: I have a private Instagram account. I’m just not… that’s one thing. I’m very much about just me and my work and I hope it resonates with people, and it just makes me happy to write. It’s such a lonely process, but it’s so much fun as well. You can just, you know, you can escape in these worlds you create. I was joking in a variety interview, that it’s basically kind of like my therapy. It’s helping me work through everything by making films and by writing and just get everything out. Don’t self-censor, just get it out. Even if it sounds like it’s rubbish, just go for it, because the inner critic is the only thing holding you back from writing an amazing screenplay, you know?

Ashley: Yep. Great advice. Well, thank you Zeina for coming on and talking with me. Excellent interview. I really appreciate it. Good luck with this film and good luck with all your future films as well.

Zeina: Oh, thank you, and you too. Bye-bye.

Ashley: Bye-bye. Thank you. Bye.

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Producers are in the database searching for material on a daily basis. So it’s another great way to get your material in front of them. As a further bonus, if your script gets a recommend from one of our readers, your screenplay will get included in our monthly best of newsletter. Each month, we send out a newsletter that highlights the best screenplays that have come through our Script Analysis Service. This is a monthly newsletter that goes out to our list of over 400 producers who are actively looking for material. So again, this is another great way to get your material out there. So if you want a professional evaluation of your screenplay at a very reasonable price, check out www.sellingyourscreenplay.com/consultants.

On the next episode of the podcast, I’m gonna be interviewing Tara Johnson-Medinger who just did an indie teen drama called My Summer As A Goth. She talks about that project, how it all came together for her. She started her career working in television here in Los Angeles then moved back to Oregon, which is where she’s originally from and has been building her career from there ever since. So we talk a little bit about the difference of maintaining a career here in Los Angeles versus outside of LA, and specifically with her it’s in Oregon. She also helps to run POW- Power Of Women Film Festival. We talk a little bit about that, how that’s all going with the pandemic. She’s got a lot to say, a lot going on, is a great communicator. So keep an eye out for that episode next week.

To wrap things up, I just wanna touch on a few things from today’s interview. I love what Zeina said about building your career by doing work that you’re passionate about and proud of and not trying to chase market trends and do a film that you think might be commercially successful. This is the battle that so many artists face believing in ourselves and having the courage to make a movie, really, without any regard to anything other than our own artistic instincts. I sometimes wish I leaned a little more in that direction. I named this podcast Selling Your Screenplay.com because I want it to give people more practical advice for getting their material produced. But I’m probably too practical at times and I do kind of realize this.

Really, that just means that I’m trying to make something that leans into something that would be considered commercial. With my current film for instance, The Rideshare Killer, Tony, who is the other producer on the project, we discussed a number of my other scripts. There was another one that was a sort of a rom-com drama, very similar… sort of indie rom-com drama, very similar to like a 500 Days of Summer type of a screenplay. We both liked it, we liked it more than The Rideshare Killer, but we felt like The Rideshare Killer stood a better chance of making its money back, so that’s what we did. But with this rom-com, it’s certainly more personal, what I would consider maybe more of an artistic endeavor, but again, we didn’t go in that direction.

We’ll see if The Rideshare Killer doesn’t make any of it’s money back, we’ll probably both be thinking we should have gone with the indie comedy, but we’ll just have to see. But again, that’s just part of my personality and I think it’s really about identifying where you stand so that you’re aware of it and can kind of understand how your decisions are being made. I really appreciate people who stick to their guns artistically, but it really is a balancing act and there’s no right answer. Everyone has a different set of circumstances to deal with to sort of a different life situation, different talents. So it’s really about just understanding yourself, understanding how you sort of may be more organic or you lean and maybe making some course corrections based on that.

But hopefully there is a balance where we can find an audience for our material and still do something artistic, but man, it’s a tough needle to thread. Anyway, that’s the show. Thank you for listening.