Writer/director and New York Army National Guard officer, Sean Mullin, makes his feature debut with Amira & Sam, a film about a soldier re-integrating with society after a long tour of duty.

No, this isn’t American Sniper redux; rather, it’s a sweet, smart, romantic comedy that flips those cliches around, as Sam (Martin Starr), an army veteran, returns to New York City and falls for Amira (Dina Shihabi), the niece of his former Iraqi translator. As the two become inseparable, a series of disruptive social issues arise, ranging from xenophobia to immigration to disillusionment.

In this exclusive edition of “How They Did It,” Sean Mullin shares three of his biggest challenges, er, opportunities, in getting Amira & Sam from concept to reality and an inked deal with Drafthouse Films.

Growing up, my father cursed quite a bit, so it wasn’t a big deal if I accidentally let a bad word slip from time to time. But the one word we were never allowed to say was “problem.” Instead, he made us replace it with “opportunity.” It might seem like a minor adjustment, but it’s affected my entire outlook on life, including my filmmaking.

Sean Mullin_Martin Starr

Writer/director Sean Mullin and Martin Starr (Sam) on the set of Amira & Sam.

While writing and directing Amira & Sam, I ran into three critical “opportunities” that confront most first-time filmmakers:

      1. Development: Screenplay isn’t getting traction
      2. Production: Not enough money
      3. Post: Rushing for festivals

Before diving into each of these, I’d like to shed some light on how my military background has influenced my approach to filmmaking.  When people learn that I graduated from the U.S. Military Academy at West Point, they are often confused, as if serving in the military should somehow preclude me from being a filmmaker. To the contrary, as you’ll see in the examples below, the skills I learned in the military — leadership, persistence, adaptability — have paid off manyfold.

In addition to the skills I picked up in the military, the experiences I had during my service gave me a unique perspective on the story I was attempting to tell. As an officer in the New York Army National Guard, I was a first responder after the attacks on September 11th. For almost a year, I spent my days as the officer in charge of the soldiers down at Ground Zero and my nights performing stand-up comedy. All of this fueled my passion to tell a love story about an unlikely couple, an army veteran and Iraqi immigrant, falling for each other in post-September 11th New York City.

Opportunity #1: Screenplay isn’t getting traction

Arguably, the biggest “opportunity” for first-time filmmakers is being able to convince anyone with clout in the industry to fall in love with your script. Yes, I use the phrase “fall in love” because that is what it takes. It’s so difficult to get a film made these days that having people merely “like” your script isn’t enough. You’re going to need to rally passionate support for you and your project — and passion requires love (or, at least an unhealthy dose of lust). For me, the biggest issue with my script was that I was attempting to walk a tonal tightrope — and readers were confused. Is it a comedy? A drama? A love story?

Instead of pushing back against these notes, I embraced them. How did I do this? I did it by rewriting the script relentlessly and emphasizing three key elements: focusing the story, sharpening the characters, and unlocking the theme.

Sam (Martin Starr), Amira (Dina Shihabi)

Sam (Martin Starr) and Amira (Dina Shihabi) share a moment of seriousness and laughter.

The first few drafts of my script were muddled because I was trying, unsuccessfully, to address so many complex issues (veteran assimilation, illegal immigration, financial deregulation). Because of this, the story felt clunky and incoherent. Once I made the decision to focus the story into a classic romance, everything started to click. I was able to restructure the script, sequence-by-sequence, as a love story. I’m a huge fan of the sequence approach to screenwriting, which encourages you to break your film up into 8 sequences (10-to-15 pages each). Doing this really helps with pacing, because each sequence is essentially its own mini-story (with a beginning, middle and end), thereby propelling your story forward organically.

Another thing I did was sharpen the voices of my characters. In my head, Sam was incredibly funny, but he wasn’t funny enough on the page. For Amira, I would have pretend conversations with her, as if she was a real person, and her voice improved with each fake conversation we had. I also gave her a more clearly-defined backstory, which was the result of my ongoing research into the plight of Iraqi refugees. Charlie’s character was a tough one because I really didn’t want him to come off as a mustache-twirling bad guy. There’s a great screenwriting adage that states, “the villain is the hero of his own story.” I did my best to take that to heart.

Unlocking the theme is something that came to me subconsciously. I think I was on draft five or six when I had an epiphany: this isn’t a story about a soldier with PTSD; it’s a story about a country suffering from PTSD. From the moment I articulated that notion to myself, the entire script snapped into place. Each sequence started to gel, providing the script with a thematic coherency that was missing from earlier drafts.

To give you an idea of how much work I put into the script, I completed 33 drafts of the script in the 18 months leading up to production and an additional 5 more “scrubs” during prep and production. This might sound extreme, but if people are tripping up on things in the script, they’ll be tripping up on the same things in the edit.

Opportunity #2: Not enough money

Unless you’re obscenely wealthy or obscenely lucky, you won’t have as much money as you’d like to realize your vision for your first film. The sooner you embrace that as an “opportunity,” the better off you will be. For me, I had about half the amount of money I thought I needed — so, how did I do it?

My first approach was to closely examine each sequence and see where I could trim costs without sacrificing the story. By keeping an open mind, I was able to rework certain scenes that were just too cost prohibitive. For example, I had written in a huge wedding scene — set at a vineyard out on Long Island. I had attended an elegant wedding there recently and thought it would be the ideal place for Sam’s Wall Street cousin (Charlie) to get married. After realizing that there was no way I could afford to shoot at a vineyard (let alone travel our cast and crew out there from NYC), I decided to turn Charlie’s “elegant wedding” into an “intimate engagement party,” which ended up saving me a ton of money (that I didn’t even have).

Paul Wesley_Martin Starr

Charlie (Paul Wesley) gives Sam (Martin Starr) some advice in Amira & Sam.

Another very practical and effective tool we used to make our film look much bigger than it cost was the utilization of “in-kind” investments. In-kind investments allow you to offer members of your team or third-party vendors the chance to partner with your production as an investor. The key difference from a traditional investor is that, instead of investing money into your production, they invest time, services, or goods.

For example, let’s say you’ve budgeted $10,000 for your cinematographer, but the cinematographer you’re in love with says she can’t shoot your film for less than $15,000. If she really loves the project and believes in you, you can counter by offering $10,000 in cash and then an additional $5,000 “in-kind,” which would be treated the exact same way as if she had invested $5,000 into the film. By partnering with her in this way, she would share in first-dollar gross, alongside every other investor, with an agreed-upon preferred rate of return (usually 20%).

It’s a great way of saying “you’re too talented for our price range, but we want to partner with you and so if the movie does well, you will benefit.” If the movie recoups, she’ll receive the $15,000 she initially wanted and she will be a continued investor in the film in perpetuity. The reason in-kind investments work so well is that, as with any relationship, it’s always better when both parties have some skin in the game. For our film, one of our key locations (that we were never going to be able to afford) was brokered (at the 11th hour) by offering the owner an in-kind investment into the film for $5,000.

Opportunity #3: Rushing for festivals

The moment you wrap principal photography, your anxiety shifts from the opportunities associated with making your film to the opportunities you have selling your film. For American filmmakers, the crown jewel of the festival circuit is Sundance and for a very good reason: it’s one of only two festivals in North America where the buyers actually show up to purchase films on the spot (Toronto being the other). Landing a spot in either Sundance or Toronto is a huge accomplishment and, if your film is completed, it’s almost always worth taking a stab at one of them first since they prioritize world premieres.

For Amira & Sam, we didn’t wrap until late August, which gave us just over two weeks to finish the film in time for Sundance’s deadline. Obviously, this was an impossible feat. We managed to scrape together a very rough cut, with temp color/sound, but the final sequence just wasn’t working. I was terrified to send it out into the world unfinished, but I didn’t have a choice. We submitted the film to Sundance, but I knew the film we submitted was not the film I set out to make.

A&S One-Sheet

I spent the rest of the fall cutting diligently with my wonderfully talented editor (Julian Robinson). We would make some cuts, host a rough cut screening for filmmakers/friends, get notes, make more cuts, host another screening, etc. This went on for about two months and I was really happy with the first 7/8ths of the film, but the final sequence, the most important sequence in the film, just wasn’t working.

I was terrified because, by now, we had already submitted to both SXSW and Tribeca. But, the film still wasn’t done to my satisfaction. I tried my best to stay positive, but I was getting nervous. What if we got into Sundance and I had to screen a film that I would forever view as incomplete? Critics would bash it! We’d never be able to sell it! I was a mess and so it was a mixed blessing when we found out that we hadn’t been selected for Sundance. I immediately viewed this setback as an opportunity to reshoot the scene that wasn’t working and make the movie I had set out to make.

We used the last drop of our contingency funds (as well as my credit card) to finance a one-day reshoot in late January.  It was the final stand-up comedy scene, which is the climax of the film. It was never working for me in any of our cuts, but after the reshoot, the film finally worked! It was the best feeling of the entire filmmaking process. The film finally had that emotional punch that I had always intended but failed to execute during principal photography.

It was now March and both SXSW and Tribeca had passed on the rough cut of our film. Again, I held my head high, knowing that I finally had a film I was happy with. The first festival to view a final cut of the film was Seattle and they snatched it up. We were thrilled to have our world premiere there and after receiving great reviews, including one from The Hollywood Reporter, we were able to sell our film to Drafthouse Films, one of America’s most well-respected, independent distribution companies.

Sadly, my father passed away right before we went into production, but I know he would’ve been proud that we were able to turn so many problems into opportunities on Amira & Sam. MM

Amira & Sam opens nationwide in select theaters and VOD on Friday, January 30. For a list of available theaters in your area and VOD options, visit: bit.ly/amiraandsam.