Directors Matt Brown, Sean McAllister talk films

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Directors Matt Brown, Sean McAllister talk films
Sean McAllister, director of 'A Syrian Love Story.

So what makes a story good enough to leave the pages of a book, to take the conversations of ordinary people from reality to film? We spoke to the two directors to get their insights on the process of filmmaking.

By Maan Jalal

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Published: Tue 15 Dec 2015, 4:55 PM

Last updated: Wed 16 Dec 2015, 10:46 AM

During a film we are immersed in watching a performance, in a breathtaking scene, in the climax of the plot. It's rare to give a thought about financing, producers, sacrifices to the plot and how the story came to life. Yet it's all happening behind the camera, in the director's chair.
The 12th edition of the Dubai Film Festival (DIFF) has screened a range of movies from different genres. Along with stars and celebrities walking the red carpet, directors are also here to discuss the craft of their work. A director is a visionary in every sense of the word. Controlling the film's artistic and dramatic aspects, visualising the script and guiding the technical crew and actors or subjects in the fulfillment of that vision. They are the author of their story and that comes with many compromises.
Matt Brown is the director of The Man Who Knew Infinity starring Dev Patel and Jeremy Irons. The film tells the real story of mathematical genius Srinivasa Ramanujan. From living in poverty in Madras, India, he earns admittance to Cambridge University during WWI where he becomes a pioneer in mathematical theories with the guidance of his professor, G.H. Hardy. The story analyses relationship between Ramanujan and Hardy and their different viewpoints of the world.
Sean McAllister is a documentary film maker whose latest film A Syrian Love Story has been getting much acclaim. Filmed over 5 years, the story charts the compelling relationship of Ragahd and Amir who met in prison and fell in love. Sean guides the viewers through their story as the Syrian revolution is on the brink of eruption while the family escapes to Europe and their marriage, family and love is tested to its limits.
Cinematically the two films couldn't be further apart. However, in both stories themes of character, circumstance, culture, and race are explored through a primary relationship. The most common thread between the two films is that each story takes place in real life where real events are organised in a narrative to reveal a universal truth.
So what makes a story good enough to leave the pages of a book, to take the conversations of ordinary people from reality to film? We spoke to the two directors to get their insights on the process of filmmaking.
Matt, whose film was based primarily on the biography by Robert Kanigel, found that it was never a question to comprise the integrity of the story to make a more commercial script that could get him more funding.
"I'd been asked if I could make Ramanujan fall in love with a white nurse to get financing, and I was like 'no I can't do that.' There were basic things that I wasn't willing to compromise on, period. It was too important. But part of it is creative license and you have to combine things, you shorten. But I try and stay true to the overall thing. I try to stay true to the essence of who that person is. I mean I don't have the words Ramanujan spoke during that period. Everybody approaches the story in a different way. This is just how I decided to approach it."
Having creative license is a tricky thing. It's a lot of power and pressure. The director has to decide how much of the story is revealed and when, in order for the audience to be completely immersed in the film. Sean's approach is more direct.
"When I studied documentary there was a term that was applied to the observational technique which is, 'fly on the wall'. You go and observe and you don't interfere. There is an Americanisation of the' fly on the wall' called 'fly in the soup'. This is where the filmmaker gets right in the mix, takes the audience with them and makes no pretense that I'm here and you're coming with me. So by me going and being the camera, I can then voice what I see around the camera and be free to open up the story."
It's hard not to get involved if you're dealing with actors or real people living their lives. Trying to find a balance between stepping back and taking control is key.
"I'm sure that every director has their own style with actors," Matt says, "I believe the actor directs the camera. Sometimes the camera directs the actor. You know it's really important for them to have the trust that they are going to bring something original and authentic and real. If I'm getting in the way of that then I'm screwing the film and myself. I tend to give notes that are hopefully helpful but they are short and concise and I try to stay out of the way of great things happening."
Surprisingly Sean's approach of letting things unfold naturally is similar. Except in his case building a relationship and finding himself in the film he's shooting helps to tell the story.
"Some critics feel that me speaking when they (people in the film) are speaking sometimes, is me trying to put words in their mouths. But they misunderstand process," Sean says, "I'm speaking because really, my camera is just an extension of my relationship with them. And what you actually witness is an absolute truth. I'm in there part councilor, part marriage guidance. You know when they call me up, I'm going there to fix something but I've got the camera as an extension. There is a sequence where she (Raghad) is traumatised and it's so true because that's how she really was. I was in there, with her helping her but recording, as we are going along."
The Dubai film industry is growing at a fast rate. This year's edition of DIFF has proved that with the number of young local and regional directors attending networking sessions during the festival. But with so many aspects to think about as a director, it's hard to grasp what young directors need to think about in order to find some success. In many ways the advice is pretty straightforward - work on your craft. "I'd say learn a trade in the industry, that gives you the freedom to follow your dreams. Because just trying to be a director is not easy, it's tough," Matt says, "directing is a lot of things. I was told by the great cinematographer Bill Butler once that 90 per cent of your directing is in your casting. I would venture that that's true and that the script is also 90 per cent. You've got a lot of things that are 90 per cent. And fighting for things is 90 per cent because you're constantly being told you can't do things. Half of being a good director is being a good leader and just refusing to take no for an answer and finding solutions."
"Don't get bogged down in the context and what news does all the time," Sean says, "there just needs to be more engaging, character driven stories that actually embrace humour. Because there is tons of humour everywhere. There is humour in misery, there is humour in despair. It's how we do it, it's how we connect with the people we film. Filmmaking is about surprise, that's what the audiences want. And that's what they never really get a lot of."

Matt Brown, director of 'The Man Who Knew Infinity'
Matt Brown, director of 'The Man Who Knew Infinity'

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