By Karen Frost
Shamim Sarif is a renaissance woman: she writes, directs and produces, all with a focus on women, particularly queer women. LGBT audiences are most likely to know her from “I Can’t Think Straight” and “The World Unseen,” which are coming to tello in June. She also was a panelist at the 2017 ClexaCon in Las Vegas and will be a panelist at the 2018 ClexaCon pop-up in London. We sat down with Shamim to talk about how she was able to produce her movies, the future of representation, and the art of storytelling.
I want to start by briefly talking about how Hollywood--and I use Hollywood as a generic term for the entertainment industry--works, because that’s really the start of this story. Your first ever screenplay was optioned, but the studio wanted you to insert multiple sex scenes and nudity into the story. You were also told that strong female characters don’t sell movies. So for you this was kind of a turning point for how you started your journey because you decided to go it alone. 2018 has been a big year for the American film industry with things like Time’s Up and inclusion riders. We have Frances McDormand winning a Best Actress Oscar and inviting all the female nominees on stage. But even in 2017, women headed up the highest grossing movies (“Beauty and the Beast” and “Rogue One”). Do you feel a bit vindicated about that?
I don't really feel vindicated because I knew I was right. I wondered if it would be the fact that women’s stories need to be told or that they’re popular. I always knew they would be, it’s just the industry catching up. So in a way it's great to see, but it has been a long time coming. I do think there's more work to do because “Rogue One” and “Beauty and the Beast” are big franchise movies. It's a safer way to use a female lead. The reality of it is still when we go to sales agents to look for industry funding, and I’m not talking Hollywood budgets, I’m talking at the few million dollar level, there are still just a very small handful of actresses that people will want me to cast. You either have to have immediate recent success as a director or you have to have bankable actors. So I think there’s still a way to go in people taking the risk on female-led movies. And I think TV has helped tremendously because there it’s much less of an issue about the audience but there’s still the perception that theatrical movies only sell to teenage boys.
You mentioned bringing in these characters in “Beauty and the Beast” and “Rogue One” in terms of latching onto something else. I recently heard a term that fits this, this idea of “Trojan Horseing” something in. Trojan horseing a female lead in, riding the coattails of “Star Wars,” is that a way to get this stuff on screen?
Yeah absolutely, in a way. I mean, why not? If you’ve got a franchise or a name story that works, why not use that? Why not have a series of “Mission: Impossible” with a female lead? I don't think that's necessary, but I'm saying the industry could find that more palatable because it negates a lot of the risk they’re taking spending hundreds of millions of dollars.
You and your then-partner, now wife Hanan Kattan decided, based on your early experience, not to go the Hollywood route because you wanted to make your own vision. You formed your own production company, Enlightenment Productions, and were eventually funded by a small group of straight female private investors investing as an equity group. Did Hanan put this together? How did that happen?
For “I Can't Think Straight” we had an original investor who turned out to be a crook. It was a complete nightmare and then we actually lost control of that film. Hanan is nothing if not tenacious and persistent, so she went to court and got it back. And then with “The World Unseen” we were at the same time raising money to finish “I Can't Think Straight.” She raised money from two or three savvy business women. They didn't form a formal consortium of investors, but they were friends. They loved the movies, they believed in the stories and what they stood for. So they very kindly came in. We had sales figures, we had all these sorts of things to put behind them, and it was on that basis that we were able to get started. That’s all Hanan being entrepreneurial.
Is that a model that can be replicated for other things? Is it being replicated and we just don’t hear about it?
I think it is. I know of many, many films now that have private investors. A lot of films that you see, especially small independent films, are being funded by private investors. You may or may not hear about that because if they get distribution, they get distributed by big companies and if they never get distribution, they just disappear without a trace. But I think it's very much a model and I think it's important because in a world where it is now the very big multiplex movies and then the very small art house movies, I think that whole central range of five to 20 million human dramas has all but disappeared unless you have “Disobedience” with two A-list stars or something like that, which is great, but you need the A-list stars and there's a limited number of them. So I think it's a very important way to fund movies. And they always say if you want to make a small fortune in movies, start with a big one, but I think there are ways to try and structure that to get a sales agent onboard to try to get some pre-distribution and try to mitigate the risks for your investors that way, but it's not easy.
For the investors then, is there a component of philanthropy in the sense that a project could go south (i.e. not be financially successful) but the investors are saying, “I believe in the project and I want to see it made even if I don't make a return on the investment”? Or is are these really investors in the true sense and they want to make some sort of profit?
I think it varies. I think there are some private individuals who want to create a career as film producers in terms of being executive producers and putting the money in but I think those people obviously want a return on their investment because otherwise they're not going to produce film after film after film. As a production company, we love to be able to go back to the same investors and make money for them. Having said that I know people who are funding films on Palestine or women's issues because they just feel passionately about it and they don't care if there's a return or not. But I think anyone who invests in films should assume it could go south. I think that's the safest way. But I would love to see more and more women, especially, funding content, because in the end the money can dictate the content, and it’s a great way to ensure better representation of lesbians, women, women of color or anything else that we all might wish to see on screen.
When you did “I Can’t Think Straight,” you went from being a writer to a director and producer. What were some lessons you learned from that which, if you were talking to an aspiring filmmaker, you would tell them?
The biggest lesson is just: don't give up. Be tenacious. “I Can't Think Straight” was a really extraordinary example in that, apart from the usual first time filmmaker issues, we had a situation where were being thrown out of locations on a daily basis, we had the funding pulled from us, our last seven days of shooting were reduced down to two days. You’re literally losing chunks of your script and not having enough to edit with, which is where we were. So being tenacious is key. I think on a more detailed level, I didn't get much prep time for “I Can't Think Straight.” We were going, I pitched myself as a director, and I didn't have anything like the experience I should have had going into a first film. So I think preparation time is key. You can't wait for pre-production because by that point you have a team around you who needs to know what you're thinking, what your vision is, and how you want to execute that. To have that prep in your mind, whether it's notebooks, images, shot lists, whatever it is, I never took for granted after “I Can't Think Straight.” The devil is in the details, really, because once you start filming, you’re spending thousands and thousands of pounds every day. It’s like a runaway train and you better not go over budget or schedule. I never did, luckily.
You’ve mentioned that finding sales and distribution companies that are willing to support your vision is a big challenge. So how do people find the right ones? Is it interviewing? Is it luck? What gets people to that point?
I think it's first of all finding people that think your script is strong enough to sell in the marketplace. That's the tough thing. It's a subjective business. I think it's researching, finding the sales agents who are selling similar projects, obviously, and then just sending it out there. If you’re a writer and you can get a director attached who has got some credibility or a cast member, that means something. Which is harder and harder. I have a lot of actors who I can call and get attached to a film but they may not sell. You're trying to add as many things to make the sales agent’s job easier. You want to present them a package where they think, “Oh, I know what the market for this is.” So, it's really, again, persistence all the way. If you can have some shorts, some awards, all of that stuff behind you it helps. But we still don't walk in and just find a sales agent for our projects. Every project is its own thing, and often lesbian characters are not popular.
On my fifth script, which I haven’t made yet we went to see a sales agent, a lovely guy, but he said we had to de-gay the central character. He said, “We have to sell China, we have to sell India, we have to sell the Middle East. We can't just rely on the States and the UK because it won’t give you enough with your budget and your cast and your name.” So in a way, it's a mathematical formula, and there are huge swathes of the world where having a lesbian protagonist is completely unacceptable for mainstream distributors. So all of those territories are gone in his mind. So, from a business perspective, it keeps lesbian-themed films in a much smaller bracket because you can’t recoup sales revenue from the whole world.
You and Hanan have achieved, in many ways, a dream: you write, direct, and produce your own content. You’ve spoken at TEDx events in London, Jerusalem, and India. How can people learn from your success to achieve their own dreams other than tenacity?
I think what made us successful was not being willing to compromise and having the integrity to say, “We'll do it our own way.” Which is not for everyone because there are a lot of sleepless nights where you think, “What am I doing? How am I going to make ends meet?” At the same time, when you force your mind into that position, you can come up with solutions. We’ve always been good at meeting people who are like-minded. People who are passionate and interested in what they do. On the plus side of the film industry and the independent world, people will go out of their way, like we do too, to try and introduce people that might be helpful for your project. I am very lucky, but at the same time I don't know when or if I'm ever going to make another film. I assume that I am, every time and somehow it seems to happen but I don't know for sure. That’s the downside. It's not like having a steady job. I guess that's the case in the corporate world these days a lot, too. You don’t know where you’ll be next week or next year. So it's living with a degree of uncertainty but then really pursuing what you want and trying to say something fresh and interesting so that it begins to stand out.
And networking. I think women are traditionally not as good at networking and don't have the networks that men do and I think that's changing. We are focused on that in our own lives.. It doesn't have to be people in film, we just like to build our group of friends and acquaintances to people who are really excited and interested in what they're doing. You never know how those connections work. Like with our restaurant, we had an issue with how to structure the business and we were able to call up three or four people who have built businesses and they gave us advice. I think all of that really saves you years of heartache and learning on the job, potentially.
What is the restaurant called and where is it located?
It's called “Tabun Kitchen” and it's in Soho in central London. It's Palestinian food, Jerusalem street food, based on family recipes of Hanan’s. She’s Palestinian and wanted to create a modern, cool concept around the delicious food of her heritage. It’s been really popular.
Your next book, “The Athena Protocol” (formerly called “The Artemis Protocol”), is an action thriller about a squad of highly trained female agents battling human trafficking. What is your experience so far on this project?
When I finished the novel, my agent, who represents the “Artemis Fowl” books, said, “You can't call it Artemis!” Between us, we came up with an alternative. Which still has the same meaning in my mind or similar. Harper Collins has bought the book and it's a two book series. There are three successful, very different women who run a rogue organization, who the younger women work for, and I think their thought process of “How do we do this without causing too much damage?” is relevant to Athena, the goddess of wisdom. CAA, the film agency in LA, wants to sell the book rights. They would like to see it as a bigger Hollywood production. At the moment it's a little bit out of my hands although I'd love to be able to write the script. But we thought: it's an action film, and if it's going to compete against everything out there in multiplexes, it needs a much bigger budget than we can raise as producers, so we figured we’d let that go and I'm working on a completely different project now which we’re going to try and film next. ‘Polarized’ is a love story between two women on completely opposite sides of Trump’s America. The daughter of wealthy Arab immigrants who’ve essentially lived the American dream with urban farming, and a far right, somewhat racist, farmer’s daughter whose father has lost his livelihood to medical bills. We’re raising investment for that one right now.
I want to briefly touch on your 2016 INKtalk. You talk about stories as a roadmap to being human; telling us who we can be, if we dare. I think that’s a beautiful approach to storytelling. 2018 is ostensibly a year for women’s empowerment in Hollywood, but there are also a lot of negative things going on in the world. What do you think the world needs most from its stories right now, in this moment? Are we missing the courage to be better, to be greater? We’ve also got a trend the past few years of the anti-hero, the flip side of the heroic coin…
I think both are relevant ways to explore humanity through stories. For me, I'm always looking for that growth of the character into something more than they were at the beginning of the story, not something less. It's just what I'm drawn to. Having said that, especially on TV, the moral dilemmas of being human, the everyday issues of being human are being explored in really subtle, sophisticated, double-edged ways and that's beautiful to watch as well. When characters are doing things where you think, “God, how could they do that?” but you’re still rooting for them, that’s fantastic storytelling. And I think all of that's really important because stories have a role in to play in how we understand the world and our place in it. I think that's why stories are popular and always have been. And so, for me, that's a very, very important thing. It's not something I thought about consciously. It's something that I began to think about much more after “I Can't Think Straight” and “The World Unseen”. There was this deluge of emails and contact from people who were saying, “This has changed my life.” I was like, “Really?” Thank you” but I would brush it off. Even on just now, on Monday night, I was at the theater at a friend’s play, and someone came up to me out of the blue and she said, “Do you remember me? I was at your book signing in San Francisco ten years ago” She said, “You literally changed my life that day. I came out to my parents. I’m from Pakistan and I wouldn't normally have done that. Then they watched “I Can't Think Straight” and it helped them come to terms with her choices a few years later. That's pretty incredible; and in a way, very direct. She used this story for this particular tool. Stories don't always have to be that way, but clearly just seeing characters who are going through something of what you might be going through, even if it's not the specific situation, gives you a roadmap sometimes. Or a better way to be. Why not? We all get bogged down every day and it's good to have a moment to think about what are the core principles in our lives and what is it we really want?
Last year, you went to ClexaCon, and this year one of the main themes was intersectionality. The tagline for “I Can’t Think Straight” was “Just another British, Indian, Muslim, Arab, Christian, lesbian romantic comedy.” In many ways, the movie was before its time. And yet, as much as we talk about intersectionality today, we’re still lagging in seeing that on the big screen. We’re still seeing mostly white lesbians, or white bisexual women. In the UK, there are 1.4 million Indians—why aren’t we seeing more movies coming out of the UK with non-white queer characters?
I think funding is a big issue. For us, we've never had funding or support from the British Film Institute or any of those associated bodies, and for me, those government agencies are the ones that should be supporting stories that are not perceived as being as commercial. That's one big thing. I'm not really sure otherwise. Maybe there aren’t people that want to go out and make those stories. Or you can make them, but in a very homemade way, and I think it needs a lot more of a push here. I feel in the States, when it comes to writing and directing TV or whatever, I've seen suddenly in the last few years a lot more new names in the credits. I hear from writer-director friends of mine that people from diverse backgrounds are getting work directing TV because there's a conscious movement to create gender parity at least. I'm not sure the same things are happening as quickly here.
“I Can’t Think Straight” and “The World Unseen” were released in 2008, when there really weren’t that many lesbian movies being made. Even today there aren’t a ton. How do you see the entertainment industry as having changed since then in terms of representation and where is there room to grow?
I think the room to grow is definitely in movies. It's great that I can watch “The Good Fight” and see one of the three main characters is lesbian and it's not a huge issue, it's just who she is, and I think that's how I always saw “I Can't Think Straight” and “The World Unseen,” perhaps naively. It's a romantic comedy. I don't say, “I just went and saw a heterosexual romantic comedy last week, I don’t want to go see another one,” you just go or don’t go. I’m much more impressed with what's going on on TV. I'm still not seeing as much in film, and I think when you have to look back at “Blue is the Warmest Color” or now “Disobedience,” you can count the numbers of well-distributed movies on the fingers of your hand and it's not great. I think it has to be less of this fear that audiences don't want to see two women or a love story between two women. I don't think that's true. It might not be enough of an audience to fill every multiplex in the country, but I think there would be enough coverage back from DVD, itunes, VOD sales, to make it a reasonable return. It's just getting distributors to take that chance.
What do you think is the best lesbian movie that’s ever been made?
That’s a really hard question. I’m going to say “Desert Hearts.” I think it's a genuinely great movie, and some of that is tied up with it being one of the first, probably the first lesbian movie I saw back in the day. When was it? 1986? I guess I was maybe 17. I remember watching it on Channel 4, which was very avant-garde at the time, on the black and white TV in my bedroom and it was a revelation. I thought it had a very evocative sense of place and Donna Deitch has since become a dear friend, so that's great. And then in the romantic comedy space I have to mention “Imagine Me & You,” which I love, and Alice Wu’s “Saving Face,” which I also really enjoyed.
What has been your proudest moment?
Being with Hanan and our boys. I can't say our wedding day exactly because it was way past the start of our relationship as we’ve been together 22 years...but having that relationship in my life, having the boys--I have two sons--I think is probably the proudest moment even when they critique me all the time now that they're teenagers! And I think having created stories that people still write to me about and feel so inspired by that they reach out. It means a lot when people take the time to do that and that overall, it had an impact.
What’s a story that hasn’t been written that needs to be written?
Apart from my second book on the contract you mean?! There are so many. I think with all the wonderful change that’s been going on in our Western world in the last year with #MeToo and Time’s Up, maybe we need to hear more from the women east of here--in the sub-continent, in Africa and the Far East, and Muslim countries particularly--who are sometimes victims of horrible cultural pressures and I think those stories would be great to see more of. The more oppressed women can see characters who are finding a way out of that cultural control the better.