“May in the Summer” may look like the typical romantic comedy on the surface, but it’s really a lot more than that as it delves into a culture many of us have not seen. It’s the latest film from filmmaker Cherien Dabis who wrote, directed and stars in it as May Brennan, a sophisticated New Yorker and an acclaimed author who travels to her childhood home in Amman, Jordan to prepare for her wedding. But shortly after reuniting with her sisters and her divorced parents, May begins to question whether she should go through with the marriage after experiencing a number of familial and cultural conflicts.
It was a pleasure talking with Dabis while she was in Los Angeles for the “May in the Summer” press day. While she talked at length about her movie, she also described just how much Jordan has changed from when she was a child. In addition, she spoke of the challenges she faced of acting and directing at the same time, what she was proudest of being able to capture onscreen about Jordan, and she talked about how actors Bill Pullman and Alia Shawkat came to be cast.
What I really liked about “May in the Summer” is that it gives us a unique look into a culture that most people have seen from a distance, and in some cases a rather biased distance. How was it for you capturing Jordan on film?
Cherien Dabis: It was great. Jordan’s a country I know very well. I’ve been traveling there since I was a kid. My parents are Palestinian and Jordanian and I was born and raised in the US, but we would return to Jordan almost every summer. For the last three decades I’ve watched the country grow and change so much that it’s been really shocking the amount of growth and change. I knew I always wanted to do something there because what I find really particular to Amman specifically is that it’s not only become super westernized, but it’s also quite Americanized. There’s a lot of American schools popping up, there are a lot of young people who are speaking English with an American accent, there’s so much American culture and American products; there’s fast food chains and Starbucks. So it’s just the side of the Middle East that I didn’t think people would find really surprising, and I wanted to feature that and to be able to feature the country and parts of the country that I’d been going to since I was young and places where I really discovered myself. It was really, really cool.
You both acted in and directed this movie. Initially you were looking to cast someone else in the role of May, correct?
Cherien Dabis: Yeah, I didn’t write the role for myself. I spent about a year looking for someone to play the part and I wasn’t finding someone who I felt was really authentic to the culture and language, but also someone who really embodied the spirit of the character. At the same time I kept getting people, like random people, who would suggest that I consider myself for the part. It was really shocking to me that people kept saying that to me, but enough people said it that I just finally was like okay, this somehow feels like I am meant to do this. I am meant to consider this, that maybe this is part of my journey. I think ultimately that’s what I found.
I very hesitantly put myself forward. I put myself on tape, I watch myself back and it’s always such a trip to do that for the first time. It took a little while for me to find a sense of objectivity or at least as close to objectivity as I could, but I saw something there that was raw enough that felt like I could work with it and that embodied the spirit of the character and what I had been looking for, and I surprised myself a little bit. So I called myself back, I made myself go through this rigorous casting process only to discover that wow, I think I might be able to do this. It was kind of an amazing journey and one in which I kind of paralleled May in a way. May is on this journey of self-discovery, and by putting myself in the film I was also on a journey of self-discovery in having to make myself vulnerable just like the character in the film. And when I realized that I was like oh God, now I really have to do it. It really feels like the right choice for the film, but it was a tough one to make given all of the hats that I was wearing.
In terms of acting, did you have someone looking out for you when you stepped in front of the camera?
Cherien Dabis: I did. When I made the choice to do it, I brought on someone who became a very good friend. He’s an acting teacher in Brooklyn and he became somewhat of an acting coach to me. So I worked with him for about a year and a half before making the film, and it was great because my training was really about getting as much experience in the skill of acting and directing and not back and forth in directing myself. It is a very specific skill and I wanted to have as much experience in it as I could before getting to set, and it was really important that I did that because I would’ve been a mess if I hadn’t. But he came to set and he was there for me. He was sort of my eyes and by then we had a short hand because we had been working together for so long, so it was really great to have them there.
I really loved how the Dead Sea looked in this movie. It’s just beautiful to the point where the name seems a little contradictory considering how lively the atmosphere out there seems.
Cherien Dabis: Right, and yet strangely appropriate given what’s on the other side of the Dead Sea. It’s (Palestine) so close. The Dead Sea’s so small and narrow, and the other side of the shore is the West Bank. It’s sort of shocking when you’re standing there looking out and you’re at a resort where there’s these really beautiful infinity pools and spas and food and drinks and people partying by the pool. It’s a very contradictory paradoxical experience, and that was something I wanted to capture in the film.
What would you say you were the proudest of being able to capture in this film about Jordan and its culture?
Cherien Dabis: That’s a really good question. I think the surrealism almost of being in a place. I have not seen that yet in a film, and I do think that what sets this movie apart from other Middle Eastern films, or Middle Eastern themed films, is that it really explores family. It’s a story about family and it’s a story that’s really relatable about relationships, and it looks at divorce but through a wedding. In some ways it’s a sort of a divorce drama disguised as a wedding comedy. So it’s this really relatable film that’s set in this really specific part of the world, and it shows a part of that world that we don’t ever really get to see. The surrealism of that world I think is really interesting.
Being in a place like Jordan which is just surrounded by conflict is at times really surreal because you can find yourself living this totally seemingly normal existence where you are going to cafés with friends or going out to dinner. You’re just going about your work, your life and you’re interacting with family, and then a fighter jet flies by and it rocks your entire world and you suddenly remember where you are and you remember that anything could happen at any moment. It gives you this incredible sense of perspective on your life where suddenly what you’re going through is not so bad and your problems seem really trivial and you remember the greater suffering in the world. I think it affects you in your life and your choices and who you are in a way that’s very unique to that part of the world, and that’s something I really wanted to capture and I think that’s something that’s there in the film. It’s something that I don’t think you get to see very often.
We see a number of women in “May in the Summer” wearing a full hijab (a veil that covers the head and chest). Is that something that’s still imposed on women in Jordan or is that something women do by choice?
Cherien Dabis: Both. I think a lot of women do it by choice, but for a lot of women it’s not a choice. It’s imposed on them by their families or by society or by the culture. I do think this is a movie that looks at expectations like that. Our main character is definitely on a journey of self-discovery where she’s trying to figure out what kind of future she wants. She’s trying to strip away a familial expectation, a parental expectation or a societal expectation or even a political expectation, and she’s really trying to connect with her own inner voice and her own truth. That’s the only way she can really move into her own future, so it looks at those levels of expectations.
Bill Pullman plays your character’s father and it’s great to see him here. Was it hard getting him cast in this movie?
Cherien Dabis: Surprisingly not and I was really presently surprised by that. My producer sent the script to his agent and he really responded to the script and the role. He’s just a very adventurous spirit so he wanted to travel to Jordan, he wanted to have that experience and he really wanted to go to Petra which was amazing. He was just fabulous. The moment he arrived in Jordan he just immersed himself in the culture and he wanted to just soak it all in. He was making friends right and left and he was having dinner with people he just met on the street. Within the first day of shooting he knew everyone’s names. He was really just a special, special person and I’m so glad that he came over and wanted to be a part of that. People appreciated him so much for being so open in the culture.
Alia Shawkat, who plays your sister Dalia, is also wonderful here, and she was also terrific in “The Moment” where she acted opposite Jennifer Jason Leigh. How did you go about casting her?
Cherien Dabis: Well I had worked with Alia on my first film, “Amreeka.” I was a huge fan of hers from “Arrested Development.” I just loved her. My executive producer on “Amreeka” actually told me that she’s half Iraqi which I had no idea, but I was very excited by that because I’m always looking to cast very authentically. So when I found that out I approached her for a role in my first feature, and when I met her she just so was that character in my first feature. When I worked with her I just absolutely loved her. We had a great time and we became friends and we kept in touch. When I conceived of the idea for “May in the Summer,” I immediately thought of her for the role of the sister, Dalia. She just has such a similar voice to that character; witty, sarcastic and subversive.
Was there anything that you wanted to put into “May in the Summer” but were not able to for one reason or another?
Cherien Dabis: Well there are always things like that. You quickly realize when you’re making independent films that you have limited resources and there always comes a time when you have to make really painful decisions, and I definitely did on this film. I had to cut things out that I think would’ve added a lot of fabric and texture. There were a number of sequences, one where May goes downtown and we see a whole other part of the Middle East and we see it go from the really nice sort of upper class neighborhood to the more downtown, shoddy kind of refugee camp neighborhoods. We are more used to seeing that probably on the news, and I wanted to show that transition and a little bit more of the society and give a little bit more of the political context of Jordan and the refugee situation. But ultimately the heart of the story is this family, and I had to keep the essence of that story. When I had to make those difficult decisions, Fort Lee a lot of that texture had to be cut out because we just didn’t have the time or the resources to capture it.
My understanding is that there’s a film industry growing in Jordan right now.
Cherien Dabis: Yeah that’s right, there’s definitely a burgeoning film industry. The Royal Film Commission in Jordan is great; they’ve been there for I think about 10 years now and they help facilitate production. They were enormously helpful to us and the crews are gaining a lot of experience. Kathryn Bigelow’s last two movies were shot there and a lot of the people I worked with worked on those movies. Also, John Stewart’s movie (“Rosewater”) was shot in Jordan which was another great experience for the country. It was exciting to be a part of that, to be a part of the really up-and-coming film community.
My thanks to Cherien Dabis for taking the time to talk with me. “May in the Summer” is currently playing in an exclusive engagement at the Laemmle Royal in West Los Angeles. Be sure to check it out.