As an associate producer for NPR's Fresh Air, Heidi Saman spends her days researching some of the most influential artists, musicians, filmmakers, comedians, actors and writers of our time and then editing interviews they record with host Terry Gross. And for the past year, she has been working toward making her first feature film, Namour.While seeking funding for her film, she faced some unexpected hurdles surrounding the ethnicity of her lead character, an Arab-American 20-something. Unfazed, she decided to produce the film herself through a Kickstarter that was funded by 326 backers.
Read more about Heidi's journey pursuing her art, how she blends her experience working in radio with her love of film and the visual.
Interview & photos by Corinne Warnshuis.
You recently started production on your first feature film, Namour. Can you tell us about what that process has been like?
We’re heavy in the pre-production phase and what that means is really getting the rest of the funding, and we’re almost there. It also means location scouting, filling in the last of the creative positions like production designer, and then just firming up a production schedule. Ideally, we’re looking to shoot in August.
You talked about the challenges you faced when you were shopping your script around, trying to get it to producers in your Kickstarter video.
I did not think it would be that hard. I finished the script; I felt like I had a decent draft and I took it to producers I’d researched who made films and might be into my script.
A lot of them passed on it, because it maybe just wasn’t of interest to them. But then I had this other group of producers — of all backgrounds, ethnicities — which was the hard part to digest. They wanted it to be squared away into one type of film. Because it was about people of color, they wanted it to be an immigrant family drama; or they wanted it to be around a wedding; or because it features a story about Arabs, they wanted it to be about oppressed women. One producer even suggested that I introduce a terrorist theme.
And I just thought “Okay, I’m aware there’s a market for films, but I don’t want to make these films.”
So I didn’t change my script and that’s what lead to the Kickstarter, combined with my husband’s punk background, he was like “Just do this; just make this on your own” and I really have to say the Kickstarter was a game-changer for me. It really forced me to know what my film was about, to confirm the message. For an artist, that’s very good. Usually that stuff comes later when your film is done, but I had to really understand what my message was, what the film is about. And the response has been insane; I’m so grateful that I did it.
How does it feel to know that your friends, family and even colleagues are supportive of the work you’re doing?
It was unreal. I didn’t want to tell anyone because I didn’t want them to feel obligated, but just to see, slowly in my office, I would get the notifications and I’m like “Phyllis, how did you know?!”
People were really kind. And I don’t know, I think it tapped into people’s own things about sticking to their passions. That was surprising too, because people have things that are unfulfilled or things that they would like to do, but their jobs or their family lives prevent them from doing or sort of cloud them.
I got responses from friends who I didn’t know were going through things saying “I’m so glad you’re doing this. This is really good for me to see that.” Which was surprising.
Did that experience open up other opportunities for you, aside from getting that initial funding?
It opened up the momentum. Right when I was doing the Kickstarter, I found out that I got the Knight Foundation Fellowship to attend the Sundance Film Festival, so it was all happening at the same time. It also opened me up to a private investor who is giving me some money to make the film.
And I think everyone I asked to look at the project, it was such a clear way for them to get an idea of what I’m doing, and they see that it has a following, and they see that there are people who want to see it to the end.
So you were able to channel that initial roadblock into something ultimately positive?
I would be remiss to say...well, I was really sad. And I think the fact of the matter is that this business is all about No’s. I mean, I get 95% No's. And you just kind of have to accept that. But it’s still very hard to process, because you start to feel like a crazy person.
Everyone is telling you No and you’re the sole person trying to make this happen. I think what I realized is that this is a business. You know, as much as it’s an art piece and it’s a passion project, it’s a business, so I have to measure all of this against that.
But I still have to make the product that I think people are interested in seeing — that I also want to see. It was a matter of finding like-minded people… because they’re out there.
But it’s very easy to feel alone because when people are telling you “Just create a terrorist scene” I am thinking “This can’t be the world I live in; it just can’t.” If the only room in the market for Arabs in film is that...then I don’t want to do this. So it was just that process of finding the right people.
When did you know that you wanted to be a filmmaker? And when did you decide to actually pursue it?
I would say the seed was planted when I was taking a literature requirement to graduate as a biology major in college. I took an Italian neorealist film class and I saw a film that is important to many people — I’m no different — I saw the Bicycle Thief by Vittorio Di Sica.
It’s kind of like a chapter film you know: There’s life before it and there’s life after it. I just thought Oh my god, someone can make a film that’s not escapist, that doesn’t have all the resources of fancy sets, but that really speaks to where people are. It was a film that wasn’t well-received at the time, but I think it’s such a document of where people were. And as I grow older I am so appreciative of that, of films that can sort of give that to us.
When did I know? I was deciding to apply to grad school between journalism and film school. I spent a year in Cairo writing for a newspaper, and then I came back here and was very unsure of what to do.
I felt like writing for this newspaper was very limiting. It didn’t feel like enough, but I found that the stories that I was interested in writing would do really well in film, and so I think bridging that, I applied to Temple and I got this fantastic fellowship.
I came here [Philadelphia] and immediately I could see the collision of the kind of stories I was interested in journalism — which were women and work. And I could see that being melded into narrative storytelling, so that was probably it.
I’m sure you know the statistics: Of all the narrative films screened at Sundance over the past 10 years, women directed less than 17%. Do you feel being a woman in a male-dominated industry has impacted your career trajectory?
I think it’s more my choice of a protagonist that has been more of a question than my gender. I think people have more of an issue with that.
The fact that I’m a female director may impact me later on once [Namour] gets made, and how people might want to peg me.
I frankly feel like the American independent film scene has a lot to work on.
I think the international film scene is a lot better, from my understanding, about women directing. Especially Arab directors, a lot of them are women. I discovered that at festivals, but the American industry is strangely behind to me.
As a producer for NPR's Fresh Air, you get to hear the behind-the-scenes conversations host Terry Gross has with some of the greatest filmmakers in the industry. What lessons have you learned by being so close to those interviews?
I feel like having this job sort of gives me some insider access into how filmmakers think, so I do feel very fortunate about that.
And also, Terry is such a kind and open person, she always asks the producers “Did I miss anything?” after an interview. And I’ve done that a couple times where I say “Would you mind asking this question?” and Terry will ask it and it’s so generous of her.
At one point when Terry was interviewing [filmmaker] Alexander Payne — I asked a question about an editing technique that I noticed that he uses quite a bit, the dissolve, which not many directors use, it’s sort of an old-timey technique. And she asked him that question.
And also, she asks some of the best questions...ever. It’s nice to hear what we don’t have time to air, that’s always a pleasure too.
So you can almost get personal tips.
It’s a very, very cool situation. Also, I have to do research. A lot of times I have to kind of dig deep to find what’s the best material or really what is this director about? So that’s really great for me as well.
Has editing the stories for Fresh Air helped you become a better storyteller as a filmmaker, or helped you understand that process in a deeper way?
Something I learned in graduate school was how to create a narrative arc. And for the most part, Terry does that in her questions. They’re so thoughtful and she thinks in terms of chapters. That’s typically the format of the Fresh Air interview.
What I get to do – with another producer, of course – is really fine tune those arcs. So maybe if an answer goes on too long, we get to find a place to either trim that answer or combine it with another answer that we feel might help move the interview along.
It’s just creating kind of a compactness so that everything feels like we’re moving along to the next thing, that we’re not lingering too long on any one topic and that the interview feels like it’s moving horizontally as well as vertically.
As you’re proceeding into the interview, you also feel like you’re getting a deeper understanding. Those are the two directions we’re hoping to aim in. At least I think like that: does this chapter go deeper and further?
There are similarities, but you are working with a very different format. The two mediums are very different: shorter format audio vs feature length in a visual medium. How is going to be to go back to film?
I’m curious to see what happens. One way that I try to keep myself in the game — the visual game, so to speak — is through my Tumblr. I try to think about compositions, about images.
But my feature film is also the first film I’m not going to edit myself, which I’ve never done. I can already tell it’s going to be very difficult to relinquish that position. But I know that I’m going to need someone else to work with.
I think that it is going to be hard for me, because I’m so used to seeing .wav forms. So much about filmmaking is about finding the internal rhythms — and there’s an internal rhythm to audio editing too — but there’s something else you have to tap into because you’re working with the visual. It’s kind of like kneading dough; you have to stretch it...and really get in there.
It’ll challenge you in different ways.
Oh my god. It’s going to test everything.
What advice would you give to a woman looking to begin a career as a narrative filmmaker? What do you wish that you had learned early on?
One is confidence. I think so much of the trouble I had in even deciding to do filmmaking was thinking I had something to say.
I think a lot — I shouldn’t generalize, but — I think a lot of women don’t think they have something to say. Or that it’s not very original. Or it’s not very interesting. So I think knowing you have a voice is very important. I think that would have helped me get here faster, because you really have to have confidence...that’s unshakeable. Because you’re going to hear so many No’s; you’re going to have a lot of negativity.
The other thing would be to get out of your head. And just have experiences. Travelling was one of the smartest things I ever did. I think throwing myself into situations where I wasn’t the center of attention, where I had to grab the context of things, where I didn’t know the language — that forced me to be an observer.
That is such a skill that I have now; I already see it in my filmmaking style — which is paying attention to things that are not just communicated by language, but body language, social cues, music, change in lighting. So many of those situations put me in observer status, which essentially is what a director is.
If you’re always in the middle, or the center, or if you’re always in your world, you’re never going to get the wide shot.
Was finding your voice about telling your own story?
I don’t know if I feel like my story is the one that I tap into. That’s where the confluence of journalism comes in for me. In journalism, it’s about telling other people’s stories, and I think that’s where I started from.
When I made The Maid, I would walk the streets of Cairo and me and my friends were the only women on the streets at night. I would look up on the balcony and see women up there, in the homes.
And that’s the opening shot of The Maid, which is the woman cleaning the rug on the balcony and that was really about “What are these women doing? Why are they not out on the streets? Why are all the men here?” So it starts with a question like that.
So it wasn’t really about me, but it was wanting to understand who that woman is.
That’s how Namour started, too. What does someone in their mid-20s, who thinks that their life is going to consistently improve, what happens when that’s not going to happen? What does someone do and how do they react? I may inflect some of my behaviorisms or things I might say or aspects of my personality, but I don’t know if it’s so much me.
So you first wrote a female protagonist and now you’ve written a male protagonist. What went into thinking that, thinking completely outside of your experience?
I think for one, it was just interest. And two, I think the consequences for the guy in this story were graver because he was a guy. The conflict was going to be heightened because of that, and I was interested in that. I think the stakes were higher for him, so I wanted it to be a him.
Do you have a motto, words to live by?
There’s one — and I’m going to get it all flubbed up — it’s something that Fellini said, he’s one of my favorite filmmakers.
Basically, all of the things that delay the film and all of the things that intervene in the actual production of the film need to become part of it. So don’t see them as problems; see them as part of how the film will be.
He put it so much better, but whenever I hit up against an actor doesn’t want to do this, etc, I think of it as this is part of one piece now. And all of this is going to flood into what the product will be...in ways that I can’t even know. So just trust that, and let it be what it’s going to be.
Does that extend beyond filmmaking for you, to life in general?
I think it’s a great way to think about life.
And those have been some of the best moments in filmmaking for me. I had a rooftop scene in The Maid. I wrote this scene, labored over it, and thought so long this is how it’s going to be and when we were filming it in Cairo, and all of a sudden this breeze came into the shot and flapped this fabric and it covered one of the actor’s faces and went down at the perfect moment. And I could not have written that.
It’s a perfect example of just...you can’t control all of this and some of it’s going to be wonderful and some of it’s going to be not so great, but work with it. Work with it.