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A Tale of Two Sundance Debuts


Despite the continuing trend at the Sundance Film Festival towards stars with name recognition and bigger budgets to increase the films’ sale-ability, the event still provides the opportunity for first-time filmmakers to expose their souls on the big screen. Two such films are Captain Abu Raed and Good Dick.

Although scenes from films such as Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade and Lawrence of Arabia have been shot in Jordan, Amin Matalqa’s debut feature, Captain Abu Raed, is the first Jordanian production in 50 years offered for international distribution and shot on location in the country. Winner of the Sundance Film Festival 2008 World Cinema Audience Award, the film tells the story of an aging, well-read airport janitor who, when mistaken for an airline pilot by a group of poor neighborhood children, weaves fantastical stories as an offering of hope against the harsh reality of their lives.

Premiering in the Dramatic Competition, Marianna Palka’s directorial debut, Good Dick, is a crowd-pleasing, offbeat love story about a troubled, lonely young woman and the homeless video store clerk who instantly falls for her and won’t take no for an answer. Below the Line first spoke to Matalqa, then to Palka.

BTL: How did Captain Abu Raed came about.

Amin Matalqa: My producer David Pritchard suggested I write a film that if Charlie Chaplin were alive, he’d want to act in it. My father’s a pilot, my brother’s a pilot, so an airport was the kind of place I wanted to set the movie in. Also, my grandfather passed away that year, so there was a connection to the innocence that he exuded.

BTL: Talk about the cinematography.

Matalqa: We had a lot of discussion about the different color palettes. Abu Raed’s world is golden warm, but Murad’s world is cold blue. We brought in a crane from Lebanon and the Arriflex D-20 [digital camera] from Germany. It has a film camera body and 35 mm lenses – we had some of the best Cooke and Zeiss lenses. We shot straight to hard drives in tapeless uncompressed 4:4:4.

At first I was hesitant to shoot digital. I spent too much of my blood and guts and sweat on writing the script. I didn’t want it to look like a video movie. Ray didn’t either. He had worked with a Panasonic VariCam, a cheaper option, but we went to the extra expense to get the D-20. We ended up shooting two cameras. In 23 days we shot the whole movie.

BTL: Did you look at reference movies or storyboard to communicate framing?

Matalqa: I did a little storyboarding, but I had done 25 short films. Many of them stuck to storyboards. It was time for me to move away from storyboards. I wanted to let the performance dictate how I was going to shoot the movie. I had a shot list but on day one I threw it out. We had a lot of discussion beforehand and spent a week rehearsing with the actors. The communication was very powerful between me, the actors, Ray and the A.D., so a lot of the cinematography was created on the spot. Mentally, I’d keep a list. I had edited my own stuff before, so I think like an editor. You know the coverage you need and what you want to accentuate. You think of rhythm, of performance – what’s working, what’s not working.

BTL: You worked with your editor in preproduction.

Matalqa: Laith Monjali had edited six or seven of my short films. The Avid platform for daily assemblies while we were shooting got damaged, so we came back and did all the post in Los Angeles. It was cool to relive the experience by sitting and watching the footage for the first time, because we didn’t even have time to watch dailies while shooting. We edited the whole movie in about 21 days.

BTL: Where did you meet your production designer, Gerald Sullivan?

Matalqa: I sent out an email through one of my teachers at AFI. I had a location slide show for the movie on the website. He loved it and asked me to send him the script. BTL: Talk about other crew.

Matalqa: My AD, Jim Grayford, was fantastic. He was from LA. We had 17 countries represented on the crew. I want to work with Jim on everything. I’m pretty unorganized, everything’s chaotic, but he would break down everything. I learned a lot of things from him about organizing, prioritizing.

Austin Winfrey scored my AFI thesis film. We had such a great relationship from that movie that we carried it on. I wanted a full orchestra for this movie. We recorded at Warner Bros.Clint Eastwood scoring stage.

BTL: Did you use local Jordanian crew?

Matalqa: Maybe 60 percent percent of the crew was Jordanian. Our Jordanian location manager, Farwaz Zavi, coined one of my favorite sayings: “What we don’t have in knowledge, we make up for with enthusiasm.”

The costume designer was a local, Jamilla Alleddin. She had worked on a lot of TV and theater, but film was a different experience for her. She had worked on Brian DePalma’s Redacted, just before our film. She did these beautiful sketches of the wardrobe.

BTL: How was your production sound?

Matalqa: Shooting in a functioning airport was potentially a nightmare. I rewrote some scenes at the last minute to move them away from the airport. Production sound was from Tunisia. Those guys spoke French and a different Arabic than ours, so we had to communicate through French and sign language. I spoke English to the crew, French to sound and Arabic to the cast.

Sound design and postproduction was at Gigapix Studios in Chatsworth, Calif., where Dave Pritchard is the president. Clark Kraft, our technical supervisor, is amazing. He designed and built our system. There was some damaged footage – pixilated stuff – that he fixed with software.

Below the Line next spoke to Palka:

BTL: What was your vision for the look of the film?

Marianna Palka: I wanted to make sure that the film looked very specific, so I brought in Daphne Javitch, the best costume designer I ever worked with. Andrew Trosmans was production designer and Andre Lascaris cinematographer. In creative terms, they were very strong as a team. Their work is definitely in line with what my vision was.

BTL: You had to trust your cinematographer more than usual, since you were also acting. How did you communicate with him?

Palka: I storyboarded the whole movie before I met Andre, then we talked about it. I wanted a very specific depth of field – people in focus with highlights behind them. I showed him images that resonated with me. We shot-listed intensely. Andre wanted to cover our asses and do a lot of shots. A couple times it helped to have those safety nets.

My producers, Cora [Olsen] and Jenn [Dubin] knew Andre and sent us on this “blind date” hoping that we would like each other. We clicked. He’s artistic in a way that I understand. We have an easy way of communicating. We also decided to be telepathic on set. We were so prepared that we both knew what the other one was thinking.

BTL: How did you find editor Christopher Knoll?

Palka: He’s been an assistant for a long time. At night he did our film, cutting on Avid on his laptop. It has been a coming-of- age for both of us. This was my first film and the first time he got to do something that was all his. I’ve never seen anyone so organized in my whole life. I was very lucky to have Chris.

BTL: Your sets seemed very controlled. Did you get good production sound?

Palka: You would assume that, but we were across the street from a Ralphs supermarket. They get deliveries every couple of hours from these huge trucks that back into the loading dock and go “beep, beep, beep.” Also we were on a very busy cross street. The video store was a similar situation. Right outside there was a streetlight that had a constant hum. We did a few things that were ADR, not many. I don’t think you can tell. We went to Sonic Magic in Culver City. The sound was painless. I thought it was going to be hellish, but it was fun.

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