Sean Mullin’s background as a filmmaker isn’t unconventional at first glance: The director of Drafthouse Films’ new romantic comedy Amira & Sam got his start doing improv and stand-up at the Upright Citizens Brigade theater in New York, working on screenplays and film projects on the side. But the other side of his background is what really informs his debut feature, which stars Martin Starr as Sam, a former Green Beret transitioning back to civilian life, and newcomer Dina Shihabi as Amira, an Iraqi immigrant living undocumented in New York.
“I had gone to West Point for my undergraduate, so I served, but it was peacetime when I was in,” Mullin explains. “It was before September 11, and so I was doing active duty stuff in Germany, before I left there and moved to New York City and joined the New York National Guard.” Mullin (who, just to be clear, is a different dude than “Rockabye” performer Shawn Mullins) had been the “funny guy,” he says, at West Point, and found a home at UCB–and then, during his run at the theater, the September 11 attacks happened. “I spent almost a year down at Ground Zero, working at Ground Zero during the day and then doing stand-up and improv at night.”
Those experiences combined to form the genesis of Amira and Sam, which may be the first romantic comedy about military-to-civilian transition, anti-Muslim racism, the financial crisis, and broken American systems. So how did Mullin go from West Point joker to feature filmmaker?
As with any romantic comedy, the audience has to absolutely adore both of the characters who are going to be falling in love for the film to work. To that end, Mullin started with Sam: a Green Beret and war hero whose homecoming was made more difficult because of the way his personality defied stereotypes about that sort of person. It was, Mullin explains, a character he could relate to in some ways.
“I’ve always been this guy that people haven’t been able to pigeonhole,” he says. “Even in high school–I was kind of the jock, but I was also in AP courses and stuff. So I felt like, with Sam, that was kind of what I was going after. To create a character that defied expectations.”
Mullin was inspired by friends of his who were sent to Iraq and Afghanistan after September 11. He left the military in the summer of 2002 to go to grad school at Columbia, and he saw a number of friends go off to war and come back–not with PTSD, but with a surprising numbers of less dramatic difficulties in transitioning back to civilian life.
“I feel like every single ‘soldier coming home from war’ movie is a story grappling with post-traumatic stress, and I wanted to flip that: ‘What if the soldier comes home from war and he’s fine, but it’s the country that has PTSD?'” Mullin says. “I felt like that it was like an inherently comedic premise.”
A soldier returning to the U.S. only to find that the country’s financial system is run by corrupt thieves who are eager to pay lip service to veterans, while simultaneously treating them like garbage, and rampant racism isn’t necessarily what everyone would describe as “an inherently comedic premise,” but Mullin’ life experiences give him an interesting perspective. “I guess that’s just how I look at the world,” he says.
Amira and Sam is definitely a funny movie–it hits theaters and VOD on January 30, and if you watch it in a crowded movie theater, you’ll hear a lot of laughing–but the off-center approach to finding humor where other people might see drama is very much at the core of what makes the movie work.
That extends to the casting, too. Martin Starr’s most definitive roles–whether on Freaks and Geeks, Party Down, or Silicon Valley–are as socially awkward nerds. Casting him as a war hero Green Beret is definitely playing against type, but Mullin says that’s just being realistic.
“Not everybody’s Channing Tatum,” he says. “When I was in the military, you’ve got all shapes and sizes. Green Berets have got to be smart, speak languages, all this stuff. They’re just buff nerds.”
Starr, as Sam, plays a character who defies stereotypes in a few ways. But Dina Shihabi–who takes on her first feature lead as Amira–does the same thing. Showing that both Amira and Sam are outsiders in their worlds, and in the expectations of the audience, is one of the keys to making their love story compelling.
“Anything that I’ve written that’s been worth a damn at all, there’s an inherent tension that exists between perception and reality, and the way people are perceived versus who they really are,” Mullin says. “I create characters where people think they’re one thing, but they’re really something else. That’s kind of the conflict.”
That applies to Amira–a young woman who wears the hijab, lives with her uncle, and attempts to make a living by selling bootleg DVDs of the romantic comedy films she adores on the streets of New York.
“I was very intent on creating a character that was very strong,” Mullin says. “People think wrongly that anyone who wears the hijab is submissive in some way. I know immigrants who are the exact opposite, and I wanted to show that onscreen.”
The plot of Amira and Sam, outside of “let these two people fall in love,” is kind of minimal. If you watch the trailer, you’ll see that involves the threat of deportation, racism from people in Sam’s life, and a fair amount of Sam being paraded around in his military dress uniform–but it’s not what one would call “high concept.”
That presents a unique challenge for a first-time filmmaker, though: Romantic comedies (a term that Mullin dislikes) tend to succeed or fail based on their stars, and the reject pile of countless film festivals are littered with indie rom-coms that failed to give viewers the chance to watch, say, Amy Adams or Ryan Reynolds fall in love. So what did Mullin do to ensure that he wasn’t going to be among them?
“I just created full, multi-dimensional characters who were flawed in some ways. If I find myself liking a character too much I have to give them a quality I really hate,” he laughs. “I’m an independent filmmaker so I hate piracy and so I’m like, ‘Let’s make her pirating DVDs. That will piss me off every time I see this fucking thing.'”
More specifically, Mullin looked at the rom-com formula to find out why the films that didn’t work failed to deliver. “When making a love story, the most important question–which really shitty rom-coms get wrong–is: ‘Why are these two people meant for each other?'”
That’s a question that does tie back to the external plot of the film that surrounds Amira and Sam in their love story–ultimately, though you start with the characters; their circumstances are inseparable from who they are. For Mullin,”why are these two people meant for each other” doesn’t just deal with who they are, but how and why they meet.
“I feel like our film works because they’re both outsiders within this world that they shouldn’t be outsiders in,” he says. “They’re forced together by the circumstances, and that’s not the way America was founded. I think the idea that these outsiders are being forced together by the current state of society, then, makes sense. I think that’s why the film is satisfying to people.”