If Sean Mullin’s AMIRA & SAM doesn’t feel like most rom-coms, it may be because it was written by a self-avowed hater of the genre. “My second screenplay I was ever hired to write was for Britney Spears and she wanted me to write a romantic comedy,” he says, “so the first thing I did was kind of freaked out and watched every single romantic comedy that that’s ever been made.” Over the course of his research, that went all the way back to some of the firsts of the genre, Capra’s It Happened One Night, His Girl Friday, and The Philadelphia Story, Mullin charted every moment, every construct, every cliché, a process that could turn anyone away from a genre riddled with poorly-executed one-thought premises that seem over after the meet-cute. “I hate rom-coms, but I made one,” he admits; “I told myself for my first feature as a director I’d like to tell a love story, I love a love story, I think everybody does, but I wanted to avoid all the clichés that I had studied.”

Mullin’s film, the story of a vet who comes home to a country that now seems foreign to him, and finds true love in someone who has come here, illegally, from the foreign lands he just left, makes its Texas premiere as the centerpiece of the 2nd ever Forever Fest. Devised as a complement to the Alamo Drafthouse male-centered programming and Fantastic Fest, Forever Fest celebrates all things girly, with a Mean Girls quote along, a nail art workshop, Hoppy Hour with a petting zoo, and the Cute Brunch, a clip show of adorable animals. I asked Mullin if he was concerned about venturing deep into the girly-overload that this brilliant idea for a festival is. “I can think of worse fates than spending a weekend surrounded by a bunch of enthusiastic women” he responded after some thought. Mullin, along with film stars Martin Starr (Silcon Valley), Paul Weslesy (Vampire Diaries), and Dina Shihabi will all be present at the Saturday night screening of the film, which will released by Drafthouse Films, most likely in early 2015.

Sam, recently returned from service in Iraq, meets Amira through her uncle, a translator for his unit and someone that Sam helped enter the country. Amira carries an understandable amount of resentment to the American who is somewhat responsible for her own family having to escape their country for fear of assassination. However, when her own questionable actions leave her open to deportation, her Uncle asks Sam to hide her. Despite Amira’s attempt to keep him at an arm’s distance, she soon falls for him and they find themselves as a couple trapped between two very different worlds. Mullin and I discussed that the fun in a rom-com is not in the surprise of whether or not they’re going to get together – we are all waiting for it to happen, rooting for it to happen – the fun comes in the characters, and audience investing in them. “One of my highlights of the festival circuit was at the Port Townsend Film Festival,” Mullin remembers, “there was a woman with a hijab in the audience watching the film and I’ve seen the movie so many times now I don’t really watch much anymore, I just watch the audience. I think I spent the entire 90 minutes just watching her. And she was like laughing out loud so hard and she was so into the film, she was on the edge of her seat, I knew I done something right.”

Amira & Sam is great example of rom-com writing because, despite hitting all the typical benchmarks required by the genre, the characters themselves are so distinctive – nothing in the film comes off as predictable. “With Sam, every single veteran-coming-home-from-war movie deals with a veteran who has post traumatic stress,” Mullin explains, “and so I’ve seen all those films, and it’s a very important topic, but I wanted to take a fresh approach. I came up with this idea of the veteran who comes home from war and he’s fine but it’s the country that’s lost its mind.” Sam starts the film working as a security guard, a job he barely has the patience for, but his true dreams lie in comedy. Refusing disability pay from Veterans Affairs, he ventures out to do stand up each night, often bombing. Mullin is no stranger to the military, he graduated from West Point, served on active duty in Germany as an artillery officer and finished his time in the New York National Guard in Manhattan. “That’s kind where part of this story was born,” he says, “I was doing one weekend a month, and I was doing standup comedy at the UCB theater and then September 11 happened. When I got activated, I was put in charge of the soldiers down at Ground Zero where I spent almost about a year. So I spent 12 hours a day down there with the soldiers and then I would do improv comedy at night.” Like Sam, Mullin could have no idea how radically the world would change in the next ten years, especially our perceptions of outsiders. “I was just really fascinated by these translators that have been displaced,” Mullin continues, “I thought for a love story it would be interesting if his [the translator]niece was also displaced.” Because Amira is not his daughter, it’s even more complicated. She has come into the country out of necessity but completely illegally.

Another thing that makes Dina Shihabi’s Amira so fascinating is her daytime ‘profession.’ “I’m a big believer in screenwriting that you can’t fall too much in love with your characters,” the writer/director says, “I like the idea of giving your characters at least one trait that you just can’t stand, so I hate piracy… because I’m a filmmaker, so I was like ‘what if Amira’s a pirate. That’ll piss me the fuck off every time I look at this thing. And I like that.” But her piracy also sets up a nice little detail, which is her love and almost self-awareness of romantic comedies. As she is hawking 27 Dresses and such on the street corner, she leaves herself open to the tropes of these films, finding herself in her own meet-cute when her uncle invites Sam to stay for dinner. “Amira’s kind of grappling with her own post traumatic stress in a way,” Mullin explains, “I’m really attracted to strong women, women who know who they are, and I feel that Amira is that. She puts up this façade, but she’s very sweet underneath.” In fact, rom-coms are one of the ways that Amira best seems to understand US culture, she references them in her conversations with Sam and seems to be all too aware that her life is playing out like one.

What about the aspect of Sam that Mullin hates? “I’m too self-righteous and morally bound,” and these traits make it into Martin Starr’s character. Sam finds himself in a moral quandary when his cousin asks him to help him land some well-off vets for his investment portfolio. Mullin says of Paul Wesley’s character Charlie, “you never want to judge your characters, Charlie can be looked at as a bad guy, but every conversation I had with Paul about the character – In his mind he’s doing the right thing. There’s a great screenwriting adage that says the villain is the hero of their own story. He’s just a guy who gets in too deep.” However conflicted he is, Sam doesn’t truly realize the issues he is facing until he brings Amira with him to Charlie’s engagement dinner, in one of the best scenes in the film. Sam is caught using his own military service for gain in a way he himself finds reprehensible, and he discovers that he may have less honor than Amira, a woman in the country illegally, caught selling pirated DVDs on the street who suffers the scorn of his cousin’s friends.

One of the most satisfying aspects of the film for Mullin is the way veterans have responded. “The majority of veterans are fine, They don’t have PTSD and the fact that Hollywood only focuses on the negatives…” he trails off, then continues, “I’ve got some really big veterans organizations getting behind this film and helping us promote it and it’s very exciting because they haven’t seen [anything like this film]. The Chief Film Affairs Officer for the Army is one of my biggest fans. … They love this one because it shows veterans in a great light.” This portrayal lines up perfectly with Mullin’s own experiences. “I’ve seen a lot of my friends who are veterans who came home, and some of them had emotional issues that they were dealing with but a lot of them were okay. They just wanted to come home and just begin their lives, they just want their fair shake. I think Sam’s character comes a lot from that.”

Sean Mullin’s AMIRA & SAM is playing Saturday November 15th as part of Forever Fest. Tickets are available here.

Bears Fonté is the Founder and Executive Director of Other Worlds Austin, a new festival in Texas’ capital focused on SciFi.  Prior to that, Bears served as Director of Programming for Austin Film Festival from 2012-14, overseeing some 200 films selected to screen at eight venues over eight days.  The 2013 Festival saw 28 world premiere features and 7 films picked up at the festival or the week after.  His most recent short film, THE SECRET KEEPER, has been selected by over 35 US Film Festivals since September of 2012.  His feature thriller iCRIME, which he wrote and directed, was released on DVD, VOD and streaming by Vicious Circle Films in 2011.  Bears also self-produced two web-series which have been seen by a combined ten million viewers.

Prior to arriving in Austin, Bears wrote coverage for independent producers and coverage services in LA and placed in nearly every single screenwriting contest out there including Screenwriter’s Expo, Final Draft Big Break, Page International, Story Pros and Austin Film Festival.

Bears received his BA from Carleton College in British Studies and Theatre Studies and a MFA in Directing from Indiana University and has directed over forty plays, including the Austin Critics Table nominee Corpus Christi, and the Austin Shakespeare Festival’s Complete Works of Shakspeare Abridged. He studied writing with noted playwrights Jeff Hatcher and Denis Reardon, and directed the first-ever professional productions by Princess Grace Award-winning and Pulitzer Prize-nominated playwright Don Zolidis and up-and-coming playwright Itamar Moses. He is currently working on a new five minute short to submit to festivals in 2015.

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