Strangely in Love – Q&A

Strangely in Love – Q&A

Strangely in Love is an independent film by Amin Matalqa, which takes the story of Dostoevsky’s novella White Nights and sets it in modern day Los Angeles.

Director, producer and co-writer Amin Matalqa, actress and producer Michelle Lang and costume designer Catherine Velosa have been kind enough to participate in a Q&A for this site. I thank them for their time.

Russian authors such as Dostoevsky and Tolstoy have seen a re-emergence of late, including Anna Karenina and War & Peace, what do you think the appeal is?

Amin Matalqa:

Classics are classics because they’re timeless portraits of universal themes that people can relate to across culture and time. Tolstoy captured big grand themes in his epics and they’ll always be costume dramas. Dostoevsky on the other hand delves deeper into the intimate dark depths of human psychology. He’s influenced films like Taxi Driver and Woody Allen’s Match Point, among many others. In the case of Strangely In Love, I wanted to make Dostoevsky accessible in a goofy but hopefully clever comedy.

Michelle Lang:

The themes in Dostoevsky are so intense and personal. The characters are unusual and yet grounded in basic human emotions: love, lust, fear that makes the stories universal. For Strangely in Love we took a very different look at Dostoevsky – the comedy of love and pain.

 

What made you decide to adapt Dostoevsky’s novella White Nights? And why did you choose a modern day setting for the film?

Amin Matalqa:

I could relate to the story so well. When I first read it, I felt as if it was the story of my college years, always in love with a girl who’s in love with another guy. And it made me laugh at how desperate I was back then. Modern day in LA because the story could take place anywhere anytime.

Michelle Lang:

Amin sent me the story!  And we did modern-day for budget reasons, but also to make it relatable. The characters are “in this world (e.g. modern) but not of this world.” They live in their own time, with their own rules. We couldn’t afford to replace all the cars in LA or get all the extras in period costumes, but you’ll notice Nastenka has period style dress, in a way. She’s a bit of a blast from the past… living in her own world!

 

Were there any elements of the story that you were worried would be lost when deciding on a modern day setting?

Amin Matalqa:

Actually yes. We had to be careful balancing the lingo of the characters. I didn’t want them to talk like normal people do today, but at the same time, I was careful not to make their dialog feel dated like something straight out of the novel. It was a lot of fun playing with the language as I wrote the dialogue and then modified it according to how it sounded coming out of Jemuel and Michelle’s interpretations. Something unique resulted from that. They both exist in a world of their own, yet they live in Los Angeles today.

Michelle Lang:

The idea of waiting for a lover and not being able to move on, or “needing” the man to get anywhere in life, seemed a bit against my feminist views. But we made Nastenka blind, which made her in need of anyone to help her, and it just happened to be a man, in her case.

 

How did the players, such as cast/crew get involved in the project? For those who had multiple roles involved in the production process, how hard was it to juggle the different roles?

Amin Matalqa:

I’d made two films with both cinematographer Reinhart Peschke and composer Austin Wintory. Jemuel and I worked together on several short films, including my very first short when I moved to LA in 2003 and my thesis film at AFI, which was also the project I cast Michelle in. The whole crew came together like a family.

Michelle Lang:

I was originally slated to only act. But we were trying to find a producer to take the project on and couldn’t find one who knew how to do it and could dedicate as much time as it required making it happen. I produced another film called, Lost on Purpose (with tons more characters and a larger budget), and so I knew I could produce this one.  We added on some producers as we go to shooting so I could focus on the role.

As far as the other team members, they were all friends or friends of friends. Everyone who came on this was doing it for the sheer joy of making a movie. Going to set every day was like going to summer camp as a kid.

 

How did shooting an independent film compare to working on other forms of media? For the actors, did it change the way you prepared for your role?

Amin Matalqa:

Strangely In Love was ultra independent. Both of my previous films, Captain Abu Raed and The United were around $2million budgets. This one was $65k. Essentially, the catering budget of my previous films. Yet it was so liberating to make a small intimate film like this because the entire crew was in it for the love of working together and just making a movie we all cared about. We used our various apartments as base camp for each of the locations. It was a very personal film.

Michelle Lang:

Independent film is great, especially when done with friends as you can have as much rehearsal time as you and your friends would like to do!  So this role was very different because Amin, Jemuel (lead male) and I would sit around and rehearse for long periods of time for about three months before we ever shot a scene. We would go to locations and try working in the spaces we were going to shoot in.  It was like a snowball, growing and growing. For other media you come to set, run the lines and often that’s all the rehearsal you get. Which is fine too, but I really loved the creative process of this film.

 

Because it is a small independent film, what resources did you use to help get the green light for the project?

Amin Matalqa:

We had to get the script in good shape, first and foremost. The rest came together in a very natural organic way as each crew member brought a piece of his or her heart into the production.

Michelle Lang:

We used passion as the main resource. We found people who wanted to make something and we all bonded together!  We also raised enough money to pay for the essentials and then we got more than any amount of money could buy in joy and passion from every single person who worked on the project.

 

The film has screened at a number of film festivals before its release, can you describe the rollout process of getting the film distributed.

Amin Matalqa:

Making the film is only half the battle. The other half is getting it out there. There are more indies being made than ever before. So the challenge is to stand out from the crowd, especially as a romantic comedy that most A-list festivals may not take simply because it’s not tackling serious social subject matter.   That’s why it took a long journey to get the film out into the market. But the joy of sharing it with audiences on the big screen and hearing them laugh together is addictive.

Michelle Lang:

We did festivals, won best film and other awards. Then we got a distributor, and it took us a bit of time to get all the deliverables together and then to sell to iTunes and other outlets. From shoot to release it was over a three-year journey!

 

Amin, this was the first feature film you shot in the United States as opposed to in Jordan, how did the shooting process differ?

Amin Matalqa:

Yes. It’s my first American feature film, though I’d made more than a dozen shorts in LA prior to any of my features. As far as production, the main difference was that we had a tiny crew of maybe 20 people on Strangely In Love, whereas Captain and The United both had over 100 people on any given day. That was the biggest difference. Otherwise, the language of the set is pretty much the same.

 

Is there any advice you would give your younger self, as a writer / director, that may influence others as they begin their writing / directing journeys?

Amin Matalqa:

Have no fear of making mistakes. Write, shoot, edit, collaborate, and learn all the time. Ask yourself questions all the time. Why am I making this film? Why does the audience care? Find the themes you personally are interested in. Search for your voice by writing and making movies all the time. It’s cheap to shoot short films. Don’t worry about making mistakes. I think what worked for me when I first moved to LA was that I was eager to learn by doing, so I made one short film a month. The joy of filmmaking is an addiction. Do it for the love of doing it, not for the money or any other superficial reasons. Delve into your personality to find something authentic to say. Don’t imitate other filmmakers, but allow yourself to be influenced by immersion in cinema. Watch a lot of movies and let them seep into your subconscious.

 

Aside from the performances, the soundtrack and costumes play a major part in telling the story. Could Amin or Catherine Velosa, costume designer, and Austin Wintory, composer explain their creative decisions on how they chose to differentiate the chapters of the story in the film.

Amin Matalqa:

Working with Austin is one of my favourite things in the world. His music gives the film the much-needed final layer of storytelling. Actually, none of my films would work without the music because I want the experience to rely on the marriage of visuals to music while supporting the performances. We talk about colour a lot while spotting the film. In the case of Strangely In Love, Austin was involved long before production. This gave him time to let ideas brew before seeing the picture. In this case, we chose to give Fyo’s naive character a waltz with a beautiful jazz harmonica playing his theme backed by a string orchestra, and for Steve, the meathead, we had a rough tango played on a guitar backed by African choir. The musical contrast between the two worlds brought a lot of texture and even contributed to the comedy all throughout the film. And by the end of the movie, there’s a beautiful grounded quality to the score, which evolves throughout the picture from a lush old fashioned 30’s Hollywood sound to a modern ambient electronic sound behind a simple piano. Austin created a really unique and wonderful score for this film.

Catherine Velosa:

Since we had such a long pre-production period, we really got to delve into these characters. I got to work very closely with Michelle for several months picking and choosing the look for Nastenka while keeping to the strict budget. This character lives in her own naive world, so I wanted her to look like a flower from a fairytale. Like a flower she is delicate. Like flowers, Nastenka also has a wonderful flair for the dramatic!  Texture and colour play a part of her moods. Softer colours when she is happy, like pinks and soft greens, sharp primary colours like red, when things feel chaotic for her.

After finding Nastenka, is was very easy to incorporate Fyo into her life. He is a character that is unformed. By putting him in drab browns with soft textures like corduroy and velour gave him soft and floppy lines that makes him blend into the background. It isn’t until he meets Nastenka, brighter colours starts popping up. Since he is a character who just wants to please, the more he is with her, and sucked into her world, the more he dresses like her. His colour palate becomes more floral with pinks, light blues and greens.  It’s not until the end when he is out of her life, and forced to figure out who he is and what he wants for himself, you see the beginning of his own individual personality spectrum. There are colours, but more somber and even. His lines become in sharper focus.

Steve was just outright fun! The more Steve came into realisation, the more ridiculous he became. In the beginning, I wanted to show him almost from Nastenka’s point of view, which is naive and literally blind to the real. So he became this big macho caricature who is just over the top. He is the opposite of Fyo. Fyo disappears in the world, while Steve screams at it with a bullhorn. I wanted his clothes to shout out to the world that he went to save African children. Even though he probably bought that shirt from the gift shop in the airport.

 

What advice would you give to those who are looking to get into independent filmmaking? In particular, to those who are interested in adapting a classic novel / story to a modern day setting?

Amin Matalqa:

Just do it. Don’t worry about the obstacles. Have no fear. Surround yourself with talented people. Also, make sure that the script works before you go into production. Let the characters’ motivations make sense. Know the tone you’re going after. When you do go into preproduction, do as much homework as positive. Have a plan B for every location. Let the scouting of the locations inspire new ideas to feed the story and characters. Rehearse with the actors but don’t over-rehearse. And when you’re shooting in production, know that you’ll always have to make compromises, but directing is about adapting to the surprises that get in the way every way. Especially in independent films where you have less control over your environment and you don’t have a lot of time. Find solutions, always. And stay positive. Enjoy the experience no matter how stressful. Remember why you got into filmmaking in the first place. We’re so lucky to get to make movies. Take nothing for granted.

Michelle Lang:

My advice is to not ask permission. (Well, don’t adapt something that you don’t have copyright clearance!) But don’t ask permission to create. Just band together and say you are going to do it.  If you only have 5 bucks to spend, or hundreds of thousands or millions, it doesn’t matter. No one can stop you but yourself. There are always excuses for everything and if you let yourself talk yourself out of doing something, then nothing will ever happen!  There’s no badge to make film, there’s just a lot of hard work and man-hours.

 

What is the most challenging and rewarding aspect of making an independent film?

Amin Matalqa:

The biggest challenge with indies is always the limited resources and time you have to pull off the film. But the reward is immense when it all comes together. Sharing the film with the audience is the best part. You know that all that hard work you poured into this collaboration will always be preserved on the screen. Is there anything better than taking an audience on a journey and affecting them with what you have to say?

Michelle Lang:

If you’re doing an indie film, you (pretty much) have complete creative control. Once you’re in a studio system or even in a bigger budget indie film you have to answer to other people. For micro budget indie films you can be free to create any vision you want. It’s something indie people don’t cherish enough, but I’ve met plenty of people in the TV or Studio system trying to do what we’re doing in the indie world!

 

 

Are there any upcoming projects you would like to plug?

Amin Matalqa:

I just finished post production on my new adventure film The Rendezvous starring Stana Katic (from the ABC show, Castle). It comes out in theatres in the fall.

Michelle Lang:

I’m in a film coming out called Waffle Street. I play an enraged wife who comes in throwing papers at her overworked husband. It’s insanely different than Nastenka and most people don’t recognise me in either role. (Which I take as a huge compliment!)

I’m also adapting a novel called Saving Angelfish into a screenplay with the author of the book.  We are raising money to shoot in the next year or two!

 

And finally this is to everyone. One word you use to describe independent films.

Amin Matalqa:

Two words: Personal quests.

Michelle Lang:

Invigorating.

 

Thank you again for participating in this Q&A it is much appreciated. 

Strangely in Love is now available to watch on iTunes and Amazon. You can also listen to Austin’s fantastic score on his website.

Official Website: http://strangelyinlove.com

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