Hello everybody. This is Film Mamma, I’m Thais Drassinower and today I am very excited because I have not just one, but two very talented directors that are gonna discuss with us the making of their first feature. Esra Saydam and Nisan Dag co-directed ACROSS THE SEA, which won the Audience Award at the Slamdance Film Festival in 2015 and has gone to a really nice festival circuit since then. It’s now available on Amazon Prime. So if you haven’t seen the film, be sure to check it out there.
The film is a beautiful drama about the story of a pregnant woman named Damla who reluctantly accepts to go back to her Turkish summer town with her American husband, only to be reminded of what she left behind there. It’s a drama with a slow build of tension and it’s beautifully done. I’m very excited to be here today with the directors.
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FILM MAMMA (FM): Thank you Esra and Nisan for being here, it’s great to have you. Thank you for revisiting this first feature. It’s been eight years now since you made it and it was probably done in a world that seems completely different from the world that we are in today. I’m excited to discuss how it was to make the feature back then and how it looks like with projects that you’re working on right now.
I would love to start from the beginning just by hearing about your journeys towards directing. How did you decide to become film directors?
ESRA SAYDAM (ES): I like to call myself a storyteller and filmmaker and for me, directing is one way of telling the story. I watched a lot of Hollywood films, including BEETHOVEN, the dog movie. I’m not gonna be ashamed, it happened to me. But then I would watch Bertolucci’s LAST TANGO IN PARIS and I would go to the Istanbul film festival, and I felt that I was missing something between Hollywood movies and these movies. There was something very big that I needed to find out. When I started at Columbia University after college, I went there first to attend their creative producing program, but I felt very encouraged to also pursue directing among my peers because they said that I was good with emotions and I didn’t know I had that. I like to direct films about people who are generally outcasts or misfits, like Michaela Coel described in her speech. I can keep talking so I will just stop right now. Otherwise, it’s gonna be long…(laughs)
FM: All right. What about you, Nisan?
NISAN DAG (ND): First of all, I feel like Esra and I have been away for a while now since she moved back to New York and I’m in Istanbul, so I’m like – No, no, keep going… I always find her perspective and take on life so fresh. So anyway, about me, I like creating things. I like experiments, like the joy I take from making movies or creating things is the same as cooking in the kitchen when I discover the combination of two spices, bringing something new and wild onto the table. And that’s the same thing when I just find a good story idea and execute it in a different kind of approach and the combination brings different results. So that kind of joy, I think drives me. And I’m a people person too, I guess. I like to make things not for myself, but for other people just to say something or just to make people feel something. So that’s the nature of whatever I do.
I did animation at first, stop-motion mostly. But it’s kind of crazy. It takes a lot of work and it’s actually a huge team effort. So later on, I just figured working with actors is more efficient. I’m not saying it’s easier (Laughs). All genres have their own complications, but long story short, I started with animated films and then transitioned into live-action. And still, I like to use a bit of animation once in a while. My latest feature had some animated scenes.
ES: I also feel like the idea of being on set is fascinating because, even though directors are known to be control freaks sometimes, the fact is you cannot control every variable, so it’s like a flowing river. You can just move it a little bit to the right, a little bit to the left, you can put a dam, the fact that we have so many uncontrollable variables and somehow we lead them towards the way that we want them to go, it’s very magical to me. It’s an uncontrollable experiment like Nisan says. I can blow off the lab, but it’s okay. Kind of. (Laughs)
FM: Yes, you are putting a camera and allowing life to happen in front of it. It can take many shapes and you can have a plan and it’s not gonna go necessarily that way, it might go in a different way and you might discover something and that’s the magic of cinema, right?
Full disclosure: Esra and I have actually worked on a film together. I miss that time. Fun times in New York casting actors. I’ve had the experience to work alongside Esra and she definitely has a beautiful, unique perspective to bring on to any role on set.
I would love to hear how you two met and how did you decide you wanted to collaborate and make this first feature together.
ND: We went to Columbia University almost at the same time. Esra was a year ahead of me. We both heard the rumors that there was another Turkish student and we were both trying to find each other at school. After a couple of wrong attempts we finally managed and I was really happy to have her because she was automatically the safe person who I could ask all my questions like: Which class should I take? And then we quickly bonded. We had a writing vacation together. I think that was a significant memory. Was it Thanksgiving? Do you remember, Esra?
ES: I think maybe it was Thanksgiving, but the first image that defines Nisan to me is this: She was alone on the sixth floor which was the theater floor. There weren’t many people after class hours and she was inside this classroom alone, trying to figure out this prop for this short film of a friend. I think you were trying to build bandages, but you were trying so hard and she was really, really, really exhausting herself to make it happen. She was really losing her mind because it was not working, but it was for someone else’s film, you know? And I loved that she really cared about it for someone else’s project. She was very specific about what she wanted too. (Laugh)
FM: That’s beautiful. Did you figure it out?
ND: I think sort of at the end, but not at that exact moment, unfortunately.
FM: Okay. So you met at Columbia, you bonded and you became friends. Maybe you wrote something else first together? Was this the first project that you decided to collaborate on?
ES: Yeah, I mean, we were both homesick, and we had to do the first-year projects. I had written a very tiny story, it is not about ACROSS THE SEA for sure, but it’s a summer town story. And the people at Columbia were into that. And I’m wondering why? Maybe because it was a good story, but also because everybody was homesick. Most students are away from their home and they miss that summertime where they meet their old loves or some other stories. So we merged our ideas of creating a summer town love story, which are different from the protagonist’s because she’s six months pregnant from someone else and she is pursuing her first love. It’s funny people forget that when they watch that film, I’m like – She’s six months pregnant, but going for the other guy.
FM: I think that’s what also makes this film unique and it’s not the typical love drama that you are expecting. I feel that the script is really good because it delves deep into the emotions without being melodramatic and I think that’s a big success, both of the script and of performances.
You also wrote the script together, so you co-wrote and you co-directed, what was the process of writing the script together like?
ES: One of us would write the first draft and the other one would revise and then the other one would add other things. And the thing is, this is probably valid for every director, even in your own script, there’s one scene that you’re like – Hmm, I don’t know. Is it too informational? Is it my scene? Some scenes would appeal to me a lot and some scenes would appeal to Nisan a lot. We would both have our public domain babies, and then our own babies.
ND: Yeah, but I also have to give Esra credit. I feel like the script is really majorly derived from her short story. That screenplay also moved me a lot and you were so generous to share and include me in the writing. I feel like I couldn’t have written that script without you, but you could have probably written it without me.
ES: That wouldn’t be the same film.
ND: Yeah, but I feel you were always very generous. I don’t think I’ve told you this, but recently I was going through my journals and I found something. I’m trying to brainstorm ideas for my feature projects and I found something like: Esra’s short story was cool. I wonder what she thinks about making it into a feature? I found this in a journal. It was fun to find it years later. And when we did this writing vacation, we were just putting our ideas out there and discussing which one to make. I remember you had like three, four, maybe five feature ideas, even your most recent project was one of them.
ES: The ambulance movie.
ND: The ambulance! Yes. That was an idea, but I think you didn’t choose to pursue that one at that time. Basically what we were doing is brainstorming about story ideas. And I think the short story that inspired ACROSS THE SEA, at that vacation town, was something we then got excited about. So the writing process was easier for me because when I came on to co-write she already had this kind of first draft. I don’t have a great memory by the way, so correct me if I’m wrong.
ES: Maybe we had the story, but actually when we made the proposal to our actors…
ND: Oh… Yes, yes, yes.
ES: We pretended that we already had the first draft, but we didn’t have that.
ND: But deadlines always help, right? And to save time, we made an excuse, I think, and said – Oh, we’ve written it in English though, so we have to translate it and we need like two more weeks. And I wonder if he asked for the English version then?
ES: He said – I wanna improve my English… (Laughs)
FM: Is this the actor that plays Burak?
ES: Yes. This year he won Best Actor at the Istanbul Film Festival, he’s very good.
FM: He’s very good.
ES: Yeah, I like him a lot.
FM: Both of them and also Jacob FIshel, the American actor, he also brings something great to the film. You did great casting.
ES: Thank you so much. Jacob was from theater so there were some moments where we had this five-page scene with another character, Kevin and Asli, and then we had only 16 minutes to shoot and thank God they were both theater actors so they knew how to go with the flow. You know what I mean? (Laugh) They just did the whole five pages. It was so good! I was like – Are you gonna make it there? They were like – Don’t worry, we got this.
ND: I just wish we had a little more time to light that scene because I thought it was a great long-take scene. And the low-budget production demanded we do no further lighting and just shoot. But I wish we captured some of the performances in more detail. The scene somehow had a nice vibe to it as well in silhouette though.
FM: That scene is great, it really works. You are building tension and we think it’s gonna go somewhere and it goes somewhere completely different. And you’re learning so much about that character’s aches and internal life at the same moment that he is learning everything about his wife. So, I think the performances, again, were great.
Going back to the script, did you take the script through any labs, residencies or fellowships, and if so, was anything helpful? Anything that you would like to talk about?
ES: So, the interesting thing is that we only took it to one lab, and that was Meetings On The Bridge organized by the Istanbul Film Festival that aims to create co-productions with European countries which was not the case for ACROSS THE SEA. Nisan did it with her second feature, actually. So when we went there in April 2013 and we said we were shooting this in July 2013, they were like – No, you’re not shooting this. No, you’re not. And we’re like – Yeah, we are because we were a little bit ignorant, but I think ignorance is a bliss. And when people believed that we were doing it, then the Ministry of Culture also said – Oh, I guess they’re doing this so let’s give them some money. And then after the shooting of the film, we attended other programs like Les Arcs Work In Progress. Les Arcs Film Festival is like the Sundance of France in terms of location. You go there, you show excerpts from your film and maybe they give you an award that we didn’t get. But after that, our journey of development programs started.
FM: But it’s great that you just went for it and decided to shoot it. And as you were saying, I think that’s something interesting to highlight – ignorance is bliss. The attitude of just going for it. Sometimes we hold our projects so dear and have them in this cocoon and we don’t want to do it until it’s absolutely ready and don’t want anybody to see it until it’s absolutely ready… And then it never gets done because it’s never ready.
ES: Actually, if your producers say you are not ready, if they’re nice people who know what they’re talking about, of course, listen to their words. However, I think there’s also wisdom within ignorance in a sense that if you collect a team around you, that also believes that you can pull this off, then it’s gonna be okay because if one of us makes a mistake, the other one is gonna correct it. They’re not gonna alienate you. They’re not gonna think you are a bad director, they’re gonna fix the problem together because they believe in you, they believe in the story.
FM: Absolutely. And that speaks of surrounding yourself with a good team of people that you respect and trust. And from what I’ve seen from your previous short films and from your projects post ACROSS THE SEA, I know that you both collaborate again with the same people in your team, which speaks greatly about the connections and the relationships that you form.
ES: Can I also brag about how amazing our team did later in their life? Because it’s amazing. I mean, Nisan is directing Netflix shows right now. I’m very proud of her. That’s her there. She also did her second feature. Then our sound recorder, Micah Bloomberg, he went on to create a show with Julia Roberts, HOMECOMING. Then our AD in New York is now a writer for Game of Thrones’ HOUSE OF THE DRAGON.
FM: That’s so cool. Who is he?
ES: Kevin Lau. Then one of our producers, Gerry Kim won the Producers Award at Film Independent’s Spirit Awards and he won the hearts of independent cinema. Now he’s gonna do a crazy good show, fingers crossed, in a crazy good channel… I cannot really say much more (Laughs)
FM: Gerry is amazing, everyone!
ES: Yes and then we have Alvaro Valente, he’s also a producer who has done big-budget films.
NS: And John Wakayama!
ES: John Wakayama! He’s an Emmy Award nominee, DP who did GOSSIP GIRL. Yeah, man, we have a good bunch. The actors are also doing great.
FM: A bunch of talent came out of this film. From inception to completion, how long would you say this project took you?
ES: Two years? Two to three years. Two and a half. In 2012 we said let’s do this.
FM: And you premiered in 2015.
ES: 14’ and 15’. Yeah. That’s very fast. I think the first feature film should be ideally done very fast. And if you cannot nail your first feature film with a bigger budget, go with the lower budget, in my opinion. If you can control the setting and the crew, I don’t know. It feels right, but maybe I’m wrong.
FM: During those two years, were you both still in school and how were you paying your bills while you were making this film?
ES: She hadn’t even graduated, maybe she was barely graduating (laughs)
ND: I graduated and three months later we went into production. I was living in my aunt’s house for a while.
ES: And I was living in my parents’ house. So basically that was almost like an extra year of school, I’m not gonna lie. And then we did get jobs for international TV to do documentaries and stuff, but before, if you can ever afford it somehow when you’re in your mid-twenties, it’s easier. You know, having some break from life is important to fully focus.
FM: We’ve talked about some funding coming from the Turkish government. Can you say what the budget for the film was and what was the whole budgeting structure? How did you gather your financing besides the money that came from the Turkish government?
ES: The Turkish currency is on the floor right now, but when we were shooting $1 was 1.7 Turkish lira. Now $1 is like 15 lira. So based on that, our budget was maybe $450,000. We had around $200,000 from the Ministry of Culture and then the rest was begging for sponsorships, asking people who are super-rich. And then, oh, we did have a post-production house that did everything in-kind until they sold it to this top Turkish network channel. They basically had the package with thirty films, they sold it and they got the money. We owe them from it. We didn’t even discuss it. I’m like – all right, you can do it because, I mean, they were very nice people. That’s how it was possible: A lot of product placement, the town helped and life was cheaper. Locations were also kind of for free. Most of them.
ND: Film production has become incredibly expensive compared to then and now with inflation and everything.
FM: Inflation, the COVID safety protocols also add a lot to the budget and it’s definitely a completely different scenario.
In the next part of this interview, we will discuss the production process, lessons learned and what’s next for both directors. Stay tuned and don’t forget to subscribe to receive updates and new episodes directly on your inbox.