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January 2006
Something New: An Interview with Director Sanaa Hamri

Something New: An Interview with Director Sanaa Hamri

By Wilson Morales

Over the years, there have been a number of filmmakers who came over from the music video world such as F. Gary Gray (Be Cool) and Chris Stokes (You Got Served), but rarely have females made the transition. Having directed music videos for Prince, Mariah Carrey, Lenny Kravitz and Seal, Sanaa Hamri decided it was time to make that move join the boys. Through the help of Producer Stephanie Allain (Hustle and Flow), this Moroccan wonder is bringing her shooting skills to a female driven film, "Something New", starring Sanaa Lathan. In speaking to blackfilm.com, Hamri talks about making the transition to the film world and working with such extraordinary talent from the producer to the actors.

What made you decide it was time to start doing films?

Sanaa Hamri: I had worked with the most artists like Prince, Sting, and Mariah Carey, and a number of other great talents and decided that right now, no pun intended, it was time to start something new. I wanted to branch out in films because I wanted to find a vehicle in which I can tell a story and send a great message as well and be entertaining.

How did this film come to you?

SH: Well, my studio, Focus Features, saw my reel and they were looking for directors on the movie to come on board and develop it and shoot it I guess; and I read the script and thought it was really a great premise and a good start so I went in and had a meeting with Focus and they were one of my favorites studios cause I love all their movies. So I went in, we talked and conversations about the tone and type of movies I wanted to do. Two to three days later, we were signing contracts.

As this was your first feature film, what challenges did you face?

SH: Challenges? From music video to film, production and being on set, there are always challenges. There are always issues. They are great moments. There are moments in which you don't know if you are going to have your location. There are moments in which you lose the lights or the cameras go down. That's part of filmmaking, so it wasn't really a challenge. One thing that I always had to keep in mind was to stay true to the art and to stay true to the characters and just keep reminding myself of what I wanted to do and having a great studio and a great production team like producer Stephanie Allain behind you just creates the right environment for filmmakers such as myself to be able to thrive in.

How often did you and screenwriter Kriss Turner discuss the film so that the both of you were on the same page?

SH: When I came on board, I came on a director to develop it; so what I did was work along side the producer and we decided what elements we needed to really give a certain voice and we just had those written out.

I can't believe that this is the first film produced, directed, written, and starring women.

SH: That's not the nominally. The nominally is that it's produced, directed, written, and starring all women of color. It's never happened as a major studio release in Hollywood and that's amazing.

As a video director making her film debut, what do you think producer Stephanie Allain wanted you to bring into this film?

SH: Stephanie Allain, by wanting me to be the director, had already embraced my vision. I believe a great producer loves the vision of the filmmaker as a director. That's their primary job and to be able to guide and really make sure that everything steps into place and the director gets what they want, so Stephanie was just amazing that way. I really felt listened to; I felt that I was able to be creative and be free and it was just the most amazing way to do this movie.

How was working with Sanaa Lathan?

SH: Sanaa and I are such kindred spirits. She's an amazing actress and I knew she was going to be able to bring complexity subtlety in the character and I was able to work with her that way. I do come from an acting background. I study acting at Sarah Lawrence College in New York so her and I had a common language and I think that's why we were able to really connect that way. She's just a lovely person and as well as all the other actors. Working with actors is such a pleasure because they are there to create the characters. It's a different thing if you were working with superstar artists because they already have it now. They already have their characters created. So I'm not part of that process. I just try to captivate it, the right way, on film. But here with the actors, it's just a great fate to be involved in their process. Sanaa and Simon Baker and Mike Epps, and Blair Underwood and Alfre Woodard, and Donald and all of them were just amazing to work with.

Can you talk about working with an ensemble, especially with Mike and Donald? These guys are comedians, yet they were playing serious roles for a change.

SH: Yes, they did. With a director like myself, I always like pushing the envelope. So with Mike Epps, for example, I wanted a role for him that he has never done before. I think that when you see the movie, you will see that this is what exactly happened. Some people don't even know that it's him.

With Mike in a film, you usually expect a punch line to every one of his lines, but this film was different.

SH: The reason for that was a choice. I did not want to make a movie that way. There are way too many movies out there that have African American characters that are just gratuitous and serve as court jester moments in movies, and that's not what our community is about. Hence, in using our actors, actors are there to play real characters and within the black community I felt that we needed to do it justice because it just bothers me that in middle America, a white person will judge how black people live in LA and you wonder what will they say. They'll say that we live in the ghetto in either Compton and that we are gang bangers and that is not the truth. It was very important, especially in this movie, to show LA, African American community and the different aspects of it.

Let's talk about the interracial romance, which is the subject of the film. At a time when "Brokeback Mountain" and its gay theme are being discussed at the forefront, here another hotly debated subject being discussed on a major level.

SH: Here's the thing. It's the same studio, Focus Features, who produced Brokeback Mountain, are now doing "Something New". It's an amazing thing what we are doing. With interracial dating, I'm a product of an interracial marriage. I am that product so I understand it, but that doesn't mean that I have interracial dated. I come from that and I understand that in day of age this is really neat. In 2006, it's a very PC world. Everybody's trained, white, black, everybody's trained to really know how to talk to the opposite sex; to talk to the different ethnicity, to make sure that they don't say anything wrong; therefore it creates an even more dangerous society because we don't see the prejudices at hand anymore. Everything's swept under the carpet. So when you see this movie coming out and everyone's talking about it, it's because no one's really addressing it. People make comments but it's a monologue nowadays.

There were a number of films last year that featured interracial romances such as "Hitch" with Will Smith and Eva Mendes, and "The Underclassman" which had Nick Cannon romancing Rosalyn Sanchez.

SH: yes, but was to fill in the quota and that is what we look at in a PC world. They look in commercials, they look in TV, and you look in film, and when they use an African American character, don't throw it in the background because you are trying to look cool. It's not really exploring that. In this film, not only do we have an African American lead as a woman, but we are looking at the film from her perspective as a human being versus a gratuitous moment in somebody else's movie.

With the Simon Baker's character, it seemed that at times his skin complexion had changed. Can you explain that?

SH: Here's the thing so we can get the record straight. Simon's character is a landscape architecture so he has to have a little tan. In order to maintain his character, he had to have some tan; otherwise you would wonder how he could be so white in open air. In some of the shots, he looks very pale. That's the point. If we are focusing on content, we would not get anywhere, so the whole society has to wake up to that.

As a director, is there anything you brought in from your video world as far as the shooting of the film?

SH: People have told me and I listen to what people have to say who know my work, that they can tell in terms of the cinematography and the technicality and the lighting, the camera movement and that has its layer to it. What it is is that I'm well versed in that aspect because I've shot so many music videos that it has become second nature to me. So now, in my first film, I take all the tools that I learned in music videos and apply it in the best way that I can in the appropriate places in this movie.

At the beginning of the film, when we first meet all four of the ladies, the camera is moving around them. Is that something you normally do in your videos?

SH: Yes, the reason why I had the camera moving is because I wanted the audience to feel that they are there, like watching them around the table and listening in on their conversation. I wanted it to feel natural because I feel that a lot of our movies is just not my taste.

Now that you have your first film off the ground, will you go back to directing music videos?

SH: I have to admit that I just directed a music video for Prince. "Black Sweat" should be out shortly from his new album, "3121". I will be working with certain clientele and certain people that I really love and want to stay behind them. For me, it's really about the quality of the project versus the quantity. Whether it's videos of films, my past is really about producing quality projects that deal with universal themes, humanity and something that creates positivity in this universe, no matter what the vehicle it is.

Do you have another film vehicle lined up?

SH: I'm currently in development with a movie called "Dreams of a Dying Heart" that's written by Shawn Otto, who also wrote "The House of Sand and Fog".

From shooting video and now a film, which do you prefer?

SH: You know, there is no preference. I prefer to work with great material. That's what I say.

Why should folks go see "Something New"?

SH: First and foremost, if you want to have a good night and a great laugh, you gotta go see "Something New". That's first. Secondly, if you need a date movie, you have to go see "Something New". Thirdly, and most importantly, it will expand your mind and make you really think and at the end of the day, everybody tells me you feel great when they leave and that's what movie going is about. It's about having a great experience and leaving the theater fulfilled versus feeling empty.


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