“It Was Just This Insane Whirlwind Of Creativity”: Interview With Zeina Durra, Director Of LUXOR

Back in 2010, you might have seen a movie called The Imperialists Are Still Alive! It starred Élodie Bouchez as an artist navigating the post-9/11 world of New York and was directed by Zeina Durra, a British born woman of Middle Eastern descent (her mother is Bosnian-Palestinian and her father is Lebanese-Jordanian). Reviews at the time hailed the move as raw and genuine and insight into Middle Eastern life in America and the threats faced by the escalating racial tensions of the time. It signaled the rise of a talented director with a unique voice.

Ten years have passed since that debut and Durra has now returned with her sophomore feature, Luxor. Starring Andrea Riseborough and Karim Saleh, Luxor is a meditative, romantic travelogue of a movie which sees Riseborough‘s Hana return – mentally fractured – to the city of Luxor where she used to live. A doctor on the border between Jordan and Syria, Hana has seen enough death and destruction to make her question her life choices. She returns to Luxor to figure out her life and runs into old flame Sultan, played by Saleh. Together they wander the streets of the ancient city and discuss their lives.

When I meet with Durra to discuss Luxor, she is cheery and engaging. “You’re one of us!” she exclaims upon hearing my British accent. Our discussion ranges from the city of Luxor itself to spirituality, dreams, accents, and the experience of having children on set.

Daryl MacDonald for Film Inquiry: So why did you choose Luxor specifically to set this movie in?

Zeina Durra: It sounds so cheesy, but I had a dream! I was so down about another film falling apart and I’d been watching a movie that transported me to another place. So that night I started dreaming about Luxor, which I’d been to once before. I dreamt about it and there were these heavy emotions that this woman was having while walking around, and I thought “I’m going to make a movie there”.

Wow. And so you just went and made it?

Zeina Durra: Well, I spoke to a DP [Zelmira Gainza, Director of Photography for Luxor] that I know. She’s a really good friend of mine and we started talking about it, then she said: “well it sounds great! I’ll shoot it for you for nothing”. I said “are you sure you could shoot it with a small crew?” and she said “yeah, yeah”, and then I spoke with an Egyptian producer I knew and asked if he’d make it, and so it all kind of worked out!

"It Was Just This Insane Whirlwind Of Creativity": Interview With Zeina Durra, Director Of LUXOR
source: Samuel Goldwyn Films

Was it difficult filming in Luxor? It struck me as sort of guerilla filmmaking at some points. Did you find you had to move quickly?

Zeina Durra: No! Listen, I made it in 18 days with a 3-month-old baby attached to me, and my two other kids were around for half the film. That was the more interesting part! But it was all easy because it’s such a crazy beautiful place. You’re waking up and getting this little boat across the Nile every morning. It was really fun. The actors are great friends of mine, the producers are great friends, so it’s just like working with mates really.

I speak a bit of Arabic so after about a week of pre-production my Arabic came back and I got to direct in Arabic, which was quite fun because I never knew I could actually do that!  There was just a lot of really beautiful memories. I think we’ll look back at it and really regret that we didn’t have more behind-the-scenes footage because it was just such a special situation for all of us.

I noticed you filmed at a lot of holy sites. What was that like? Was it easy to access those places?

Zeina Durra: Well, we had this wonderful Egyptian producer and he got us the permits. We did have one scene that was difficult, the first time Hana visits a tomb. We shot that in three hours and there was a technical issue because the crew had gone in to check the lights, but they didn’t realise that all the lights were running on lots of different circuits. So when they went in everything kind of went crazy. They were running around shifting things, it was completely insane how they lit that place! We were all working super, super fast.

It was very much on our minds though. I was breastfeeding my baby inside, right next to where the sarcophagus would have been, and I asked the Egyptologist if it was sacrilegious. She said the Pharaoh [Seti I] would’ve loved it because he was all about death and rebirth, and this is what it’s all about. It all feels like a big blur, I mean 18 days to shoot the whole thing.

That sounds so hectic! How come you only had 18 days to film everything?

Zeina Durra: Andrea had 18 days in-between two films and I wanted to just go and be done with it. I’d waited a while, and I’d just had the baby and I was ready to go! We knew were making it for not much money so it kind of worked out.

It wasn’t hectic in the sense that it felt rushed, it was just this insane whirlwind of creativity!

I loved the cinematography. It felt like a travelogue at times.

Zeina Durra: Yeah, Zelmira is great! I think it’s very difficult for DPs nowadays. I think that a lot of directors don’t really understand how much the image pushes the film. What’s great about Zelmira is that she just wants it to be what you have in your head, and she tries her best in the craziest environments. It’s not about ego with her, it’s just about delivering. I think that’s really what a DP should be doing and sadly I don’t think many DPs do that anymore, they just kind of want to take over. A lot of them get really annoyed when the director is placing the camera, choosing the frame, choosing the lens.

She’s just really wonderful though because I can tell her “I want the camera over here”, or “can you use this lens”, and we worked a lot of it in prep, and she just really delivered.

So much of Luxor is told purely through the visuals. Was it tough to work out the narrative and the backstory between Hana and Sultan without resorting to dialogue?

Zeina Durra: I’m a very visual director. I work through visuals. The first image I had was of Hana walking around the ruins, and I tried to unpack those feelings. I tried to give seeds within the script which could let the audience hold on to that while working on the subconscious level that affects the build-up of images you see. It’s old-school filmmaking but it’s done in a very deliberate way.

Yet because Andrea‘s such a wonderful actress she could also give me nuances every take. You don’t see the changes [when filming] but when you’re editing you see these amazing little options that she gives you. Which is really, really helpful when you’re editing!

Speaking of Hana, what kind of connection do you have to her? I got this real sense of loneliness from her throughout Luxor, really up until that dance scene with Sultan where she seems to come out of her shell a little.

Zeina Durra: He brings it out in her! You know when you’re with an old friend you’re really silly, and then it just kind of gets out of control. She remembers who she was when she’s hanging out with him.

Sort of like, no matter how long it’s been since you’ve seen an old friend, it feels like it was just yesterday?

Zeina Durra: Yeah kinda, when you have old friends and people you love that’s what happens.

I spent a lot of time trying to figure Hana out. She spends so much of the movie reflecting on her life.

Zeina Durra: So, Luxor is only an hour and a half away from where she was in Jordan. It’s a place she knows and likes, she wants to check it out because she hasn’t been there for ages. Secretly she wants to find that moment in her life when she was just happy and young and didn’t have all this baggage that she has now. How do you look back at it? How do you work through it? How do you, without sounding too corny, heal yourself after that kind of experience?

"It Was Just This Insane Whirlwind Of Creativity": Interview With Zeina Durra, Director Of LUXOR
source: Samuel Goldwyn Films

That reminds me of my favourite line from the movie, where Hana says to Sultan “don’t you miss how hopeful we were?”

Zeina Durra: Yeah! [laughs] Me and my husband talk about that all the time, like things were so much more simple before you had all these dependents and stuff!

I think it’s even more relevant now, given what we’re all going through with this virus and not being able to travel as much. It was oddly cathartic getting to watch someone just walk freely around this beautiful, ancient city.

Zeina Durra: Definitely. I think what’s really nice about the film is that you get to escape but you’re not escaping by watching a shitty comedy, you’re escaping by watching someone who’s going through a similar feeling that we’re all going through at the moment. I mean, we’re all a bit morose and we’re all wondering when we can see our parents again, and we’re dealing with all these bigger questions. There’s such a sadness at the moment that everyone’s just dealing with in a very low-grade way, but I think the movie has that in it, and so it’s really cathartic.

The film was coming out the day after lockdown – in cinemas in the UK – and we decided to not hold back the release because we thought it would be really cathartic for people to watch the movie, and actually, I’ve had so many emails from people saying they found solace in the film. It’s been really great, actually. That’s been a plus-side because I didn’t realise it was going to be that timely!

The central relationship between Hana and Sultan is so well done. Andrea Riseborough is typically excellent, but so is Karim Saleh. You’ve worked with him before, haven’t you?

Zeina Durra: Yeah, he did my first movie.

So I take it he was the first person onboard Luxor?

Zeina Durra: No, I got him to audition! I like to see all the options, you know? He’s also a very good friend so I wanted to make sure that didn’t colour my decision of who to work with. So he auditioned, and then the producers wanted to see him audition [again], and it all worked out.

They had very good chemistry together, he and Andrea.

Zeina Durra: Well they’re a real-life couple now.

Ah, I didn’t know that! Okay, that explains a lot.

Zeina Durra: Yeah! They fell in love on-set.

That’s so lovely, that must be really nice when that happens.

Zeina Durra: Yeah, it’s really nice.

I’m also really interested in some of the non-actors you cast in the movie. There were a few, like the taxi driver who couldn’t speak.

Zeina Durra: Yeah, he had cancer. That’s why he couldn’t speak properly.

Ah, I see…

Zeina Durra: And I loved him. He had such good vibes and a great face. I wanted to put him in the film, and everyone was like “no, don’t do it, he can’t speak” but that’s what’s so perfect about it. People get old and age and get sick, and he’s a character she would’ve known before. In a place like that the cab drivers are the same, you know? They don’t go away. It’s always going to be the same guy driving a cab forever, and so she knows him and he knows her.

Were these just people you found on the day? What was it like working with them?

Zeina Durra: The funny ones were the Brits. There were several Brits and there was one with that really thick Geordie accent and I couldn’t stop laughing. I couldn’t have found this woman in England if I tried! I was so happy. It was awesome to just have this colourful acting from different kinds of people, and the different places that people come from that draws them there. And she was a former police officer as well!

Oh, the Geordie woman?

Zeina Durra: The one that says to call an ambulance, that one.

Yeah, I remember thinking it was so strange to hear that accent in that scene because it felt so out of place in a way.

Zeina Durra: [laughs] I know, it was so great! And why not? Why do you always have to have that Agatha Christie vibe, you know?

Someone actually mentions Agatha Christie in the movie, come to think of it. The American at the hotel talks about Death on the Nile, doesn’t he?

Zeina Durra: Yeah yeah, because I think Agatha Christie wrote it in there, so whenever anyone sees it it’s always like “oh, Death on the Nile”, so I was joking around about it.

"It Was Just This Insane Whirlwind Of Creativity": Interview With Zeina Durra, Director Of LUXOR
source: Samuel Goldwyn Films

There was a lot of spirituality in the movie. Was that intentional or just something that came about as a result of the location?

Zeina Durra: Yeah, it was very intentional because I feel like when you are mentally fragile that sort of inner life becomes really huge, you know? For some people, it kind of takes over, but in a place like Luxor, it’s even more prevalent because it’s everywhere, whether you like it or not.

What were your influences when you made this? Watching it, I was kind of reminded of Richard Linklater’s Before Sunrise. Were there any movies you had in your head that you wanted to emulate, so to speak?

Zeina Durra: Antonioni‘s The Passenger, just the way it was shot and the colours. I know it’s not really the same story at all but I just loved the colours. There was just something about it. And maybe something about the fact that he (Jack Nicholson‘s character in The Passenger) was a war reporter, something about it just resonated with me.

Is that why Hana was a doctor working in a conflict zone?

Zeina Durra: Well Hana was a doctor because I wanted a profession that would’ve seen something. I liked the idea of a female surgeon because a lot of my friends who’ve done those kinds of jobs find themselves in this all-consuming position in their early forties and I was interested in that.

I went to the Médecins Sans Frontières (Doctors Without Borders) clinic as research for another film and spoke to the surgeons there, and they were so sweet. I found it really interesting because everyone there had a story, something they were running from. Either the death of a father or a divorce or something. They were all out there and they were kind of on the edge, and I think you have to be on the edge to be doing that kind of job.

She was a doctor at the border between Syria and Lebanon, wasn’t it?

Zeina Durra: No, it was Syria and Jordan. There was a civil war in Syria and the clinic was right on the border between Syria and Jordan so that it didn’t have to deal with the Syrian army. There’s a village on the border and it was very much…attacked.

Was there ever a temptation to infuse a little more of that history into Hana’s character? To see what she had seen on the border?

Zeina Durra: I feel like when you start going into those flashbacks you’re losing the intimacy of being with her in that moment. I realise that some people would have made the film differently, but I deliberately chose to make the film in a way that you’re really feeling what she’s going through and really going through it with her. Sometimes we can just feel things through body language, which I think is so powerful.

Film Inquiry would like to thank Zeina Durra for taking the time to speak with us!

Zeina Durra is very passionate about cinematography. What are some of the best examples of cinematography in film? Let us know in the comments below!

Luxor is available to watch on VOD from December 4th, 2020.

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