Sundance Interview from February 4, 2020.
What I love the most about dreams is that they can take you into worlds that you’ve never visited, introduce you to people you’d normally never meet, and make you feel at home in an unfamiliar world. In a dream, there are pieces of a world that is slightly connected to your own, which makes it familiar, although not recognizable. The film “Luxor” was birthed from filmmaker Zeina Durra’s dream. Pregnant at the time, the Egyptian city Luxor took a prominent place in the director’s psyche.
In Egypt, the idea of birth and rebirth is symbolic and significant. As you walk through the ancient city, you see this cycle reflected through the tombs, the hieroglyphics, and the stories of the past. The main character in “Luxor” is Hana [Andrea Riseborough], a British aide worker taking leave from her work at a borderland war zone. She returns to a familiar place of her past, Luxor. Upon her return, Hana runs into a past love. The set-up creates a fertile ground and an atmospheric space of Egyptian tombs, sandy landscapes, the romantic Nile, and the beautiful skies lingering on our psyches. I enjoyed speaking with Zeina Durra, learning more about her process and how she was so uncompromising in her work. A vivid dream can create a beautiful piece of art.
REBECCA MARTIN: What drew you to this project?
ZEINA DURRA: This film I was working on was kind of falling apart. I was super-depressed, and then I had a dream. In that dream, I dreamt about a woman who was in Luxor. I told my friend about the dream, and I was trying to work out the strong emotions that I felt in it. That was the basis of the story.
MARTIN: How did you bring Andrea [Riseborough] into the role?
DURRA: The casting director, Kate Ringsell, connected us. Andrea read the script, and we spoke over the phone. She was in Senegal, I was in this small British town called Cotswolds, which was kind of funny, and then she said “yes” to doing the film.
MARTIN: What I love about her character is that we don’t know everything going on there. Her character is subtle in her emotions, yet you can read so much about her, even though we don’t know all of her backstory.
DURRA: She was really good with an existential crisis. She could really act that. There’s a lot of space in the script to give her room to do that.
MARTIN: I love the script and the dialogue. There were so many lines I had to write down, especially the ones that circled around the words “pregnancy”, and “birth”. One of the lines that stood out to me was “The old world is dying, and the new world struggles to be born.”
DURRA: That’s Antonio Gramsci, not me, he’s an Italian writer. She quotes him. In the screenplay she says that it’s Gramsci, but we thought it was a bit pretentious, so she says she’s forgotten it, where the quote has come from.
MARTIN: There did seem to be a theme around children, pregnancy, and birth.
DURRA: I was pregnant when I wrote it. But the film is more about birth than rebirth, really. Egyptians are obsessed with that idea of birth and rebirth. It was actually an archeologist that basically helped me make the film. I asked her whether it be blasphemous if I was breastfeeding my son in the heart of Thebes tomb. I had to breastfeed him down there, because he’s a tiny baby. But she said, “No, Thebes would be so happy, because it’s life being given in her tomb.” And that’s what it’s all about.
MARTIN: I loved those parts when Hana was walking around the tomb. And there was moment I noticed where she has this quick flashback. It’s only a moment, but I noticed it. She seemed to be rediscovering herself in those tombs. Could you comment on that?
DURRA: The walls speak. These places are pregnant, as Salina (Salima Ikram) says in the movie. When we were discussing the film, she told me that when a pagan has been worshiped for thousands of years, the walls cannot help. The place cannot help because it has this energy in the divine. Even an archeologist, who’s an academic, is aware of that.
MARTIN: I love that. Now I have to tell you about my favorite scene, where Hana is in the hotel bar, and she is dancing. It’s so uncomfortable, but so brilliant.
DURRA: I laugh and I cry every time I watch that scene.
MARTIN: It starts and you’re laughing at the uncomfortableness, and then you see such a range of emotion.
DURRA: Often when someone is releasing something, it’s really funny at first, and then it gets quite dark. She wants to laugh, she wants to live, she’s so lost. She’s not supposed to drink, because it’s not really doing her any favors.
MARTIN: That’s so right.
DURRA: You know when someone’s drunk and there’s been something going on, and they’re being really funny, but then you’re like, ‘Oh no, this is getting messy, it’s getting dark.’ That’s kind of what I wanted to touch on.
MARTIN: Can you talk to me about your cinematographer? She did an amazing job in capturing your story.
DURRA: I’m very hands on. I frame everything, and I choose the lens. I’m very hands on. What Zel [Zelmira Gainza] did was amazing. She was amazing at getting into my head. I frame everything, I set up the composition, and I do all of that. Zel basically gets into my head, and then manages to do it the way I want. It’s really hard to find someone who can actually do that. We discussed the lighting. She was able to get these beautiful soft lights throughout and got what I wanted. She was so good at doing that. That’s what she really focused on. I was good at doing the set-up.
MARTIN: What made you choose that place Luxor?
DURRA: It was in my dream.
MARTIN: So you had been there before?
DURRA: Yes. The reason why it worked so well is because you got the ancient, with the birth and the rebirth theme, you’ve got the colonialists’ structure with the Windsor Palace Hotel, and then you have an old Middle Eastern city. I feel like that’s kind of great, you know? Then there’s the countryside. There’s the backdrop with all of these different layers.
MARTIN: I love that you don’t know the whole story, which is suggested primarily through the atmosphere.
DURRA: Yeah, you’re getting it, and that’s why the film is so great. People seem to not have faith in film anymore–well, not all people, but some people. You can read what I’m saying, but it’s just done through images. The language of images is so universal that you get it without me spelling it out. That’s why I am not writing a novel, and I’m making a movie.
MARTIN: What advice would you have for emerging female filmmakers?
DURRA: Basically I’ve learned to do what I did then: stick to your guns, but be flexible. Here’s the thing, I really stick to my guns. But if something is not working, and I have to change locations, I’m very happy to change it. I feel like you have to be flexible as a filmmaker. You’re not giving up your vision. Look at the scene, learn what the scene is really about, and see if you have to produce it in another way if it’s too expensive. If it’s not working out on the day, because there’s a problem with a location, just stay with the essence of the story. Don’t be too crazy, it’s okay. Don’t paralyze yourself.
People ask me how do I maintain the integrity of the work? Well I work with different budgets, and you work with actors that give you final cut. Do you want to have a film that’s really amazing, that’s true to you? Or do you want to make films with famous people, and then you might not be able to do what you want? If you do a studio movie, know that it’s not going be all yours. You can try your best, don’t try to take on something that you won’t be able to control. Being in control is so key to your existence. So you do things for less money, and you find actors that are willing to work with you.
MARTIN: Well I can’t wait to see what you do next. I love the transformation of Hana in this film. I also wanted to mention Karim Saleh, who played Sultan, and is fantastic. He had such great chemistry with Hana.
DURRA: He was there in Hana’s life to remind her what she was like during that time. She is really funny with him, in their dynamic. He kind of reminded her, he didn’t show her, but because of his presence, he reminded her of how it used to be, what she was, and how she lost herself and became melancholy.
You know sometimes when you hang out with people that you knew from a long time ago? And you kind of revert to that time?
MARTIN: Yes I do.
DURRA: My husband always says that he prefers me with my childhood friends. You can’t help it when you’re with a certain group of people where you just had fun, and you weren’t serious with them. You’re very relaxed with them. It’s kind of different.
MARTIN: Because they know you-–
DURRA: That part of you that feels so relaxed.
MARTIN: Last question. What was your motivation for doing the titles, kind of like preview titles, throughout the film?
DURRA: It was a decision I made with my gut, to kind of bring in the meta narrative, because all that stuff was there and very relevant. It was just kind of another situation, a philosophy of life, you know?
MARTIN: Any last thoughts you’d like to add?
DURRA: When you’re a young female filmmaker, the ones that stick around, the ones that actually make films, those are the ones you’re going to know now. And just meet as many people as possible. Keep in touch with people, be kind, it’ll happen, you know? Because you will find your people.
MARTIN: I love that.