Director Ruba Nadda (Sabah, Damascus Nights) caramelizes Cairo’s throbbing chaos into a sexy romantic drama worthy of Jane Austen in Cairo Time, starring Patricia Clarkson and Alexander Siddig. Clarkson has that special something that transforms her character Juliette’s seemingly ho-hum life as a diplomat’s wife into an enthralling tale of seduction. The film played the San Francisco International Film Festival this past spring, and SF360.org got the chance to speak with Nadda, a graduate of the Tisch School of the Arts in Film Production. She has written and directed 17 films, preparation enough to shoot Cairo Time in a mere 25 days. In this interview, Nadda talks about the challenges of shooting in Cairo and how she made every 20-something woman yearn to be 40-something and falling in love in Cairo.
SF360: Could you talk about how you overcame the pre-production inertia of facing a logistical nightmare like Cairo? Were you at any point convincing yourself or were you more focused on convincing everyone else that it would work?
Ruba Nadda: I come from making really guerrilla films. You have to be self-motivated. If you need someone else to motivate you, then you’re never going to make your movie. So I was used to doing it completely on my own. With Cairo Time, I lucked out in getting producers who really believed in the script. Thankfully, they did not know about the logistical nightmares of shooting in Cairo, and I kept it a secret for a long time because I was worried that if they found out, then they would be like forget it, you can’t pull this off. I would just motivate people by believing in the script, believing in the story and getting as many people on our side as possible. When we were location scouting, problems start to arise. Basically once people are invested, it’s very hard for them to walk away. That’s a secret, I think.
SF360: I read a story about you putting your producer out in traffic on a bridge. You are tenacious!
Nadda: I try to do it in a nice, friendly manner. My parents taught me to be respectful, and have manners. The other thing about filmmaking is that I don’t want to get to Cairo and not get my movie. I’m used to compromise. I’m used to not getting what I want. But that bridge scene, I really needed it because it bridged the story. I needed a moment between Juliette and Tariq; what he does for her. The bridge is this long bridge it takes you from one edge of the city to the other. We were shooting first thing in the morning on our day off. It’s such an old long bridge that it shakes when there are cars on it. So our crane just kept shaking. And my first AD was like, 'Ruba, you can’t get this shot. We gotta move on.' And I’m like, 'No. You’ve gotta give me 60 seconds.' And he’s like, 'No I’m saying we’re gonna move on right now.' And I’m like, 'No.' So I threw my producer on one end of traffic and I was on the other end and we stopped traffic for thirty seconds. And I was like, beep all you want because there’s no dialogue in this. And we got it in thirty seconds.
SF360: I'm curious to hear more about how you tiptoed your way around censors and hooked up with a service producer in Cairo.
Nadda: I’d done my research and I had had help from the Canadian embassy. And so I talked to the service producer and they had shot a lot of movies in Cairo. They were really great in helping us get permits and shoot our way through Cairo. But the censorship is tricky. It’s not what you’d expect. It’s not that they would care about sex or sexuality. It’s more about how we would portray the city to a North American audience. For them, it’s all about tourism. They didn’t like me shooting poverty and people not well-dressed and garbage. At the same time I was adamant about not changing a single word in my script. It was a real balancing act to figure out how to get rid of her when I needed to; how to fool her into thinking that what we were actually shooting was not this, but that it was another thing completely. It was quickly changing lenses when she wasn’t looking. I didn’t use a monitor because she was sitting right next to me and she would know what I was shooting. So I confused her. We had a monitor but I never looked at it; it was always geared towards something else. So I did it the old fashioned way: Watch the actors. My sister came with me. My sister has worked with me since she was 11. The censorship woman loved my sister. So when I needed to shoot a tricky scene, I would say, 'Fadia, go hang out with this woman. Take her for a coffee, talk to her about her family.' And it’d give us three hours. It was constantly thinking how to get rid of her. We would give her different addresses, we would tell her we were starting at ten when we were starting at six in the morning instead. We would sneak in our reels, because she would sign them, in order for them to leave the country.
SF360: Patricia Clarkson's character, Juliette, is a United Nations diplomat's wife. She committed at an early age to a life of neglect. She comes to Cairo a wife and instead falls in love with her husband's Arabic friend. Could you talk about the theme of independence, and how Patricia, Alexander Siddig, and Cairo helped to bring the sense of liberation to life?
Nadda: My father raised my sisters and I to be feminists and to be proud of that. The thing about Cairo is that as a woman it’s impossible to go for a walk by yourself. You get harassed an insane amount. The problem is that: that she gets driven back to Tariq because she needs sort of a chaperone. As a filmmaker, it’s really important for me to have a story about a woman in her late 40s and start the movie off with her and end it with her and really honor that and stick to the age, because I had a lot of pressure to change it to a woman in her 30s. I was 34 when I wrote it. I thought it’s not as complicated, there’s that sense of history that Juliette has that someone like you or me wouldn’t have. I think, as a female, I have that female touch that I quite love and I think audiences can see that. I’m thinking about the elevator scene where they kiss accidentally. The audience sees the reaction but Tariq doesn’t see it. That’s a very female thing to do. It’s very important to honor who the movie’s about, and the movie’s about Juliette. And it’s very important to keep that.
SF360: You are a very feminine writer and you have an actress like Patricia that has that je ne sais quoi that no one can really put her finger on. She’s just so subtle about it and it’s so abundantly feminine and she makes every 20-year-old girl hope and wish and pray that they’ll feel and act and be just like her.
Nadda: That’s the thing about Patricia. I really wanted to cast her. Directing is all about casting. She does this thing with her eyes, and I’m like, 'Patty, can you do that again?' And she has no idea what I’m talking about. And that’s what’s so great about her. There’s this inner conflict that’s happening that you see. The movie’s about adultery. It’s difficult. But people for some reason resonate with her and I knew that. I was lucky to get her.
SF360: Could you tell me more about your next project? You plan to shoot in the Middle East?
Nadda: Yea. I’m crazy. I love Cairo. I remember being like, 'Thank God, Thank God. We pulled it off in one piece and never again.' And I’m going back now. It’s a fast-paced thriller that takes place in the Middle East and it’s just I think I’m crazy but I’m really excited about it.
SF360: You’re bringing your sister along again?
Nadda: Yea, my sister is like my secret good luck charm on these sets.
SF360: So, she’s a necessity?
Nadda: Very much so. Family’s important to me. It’s good to have my sister there. She’s been there with me since the very first film I ever made. So we have kind of a short hand that’s so helpful to a director.
SF360: Do you have any advice for aspiring filmmakers, particularly females?
Nadda: I think the thing about being a female director, and I’m going to be really honest, is that you have to separate yourself from wanting to be liked and wanting to be the yes person and wanting to be maternal to getting your film made and telling your story. I know it’s not proper for me to say that. But, I think it’s really important not to take no for an answer. I think it’s important to be nice about it, but not to jeopardize your film. The thing is, it’s all about perseverance. Sometimes I think it’s not even about talent; it’s about who sticks around the longest in the end. Especially with female filmmakers, you’re going to get a lot of people telling you what to do, you’re wrong, you’re not that great, you’re not that talented, and for some reason men, I think maybe have a bigger ego and they know how to handle that sort of criticism, whereas women just have to stick to their story and not listen to anyone.
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