Heavyweights Salma Hayek and Adrien Brody star in Hanna Weg’s Septembers of Shiraz, based on the novel of the same name. The story follows an Iranian Jewish family as they cope with the total upheaval of the 1979 Revolution.
Creative Screenwriting spoke with Hanna Weg about the burning need to write, choosing the medium, and telling an Iranian story in English.
What led you into screenwriting?
I was lucky enough to travel extensively as a child, to places which, at the time were considered nearly taboo: the USSR in 1972, West Africa in 1974, and the People’s Republic of China in 1978, to name a few.
The experience gave me an opportunity to encounter other places and people in a way that was non-judgmental. I kept copious diaries of our travels, as I was aware that my exposure to these parts of the world was unusual at best, heretical at worst (in some parts of the U.S.). Traveling this way also led me to learn several languages, which at the time, I was able to speak with some fluency!
The desire to communicate — and in particular to communicate across cultural barriers — was thus instilled in me from an early age. As I matured, and began to search for a way to express this desire, writing for film became the most obvious tool.
Cinema has a history of crossing cultural boundaries (just look at the films produced after WWII by the Italians, which featured actors from France, Britain, Germany, and Italy — all in the same film). So I took the plunge in college and then graduate school, and never looked back.
How did you get involved on this project?
The novel, Septembers of Shiraz, by Dalia Sofer, was presented to me by Alan Siegel, the film’s lead producer. This was a passion project of his, and he was looking for someone to do the adaptation. I read the book, and it was written with such elegance, and the characters were so fully realized and engaging, that I agreed to partner with him.
What kind of research was involved for the adaptation?
The book was the greatest source of information, as it was written by someone who had lived through the events presented in the story. In truth, while the book was published as a novel, it is in fact a thinly veiled autobiography.
What cinematic influences inspired you while writing this film?
For me, the films that leave the greatest impression are ones in which morality is not portrayed as black and white, but gray. The European films of the 60’s, and the American films of the 70’s all did this in the most remarkable ways, and my sentimental education as a filmmaker comes largely from the films of that era.
What films do you watch over and over?
The Conformist, Gallipoli, Chinatown, The Year of Living Dangerously, One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest, The Conversation, A Touch of Evil, 21 Grams and Days of Heaven.
What was your time frame for writing this film?
I wrote the first draft in 6 or 7 weeks. After that it was another 3 or 4 before we had a draft we felt we could send to cast.
What are some of your writing rituals?
I like to treat writing as a discipline rather than an “art.” I start my day at the gym or on a hike with my dog, and then find myself back at the computer by 10 a.m. I’ll write until the early evening, and generally avoid lunch meetings, which can take a toll on my writing rhythm. I need the big, uninterrupted chunks of time to do my best work.
What is the most difficult step in the writing process?
Finding the architecture for the story is always the most difficult part of the process for me. Making sure the story is structurally sound, and that the structure is best serving the content is the greatest challenge.
That said, characterization and authenticity are the most important elements of a good story. Structure is nothing if it doesn’t serve character.
In your opinion, what makes a good story?
There is a question I ask myself before sitting down to write any film, and it is this: “Does this story need to be a film?”
There are all kinds of stories in the world. Some are suited to the written word, others to stage, and still others to cinema. The tools and strengths of each medium are different. But cinema demands such a cost — financial, emotional, and physical — that the other mediums do not.
So if I’m going to write a film, I need to be sure that it will be worth the time, the energy, the effort, and the dollars that are going to go into making it. That means to me, that it must be a story that cannot best be told in any other way.
A story that needs to be a film is one that will blossom with all the tools that cinema has to offer: sound, image, text, and the extraordinary language of “the cut.” Film lives in the edit. Image juxtaposed to image; image layered with sound; performance and text, backgrounded by image. When a story can be just as well told without these tools, then it shouldn’t be told as a film…
What advice do you have for upcoming writers?
If you do not have a burning need to say something, then don’t say it. Writing comes from that need. And voice — that thing which defines every writer, but which, to my mind, cannot be taught — is the expression of that need.
Stay true to that voice, and a writer will emerge.
Anything else you would like to share about the film?
Making a film like this is a risk. It’s a film that wants to have been done in Farsi — in the language of the culture in which the events occurred. But the realities of the market place are such that no film of this kind could have ever been made in its native language because there are no Farsi speaking actors who are known enough around the world to garner the necessary financing.
I had to ask myself: Is this a story worth making at the risk of losing some cultural authenticity? I decided it was, for a very simple reason: the story is universal. And the United States above all is a country of refugees…
Even the Pilgrims were refugees, fleeing persecution and discrimination in their native England. And so I felt that this story, told in any language, would speak to an audience beyond the Farsi speaking community around the world. I can only hope that I’m right.
This article was originally published in Creative Screenwriting Magazine.