Shortly after I started teaching at Art Center College, a young woman from Malta named Rebecca Cremona developed a screenplay in my Screenwriting 1 class called Simshar. She went on to direct the film and this year it was Malta's official selection for the foreign film Academy Award. It's a terrific, moving tale about a maritime disaster against the backdrop of debate over immigration issues in Europe, and how the "little guy" is often caught up in political issues beyond his or her control. Rebecca kindly agreed to answer a few questions about the writing and making of Simshar for my blog.
Q: Simshar is based on a true story. It’s obviously dramatic, but what in particular drew you to this material?
Rebecca Cremona: I am very interested in how large political issues actually influence mundane life, so this fundamental link, which is intrinsic to the story, taps into a dimension I believe is very relevant in life. The story is also a manifestation of tension between tradition and change/progress - and in an increasingly globalized world and hailing from a very particular island, I find this theme too to be of great interest.
Q: What were some of the challenges of adapting a true story and how did you deal with them?
RC: There were many challenges but I would say the three main ones were: being respectful to characters based on real people who have been through extreme circumstances while simultaneously ensuring they are well rounded characters with flaws and all; sometimes fact is stranger than fiction and is just not believable, also sometimes amazing facts do not serve your story, character or themes and discipline is difficult but necessary; last but not least, when dealing with complex situations in little known parts of the world, a balance of giving enough context and not bogging down the story with too many details or too much exposition is essential.
Q: You’re credited as co-writer with David Grech. Tell me about that working relationship.
RC:Writing is such a personal, almost intimate process, so such collaborations are very delicate and can only be successful if people are on the same wavelength. After I had been writing for a couple of years I showed the screenplay to David and his feedback was so pertinent and really towards where I wanted to take the story, so we started a process where we would meet and discuss for hours and then after that I would revisit the script.
Q: This is an ambitious film for a first time feature director – you have refugee camps, a helicopter, multiple boats, a large cast including children, and of course it’s notoriously difficult to shoot on water. Did you have to make changes to the screenplay for practical or budgetary reasons?
RC: We tried very hard not to let those factors affect the story. However, as you say, it was very ambitious and, although together with the help of the team, the Maltese community and the expertise of our line producer we really maximized our resources almost beyond belief, there were times we had to compromise. For the longest time the opening scene was completely different and I wish we were able to keep it as it was intended originally as I feel it was much more effective. I think learning what and how to compromise is a big part of filmmaking, especially independent filmmaking.
Q: I love the complex thematic elements related to the refugees and how you manage to really justify everyone’s point of view and show how so many people are caught in no-win situations. Also, you aren’t heavy handed, letting the story drive the movie and using the immigration issues as a backdrop. How tough was it to keep that balance?
RC: I am so glad you felt that way. We put a lot of effort into that - lots of research not only in terms of reading up about the various issues and incidents but also by means of meeting the various groups of people - fishermen, refugees, soldiers...keeping the people in mind and prioritizing them over the issues was a good guiding principle to avoid being heavy handed.
Q: What did you learn about screenwriting from the experience of directing? Will you approach your next screenplay differently at all?
RC: Because of the emotional intensity and sometimes even the community specific jargon (for instance that of the fishing community) we sometimes derived the actual dialogue from selects drawn from a series of improvisations in rehearsals led by outlines dictated by the script. I'm particularly happy with those scenes and would love to work more along those lines in the future. Of course it depends on what the style of the story is and what access one has to the actors and prep time available...
Q: How has the awards season experience been?
RC: Incredible. Although we didn't make it to the shortlist it was wonderful to screen the film to the academy members and to be considered serious contenders together with some legendary filmmakers and really amazing films. Moreover, it was great to put Malta on the map as it was the first time the country participated. It also led to me getting representation with Management 360 which I am very excited about. So all in all a fantastic first time and I hope there will be others.
Q: What’s next for you?
RC: I have another story I am particularly passionate about and am working on the script for together with an American writer. I certainly don't discount working on films based on other people's scripts whilst the development for that is underway though. And although I am drawn to my country and the wonderful cultural specificity there, I believe that good stories are everywhere and I am happy to go where they are.
Thanks Rebecca! And for my readers, you can find out more about Simshar on the film's Facebook page and by following it on Twitter.