In Ali’s Wedding, the titular character (Osamah Sami) is under a lot of pressure: his Muslim immigrant family want him to be a doctor, and he can’t bring himself to tell them he bombed out on the exam. They also want to place him in an arranged marriage, but he has eyes for Dianne (Helana Sawires), a medical student in the classes he pretends to attend as part of his deception. Ali wants to make his family happy, but at what cost?
Pressure is something director Jeffrey Walker understands, whether its working on high profile American series like Modern Family or making every dollar count on Australian projects like Dance Academy. On Ali’s Wedding, Walker’s job was to translate Sami’s vision onto the screen as faithfully as possible, while not breaking what he admits was a pretty tight budget?
How did you come on board the project?
The project had been around for quite a while, and I think they had a change of direction – they didn’t have a rush put on, but eventually they had to actually make this film. They had a date in mind and they had to make it, and that means they had to find a director who could take it over and deliver it in the period of time that they needed. I had worked with [co-writer] Andrew Knight on various projects, who’s one of the writers alongside Osamah Sami, so I was in the back of his mind for a little while. He introduced me to it, and we all proceeded together and, before we knew it, we were in pre-production.
What kind of shape was the script in when you joined? Was it close to what we see on screen?
Because I’ve worked with Andrew so much, there was a great period of time for us to spend together going through the script, and I did that with Osamah Sami as well. Ultimately, the shape of it drew from Osamah’s real life and it was already on the page, so it was more about me getting into the world that Osamah and Andrew had created to tell this story. It was an ambitious script for the budget we had when I first saw it, so a lot of my work was to reconcile the two things, the script and the budget, and make sure they could marry and become one.
As a non-Mulsim, how did you go about preparing to depict the Muslim community in the film?
Luckily, Osamah was such a wonderful person to introduce me to that culture and I found the entire community extremely welcoming. We went to many mosques and I visited so many different families and people, and went into many different homes to get a sense of how accurately we were telling this story, and the greater and more important thing, which is humanising this group of people – to say that the same problems and pressures and stresses and love and triumphs are universal and it doesn’t matter what your background is. Ultimately there’s so much more that connects us and is similar.
You had a relatively small budget on this one – how did the financial constraints affect your creative choices?
I’m very used to having to creatively work around budgets because so often when I work in Australia, I’m not working on huge-budget productions! But for us there were extras numbers and we constructed the mosque, and that was quite a big spend. There were a lot of one-off locations and we would have loved to have had more days to shoot, to give our cinematographer, Don McAlpine (Moulin Rouge, The Dressmaker), more time, because he’s so used to working on such big productions and I didn’t want him to feel rushed to the point that we weren’t going to get value out of his great skillset. The team was right and it was just a matter of making sure every dollar counted, because we knew we wouldn’t have overtime, and we had to get in and out of certain locations that had very strict guidelines as to when we could shoot. Most of the time it’s just being prepared so that when you get there on the day you don’t feel rushed.
How did you approach directing Osamah Sami? Given the film is based on his life story, he was very much in a position to just tell you “It didn’t happen like that, it happened like this!”
(Laughs) Well, he very politely and kindly didn’t do that, although I’m sure he thought it many times. He was very tactful. I’m sure he knew that I brought a skill set to telling his story that he didn’t have as a director – he certainly has a wonderful storytelling voice and that’s manifested through his literary work, his screenplays, and as an actor. He’s an incredible person with an incredible story, and ultimately when we were shooting I only needed to nudge him in certain directions rather than build something from scratch. We spent a lot of time in the lead up making sure we were on the same page so that when we were shooting it was very much a collaboration between the two of us.
You have a relative unknown, Helana Sawires, in the key role of Dianne, Ali’s love interest. How did you find her?
We had a phenomenal casting person, Allison Meadows, who worked on Snowtown. She literally did what you said – she searched high and low all over the country and looked internationally even though we ideally wanted to cast locally. We wanted people to have ties to the country of origin that the characters had – that was very important to us. She took all of that on board and she found Helena when we were in Sydney casting up there. Her audition was a knock out and the fantastic thing was that we had the wonderful [executive producer] Tony Ayres, who I respect so much, available to us sporadically throughout pre-production in between his various projects at Matchbox. And he happened to be in our office the day that we were watching her audition, and he just lit up and made us feel really sure that everything we’d seen in her he saw as well.
The way that we shot the film as well was that we did a lot of things without her initially from the very beginning, and then we realised that a huge part of the film was yet to come and that was to work out if there was any chemistry between herself and the character of Ali/Osamah, and what she was going to bring. We got incredibly lucky.
Ali’s Wedding plays at the Melbourne International Film Festival from August 3 – 20, 2017. For tickets and session times, click through here.