A Boston native living between Tangier and New York, Sean Gullette, the star of Darren Aronofsky’s “Pi,” made a bold directorial debut with “Traitors,” a suspense- packed thriller starring promising newcomer Chaimae Ben Acha as the leader of a punk rock band who becomes a drug mule.
While in Marrakech to present “Traitors” in competition over last weekend, Gullette sat down to discuss his experience shooting in Morocco and revealed details on his sophomore project, “Tangier,” which will star Kristin Scott Thomas and Jeremy Irons. Sold by Paris-based Rezo, “Traitors” world-preemed at Venice and played at Stockholm.
Variety: How did you get the idea for “Traitors”? It’s a pretty unusual pitch.
Gullette: It started out with a 30-minute short film I made in 2010 about this character of Malika, the leader of a punk rock band in Tangier who has a strong vision of herself and her world. It was financed thanks to an artist grant from Sharjah Art Foundation, which is getting better and better and has become a model for how art support in the Gulf can work. One of the themes proposed by the Sharjah Art Foundations was traders and traitors — that’s an important theme in the Gulf region. I thought traitors was a good name for a punk band.
How did the short become a feature-length film?
The short was shown at the New York Film Festival. Friends, including Darren Aronofsky, said it looked like the fragment of a bigger movie. At first I didn’t see it, but then I heard a story about a young woman who was working as a drug mule smuggling hashish and other drugs over the Rif mountains for some bad guys. This girl wanted to quit but they didn’t want her to, and the story ended badly. It was a striking story, one that I heard in confidence, in a private setting.
I couldn’t help but think what would happen if a young woman like Malika with her fire, dynamism, confidence and pure intentions, became embroiled in this world of drug smuggling? The other mule, whom Malika meets, is in a state of deep submission whereas Malika is in a state of complete emancipation and liberation. So these archetypes seemed very exciting. When we decided to make a feature film, we went back to Sharjah Art Foundation, we applied with the script and won another grant, a bit larger this time.
How did you cast the main parts? Was it a challenge to find actors in Morocco?
We did an open casting for non-actors in a small room at The Cinematheque de Tangier, which was founded by my wife Yto Barrada.
We cast a lot of non-actors, and then the projectionist told us “I’m taking an acting class and there’s this girl in my class.” And he said “Once you see her you won’t need to see anybody else.” And we understood he was right when Chaimae Ben Acha walked into the screening room. She’s definitely one of the up and coming stars of Moroccan cinema and soon to be Arab cinema.
Ben Acha is an incredibly talented and focused young actress and she brought something very interesting to Malika because she’s a young, good girl, quite conservative and she’s playing a rock and roll girl.
For the role of the drug mule, Amal, I met Soufia Issami in Cannes as she was the lead actress of Leila Kilani’s “On The Edge,” which played at Directors’ Fortnight in 2012.
(Issami) is a very different girl, who doesn’t come from Tangier but from Casablanca. She knows a different side of Morocco entirely.
Morocco has a wonderful community of actors.
What kind of film did you envision to make and how did your American sensibility influence your storytelling?
We thought at first that the film could be a music-focused story or a naturalistic drama and then it took on a more thriller path with a lot of suspense.
we wanted it to have a certain kick, with the immediacy that naturalistic digital cinema on a low budget gives. At the same time, as an American screenwriter, I had a certain drive to do storytelling where the character has an arc, and where the story evolves with a certain momentum.
What compromises did you have to make to complete this movie with a budget under $1 million?
We made a small movie that’s set in the real world, very close to the ground. Reality gives you unexpected gifts. For instance, one day we lost the auto garage we were supposed to shoot in and had to change locations at the last minute. Thankfully, that other location came with a kid, who worked as a young assistant and was a natural actor. That just pushed the story forward.
How was shooting in Morocco?
In Morocco, a dollar goes a long way. It’s is a great place to make movies. It’s well-organized at a structural level. The CCM (Centre Cinematographique Marocain) is a the film board which is very straightforward and user-friendly film institution. They’re no censorship on what you can say or do. You get a film permit easily. And in Tangier,and in general in Morocco, people are extremely sweet and generous, the spirit of hospitality is truly a character trait and it’s part of the culture and consciousness.
We had a fight scene outside of a nightclub and thought, “We don’t have the means to hire 50 extras for four hours.” So all we did was start staging the fight scenes and the extras came to watch the fight scenes.
And once they were there I walked around and told them, “Ok, just watch the fight scenes and don’t look at the camera.”
In Tangier, the light is extraordinary, the scenery is magnificent with its Rif mountains … We shot in a city which has a real connection to this business (drug trafficking) where nobody has shot before, thanks to my production partner Karim Debbagh at Kasbah Films.
What are you working on now?
Well, you know, Morocco is alive with stories and that’s why we have this extraordinary generation of filmmakers.
Right now I’m developing this film ”Tangier” with Audrey Rosenberg, the American producer of “Traitors,” and the script is written. It’s going to be with Kristin Scott Thomas and Jeremy Irons. It’s a dark psychological thriller with a political subtext in the vein of Patricia Highsmith, Orson Welles and Alfred Hitchcock and we’re looking for co-production partners.
It has to be a U.S.-Morocco-Europe co-production, with maybe investment from the Gulf. We’re talking to some people right now. Budget is bigger than for “Traitors” but not crazy, under $5 million.
It’s been in long time in development and now it’s moving ahead. It helps to have directed one movie. Being a first-time director can be a handicap for financing.
What is “Tangier” about?
It’s about a young American soldier who is absent without leave from the Gulf War in 2004 and drifts over to Tangier, where he gets into hot water when he becomes the lover of a wealthy socialite. Things get tricky. We’ll have some of our “Traitors” team to come back.
The lead will be in a handsome young movie star.