“I Can’t Think Straight”: Transforming a film into a web series:

An Interview with Shamim Sarif & Hanan Kattan
By J. Lynn Stapleton

As a lesbian in a small Canadian city, there isn’t much in the way of good lesbian-oriented films available locally on video, and even less via streaming sources (like Netflix) online. Over the years, I’ve learned to become more particular about what I want to watch and spend my money on.

The first time I saw a trailer for Shamim Sarif and Hanan Kattan’s film. “I Can’t Think Straight” I was hooked. It has a cultural aspect that are as much characters of the film as the people themselves. While the different cultures, Arab, Christian, South Asian, Muslim are a part of the movie, the characters manage to turn expectations around and challenge their senses of self, exploring who they are, who their families think they are, and who they love. It’s a beautiful love story of not giving up on who you fall in love with. Leyla is a quiet woman who works for her father’s life insurance and writes fiction on the side, but when she meets Tala, a spirited Palestinian woman, something clicks with them and it develops into something much more. Now, after a successful film, Shamim and Hanan are developing a web series based on the film.

Hanan and Shamim outside the Oslo Opera House. Enlightenment Productions. 2011.

LS: You’ve shown “I Can’t Think Straight” at film festivals around the world and it has won an audience award for Best Fiction Feature at the Miami Gay and Lesbian Film Festival. The reviews I’ve read have been good. What inspired you to now develop that film to a web series?

Shamim:
We were overwhelmed by the response to the movie. By that, I mean that daily we were getting emails from people saying it had changed their lives. The festival audiences loved it. So I think the support was there. But from a story perspective, there is a lot to work with on the ongoing journey for Tala and Leyla and their families. I like the idea of finding out more about how their stand for integrity affects their family members.

Hanan:
Based on the amazing support and daily e-mails from fans sharing how both our films The World Unseen and I Can’t Think Straight have made a difference to their lives and how they would like to see a continuation; encouraged us to explore this further. After not so positive encounters for making a TV show, we decided to instead explore the web series digital format to have more creative freedom to develop the type of work that we are passionate about versus what the TV Networks feel will sell advertising for them in a formulaic way.

LS: You recently put out a survey to fans to get an idea of support for doing this webseries and willingness to help fund good programming. What were some of the most surprising answers you received?

Shamim:
Most surprising to me was how much people were willing to help sponsor and spread the word, and how understanding they are that artistic integrity needs support. That, and some of the suggestions for a new Tala 🙂

Hanan:
How both our Films have made such a difference to so many women whether feeling more at ease with themselves as a result of the films and the books and how many have decided to come out as a result of watching I Can’t Think Straight and so many more stories of life-changing events. It was humbling really.

LS: While there can be greater financial backing with support from television networks/channels, there is often the trade-off of losing creative control, especially for non-traditional love stories. What were some of the challenges you faced in this area?

Shamim:
Oh we had a merry time trying to prep the series for a producer who had leverage at HBO. The direction went darker and darker, to becoming a show about two damaged people who hurt and abuse each other but still are in love. We had a problem with that and it’s not the story we want to put out there. Everyone has their issues and stresses but I like to focus more on how they can be overcome, and that what makes up more human. It could be a show but it’s not our show.

Hanan:
Shamim & I have walked away from deals before that do not resonnate with us. We want to focus on the projects that we are passionate about. Life is too precious to spend years making a movie and putting so much energy for something that is not a passion driven Project that we relieve in. So going the mainstream route for funding would have meant creating a series and a story that we do not wish to focus on. Hopefully with the support from fans, we can create the stories and characters with a vision that we are both passionate about

LS: The story of Tala and Leyla is a compelling one of two women of different backgrounds, falling in love amidst different familial, societal, and cultural expectations. It is obviously important to you to maintain your vision of this story. Taking that vision to a web series format presents its own challenges; deciding how to fund it, the number of episodes to go with, and figuring out length of the episodes. How do you adapt your successful film into a web series?

Shamim:
I ask Hanan to figure it out! Seriously, on the creative side we wanted a series on the web because of the creative freedom not to be restricted to a set structure or time limit. Of course, we will decide that but it’s based on what works for the story ongoing.

Hanan:
The story is very closet o our heart as it is loosely based on our story. We had enough dramas anda ll sorts of good and challenging 15 years since we have been together and since we had our two boys that it could create many many series. But of course when creating stories, one has to have some adjustments to make the flow work and that is Shamim’s department to first create great content and then to direct and to make it come to life. As for the number of episodes, that will depend on the fundraising and whether we are able to create a whole series or not

LS: There will be cast changes with the web series as Lisa Ray, though supportive of this venture, is unable to reprise her role as Tala. How will you look at casting a new Tala to fit with Sheetal’s Leyla?

Shamim:
It’s crucial of course. The best production in the world can’t help if the relationship is not believable. The script goes a long way but we will be really careful in casting to create a good chemistry and having a good, sensitive actor makes the difference. Lisa is a tough act to follow but I am confident we can do it and find someone to make the role of Tala her own.

Hanan:
We did a lot of auditons to find the right Tala and Leyla for the film and I am sure we will find the right Tala for the web series. But that will only start once the funding is in place. Plus my wife great choices in cast and her amazing directing ability will mean a wonderful selection of cast for the series.

LS: With a web series, you will also have time to develop some more familial interactions with the characters. What are some particular story ideas you would like to explore in this?

Shamim:
You know, I think the parents who have issues would be interesting to explore – their own restrictions and boundaries and how they get pushed. Someone who steps outside the limits you’ve prescribed can push you to think or feel differently, sometimes in an inspired way, sometimes not. So I think Leyla’s mother for instance, might be more latently open to thinking about her own marriage as a result of her daughter’s stand.

Hanan:
Yes, very much so. The idea is to develop the story further within the time limit that we have

LS: Without needing to go into too much detail, how much of I Can’t Think Straight is autobiographical for you and your family?

Shamim:
Quite a bit. 🙂 Culturally there a similarities, though my family is South African Indian for 2 generations. And the story line is obviously compressed and more dramatically arced, but it’s quite close. Hard to find actresses stunning enough to play us, but we managed…

Hanan:
Very much so, except Shamim did NOT have a girlfriend in the interim and I have 5 and not 4 engagements but I had broken off the last one before going out with Shamim. The rest is more or less based on our story. Actually if anything Shamim toned it down as she felt most people would not relieve the reality.

LS: As a fan (and supporter) of various web series, I’ve noticed that they seem to be free to audiences (YouTube), subscription/crowd-sourced (Venice the Series, Anyone But Me), advertising/branded funding (Koldcast arhive of web series shows), or some combination of each. For the ‘I Can’t Think Straight’ web series, why did you decide to go with crowd-sourcing route?

Shamim:
Funding models have changed fast in the past few years. The traditional high budgets for TV and film are not as often recouped, so I think of crowd-funding as a throwback to Renaissance-style patronage, except anyone can be part of making a creation happen, not just the Medicis 🙂

Hanan:
We were looking for a model where the fans would be part of the creation of the series. We might look at corporate sponsorships if they do not mean a compromise in the creative freedom to create the show we wish to create. And we want to develop TV quality content and story telling

LS: Independent and up-and-coming musicians have been featured on several different web-series and have brought people to both the series and musicians. Do you have any musicians you’d like to work with on this web series?

Shamim:
Leonie Casanova is the obvious answer, but I look forward to exploring other talented singer-songwriters as well.

Hanan:
Leonie Casanova who is an amazing human being, supporter of our work and an incredible talent will be acting in the series and performing songs.

LS: You’ve also been working on other projects, inluding adapting Shamim’s highly acclaimed novel, ‘Despite the Falling Snow’ for the screen, and writing, directing, producing ‘The House of Tomorrow’, a documentary about the Israeli/Palestinian conflict that looks towards the future and finding similarities to build upon – that people can help frame their futures. What can you tell me about those projects?

Shamim:
Hanan convinced me I could shoot a feature documentary in 7 days, and I somehow fell for it. It was manic and insane but wonderful and I am very proud of this film and the women who made it happen, not least my wife. Despite is a very special project for me – I love that story and it will be quite an epic film of love and betrayal.

Hanan:
‘The House of Tomorrow’ is just completed and we are now taking it to market. The DVD we hope will be ready in time for the holidays. As for Despite the Falling Snow, we are also working on this Project for 2012 and depending on funding, we will look to go into production then

Enlightenment Productions

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About jlynnstapleton

I'm a Licensed Practical Nurse, photographer and writer. My focus in photography has been primarily landscapes, particularly water based images, both in colour and black and white. I love to travel when I can and sometimes find some unique treasures to photograph. I also enjoy writing these blogs and doing interviews when I can. I'm the oldest of three siblings. I grew up in St. John's, Newfoundland [Canada]. I came out as a lesbian when I was twenty-one, and fortunately I've had a supportive family, and friends.
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