March 29, 2016

Circassian Actress Amina Zhaman Makes her Directorial Debut

It is no surprise that that the multi-talented Amina Zhaman one day would sit in the director’s chair. Award-winning actress, writer, composer, singer and producer Amina Zhaman came into the spotlight with her directorial debut of “Before Breakfast”. “I was dreaming to portray Mrs. Rowland since I was a student. It’s a dream come true to make the first screen version of Eugene O’Neill’s classical one-act play,” she revealed for NY Elite Magazine.
Director Amina Zhaman

Exclusive Interview with Director Amina Zhaman 

Amina, you have been super busy winning international awards in Armenia, Greece, Ukraine, USA and Russia for the successful feature “Right to Love”, directed by Paul Kurti, produced by Marina Bolotokova, 2012. I can’t imagine how excited you are about all the acclaim and attention the movie received. Much deserved!
Amina Zhaman: Thank you. I didn’t expect my debut film to be so successful at the film festivals and screenings around the world. I think basis of “Right to Love”’s international acclaim is the strong script, great directing and extremely talented international cast and crew. My heroes in the story represent different cultures and it is very important that they were portrayed by actors of the same backgrounds (for example, I played Circassian heroine, lead Shpend Xani Albanian, Omar Chaparro Mexican, Karina Ivanova Russian, Kirill Tolmatsky (aka Le Truk)  Jewish).
Another important thing is that all cultures were introduced and shown in the movie with deep respect. It proves that there’s no need to humiliate one nation in all sins to express conflict in the story. There is no bad nationality or religion. There are bad people. Some of them consciously chose the wrong, dark way of living, others just never had a chance to study an unknown culture/language and that’s why they have no idea of another rich nation, and just because they are afraid of something unknown they keep the fear of it instead of learning about it and naturally love it.
As legendary musician and true philosopher John Lennon once said, “I believe that what Jesus and Mohammed and Buddha and all the rest said was right. It’s just that the translations have gone wrong”. I agree with Lennon. In my opinion, only kids and intelligent people who never stop learning and educating themselves throughout life can be truly open-minded. Only a real personality can have an opinion and sense of humor. One must be very smart to have that set. I highly recommend everyone read the Zabur of David, the Torah, the Holy Bible, the Holy Qur’an and the Sutras. The earlier youth reads these books, the earlier they become open-minded, wise and peaceful.

Director Paul Kurti and Lead Actress Amina Zhaman, ‘Right to Love’ movie
Right the Love is the winner of several international awards: Winner of Golden Apricot Yerevan International Film Festival 2013 (“Contribution in a Debut Film” Award, Armenia), Winner of Loutraki International Film Festival 2013 (“Brightest Debut”, Greece), Winner of International Rights Film Festival “STEPS” 2013 (“Best Script”, “Best Actress”, Ukraine), Winner of Albanian Film Week International Festival in New York 2013 (“Audience Award for Best Feature Film”, USA), Winner of VI International Festival of Circassian Culture 2014 (“Contribution in a Feature Film “Right to Love“”, Russia)

Congrats on your directorial debut with the film “Before Breakfast”. Why did you decide to debut with this particular short film?
Amina Zhaman: Because it is one of my favorite plays of all time. I was dreaming to portray Mrs. Rowland since I was a student. I thought my dream will come true on stage at the student theatre, but God had bigger plans for me and helped me make the first screen version of Eugene O’Neill’s classical one-act play. There is a TV film “Before Breakfast” (1988) directed by Mino Damato and starring Annie Chaplin as Mrs. Rowland. I’d love to see it one day. It is now in private archives and not available for admirers of O’Neill’s work. But according to the photographs taken on set, atmosphere of Damato’s film is just as dramatist describes in the play and Chaplin looks perfect for Mrs. Rowland’s character. My movie’s running time is 23 minutes, so it’s like 1/3 of a feature. I’m very proud of the result and delighted to see it on eOneillTV – online channel where people can watch best film and theatre productions based on O’Neill’s plays.  I’m honored to receive a great review by Harley Hammerman, who not only knows the entire work of Eugene O’Neill, but also saw both films –  Damato’s and mine. Such professional acclaim inspires me to move on and make new projects,
Behind the Scenes of 'Before Breakfast'
Behind the Scenes of ‘Before Breakfast’

The director of photography Gunthar Ross did an outstanding job in giving the impression that the movie was shot in 1916, when the story was taking place. What decisions did you as director and the team have to make to fit in with the 1916 feel and a vintage look?
Amina Zhaman: First of all – hiring a great cameraman. We worked with Ross on “Right to Love” and loved the result. At the festivals critics and audience refused to believe that “Right to Love” is a low-budget and debut film because it looked so great, beautiful and professional. Not only Ross has the highest professional level, he also has a great taste and knowledge. One more strong side of “Right to Love” is incredible, amazing, unforgettable views of New York City he shot (Times Square, Broadway, Studio 54, Statue of Liberty, Ellis Island, Central Park, Lennon’s “Imagine” mosaic – we have them all). Thanks to Paul Kurti who picked Gunthar Ross for our film.
When producer Marina Bolotokova and I were working on pre-production of our second project “Before Breakfast” there was no question who will be a director of photography. We were happy to collaborate with Gunthar Ross again. He recommended The Landmark Museum of Tarrytown, NY, for a major location and once I saw the end-of-19th-beginning-of-20th-century interior of it I knew it’s the best place for filming. Being there is like being in another century already. Add outstanding cameraman, gifted crew, right costume, ideal vintage props and special vintage picture effect at post-production – and all this will definitely take you to 1916.
I’ll never forget how I searched for an old Gordon’s Gin bottle everywhere – from fairs and bars to dishes stores and online auctions. Finally I found the original bottle of the 1910-s on eBay and bought it immediately. I still have this exclusive prop at my apartment’s mini-museum. In the film one can also see cigarette butts of Mrs. Rowland’s husband Alfred. For that scene I bought a vintage pack of Camel cigarettes with the blue writing of the label on it as it was in the beginning on 20th century. All these details are very important and interesting, when you work on a film you get to know many new things, learn more about the time of the story and its history. It is a very hard, but interesting, breathtaking work. And I’m very happy I worked as a director, lead actress, executive producer and composer of “Before Breakfast” and made a screen version of American classics I love so much. I intend to continue managing and organizing my next movies as well.
Mrs. Rowland walking with Gordon's Gin bottle
Mrs. Rowland walking with Gordon’s Gin bottle

Amina Zhaman, ‘Before Breakfast’

I thought it was brilliant how you brought to life a strong female lead character, in a 20 minute monologue. You did an outstanding job in making the character very interesting. How do you prepare yourself for such a role? Where did you find your inspiration to mold Mrs. Rowland to perfection?
Amina Zhaman: Thank you very much! I’m glad you loved it. When I read any of Eugene O’Neill’s plays I imagine the way it should be staged and filmed. I feel every female character O’Neill created throughout his work – from Mrs. Rowland of “Before Breakfast” to Mary Cavan Tyrone of American tragedy “Long Day’s Journey into Night”. Dramatist inspires me by his masterpiece, guides me thorough his notes and kinda directs my actions and action of the play himself. I read the play again and again, but not too many times. When I pronounce my lines, they sound fresh and natural. I pay attention to every word in the play and do my best to make everything in the film just like it is written in the book. I followed O’Neill’s words. That’s why my directorial debut turned out great. At the moment I pick characters of my age, temperament and type. Later I hope to portray O’Neill’s older heroines. I’ll be older myself, more experienced and ready to play them. I also dream of playing old ladies in Friedrich Durrenmatt’s plays.
I hear that you want to turn Eugene O’Neill’s dramas to seven short films. What fascinates you about O’Neill’s writing?
Amina Zhaman: That’s true. I’m making a film cycle of my favorite O’Neill’s plays. I pay tribute to the playwright in the original form. O’Neill’s writing is amazing, incredible, strong, true, unique. He shows life without reserve. Some of his plays are written in a form of a confession which makes them extremely deep and absolutely honest. His work is out of time. I consider it topical for today, tomorrow and 100 years from now and on… Moreover his plays are beyond one nation, one religion, one race, one country, one mainland. They are simply beyond the horizon.

What do you want to accomplish with the 7 films?
Amina Zhaman: Through screen versions of O’Neill’s plays I want to make a contribution in American theatre and worldwide cinema at the same time. Plus I want to remind younger generations about the outstanding work of the founder of American Drama Eugene O’Neill in particular and promote reading in general.

How have O’Neill’s female characters developed through his writings? Any characteristics that struck you?
Amina Zhaman: O’Neill improved his female characters from melodramatic and dramatic level in the early and experimental plays to tragic in his late masterpieces. I personally love all his heroines. To me they all are dreamers with cut wings who despite problems and prejudices continue fighting for a better life and their American dream. What I like most about O’Neill’s female characters is that they are honest – with themselves and with others. Whether it’s a virgin or a prostitute, a drug-addict or a faithful wife – they are all true and real. None of these characters are fake, and I think that’s why making them alive on screen and on stage is a pleasure. I admire Eugene O’Neill’s entire work – from wonderful poetry and touching poems to incomparable plays and “The Last Will and Testament of Silverdene Emblem O’Neill” which I find genius. In my opinion, it is the sweetest testament ever written and the most extraordinary form ever created – from the grateful, dying dog’s point of view.  I was amazed by the way O’Neill ponders about the afterlife and reflects Muslim Paradise as Heaven where Silverdene hopes to get in to after death.
Eugene O'Neill's star on Playwrights Sidewalk, NYC
Eugene O’Neill’s star on Playwrights Sidewalk, NYC

And in today’s modern filmmaking, how has the female character evolved over time?
Greta Garbo in 'Anna Christie'
Greta Garbo in ‘Anna Christie’
Amina Zhaman: I don’t think it evolved. In my opinion, most of the great female roles are in the past now. Brilliant and gorgeous actresses like Greta Garbo (Anna Christie in “Anna Christie”, 1930, dir. by Clarence Brown, Mata Hari in “Mata Hari”, 1931, dir. by George Fitzmaurice, Anna Karenina in “Anna Karenina”, 1935, dir. by Clarence Brown, Marguerite Gautier in “Camille”, 1936, dir. by George Cukor), Sophia Loren (Anna Cabot  in “Desire Under the Elms”, 1958, dir. by Delbert Mann, Epifania Parerga in “The Millionairess”, 1960, dir. by Anthony Asquith, Filumena Marturano in “Marriage Italian Style”, 1964, dir. by Vittorio De Sica) and Elizabeth Taylor (Maggie Pollit in “Cat on a Hot Tin Roof”, 1958, dir. by Richard Brooks, Cleopatra VII in “Cleopatra”, 1963, dir. by Joseph L. Mankiewicz, Martha in “Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?”, 1966, dir. by Mike Nichols), already played them.
Sophia Loren in 'Desire Under the Elms'
Sophia Loren in ‘Desire Under the Elms’
Nevertheless we still have a lot of unscreened classics from around the world as the strong material for new films. Original scripts with new, interesting, unique, strong female characters are extremely important and rare today. I personally create such characters for myself and my colleagues in every script I write for my films. People saw characters like Amina, Ksenia, Maviola in “Right to Love”, 2012, dir. by Paul Kurti. In my next feature – comedy “LoVegaS” – you will see a humble pop-star Mona and a devilish stripper-turned-TV-personality Evil. They represent good and evil, light and dark sides of today’s show-business. Both characters grow spiritually – Mona on her higher level and Evil on her low level – but still – there’s hope for everyone. My characters will evolve for sure. I hope to shoot this comedy in Las Vegas soon and can’t wait for audience to see these female parts performed by talented actresses and learn something new from the movie.
Poster of the first production of 'Before Breakfast' in 1916 in Lucille Lortel Theatre, Off-Broadway, NYC
Poster of the first production of ‘Before Breakfast’ in 1916 in Lucille Lortel Theatre, Off-Broadway, NYC

Being a writer/director/composer/executive producer, you also have played lead characters in the films. How do you make it work? How do you transition yourself from one role to the other?
Amina Zhaman: Quickly. Though besides hiring and managing the movie I also organize catering, I never eat on set. The whole cast and crew has a one–hour-lunch, but I never join them. I just can’t think of food when I’m working. Only when the work for a day is done I go home and eat a bit. I work throughout the whole process of filmmaking: pre-production, production and post–production. It is tough, but the result worth it. During filming I don’t have a chance to enjoy the process – that’s the price of my success. I enjoy the result when my films win at the festivals and touch people’s hearts.
Amina Zhaman outside Lucille Lortel Theatre, NYC, 2014
Amina Zhaman outside Lucille Lortel Theatre, NYC, 2014

Your next project, also an O’Neill inspired, takes you to Mexico.  What do you want to convey with this project?
Amina Zhaman: I want to express love for one more rich culture – this time Mexican, and to show how love at first sight can make miracles happen.
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