Writer/director Danielle Lurie graduated from Stanford University in 2000 with a BA in Philosophy. Danielle’s debut short film, In the Morning, about honor killings, premiered at the 2005 Sundance Film Festival, and has won nine film festivals to date, including ‘Best Narrative Short’ at the Oscar qualifying Nashville Film Festival. On November 9, 2005, In the Morning screened before members of the U.S. Congress during the Congressional Human Rights Caucus on Honor Killings, and would later screen before members of UNIFEM (United Nations Development Fund for Women).
On a plane flight to Washington DC (en route to her screening at the Human Rights Caucus), Danielle met an 81-year-old man named Jack who was flying across the country to meet his high school sweetheart, Betty, whom he hadn’t seen in 62 years. Danielle got out her camera from her carry-on bag and filmed their reunion. This became her next short film, a documentary called ’81-Year-Old Sweethearts,’ which is now airing on Current TV, Al Gore’s television network.
Currently, Danielle is writing the feature-length version of In the Morning and is also attached to write and direct a separate feature (based on a true story of wrongful imprisonment) with producer Jon Gordon. In addition, Danielle has a blind deal with Universal to write a screenplay for the studio; the subject matter of this film is still to be determined.
In it’s Summer 2005 issue, Filmmaker Magazine listed Danielle as being one of the 25 new faces of independent film.
Bijan Tehrani: How and when for the first time you encountered the subject of your fim, In the Morning?
Danielle Lurie: Well you know what, I am an American filmmaker and I don’t claim to come from a background where I know about the subject but how I came to this subject was after I read an article in the New York Times by Dexter Filkins. It was in June of 2003 and I read it in a plane coming from New York City to Los Angeles. I remember it was on page 10 of the New York Times that day and after I read that article about honor killings—I had never heard of honor killings before—I was appalled A) that honor killings happened and B) that this story was on page 10 and not page 1 of the New York Times. So I landed and then decided that I was going to make a film about this subject matter and I thought I would first by make a short film to show that I could do it and then hopefully raise money for a feature film.
Bijan: Please explain what is a “honor killing”, as many of our readers may not have heard about it.
Danielle: Honor Killings are basically a tribal cultural practice when women who perform any form of disobedience or adultery can be killed by a member of their own family if they are doing it in a justified way.
Bijan: Even if a woman has been raped is subject to the honor kinning?
Danielle: Well, rape is a form of adultery. In the realm of Honor Killings if a women has sex before she is married or has sex with anyone besides her husband, regardless if it’s raped or something that she has sanctioned, it is considered a dishonor to her family and she should be killed.
Bijan: When you decided you are going to make a movie about this…was it easy to find a way to go to a location to do this? How did it go from there?
Danielle: No, it wasn’t easy. We actually filmed the movie in Los Angeles and we had a very, very small budget. Generally people who are making short films don’t have a big budget—period—and I’m one of those people. My film cost $5,000 dollars; it was a 3-day shoot but it took a year and a half to prepare that shoot because I went door-to-door personally to get favors and have people come on-board to donate cameras, equipment, and donate their time to make this film. So, we didn’t have money to go and shoot in actual location. My film is set in Turkey because I actually believe that Turkey stands a great, wonderful chance for change. It’s a modernizing country and while honor killings do happen there, I do think that it’s changing. So, I wanted to set it there for my film and what happened was that I worked with the women’s center of Turkey, mostly online, and they sent me photographs of their country and their locations. I then gave those photographs to my production designer and he went ahead and basically recreated Turkey in Los Angeles. So we shot here. The other interesting thing is that when I was casting this film, I look to cast only Turkish actors to play the roles because this film was in Turkish. But every Turkish actor who auditioned for me, when they found out the film was about honor killings they said that they didn’t want to do the film and they walked out of the audition. They said things like “this don’t happen in my country” or that “this isn’t my business as an American filmmaker to make a film about a subject matter that isn’t from my own culture”. To that, I said that I think this is a human rights issue and that any filmmaker, from any ethnicity or any gender or any race, should try to make a film to create awareness about it so hopefully change would happen. So what happened was that I had to cast the film with the best actors that I could find and have them then memorize their lines phonetically in Turkish to do the movie.
Bijan: Do you think that it is actually being scared of being part of this project or was it mainly coming from a culture of censorship?
Danielle: No, I don’t think that they were scared of the project. Turkey is a democracy and I don’t feel that it’s a cultural dictatorship. I think that they were more worried about a “westerner’s take” on their culture. I think that often times many filmmakers will really bastardize and destroy other cultures in their portrayal without putting much heart and research into the films that they create. I remember that I promised the Women’s Center of Turkey that if this film wasn’t authentic, if it wasn’t something that couldn’t possibly have been made by a Turkish filmmaker, that I wouldn’t show it. Because it was important to me that I didn’t just learn a few things here or there about honor killings and make a movie about it, I actually really, really spent years researching this and trying to make a piece that was fair and not just one sided. I think those actors were worried about being part of some sort of propaganda film or some sort of film that wasn’t fair or well educated—which I can understand. I actually have since shown the film to one of the actors that had walked out of my audition and he said that he was very happy with how it turned out and that it actually wasn’t pointing a finger at Turkey
Bijan: Don’t you think that their experience with propaganda Hollywood movies such as Midnight Express had caused that fear?
Danielle: I think that is absolutely the case. You know, for Turkey in particular a dark-character has been shown in many movies like Midnight Express. Therefore it was very understandable to me that when I am proposing to make a film about a human rights issue in Turkey, that people is going to reference Midnight Express, which was a film that actually stopped tourism in Turkey for ten years or really lessened it. All I could do was promise that I wasn’t aiming to do a film like that and I don’t think I did. I really tried to make a film that was fair. But yeah, everyone was very concerned that I was going to make another Midnight Express, which I had no intention of doing but when you’re at the very early stage of a film and you have nothing to show for yourself and you’re a new filmmaker, it’s very difficult to gain the trust of actors and your crew and producers to know that you’re going to do a film that is fair and just and one with a lot of thought and a lot of care that actually will try to show both sides of any situation.
Bijan: A great point about your “In the Morning” is that it applies to every corner of our world and is not limited to one location..
Danielle: And you know what, in the movie I don’t even say that it’s set in Turkey; I just have the characters speaking Turkish. And they really aren’t speaking any language at all because the Turkish that my actors spoke was really not good. If you were Turkish, I think you would have to read the subtitles to understand the dialogues. But for me, I like that, because I would have loved to have had a sort of universal language that doesn’t actually exist, in a way, to symbolize the fact that this is a universal problem—it’s not just a one country or a one culture or a one religion problem.
Bijan: How “In the Morning” has been received by the audiences?
Danielle: This has been an incredible ride that I have had with In the Morning. It’s now two years old and it’s still screening. I believe it’s screening in Albania this month, for example. The film started at the Sundance Film Festival and it was really well-received there and it went on to screen at many different festivals including the Nashville Film Festival in which it won Best Short Film and that qualified it to be submitted for the Oscars and it screened at the Tribeca Film Festival and it screened at a lot of human rights film festivals as well. What I’m most proud of with In the Morning is that it screened also before members of Congress at the Congressional Human Rights Caucus on Honor Killings in Washington, D.C. That was an amazing moment because I think that there is a real value for having a short film at times like that because Congressmen who can, they do have seven and a half minutes to put in a DVD of a film but they don’t necessarily have two hours to watch a feature length. So at the Human Rights Caucus, they popped it in just at the beginning of the afternoon and then afterwards everyone gave their testimonials from the State Department and from Amnesty International and from the United Nations Development Fund for Women and people actually referenced the short film which was just great; that was a very proud time for me. The film also screened before the New York chapter of the United Nations Development Fund for Women, which is UNIFEM. Also, really wonderful is that it screened in many schools and Universities as part of the classroom curriculum, which has been a really wonderful experience. I have spoken with the film all over the world at this point and it’s really ignited some really good conversation and good awareness about this subject matter, which is any filmmakers dream I think when you’re doing an issue piece. I think one of the most special things I’ve had with it is I screened it in the morning at an inner-city school in New York City and these kids who are in gangs, have seen people be killed or seen people kill themselves watched the film and were so upset that this brother had to kill his sister. They couldn’t understand it and I think in American culture, our brains can’t go there. We had an interesting dialogue and I said to them, well, imagine if someone came to your house and punched your dad in the face, what would you do? And they said that they would go and beat them up or I’d kill them or I’d hurt them and I said, okay, sometimes a girl having sex before she is married is sort of equivalent to that kind of attack on your family in some culture’s minds; what do you do then? Everyone got quiet and we realized that there is a lot more to learn about this issue and this subject matter about why it happens and what inspires it in order to then actually talk about how to stop it without just saying that it’s bad. We need to figure out this idea of honor that doesn’t actually transcend different cultures. Every culture has its own version of what honor means and in America we have our own version of that and other cultures in Turkey and Iran and, you know, Brazil; everyone’s got their own notion of that and I hope that this film would at least unite that dialogue a little bit, which is why I am working on the feature film of it; to sort of go into a deeper philosophical understanding of why this happens and how we can stop it.
Bijan: Has the success of this film opened a door for you and your future projects?
Danielle: It absolutely has. Thanks to this short film, I have got, a really great thing, agents out of it, and they have been incredibly diligent and good about sending my film out to different studios and production companies. I spent the last two years in a lot of meetings with a lot of really incredible people who were and are heroes of mine in the film business and I am now working on a few different projects. I’m actually going to Uganda soon to go film a documentary there with the filmmakers who made the documentary Invisible Children. I’m also writing the feature scri pt of In the Morning right now and its set in London. It’s actually about a migrant family who lives in London. I’m working on another human rights issue about wrongful imprisonment in the United States and I’m also going to be working on a Global Warming documentary too. So there is a lot coming out and it’s just a matter of prioritizing but it’s all thanks to this short film. I think that a short film is, in many ways, an art form in itself and a lot of people just make their careers in short films and I do find it to be an incredibly useful and important art form because it gets the point across really quickly, if it’s done right, but to me it’s also been a very good calling card. Instead of handing out a business card, I hand someone my short film; I have it in the back-seat of my car at all times and I’ll just give it out both to create awareness and to tell people that I would love to work on films with them so it’s been really helpful, absolutely. But it’s a lot of work of course. I think any filmmaker would tell you that it’s basically no sleep for many years until you get your first project off the ground, then it’s not sleep after that either.
Bijan: What inspired you to become a filmmaker?
Danielle: Hmm, that’s interesting. I don’t think my answer is going to be that original because I can imagine that all filmmakers just go around seeing life a bit like a movie and that’s really been the case for me. You know, my brother is a filmmaker and he’s a film genius. He knows every film that’s ever been made and also is incredibly talented at the visuals too. For me, I’ve always seen life as a movie. Since I was a little kid I would see things as shots in a film or dialogue in a movie or stories and it’s just sort of incredibly lucky that there is a career that actually matches that part of who I am. If there wasn’t a career that matched it, I would be living in a pretty claustrophobic world where I would just constantly have these ideas and see images and see stories and not be able to do anything with them. So I’m lucky that I’m able to make movies.
Bijan: Who are the filmmakers that you admire?
Danielle: I admire Paul Greengrass who did Bloody Sunday and just did United 93 and Fernando Meirelles, who did City of God. The movie I absolutely loved this year was Pan’s Labyrinth and I thought that it was absolutely divine. Also, Steven Soderbergh; Erin Brockovich and François Truffaut, are huge references for me for a lot of different projects I am working on.