“Take2 Indie Review Sits down with Director – Raphael Dirani…”

Where did you grow up?

I grew in the Parisian suburbs! My hometown, Sèvres, is located South-West of Paris, just at the end of Metro line 9.

How were the arts introduced to you and at what age?

Very young! I loved drawing as a young child, and started to learn how to play the piano when I was 5 or 6. However, my introduction to performance arts started when I was 10, when I took my very first acting class. From there, my passion for theater and cinema evolved into a passion for writing and creating my own stories.

Do you remember what your first movie experience was?

I do not remember THE first movie experience, but I remember watching movies with my father. He rented VHS and DVDs and we watched them all in our living room. I remember watching all of Star Wars, Indiana Jones, Gone with the Wind, Young Girls of Rochefort, among many other movie classics.

You are an actor, writer, producer and director – as well as an editor and composer. Which passion was ignited within you first?

My first big creative outlet was acting. It all started because I was too shy in school, and my teacher suggested I take an acting class to help me open up some more and participate more actively in class. Little did they know it would create a creative monster!

Do you remember the “moment” that you knew you wanted a career as a filmmaker?

It took a while for me to come to this realization. After working as an actor and as a screenwriter, I worked at NBC in the distribution services department. There, I attended many seminars that were open to all employees, and one of them really stuck with me, as it helped me define more specifically what I wanted to present myself as, and the conclusion I came with was that I was a filmmaker. The next day, I had signed up for the Directing program at UCLA Extension!

How did your career as a filmmaker begin?

It’s still beginning right now! My next project, based on a French Book, Evolution Computer, is going to be my thesis project for the Directing program. After that, the World is my oyster!

Did you have formal training?

I do! I received acting training from the American Academy of Dramatic Arts, screenwriting training from Antioch University Los Angeles, and now Directing training from UCLA Extension.

Did you have a support system embarking on a career in the arts?

My support system is my parents! I had an agreement with them, that if I obtained a University degree in anything other than in the arts, they would support my studies. And so I did! I have a 2-year degree in social work and program design, which in the end, only enriched my inner artist, and nourished a drive to create socially conscious content. Since then, they’ve supported me through my studies, and now my filmmaking. They’re my number one fans, and I owe all my artistic growth to them!

Your short film – HELLO, MY SWEET BOY – deals with a parent suffering with dementia. Does that come from somewhere personal for you as the writer?

I do not personally have to deal with a family member that suffered from dementia. My great-grandmother had dementia toward the end of her life, but I was very young and didn’t remember much of it. The idea for the story came from a friend of mine who is a trained clinical psychologist, and both our desires to spread awareness about this mental disorder.

What was your process like writing the script and how long did it take you?

I spent a lot of time researching dementia in all its forms. It involved quite a few meetings with my psychologist friend, as his input was invaluable to make the movie as realistic as possible with the symptoms that could be shown on screen. After months of research, I would say that it took me a little over two weeks to complete a first draft.

How did you go about casting?

I went about it rather open-minded. I had ideas of course, but I wanted to see the sensibility that different actors would bring to the characters. In the end, it came to the best connection between the characters of Ma and Darrel. In the waiting room, I saw Brandon and Rosemary happily chat away, and it showed in their performance during the audition, which was a beautiful moment to witness.

How did you collaborate with your cinematographer – both in preproduction and on set?

Pavel is a fellow student at UCLA Extension. We first discussed the project after a bus ride on the way to campus. I met up with him during pre-production to share with him my storyboards, the vision I had for the film, and how I perceived the lighting and aspect of each shot. I was grateful to add his input to what I provided him as he added many elements that I wouldn’t have thought about. I could tell he knew what he was doing, when he showed up on set with a whole team, and  made the work seem effortless. He took direction openly, and suggested many clever adjustments. It was a great collaboration, and I’m definitely looking forward to working with him in the future.

The film also deals with the son needing to come out to his mother about his bisexuality – and upcoming marriage to his male boyfriend Terrance. Why was it important for you to explore the son’s bisexuality in the film – especially at a time when the mother can’t remember?

Coming out can be treacherous. It can be very traumatic for many people. I personally would NEVER want to go through it again. The problem here is that he has to do it all over again, repeatedly. This is not the first time they’ve had this conversation, and all Darrel wants is his parent’s approval, which can be a complicated task, especially since his father, who suffered a stroke, cannot voice clearly the fact that he accepts his son for who he is. In the end, it’s what Darrel ends up getting, an unconditional acceptance from his father, instead of the words he’s always wanted to hear.

The father is clearly disabled in the film. What was his presence in the film representing?

He is the unvoiced unconditional acceptance of his son’s sexuality, and the audience’s point of view toward the scene between Darrel and his mother. In a way he represents the message I want to convey through this short film: you belong, no matter who you are.

How did you and the actor work to achieve the father’s physical condition in the film -which seemed to represent a stroke?

It was exactly a stroke, and the fact that you caught that shows the actor did a great job! The process of finding a way to represent a realistic stroke took a little while. I first approached a few make-up artists to ask if there was a way to achieve that through special effect make-up, and the answer was unanimous: it has to come through the acting, and no amount of make-up would help make it more realistic. It all came down to casting. I asked the actors to prepare a short monologue, and to perform it as a man who suffered a stroke. I sent them a list of resources as to better understand what the performance should involve: face half-paralyzed, difficulty articulating, among many others.

You also directed the film. Do you believe in a rehearsal process before shooting begins?

I absolutely do, which is how I utilized the callback auditions. I took the time to have the actors experiment with the text, and try different approaches, and I gave them different directions to find the best way to tell the story. It also allowed for the actors to build chemistry, especially between the actors who play the son and the mother.

Do you give actors a lot of freedom to “play”?

Whenever they had an impulse to try something different, I absolutely wanted to see it. It actually lead to Rosemary’s wonderful speech, closer to the end of the movie. She didn’t tell me what she had in mind, but her performance brought tears to my eyes. It was wonderful working with actors that enjoyed their craft so much that they were comfortable to be playful about it.

Was there research done and discussions regarding dementia/stroke with the actors?

Absolutely! During the casting process, I had the opportunity to talk about it with the actors, and they had personal connections to the issues they were representing. I supplemented it by doing my own research and sent them a summary of the symptoms that could be implemented in their performances. We also had discussions about the intensity of those symptoms, especially for the mother’s role, who is still functional, but in the early stages of Alzheimer’s Disease.

Do you give a lot of notes as a Director?

In terms of roles that require a certain amount of research? I do. In terms of performances? It depends. I believe that 90% of working with actors is the casting process. During that time, I love to experiment with the actors, seeing their range, and what their personal approach to the character is. When we get on set, it gets really easy, as I’m already familiar with their abilities. If I need to give them small adjustments, I refer to my own acting training and tell them what I need without too much rambling.

Do you like to scout your own locations?

I have never not scouted my locations! It’s my job to tell the story, and the location is part of the story. If I have to work with a location manager in the future, I would definitely want to accompany them to visit the locations they found.

What message do you hope the audience takes away after viewing your film?

I want the audiences to know that there is always a place to belong. As the film takes place in a bi-racial family, and covers the subject of bisexuality, I want to convey a message of acceptance in diversity. Some might reject you, some might not understand, but in the end acceptance will come… and sometimes in places you wouldn’t expect!

Your latest project you have in the works is a sci-fi proof of concept. It’s a short film based on a French novel called EVOLUTION COMPUTER. Can you give us more details on the story and your vision for the project?

Absolutely! The story follows Gordon, a psychiatrist, who is tasked to psychoanalyze an AI who wants to learn how to love. The book itself explores a lot of philosophical concepts surrounding the place of technology within the evolution of mankind, and why machines would be  considered inferior to humans, when we rely on them so much in our everyday lives! I have already discussed the project with a cinematographer and how a therapy session could be shown on screen and still stay compelling. We talked about different inspirations in Sci-Fi and Fantasy such as 2001: A Space Odyssey, and The Lord of the Rings. The bigger challenge I want to throw myself is to make the audience root for the AI, rather than for the human. The AI is the one with a real character arc, capable of change, of evolution.

Has the project been cast?

We are currently in the process of negotiating with some actors that I cannot reveal at the moment! All I can say is that I am very excited about the prospect of working with them.

COVID19 has prevented you from completing this project on time. How are you planning on moving forward with your project in the “new” normal world we are living in? 

I am thankful that California has implemented some guidelines, and that the different guilds are protecting their members. The producers are prepared, and researched thoroughly what would be necessary for the project to happen. I am very confident that the project will happen by the end of the year. Furthermore, there is only one actor on screen, which would make production all the more simple.

Who is on your bucket list – as a director – for you to someday work with?

SO MANY! If I had to say one actor… I would say Rachel McAdams! First of all, she is in one of my favorite movies: About Time by Richard Curtis. Also, she seems to be a very down to earth and humble person. From what I know, she seems to value her privacy and avoids gossip and overexposure, which are qualities that I admire, especially among A-listers!

Do you enjoy the Festival circuit?

So far so good! Hello, My Sweet Boy has reaped a few awards at monthly competitions, and was an award winner at the online screening of the Austria International Film Festival. The in-person event has been postponed to a later date, but I am looking forward to attending when the pandemic quiets down (crossing my fingers here).

Lastly, of all the creative hats you wear – which one is your favorite and why?

Directing is the culmination of all my previous creative experience: acting, music, drawing, painting, photography… It all comes together in Film Directing! Of all the creative exploration I have done over the years, I have found where my artistic allegiance lies.