SAN FRANCISCO: How does one top writing and selling an imaginative screenplay to a major Hollywood studio, getting the go-ahead to direct, landing megastar Robin Williams in the lead, and securing an acclaimed cinematographer, editor and technical team?
In Omar Naïm's case, you do it all before your 26th birthday.
The young Lebanese-born and now Los Angeles-based wunderkind, who is currently in post-production, spent most of July and August on location in Vancouver directing his first feature-length film, The Final Cut, with a stalwart cast including Williams, Academy Award winner Mira Sorvino and James Caviezel.
"The experience was surreal at first," admits Naïm, with an animated laugh. "It was both frightening and exciting. It was the biggest thing I had done in my life. But I quickly got all that out of my mind and got down to the business of making a movie."
By all accounts, and despite his young age and relative inexperience, he did it effectively.
"All actors are ultimately young and like to play; that's why they're actors," Naïm jokes. "But you learn very quickly that age doesn't matter, what does is to prove your competence."
While tales from Hollywood suggest movie sets can be anything but agreeable, with egos and budgets often escalating out of control, Naïm says filming The Final Cut was remarkably incident-free.
"The 35-day shoot," he says with a hint of disbelief, "was so harmonious; it was really very organized and there were no problems whatsoever."
For anyone who has met or spoken to Naïm, none of this comes as a surprise. His confidence and knowledge belie his age. Remarkably focused, lucid and poised, the young director showed signs of independence and determination before he turned 10. His passions, vision and even obsessive tendencies, he admits, were shaped largely by his upbringing and the great works of literature, theater and film to which he was exposed.
Naïm remembers growing up surrounded by artists, musicians and writers. His parents were both in theater and film, his mother is celebrated Lebanese actress and playwright Nidal al-Ashqar.
"My brother and I were constantly in the presence of culture," recalls Naïm, whose brother is now a Paris-based writer and musician.
Naïm's first film-going experience came when he turned 14, and he was hooked. For him, these big screen productions brought together the possibility of encouraging two abilities he had begun to nurture: writing and visuals. And, like everything else that captured his attention, Naïm became obsessed, immersing himself wholly in films, learning and soaking up everything there was to know. But, instead of pursing genres, as most novices would tend to, he fell in love with directors like Martin Scorsese, Woody Allen, Oliver Stone and Spike Lee.
"Then I went to college and discovered and fell in love with so many others who at the time were relatively obscure, like Atom Egoyan and Emir Kusturica," he says. "I discovered film on my own but my parents were... supportive. They only warned me of the hard work ahead."
Thanks to the Fares Foundation, Naïm studied film at Emerson College in Boston. During four years there, the young director learned everything there was to know about writing and being behind a camera. He transformed that knowledge into a number of short films, including his 1999 thesis, a 28-minute documentary called Grand Theater: A Tale of Beirut. In it, Naïm turns his camera on Beirut's historic Grand Theater, which was caught between the warring sides in a violent no-man's land, allowing it to fittingly serve as a metaphor for the tragedy and absurdity of the civil war.
The film, which won awards at Emerson and played at a number of international festivals provided something that would ultimately be indispensable for the young and increasingly determined director: experience. "I learned everything making that film, from inception to print."
In fact, the idea for the screenplay for The Final Cut was planted as Naïm finished work on his documentary, during the many, many hours of editing work required. Shortly after, he got down to writing and about one year later, had his first draft.
"The Final Cut is about editing and memory," he explains, adding that his Lebanese background also inspired the film's storyline, albeit indirectly.
"It's the Lebanese notion of mass memory, and people's very subjective memory and view of the world," he explains. "This subsequently dictates how society functions. I extrapolated that into sci-fi theory."
The first draft turned into a second, then a third and finally Naïm was ready to show it to his family and friends. Then he rewrote it again.
A friend had told him about a project in France called Equinox, to which screenwriters from all over the world submit screenplays. Out of the hundreds the group receives each year, 10 are selected and the screenwriters are flown in to workshop with a group of experts over a week, honing and fine-tuning each script.
When Naïm's script was accepted, he knew he had something. However, when he arrived in Bordeaux, he also learned what he didn't have: an agent and a producer.
"I went there and my script was really well-received," says Naïm. "But, I was the only one there without an agent."
The Equinox group proved very beneficial, however, and put Naïm in touch with his future agent and producer.
"I made it clear from the beginning that I was not interested in anybody else directing," says Naïm. "I was prepared; I came with lots of storyboards, just like at university, and they knew I was prepared, and that I knew what I was talking about."
Once back in the US, they began shopping for a studio. Lion's Gate was interested so they went looking for actors.
"When Robin Williams expressed interest in the script, I met with him," recalls Naïm, admitting that the experience was daunting at first. "He loved it; he told me what really struck him was the sense of mortality, something he hadn't explored as an actor before."
With Williams on board, everything was pushed forward very quickly. Within weeks the rest of the cast and crew were assembled and were on their way to Vancouver.
The Final Cut, which was shot almost entirely on 35mm film, takes place in a society where a technology called a Zoe implant exists. The Zoe is implanted in babies while they are still in the womb and records that person's entire life, through his or her eyes and memory. When the person dies, a cutter is called in to take that tape of a person's life and somehow edit it down into a two-hour film. This film is then played to reveal a person's life, albeit a very abridged version of it.
Williams plays Alan Hakman (no pun consciously intended), one of the cutters, who specializes in arduous cases, such as taking an essentially nefarious life and editing the tape to highlight only the good, or most of the good.
"So the film is really a character study, it's about Alan's projects, his life and how he deals with things," says Naïm. "The Final Cut," he adds, "bridges many genres."
After that, maybe even before, Naïm plans to start transferring the many thoughts now permeating his gray matter onto paper.
"I've got lots of ideas," he says, laughing as if he has been found out. "And, as soon as editing is finished I'll start writing again."