By: Laura Huie
Claire Fowler, the winner of our 2016 Short Film Fund for SALAM, is a powerhouse writer and director, driven by her compassion and desire for bold, cultural storytelling. Her winning screenplay was initially titled LIFT, and it is about a New York Lyft driver named Salam who happens to be female and happens to be Muslim. It follows her through one night of driving—and during that night, we meet her family, see her work, and meet her passengers, particularly one whose decision to get into Salam’s car has an impact on both of them.
We had the chance to catch up with Claire—fresh off directing an episode of the Netflix show Manifest— to acknowledge and celebrate her accomplishments since winning our Short Film Fund competition, including the film’s world premiere at the Tribeca Film Festival in 2018.
How did you come up with the initial idea for SALAM?
I spent quite a lot of time in Palestine over a period of about three years and I made some friends out there while making two documentaries. The plight of the Palestinian people and the Palestinian people themselves had a huge impact on me. I always knew I wanted to return to the subject in some form or another.
When I was coming up with the idea for this film, it was around the time that Trump was elected. And it was the talk of the Muslim ban that made it feel like a good time to revisit the subject. I don’t claim to be an expert on the Middle East or Arab culture, but I thought that by referencing the friends that I knew and using the knowledge and experiences that I had, I could make a story that would help at least some Westerners- maybe Americans who were susceptible to Trump’s rhetoric- to understand that the Middle East is a very complex place with individuals who are equally as complex as they themselves. I wanted to make something that shook people out of that superiority complex.
What was your writing process like?
I was living in New York at the time and that definitely inspired me. As New Yorkers we all come into contact with people of completely different cultures constantly. It’s quite a special place for that reason. You get in an Uber or Lyft and you’re in a very confined space with somebody who you might have absolutely nothing in common with. The city forces us to make connections as we navigate it, which is fascinating to me.
I specifically wanted to make my main character Palestinian for the friends that I made who said so many times to me: “When you leave Palestine, you’re going to forget us because everyone does.” I think that was one of the things that stuck with me most about my time there was how hopeless people felt, and how little faith they had in the rest of the world because they had been hurt so many times.
What were the characteristics that you found the most interesting about the Palestinian people?
Resilience. Land plays a huge role in Palestinian culture and when that land is continually being taken away it is a constant erosion of identity. In response, asserting one’s identity becomes a form of rebellion that takes an enormous amount of energy.
What was shooting and production for SALAM like?
Oh, it was crazy. I’m not sure any director would ever say a shoot went really smoothly, especially when you’re making an indie project. We shot in 2017 and had a small budget, and I was already a few years out of film school. And when you’re in film school, you have all of your colleagues and friends in the network that you’ve built up so it was hard to find good crew. It was also tough to find a great female actor in her twenties who could speak Arabic, and an experienced female actor over the age of 30 who was willing to do something smaller. It was loads of research, contacting people, and scouring IMDb. I got so lucky. I found some agents who seem to specialize in Middle Eastern actors. Then we found Hana who played Salam. And I just like, wow, I can’t believe it. She was so fantastic.
A ton of smaller bumps happened as well, but everyone was really nice. I could see that we had some real talent involved, so I think when you can see that something is going to be good, you can forgive those little bumps in the road.
How did you feel about SALAM premiering at Tribeca?
I started applying to festivals as soon as we could and then after a couple of months I heard from Tribeca that my film was going to be a world premiere. There are so many films and filmmakers that are great and don’t make it to those big festivals. It’s an incredibly competitive industry and an unfortunate reality that a lot of success comes down to luck.
Any advice for aspiring filmmakers?
It’s really hard to do stuff on your own. Try and find a team who will help you. And if you really don’t know anything about filmmaking—I definitely would applaud anyone just trying—but if you’re just starting out, you don’t want to drop your life savings on a short film. Find some masterclasses to get a bit of education, but I don’t think film school is completely necessary. For me, I learned the most about production by working on sets. In my earlier adult life, I was trying so hard to make my own projects, and I hadn’t figured out a way to properly support myself. It’s really hard to have agency when you don’t have money. So I think for anyone aspiring to make their first film is to try and find a way to support yourself and not put your whole life on hold for your dream.
Laura Huie is an experienced writer and editor involved in comedy-drama screenwriting, fiction editing, and full-time marketing copy. Laura is also a freelance article writer for Shore Scripts and has worked with Script Pipeline on their live Symposium series. She is one-half of screenwriting duo, Bloom & Huie. Together, they have written multiple television series as well as a feature-length film. Their mission is to write honest and witty female stories wrapped up in unbelievable worlds.
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