Lebanese director Ely Dagher discusses 'The Sea Ahead' after its Cannes premiere

"It wasn't something that, you know, I decided, I wanted the film to be slow like or have this base -- it developed throughout the whole process," Dagher told MIME.
Lebanese director Ely Dagher discusses 'The Sea Ahead' after its Cannes premiere

The day after the Cannes world premiere of Ely Dagher’s film The Sea Ahead, MIME’s Mark Adams sat down with the director to discuss the film’s shooting process; the challenges of filmmaking in Lebanon and the reception to the film from the Cannes audience at its Directors’ Fortnight screening.  

Ely Dagher at Cannes in 2015

How's the reception been to the film?

It was good, actually. I think the main thing that struck me, because I had never seen the film with an audience, obviously, before, is seeing everybody’s reaction. I mean, I hadn't realised how the film is quite heavy and dark and I think I hadn't really crossed the dots as much as you know when people tell you that they felt that.

I guess people also feel in different ways, they bring their own feelings with them. Had you seen it on a big screen before?

I did but when I was editing I would see the image on the big screen, but we didn't have the good sound and image. This was the first time I’d seen it come together.

When did you do the script?

I started writing in 2015. I actually started writing the treatment in 2015 basically for almost like eight months, obviously it wasn't a full time full time job. And then at some point I had to stop working on the treatment because I work very intuitively and the story is based a lot one motion… I also edit as I write. It's very important that, how you build your sequences and what comes after what if you’re telling a story. So, actually I wrote the whole first draft of the script in just under three weeks. It was like one big flow. And then after that it was just refining and fine tuning the script.

So once you had a treatment pretty well developed you then came to Cannes looking for producers to work with?

Yeah, I came back in 2016 through a group of producers and I think only signed with my producer the year after that. Because I did a couple of writing labs and I knew that the film was easily misconstrued or not really understood. And even the film itself has its own pacing has its own tempo and its own sort of language and I think, on paper, it's not always obvious for everybody to get. And I also wanted to make sure that I didn’t fall in the trap of signing with somebody or working with a producer that didn't necessarily get the whole thing. For the first time, it was important for me to have a most advanced version of the script that I know already what I want to say, that is as clear to me as possible so that I can defend it. And then I could find somebody who would also see it the same way.

And was that process a good one? I mean did you find the kind of producers who challenged some of the earlier versions, your ideas and did they help with the movie’s direction?

Yeah. My creative process was mainly dealing with one producer, Arnaud Dommerc the main producer. Actually when I met him he had read the treatment, not even the script yet, and he had gotten everything just based off the treatment which I found incredible because that was completely stripped of emotions and of context. But it was a complete and immediate understanding of where the film is coming from and what that I'm trying to say. So there was never really a challenge, maybe sometimes I struggled with funding but I didn't really want to compromise anyways.

And did you find that when you put the treatment together when you're writing, did you have a very clear sense of visual, how you wanted it to look how you wanted to move, how you wanted it to strike the emotions and the colours?

Frankly, not so much in terms of visual, but in terms of the season. I knew that it had to be a winter film. Beirut resembles itself much more in winter than in summer, when it’s tourist season and all the expats come. Also the reality of life in Beirut it's a bubble. So I knew that, and I storyboarded everything in advance, so everything was quite precise. But in terms of overall language and tone of the film, I would say, it wasn't something that, you know, I decided I wanted the film to be slow like or have this base, it developed throughout the whole process.

Do you find the storyboarding process useful; does it help as a starting point or do you follow it rigidly?

I don't follow it rigidly, but I do follow it. Because I also worked in animation so I do have that background. In animation, you have to have everything quite drawn out before you start producing because you can’t just shoot an extra scene and then see if you use or not — everything has to be quite well planned. And also I think in the construction because a lot of the scenes are just like a one shot or two shots decision of having it be like close off scene or like wide thing. I mean, it speaks a lot to be building the scene and I don't do a lot of coverage. I like to see what happens. So the storyboards are crucial for that because you need to have like a visual build-up of where you're going. So I think specifically for the tone. I had to do that.

How was the shooting process in Lebanon?

The revolution started in October 2019, and then the government resigns in December and they appointed the new government. So it was like an extremely hopeful situation that suddenly became very desperate again. The road closures were not as intense as before but was it was a bit complicated.

And then, the harbour explosion happened after you had finished shooting?

So we finished in February, but we postponed the editing for a couple of months because of COVID. We postponed everything and we started to work remotely. I would edit and then send my editor the file, and then she would send it back to me ... we did this ping pong thing. And the day of the explosion I actually had a two week break. And I was trying to start the project the whole day to start editing again and then the explosion happened. The next day I called the producer I told him that I wanted to stop everything.I don't know when I'm going to be able to start again I think it took a month and a half before I started again.

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