SXSW 2023 Interview: Amy Omar on Nourishing the Soul with “Breaking Fast With a Coca Cola”

When Amy Omar began thinking about whether to direct “Breaking Fast with a Coca Cola,” she might’ve taken inspiration to tell a story of defying expectations from how she found herself becoming a filmmaker in the first place when she was on track to become an entertainment lawyer before realizing the paperwork she was more interested in was drafting scripts rather than contracts.

“The summer I was studying for the bar exam, I was so miserable. I was losing my mind. [And I thought] I need to do something creative,” Omar said recently. “I’ve always considered myself to be like first and foremost a writer and during COVID in particular, I was writing a lot and shifted my writing to screenwriting essentially and [when] I wrote this short, I sent it to my friend who I wanted to come on to produce it, and she was like, “I really like this. I think you should direct this.”

Omar may have been devoted to staying for director Q & As after screenings she had seen, but she hadn’t ever fancied the notion of actually being one and she shows why perhaps those whose voices are most needed on screen with the charming tale of two Turkish-American teens who look to hold onto a bit of their cultural heritage while their parents have done their best to assimilate. The unusual dynamic grew out of Omar’s own experience of growing up in the Midwest and showed her teenage rebellion by fasting for Ramadan with her best friend, not letting her parents on and having to get crafty about the fact that she wasn’t eating much if at all. What Omar and her own friend once took quite seriously becomes the foundation for a great comedic short, starring Güneş Şensoy and Lucie Solène Allouche as Ada and Özlem, respectively, whose plans for a lazy summer day out by the pool are upended by a neighbor’s birthday party where cake and pizza are generously offered and the young women learn that they will be a part of a dinner party later that evening.

The two may have to go to great lengths to hide their lack of appetite, but Omar shows considerable verve in bringing their exploits to the screen, joining Ada and Özlem as they cruise around the neighborhood on a scooter and spitting up the samples that are forced upon them throughout the day. As “Breaking Fast with a Coca Cola” rides into Austin with the wind at its back, Omar spoke about her distinct path to bringing this personal tale to the screen, why it’s wise to pay attention to social media accounts when casting and how the shoot came to feel like home.

You actually wrote a Medium essay first about this experience. Did it immediately make sense as a short?

Essentially the first big thing that I wrote [after studying law was] a TV pilot in 2019 during the summer and when I wrote the TV pilot, I also happened to be back in my childhood home with my family and I was very inspired by all the things around me. After I felt like I was in a good place to pitch the pilot, I started sending to my friends who are executives and the feedback that I got was like, “It’s good, but TV is tough.” So I [thought], “Okay, I’m going to put this to the side because I want to make something. And I’m going to start writing personal essays, just so I can stay in the writing practice. So I wrote “Breaking Fast with Coca-Cola.” I wrote a couple other essays that summer, and as I was writing, I actually listened to a podcast “How I Built This with Guy Raz” that inspired me to make a short film. He interviewed Ava DuVernay, and in the podcast, she talks about how she had this whole career as a publicist and just had this idea to make a short film and she didn’t think she was going to be a director — she just wanted to make this film. And I was like, “You know what? That’s a good idea. Screw TV, it’s going to take too long to develop. I’m going to make a short because the results are immediate and you can just make it and it’s contained and it’s small.

I was looking at all my essays that I wrote, and I thought “Okay, what could be potentially made into a good short film?” and I listened to that podcast in August, 2021, and I wrote [the script for “Breaking Fast”] over Labor Day weekend. It was one of those things that just comes to you and pretty much from the original version to the film, the only really tweaks that I made were very slight. They were mostly my producers being like, “This is too expensive, we can’t do this.”

Still, it’s pretty ambitious and you have some great locations – were these places you were familiar with?

Karine [Benzaria], one of the producers, is the absolute best and she found the house, We essentially needed two major locations — a pool and [the interior of] a house and it was actually so hard to find a pool because we didn’t shoot it in the Midwest [where it’s set], we shot it in upstate New York. And because our production schedule was so tight and we shot over two days, we [had to find] a house with a pool. But the way that happened was we found this house on Airbnb that didn’t have a pool, but the guy who owned the house [said], “I have a friend who lives down the street who has a house with a pool and if you can just pay me a finder’s fee, I’ll refer you.” And that house was actually so perfect because it’s this old school, Tudor-style home [with] all of these beautiful wooden carve outs in the windows. That made it even more perfect because my house in Ohio is an English Tudor-style house, so it looks similar and it is a family house, so there were so many toys and things we were able to use, so it was perfect.

After finding the house, how did you find these actresses for your leads?

Güneş Şensoy, who plays Ada, has actually been on my radar for years. She was in the Turkish movie “Mustang,” that actually was nominated for an Oscar and I remember living in New York at the time and seeing it at Lincoln Center as part of New Directors/New Films and besides the fact that it was an amazing movie, I was really touched there was a Turkish movie [because] you never get Turkish movies that come to the U.S. ever. The only association people have with Turkish media are Turkish soap operas on Netflix, which is great, but there’s no arthouse films that are coming, so I was just taken by Güneş’ performance in that movie and at the time in 2015, she was 12 and over the past few years, I’ve been checking in on her on Instagram, seeing what she’s up to. I knew that she was in college in California and I [thought] I really want her to be Ada because I already knew that she would be perfect for this role, so I actually DM’ed her on Instagram, [telling her], “I love ‘Mustang.’ Would you be interested in like reading for this part?” And she connected me to her manager and the rest is history. Even though she’s in college in California, she actually was in Turkey at the time, so we flew her in from Istanbul and that was really exciting

Then we have this amazing casting director, Andrew Dahreddine, who actually worked on the first season of “Ramy,” and he is Middle Eastern as well so he understood what I was trying to cast in my Middle Eastern characters and even my non-Middle Eastern characters and it was honestly an easy process. Once I watched all the [audition] tapes that he distilled, I knew immediately who would be who.

Once you saw the dynamic between the actresses, did anything change about this in your mind?

What I keep like reiterating to people is that this is my first time directing, so it really was just instinct and what feels right in the moment. Even before we were on set in pre-production, I would do a couple virtual read-throughs of my actors [and told them] “I want you to go to the script, mark up the parts that you think are awkward or weird or that a 16-year-old wouldn’t say [because] I wanted it to feel as natural and authentic as possible. And Lucie [Solène Allouche] who played Özlem, she has such a deadpan, Aubrey Plaza-like sense of humor, so I wanted to utilize that and a lot of her movements on set were her. Then the woman who played [their neighbor] Mrs. S, Sam Rosentrater, she did a lot of ad-libbing and I was like, “You know what? Let’s just try to capture this as much as possible.” What’s funny is that most of the dinner scene was actually unscripted — I had a couple of filler lines in there, but a lot of it was just crazy, hilarious stuff that like clueless Americans would be talking about at a dinner table and that’s what I told them to do, [just] make small talk at a dinner table and I love that.

In mentioning “Mustang,” it actually reminds of how the camera in that film really follows the action. How did you design the shoot from that perspective?

I had an amazing cinematographer, Mika Hawley, who’s incredible and like [only] 25 or 26 and I’m sure she’s going to blow up soon and with everyone who came on board, I gave him the disclaimer where I was like, “You have to be gentle with me. This is my first time. All I can do is I can explain my vision to you as clearly as possible, and then you will help me execute it.” So Mika and I would meet several times before production and we created all these vision boards where I had my inspirations and there’s this amazing website called Shot Deck [where] you pull shots from different films and it’ll tell you the exact aspect ratio, what camera they use, and gives you all the details, so it’s really, really great.

For all of the warm scenes, like the outdoor pool and [when the girls ride] the scooter, I really wanted to evoke Spike Lee’s films [because] you’re in Brooklyn and the colors are super saturated and vibrant. You feel like you’re hot from watching the characters. And that is something where I worked with my production designer and my costume designer to bring out those colors — in the scooter scene, their caftans that they’re wearing [are vibrant], and it was really important to have the trees be very lush. [Since it’s] a Midwestern suburb, it’s very hot and humid in the summer, so I wanted to make sure that was captured and for the camera work, we used an Alexa Mini, which I’m obsessed with because it’s super portable and it allows you to get really close up to the characters.

I wanted this to feel like someone’s watching, so you’re in the world of these two precocious 16-year-olds and they’re trying to do this thing. They don’t care about everyone else around them, so you’re in their perspective and we have a lot of really close-up shots — even the shot where they’re in the pool and looking up at Mrs. S, she’s supposed to be this looming person and when she’s looking over them, you feel you’re looking up, like, who is that? [To get that], Mika was actually on a ladder in the pool, hoisting the camera up to like get that perspective. Then we also had a lot of movement. During the scooter scene, we were actually in the back of a van and one of my friends who was like PA’ing on it drove the car as these girls were on the scooter. It was a whole thing.

What’s it like getting this ready to send into the world?

It’s the best feeling in the world. When I found out that I got into South by, I had this moment because besides the reputation of South by, it’s very meaningful for me because I’ve been to the festival a couple of times as a guest and I’ve always really enjoyed the vibe of the festival. It’s really accepting of all different types of filmmaking and feels very artist-friendly. So when I got the news, my first reaction was excitement and my second was, “I can’t wait to tell my entire team.” It’s a moment where when you’re in the indie filmmaking world, specifically short films, everyone else has a day job and is super busy. No one is in this for the money and everyone came together and really brought their 110% to the production, so I was just really proud to go back to them and be like, “Guys, like we did it. Our film is going to premiere at this festival.” So I just feel an immense amount of pride that I could like deliver that for everyone. And I’m very excited to just get the story out there. It’s a very different perspective than anything I’ve ever seen. Besides the fact that it’s a Turkish story, it’s also reverse religious story, so I’m excited for people to see it, and my whole team is coming to South by and we’re bringing a party, so it’s going to be great.

“Breaking Fast with Coca Cola” will screen at SXSW as part of the Narrative Shorts Program 3 on March 11th at Rollins Theatre at The Long Center at 5:30 pm and March 15th at Alamo Lamar E at 3:15 pm.

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