"Luxor," written and directed by Zeina Durra, is a mood piece. Andrea Riseborough plays Hana, a traumatized aid worker who comes to the Egyptian city filled with magnificent antiquities for a break. She runs into Sultan (Karim Saleh), her ex, an archeologist. They do not say very much, but as they explore the city, we see them struggle to find a way back to one another. In an interview, Durra and Riseborough talked about portraying a character who does not reveal her feelings through her words, how the city was as meaningful to them as it was to Hana and Sultan, and their real-life experiences of caring for a newborn and falling in love surrounded by antiquities.
Hana feels a lot more than she says and the audience has to lean forward a little bit to understand what's going on. So, tell me how you can communicate so much without words.
ANDREA RISEBOROUGH: One of the things that I love about Zeina Durra's screenplay is that the audience is required to bring their imagination to watching the film. Hana's been through a really difficult time on the Jordanian/Syrian border, as a doctor for Doctors Without Borders. But researching the atrocities that Hana would have experienced, the pressure she was under, the pain that she's seen, the fallout of such extreme conflict. It was a strange experience and quite a difficult one, to then hold all of that really without speaking a word about it. I loved that she's silently holding what she's seen. But we're not seeing it play out.
And so, in this very tranquil setting in Luxor, this place which has the cradle of civilization's ancient understanding of spirituality, she comes to find a greater perspective perhaps at a time. And she also goes back there because the love of her life was there, the first love that she's taken with her on all of these journeys that she had on her own. They spent time there, they spent time in Luxor. And so, it's a place that holds a lot of hope for her, in her heart. And she has no idea she'll come across him again.
ZEINA DURRA: That’s an interesting question as I think a lot of film nowadays relies solely on plot and script and so a lot of what I love about film has been lost in a way. Telling a story has as much to do with what someone is saying or not saying as where they are, how they are walking, who they are talking to, what situations one puts them in, what they are wearing. I think when you have an idea of what you want to do you can build a story that way, especially a more internal story. It was very studied and then even pared back more in the editing room.
How did you create the physicality of the character? She seemed to be carrying a lot of stress in her shoulders and the way she walked.
AR: There's a carefulness to Hana, when we come to her, which is interesting. Because the piece of herself that she's seeking to reignite is the playful talk that she has with Sultan. It may not be a conscious decision. It's somewhere that's close by, it's somewhere she can go to on the way to wherever home might be. But somewhere she feels that she can slowly and carefully get the footing again. And I think when you see her walking, I certainly felt that as I was walking, I felt like every step was precious.
It's interesting because not long before that I'd broken both my legs. I just been finishing "ZeroZeroZero," the Amazon series that I've been doing in Senegal. And I had broken both my legs when we were in Morocco, shooting the Morocco portion. And then we came back to finish when I was healed, and I had like a fast recovery time and it all went very well. But it's interesting that I then ended up walking through sort of the ruins of ancient civilization and spirituality in Luxor, walking very slowly, taking those tentative first steps again in this place. I felt very in tune with Hana in that way.
When we visited Luxor we arrived by overnight train and we came in at dawn. We came out of the train station into an open market and it was as though we'd stepped into Biblical times.
AR: I think there's this odd familiarity regardless of your heritage or how you define yourself culturally. There's a timelessness, and it holds something that is identifiable through every facet of civilization. We’ve seen it so often grossly depicted through these plasticky looking sets that are supposed to be Egypt. And it's so wonderful to be able to see see it objectively, not look through the eyes of Hana, but rather as an audience member and a cinephile. I think what's so special about it is that the camera is exploring some things that are previously unexplored by cameras. And we had the great privilege of shooting in the true locations, we had the permits. It was an extraordinarily privileged experience in that sense. And that was partly because we had the support of a wonderful Egyptian producer Mo Hefzy and really the archaeological community, which then added so much into the script, and helped our understanding of not just the tombs which were inside, but the entire place, really the whole country. And that was a really special experience.
Was there a location that meant the most to you or that you felt very connected to?
AR: Sekhmet. It's not an altar. It's not a statue of Sekhmet. It's actually Sekhmet's tomb. This very small, tight space through which only a few chinks of light come through and which light up the place at certain times of the year, which are carefully thought out. [When] Hana and Sultan [observe] the wall with the light of an iPhone, it’s profoundly moving. And something that was really life-changing, I think for every one of us, cast, crew, all of the many tourists who were waiting outside and deeply frustrated that they couldn't get in because we were inside. That was possibly the most special, you know, the duality of Sekhmet. The concept of Sehkmet as a Goddess and in her many different forms just felt incredibly special.
ZD: The Winter Palace Hotel was key to the film because it represented various phases of history. It’s a colonialist structure on the Nile, it was also a Winter Palace for the Egyptian Royal Family and the rooms themselves have a nostalgia to them of a time when hotels were these grand escapes. Luxury has become more generic nowadays. It’s also a hotel that, in times of political instability in the Middle East, offers very reasonable room rates, so Hana as a doctor could afford to stay there. For me, the Winter Palace was one of the most important locations alongside Luxor Temple and Karnak.
They are the most obvious places when one talks about Luxor and it was also key for us to be able to shoot there and within Karnak in the Temple of Ptah as we wanted to shoot them standing in front of Sekhmet the goddess of war and healing. She was the patron saint of Physicians. It felt key for Hana. [And] Medinet Habu, which then later became a really important site, because it’s where we filmed her main trance/ vision/ spiritual sequence, came about because it’s a beautiful mellow place and was easier to shoot in. But then as always in this film, there was a reason for filming there and when Indigo, the new age leader, started to tell us about the murals and the struggle with one’s inner demons, that we put in the film, I realized that we were filming there for a reason.
Getting access was something our Egyptian team did. Since our main Egyptian producer Mohammed Hefzy is very well respected there, he knew what to do and what forms to fill out. There was a lot of paperwork but they did an amazing job. I was really interested in how the different places we shot in, built up a complex image of Luxor with the different layers of history that they represented. It was telling the story with architecture, visuals.
How can antiquities be a perspective restorer? What do we need to learn from them?
ZD: I think there is a solitude one can have when walking around these ancient sites. There is a certain sense of peace. One can be taken out of the daily present day issues and transported to a different place which might have been more enlightened. There is a sense of peace being restored as one tries to understand what these people thought and what inspired these structures. It’s also about the cycles of history and that is a comforting thought; that every civilization goes through changes.
I thought the wardrobe was particularly telling about Hana. So, tell me about creating that look.
AR: We had the idea that she would just have picked her old friends, and by old friends I mean garments here and there. Some of which were fitting, some of which were just what was available. Perhaps a few things that really meant something to her. Perhaps some of them might have been Sultan’s from when they were together before. She's wearing clothes and shoes that are too large for her to fill. And they're in the sort of tired, insipid kind of pastel colors which is a combination of how much overnight washing and harsh soap they've had and drying on the side of a wall somewhere. And a memory of brighter colors. Zeina is very, very visual. She's incredibly involved in the whole dressing process. So, she really fought for those costumes. And I think they end up being very authentic points of interest.
Zeina, you had a baby just before making the film and brought the baby to the set. What was that like?
ZD: I had all three children on set and my DP had her two children. My youngest was four months old when I was shooting. It was great having him on set as he really calmed everyone. If he didn’t show up and I left him at the hotel people would ask where he was! Our older children came out half way during the shoot. That was also great as they watched us work and played in the background. If they got noisy we would send them off for a drive in one of the production vans.
It was wonderful having the children’s energy there; it’s so creative and makes everyone relax. It’s also wonderful that our girls (my DP’s children and mine) got to see their mothers work. Sometimes I think that I was so open and almost on another planet as I had just given birth, and I think that must have been amazing for my creativity. Ancient Egyptians were really all about death and rebirth so having a small baby and nursing him in the tomb of Sety I was pretty amazing, I was worried that it was sacrilegious but Salima Ikram the renowned archaeologist who acted in the film and advised me, assured me Sety I would have just loved the idea of a newborn baby in his tomb.
In terms of their life's work, Hana and Sultan cannot be further apart. There's nothing more immediate than being a doctor dealing with dire, terrible injuries all the time. And there's nothing less immediate than the study of ancient times. What do you think that that context provides for the audience?
AR: I think both professions give the other perspective. One is involved in the making of history and the other is involved in the studying of it. And at times when Hana needs the key reassurance of the idea that there are things which will outlive this time as conflictual as it might be, she looks to Sultan. And when Sultan wants to be brought into the reality of the modern world he looks to Hana. So, they each gain perspective from the other professionally.
ZD: I think they are both very similar. They put what they love to do first, over who they love. Sultan is still living half the time in Egypt and half the time in New Haven where he is a professor, like most archeologists. Hana pursued her career as a doctor, she didn’t want to follow Sultan around, she did her own thing. She obviously wants to help, to change the world, but she is also broken by it as she puts herself in danger, perhaps because her life was unstable and so she lost any fear she might have. That’s something I noticed about the doctors on the frontline. They were all going through something personal, like a divorce, or a death in the family. They wanted to be exposed and they wanted to help.
We do not learn much about their past relationship. Did you create some details for your characters?
AR: We did. We talked. Karim and Zeina and I talked in preparation about the history of his character, which they talked very little about in the film, but I think is telling in the way that our bodies move near one another, and in the playfulness that we have with one another. This is a relationship that's 20 years in the making. And you see that when Sultan enters in the script, that brilliant part of the script where Sultan enters Hana's hotel room and lies down on bed. They have a shorthand.
You know, Karim and I didn't know each other when we came to this project. And now we are in a relationship with one another, we're partners.
When we came to it, there was a lot of silence. There was just a lot of you know, I mentioned the walking, there's a lot of walking and holding hands and sense of ease and consistency that was both hugely exciting and very familiar. We can't take all the credit for it. There was a part of that, that was not make-believe.
"Luxor" will be available on demand and on digital platforms on December 4.