“People Think the Audience is Stupid”: Sophia Al-Maria on Little Birds, Anaïs Nin and Screenplay Development
Sophia Al-Maria is an artist and (screen)writer, probably most well-known for co-coining the term “Gulf Futurism” and authoring the memoir The Girl Who Fell To Earth (2012). Since then, Al-Maria has directed gallery films and worked on numerous unrealized film and TV projects. Al-Maria’s exhibition “Virgin With A Memory” (2014) was a response to Beretta, a self-authored script meant to be her directorial debut. Her short film Beast Type Song (2019) is both an extension of an unmade post-colonial SF project about “solar war” and a hang-out film with a slow, deliberate anger.
Al-Maria created and wrote the majority of Little Birds, a six-episode limited series for Sky (available on Starz in the US) based on Anaïs Nin’s volume of erotic short stories. Largely set in Paris, Nin’s Little Birds, first published in 1979, features ethically neutral depictions of pedophilia, incest and rape. Al-Maria’s Little Birds, directed by Stacie Passon and starring Yumna Marwan and Juno Temple, takes place in Tangiers in 1955. I spoke with Al-Maria on Independence Day about problematic adaptations and the ideologies of commercially acceptable narrative and failure.
Filmmaker: What are the origins of Little Birds as a project?
Al-Maria: The origin story of Little Birds is fairly mundane in film terms. I went to a meeting with a producer, Mary Burke, just a meet-and-greet. She was open to anything, and then at the end, she asked, “Are you interested in Anaïs Nin?” Because they had been wanting to do a “sexy show.” I was like, “That’s interesting because Anaïs Nin meant a huge deal to me when I was young and growing up in the Gulf.” In my high school, my literary teacher had put up all of these playing cards with famous authors. Nin and Virginia Woolf were the only two women, and they were white women. Nin was wearing a veil in that photograph. It’s a very famous photograph of her—very Orientalist, super problematic. At the time I was wearing hijab and dealing with being a young person who was navigating wearing hijab or not wearing hijab, but at the same time Nin was just so beautiful and I think I kind of had a crush on her.
I didn’t know who she was or what she did until I went to the American University in Cairo. There was a Banned Books section in the university library, and there were all kinds of books that you’d never think were banned. But you know what wasn’t banned? Delta of Venus, Little Birds, Nin’s diaries and the various accompanying erotica that Henry Miller wrote. These freed me, because they were made of intimate moments, even if they were fictional, from another world, another life. I wanted to explore those things and not just be married and have children and live my heteronormative, patriarchal existence out. So, when Mary brought her up, I got really excited. We were in Soho, and I just dropped everything, sat down outside of Aladdin (which was in the theater at the time) and wrote out how I might share the experience of an awakening through other people’s stories. That’s where the character of Lucy, the American arriving in Tangiers, started.
But I also wanted to directly address all of the problematic things. The book itself is kinda fucked up. There’s a lot of stuff in it that’s difficult to read. Some of it’s quite triggering, some of it’s racist. The first story is about a pedophile. But I’m not a censorious person, and I really believe strongly that nothing should be taboo in art. I knew that bringing this to a larger audience would mean that all of us working on it would have to grapple with what those things mean today. For example, there’s this Japanese character, a john. He’s the only man that El Cherifa, a dominatrix by trade, will allow to tie her up and dominate her, because he’s not white and not European and not, to her, a colonizer—although he is, because he’s Japanese. There’s this conversation they have about race that felt like it was an antidote to one of Nin’s stories about this white woman coming from America whose husband was serially obsessed with Asian women (“Sirocco”). So, I wasn’t trying to take stories from the book at all, just taking shards from the text, little emotional moments or beats, then resituating them in an original story. Charifa came from “The Queen,” one of Nin’s stories about “the greatest prostitute of them all” in Paris. So, I thought Cherifa has to be the superhero-level sex ninja.
Filmmaker: Throughout Little Birds and her other fiction, Nin eroticizes and exoticizes her white women characters by comparing them to people of color. I was wondering how much your decision to relocate the narrative to Tangiers was a response to that?
Al-Maria: That was the thing that struck me most rereading Little Birds as an adult after having read Orientalism and Frantz Fanon, things that helped me resituate a colonial-subject mindset. I was like, “Oh no, I really want this job…but I really don’t want all of that. How can we get around that?” Mary and I went to the Thea Porter exhibition at the Fashion and Textile Museum here in London. Porter’s the reason why caftans became popular in the ’60s. I found it infuriating. So, Tangiers offered this sugary-patterned, fire-lit exotisch locale that the general public would probably want to visit. Because that’s what we need in a show: people have to want to hang out there. I was thinking of Douglas Sirk and Fassbinder. I wanted to make it queer because Tangiers was a huge hub for gays, especially Western gays, in terms of sex tourism, but also for characters such as Jane Bowles and her long-time lover Cherifa.
Filmmaker: One of the things that feels like the original collection is Nin’s method of creating these narratives within narratives that are not resolved traditionally. They’re resolved sexually, like people have orgasms, but the plots aren’t resolved, characters float away. It’s very modernist, and that comes through in the show.
Al-Maria: For my first project in TV, Michael Hirst took me under his wing. I liked Vikings and The Tudors, and I learned a lot from him about plotting. It was an unofficial apprenticeship. He was very trusting and hands-off with the thing that was never made. It gave me some confidence in terms of going with my gut–taking those fleeting encounters, some of the modernist and internal elements in Nin’s writing, and bringing those out.
Filmmaker: Is the “thing that never got made” the pilot you wrote about the French Revolution?
Al-Maria: Yes, it was set in the French Revolution. From what I gathered, people have grown tired of that era. It’s funny writing historical fiction, because eras come in and go out of fashion. Bearded men in muddy fields anytime between Neolithic Britain and the Vikings is a period that Michael made uniquely interesting. People weren’t interested in the French Revolution, but I was obsessed. That project plunged me into understanding how the French and Haitian Revolutions are the root of so much in the contemporary landscape. All these political archetypes like the Jacobins, the Robespierres. It was like, This is still happening. History is on repeat. And we don’t seem to learn.
Filmmaker: Beast Type Song and “Virgin With A Memory” both take the failure to make a film or TV project as their starting point. This isn’t something people in the industry like to talk about, but screenwriters…I have a friend who once said, “You can tell absolutely nothing about a screenwriter’s interests based on their produced work.” Americans especially don’t like to talk about failure. But if you’re going to be a writer in Hollywood, it’s something that’s always gonna be on your mind.
Al-Maria: I definitely wallow in it. It’s alchemy. You’re in shit for a while, then a little chunk of gold floats to the surface. I think about how easy it was for previous generations, and it really makes me angry sometimes—also, when I see things by writer-directors who come from dynastic Hollywood situations or other forms of privilege. The thing that pisses me off is, they don’t have to go through the development process. You should make all the movies you want, but at least make them good and worth our time. In the writing process, and certainly with Beretta, it overcooked because of the amount of development I was forced to go through. Each time, the final output hasn’t been the thing I wanted was because I didn’t know how to protect it. There are moments when a script becomes the platonic ideal version of itself and then, if you get financed, you have to rewrite it to cut the budget and have it be legible. All the beautiful things and references are gone, and you just have a shooting script. Sometimes that’s like going through this burning atmosphere until the project breaks up into smaller and lesser possibilities. “Virgin with a Memory” was a reference to a Destroyer song. There’s a line: “Was it the movie or the making of Fitzcarraldo/ Where someone learned to love again?” That show was an opportunity to love myself again when I felt like such a failure creatively.
Filmmaker: There’s a line in Beast Type Song about the “undoing the violence of linear structure.” You also speak about how you like to work with a five act-structure. But you can’t do any of that stuff in commercial screenwriting.
Al-Maria: I had that conversation the other day with the producers of a feature I’m working on right now. They were trying to figure out where the acts sit in it, and I made a joke: “Well, actually, it’s five acts.” And they were like (horrified face, hushed tone): “Oh my god.” Structurally, and this is really nerdy and maybe obvious, but Kubrick used, what, eight chunks? The chunk method really works. I like movies that are a series of moments where the viewer puts the connective tissue in, but convincing people of that choice is really hard. People get really afraid of losing the audience. This is the biggest most frustrating thing of all in TV and film stuff: people think the audience is stupid. I just refuse to believe that. People don’t watch things the way they used to: It’s ambient, they dip in and out, they rewatch things over and over again. The writing has to reflect the way people watch things. That’s the reason you can float in and out of The Simpsons, because there’s a known world. It’s a vibe, to quote Grimes.
Filmmaker: Your art video Black Friday (2016) was the first time I saw a filmmaker using a drone to create a new kind of POV, not just replicating a helicopter shot on the cheap. How much of your use of drones goes back to your “redpill moment”? [In Beast Type Song, Al-Maria refers to her “redpill/bluepill” moment. Friends of hers were involved in a “siege situation” in the Church of the Nativity in Bethlehem. Al-Maria watched, live, as a Palestinian was sniped by a drone, his death almost immediately recast by news services as resulting from the “cross-fire.”]
Al-Maria: It is very much a response to the advent of drones being used in the region where I come from. We had two drones indoors for Beast Type Song. They were huge. I hadn’t worked with one like that before. They really have a personality, it’s weird. We had to have two because I wanted to have one on camera. In my art videos, there are these layers of droste effect: things are framed, then they’re reframed. There’s also this layer of paranoia about being watched. In “Virgin With A Memory,” there were five videos that were called The Watchers. They were gatekeepers. When you entered, you had to stare down the barrel of the camera. Beretta was about the intense violence of sexual aggression, harassment and abuse in the street in Cairo which I had experienced constantly. All of those things are related. The aggressive gaze of, in that case, men. In the case of filmmaking, the camera. In the macro-context, the military industrial complex in the West being played out like a game in other places. It all relates back to the stories we tell and the narratives that media and society construct that just cages and traps. The problem is that drones are so fun to shoot with.
Filmmaker: You mentioned you were working on a feature?
Al-Maria: I’ve been developing it for a few years with BFI and Film4. It’s called The Marina. It’s a solarized noir, which I jokingly made up to describe how terror is in the whiteness and the brightness, not the dark. But I was writing about the blinding brightness and the disorienting reflective surfaces in the Gulf and linking them to colonialism and soft power and how race plays into all of that. So, it turned out not to be a joke and I kept it.