The Journey to Making The Swimmers with Sally El Hosaini, Matthias Schweighöfer, Manal Issa & Nathalie Issa

This week, Giles Alderson & Dom Lenoir welcome writer/director Sally El Hosaini and part of the cast of her latest film The Swimmers – Matthias Schweighöfer, Manal Issa and Nathalie Issa.

Choosing Projects

Sally says ‘it’s so hard to make a film. You spend years of your life putting everything into it. I become obsessive about what I’m doing, so I have to choose carefully because it has to be something that I’ll want to jump out of bed every morning and embrace for years of my life.’

She doesn’t want to make anything that she’s seen before. It needs to be new and exciting and challenging. ‘I love being a bit scared of a project and thinking, I don’t know how I’m going to do it.’

The Swimmers

After declining two previous Working Title scripts, Sally’s agent, Matthew, requested that she read The Swimmers and then meet with them to discuss why she wouldn’t be doing the film. They were both convinced that it wouldn’t happen because Sally was so focused on her own film. But this one was different.

‘I told them that I’d take a week to read it because I was trying to get to the end of a rewrite, but I ended up picking it up – I read it through very quickly and I just knew I had to do it. It was mainly because I had known about Yusra when she was in the news at the Rio Olympics, and I thought this is a feel-good underdog story.

Approaching that story, I found out about Sarah and realised that she was an unsung hero and Yusra couldn’t have got there if it wasn’t literally on the back of Sarah.’

Telling the Story

‘Jack Thorne had constructed a structure that was really solid. Early on in the script, it started with the crossing and flashed back and I remember when I was being interviewed, I said this story’s so amazing, let’s not mess it up by trying to be clever filmmakers.’

Sally wanted to tell the story in a linear way. ‘Jack realised that I had a lot to say and so I ended up co-writing with him. He was open to that and welcoming and it was a real collaboration.’

In an earlier draft, there was less focus on the Syrian section. The script was also all in English, something that Sally felt passionate about changing. 

‘I wanted to set up the world authentically in Arabic. And then as they travelled on the journey, they flipped to English, which is very realistic to the bilingual experience. Sometimes they’ll have conversations in English because it’s too painful in Arabic. It was very intuitive, that flip between the languages of when it needed to be English and when it needed to be Arabic.’

Making it Authentic

Sally wanted ‘Arabic speakers for the core cast. I was focusing on that and looking for young Syrian women. We began focusing on those in Syria and those who’d left.’

But due to refugee statuses and mountains of paperwork, they realised that it would be impossible to film in their main locations. She had more success expanding her search to The Levant ‘because that’s the closest dialect to Arabic. Looking at actors from that region and across the broader Arab world.’

Sally made contact with Hassan Akkad, a Syrian refugee living in the UK, who had filmed his own journey. She asked if he could help to translate the film – making it more authentic and making the language more accurate to people from Syria.

He shared his footage from his journey, and photos of where he lived, and he worked with actors to perfect their Syrian Arabic.

Recreating The Crossing

‘We didn’t want to get the actors comfortable with the crossing. I cast a lot of refugees as dinghy supporting artists. And so there were people who’d taken the journey themselves who were in that dinghy. That was important to me and for the authenticity of the piece.’

There was always a sense of this very real situation. They had two days to shoot the crossing, on a dinghy with 25 people, including children. 

They were out at sea, at the mercy of the waves. There were safety measures in place, but ‘people couldn’t stop and use the loo. People couldn’t take five minutes because the waves were knocking everyone about. When you see the actors vomiting, they really are vomiting. It was really raw, but it feels authentic. All the actors in that dinghy went on as individuals and they got off that boat as a family.’

Casting

Manal was contacted for the role but initially refused because she doesn’t know how to swim. ’And I’m scared of films about refugees because there are a lot of films about refugees that are not what happens, they’re really sensational.’

Sally contacted her to chat about the role and she ‘accepted the film because of the vision she had and because of how she wanted to speak about these girls.’

Nathalie, who was doing her Master’s when she was asked about being in the film, initially refused because of her studies. She then changed her mind and ‘went to London for an audition and screening tests. The more I was involved in the script and talking to Sally, the more I wanted to do the movie. I took a year off my course.’

Matthias met the real sisters in 2016 at an awards show and ‘was impressed by the story. I thought someone needs to make a film out of this. And then five years later, Sally called me and said we’re doing a film called The Swimmers and I said can I play the coach?’

Working with Sisters

‘It was a really interesting process because Yusra and Sarah are sisters and Nathalie and Manal are sisters; and sometimes it was pretty intense and interesting because I just watched these girls being sisters.’

It was easy to work with them because they knew each other so well. Manal was pushing Nathalie and Nathalie was pushing Manal. Sally did a great job leading them through the whole experience.’

First Acting Job

It was Nathalie’s first ‘big thing’ and she found the experience amazing. Especially working with Sally, who was looking after her at every step.

‘She was trusting and she was always looking after me. She was sensitive toward me, maybe because it was my first project, so I felt really comfortable with her. She was leading me in a really good way. If she saw me struggling or if I wanted to tell her something, she was directing me in a very good way.’

Representing Arabs in Hollywood

Manal started acting in France with a Lebanese director ‘and with each director I learned what I wanted to do as an actress. I know that I can’t do a role just to do a role. I need it to be important in my life at the time.’

In the beginning, Manal wasn’t happy with the Western interpretation of the situation in the Middle East but found that Jack was very supportive in adapting the script to be more genuine.

‘At the beginning, it was also very weird for me to speak in English but Sally didn’t really have a choice. It’s because of the marketing of Netflix Originals.’ They determined the percentage of Arabic and English that needed to be used in the film.

‘Every day we were meeting with Sally to portray, in a real way, how Arabs are; because in Hollywood there’s always the wrong image. We never watch the films that Hollywood makes about Arabs, and it’s important for us, as actors, to show who we are. It’s our responsibility.’

To find out more about The Swimmers, listen here.

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