Self-distribution key to getting 'David & Layla' in theaters

KurdishCinema.com - December 20,  2007

By Martin A. Grove *

"David" discussion: Thanks to digital cameras and editing software almost anyone can
make a movie today.

What's harder to do is taking on the bigger
challenges of self-distribution as Jay
Jonroy is doing with his political romantic
comedy "David & Layla." Written, produced
and directed by Jonroy in his feature debut,
it stars David Moscow (the young Tom
Hanks in 1988's "Big"), Shiva Rose, Callie
Thorne, Peter Van Wagner and Polly
Adams. The R-rated film is being released
through Jonroy's NEWROZ Films in Los
Angeles and select markets today and will
expand throughout August and thereafter.

Jonroy, who now holds dual American and
British citizenship, was born in southern Kurdistan and became a stateless exile as a
teenager. He went on to study and work in London, San Francisco, Los Angeles, Rio, Paris
and New York, aspiring from an early age to become a filmmaker. Along the way in Paris
he met Alwand Jaff -- they married in 1990 -- who had recently escaped from Saddam
Hussein's Baghdad.

"David" is based on a story Alwand told him about having met a man a few years earlier on
a flight to San Francisco to attend a Kurdish wedding in Northern California. They were
smitten with one another and it all seemed too good to be true until they discovered before
landing that she was Kurdish and Muslim and he was Jewish. The David and Layla
characters in Jonroy's movie face a similar predicament. David, while taping an episode of
his access cable show "Sex & Happiness," meets Layla, a Middle Eastern dancer and
Kurdish Muslim refugee, and winds up falling madly in love with her.

The fact that he's already engaged to another woman is a big problem, but not the biggest
problem for David, who's Jewish and has very traditional and devoted parents. Neither
David's parents nor Layla's radical Muslim uncle -- her family was killed in Iraq by Saddam
-- are happy with their relationship. Nonetheless, love manages to find a way.



With a back story as interesting as this one, I was happy to be able to focus with Jonroy on
how he managed to get his film not only made but into theaters without having a distributor
behind it. "It's already tough enough to make an independent film and get it into festivals
and so on," he agreed. "What happened is this. My main co-producer is Gill Holland, who
(was formerly a) lawyer and has produced or executive produced over 50 independent
films. He's the one who suggested we show the film to Jeff Lipsky, the co-founder of
October Films (in 1992 with Bingham Ray) and after that Lot 47 (launched in 1999 with his
brothers Mark and Scott).

"Last year (there also was) a film distribution through Jeff Lipsky and that film was also
refused or (offered) very little money by the main distributors. So they decided to do self-
distribution and we sort of followed their example. Fortunately, Jeff Lipsky liked our film and
he took it on. We decided to go with him and since he had a big track record we managed
to raise money to go through him to do a self-distribution and stagger it over about a year,
which is what we are doing. We're doing a few markets at a time. The actual funding is
coming from a company called Films International Corp."

    "The strategy for the theatrical roll-out of 'David & Layla,'"
    explained Lipsky, the film's marketing and distribution
    director, "will be to open in two to three markets each week
    beginning July 20 -- specifically, markets whose
    demographics include robust numbers of Jews, Iranians,
    Persians, Iraqis and Kurds. For example, the New York
    Times ran a major news story just this week about the
    Kurdish population in Nashville, one of our first three
    markets.

    "We will also be selecting markets for early targeting where
    marketing costs are less expensive -- an oxymoron if there
    ever was one -- relative to the potential return in that locale for
    specialized and ethnic films, at least historically. By the end
    of a six month theatrical effort we expect 'David & Layla' will
play in over 100 cinemas. A list of all bookings can be found at the film's website (www.
davidandlayla.com). It is updated on a weekly basis."

When I asked Jonroy if before deciding to self-distribute his movie he had shown it to any
of the established distributors, he replied, "No, I didn't because I just knew that a comedy
with an unknown writer-director was not something that we would get the sort of funds that
we needed (to release). So absolutely no distributors saw this film at all. I know that the
other bigger film (that went looking) before us with bigger stars and a bigger budget was
(offered) peanuts and they went through self-distribution and they grossed almost $2
million."

While it didn't cost too much to make the film, Jonroy pointed out, "It depends what you
mean by too much. As you know, in independent films there's real cash and there is also a
lot of people like myself (who) for five years were not paid at all -- except the minimum
because I'm a Writers Guild member so the union forced me to be paid minimum pay,
which I put right back into post-production. So a lot of people like myself have not been
paid or (were paid) very little. If you add all those up it's (a budget that's) higher than $1
million." If the film's self-distribution goes well, of course, the deferred salaries will all be
paid.

"What's also important is that this is an American independent film," he said, "and the
Europeans and (others) overseas won't touch it unless it has much bigger stars. We have
a great, great cast, but they are not huge names and Europe and the rest of the world say,
'Let's see what it does in America.' So it's important to have theatrical distribution in this
country not only to be able to distribute it later in foreign markets, but also for (later release)
in DVD and cable. Those people don't give you much unless you've had theatrical
distribution. That's how we persuaded our investors that it was the right thing to do. Plus
we went to 21 international film festivals, including two in Israel, and the film got five
awards. As you know, the high brow film festivals and some critics don't appreciate
comedy even though every writer, director or actor will tell you that comedy is harder to
make, to direct and to act in because if a comedy doesn't work everybody knows."

With a drama, he added, "there's a bigger margin of error. In addition, we added romance
and to make romantic comedy work there's (got to be) sensual chemistry on screen.
Everybody knows about sensuality. If in editing we didn't think it worked on screen we'd
have had to throw the film away. So I think in a way we tackled a challenge mixing three
genres -- drama, comedy and romance. We know from the festivals in Europe (and
elsewhere) that the film works and that's what gave us the confidence to go through self-
distribution."

The film, he told me, was a very personal one for him: "In a way, I was stateless like Layla.
I was sent on a scholarship from Iraqi Kurdistan to study in London for five years. I was
always in love with music and photography and there definitely was no music school nor
photography let alone film school (in Iraq). I was strong in higher mathematics so my
scholarship was to study higher mathematics, but as soon as I graduated (with) my first
degree I got another scholarship to study (film) and the Iraqi Embassy refused to renew
my passport. I came via Paris to New York, the capital of independent film. That's
complicated because I also spent 10 years in California by being at UCLA Film School as
well as (studying) advanced screenwriting at USC. But since the first 16 years of my life
was in London, I felt more comfortable in Paris and now in New York.

"So when I moved to New York I felt this story, inspired by a real love story, (was one that) I
could make in New York, make in English, use the veils of comedy and romance to talk
about those personal tragedies. It's like a modern 'Romeo and Juliet' with the
backgrounds of David and Layla being Jewish and Muslim, carrying the baggage of war
and hate. I felt that we need comic relief and a love story because there are too many
images of war and devastation daily on television."

Jonroy finished writing the film's screenplay in June 2001: "Then my mother passed away
in my old home (town). So I went to visit my mother's grave. On the day I came back to
London 9/11 happened. Unfortunately, the script had to be shelved for a few months. In
January 2002 I took it out and rewrote it completely. Since then because of the unexpected
Iraq war and all the political background shifting so radically, I had to rewrite the script.
Normally, a great script has to be written 15 or 20 times. But with this one, after 30 I
stopped counting!"

One of the challenges Jonroy faced in making the film was shooting in the mosques he
needed for many scenes. "Every location in the film is real Manhattan and Brooklyn," he
said, "including mosques and temples, which were not easy (to obtain permission to
shoot in). Of all the mosques in Brooklyn, Manhattan and Queens -- there must be at least
20 -- only one of them gave us permission to go inside and shoot. So we had to have two
different versions of the script -- one we called 'M' for Muslim and one 'J' for Jewish -- to find
the temple at our price. And only one temple (agreed). Plenty of temples said yes, but they
wanted thousands of dollars for a one day and one night shoot. I had two personal
director's assistants -- one for the Muslim side and one for the Jewish side -- and they
were extremely helpful to finally secure one mosque. But on the day we arrived, on Sunday,
the scheduler forgot they had a school for kids so we had a two hour delay in getting to the
mosque.

"Then when we arrived -- and this is
another cultural difficulty -- they forgot the
faithful come five times a day. In our case,
four times because we didn't go at five in
the morning, which is when the faithful
come to pray. But for the rest of the four
times during that day's shoot in that
mosque every time they came in they
would stay for an hour and a half praying
by the time we did the lighting.
Unfortunately, we didn't do (one key scene
inside the mosque). That's a second
mosque that was shot two weeks later.
They would not let us in again. So we sent
our Muslim assistant to go and find a
Turkish mosque and we shot that scene
(there) and made it look like the same
mosque two weeks later."

Another key scene, he explained, "where
Layla gives David the kiss of life (mouth to
mouth resuscitation) at night when David
falls off a sort of 'Romeo and Juliet'
balcony -- he falls off a ladder (onto the
lawn in front of Layla's house after trying to
climb up to her window) -- that scene was (shot) three months later. We had to get five
actors back three months later to shoot that important scene without which the film would
really not work because that's the time Layla is forced to give David the kiss of life and we
see the Star of David (on a chain around his neck, so she now knows that he's Jewish).
She covers it (so no one else watching her save his life will see it). We shot like mad men
in New York. The first cut of the film was 178 minutes. Four or five takes is all you can do in
a film like this.

"For the wedding (scene) where we had 200 cast and crew we had two cameras. So for
seven days we had two cameras. We had a lot of night shoots and in the summer nights
are only eight hours. There's sunlight until 9 and by 4:30 or 5 (in the morning) the birds
start singing! So we had to cut 70 minutes out of the film. But it was not that (scene of Layla
and David) on the grass. We needed that so we had to spend $25,000 more (to reshoot it).
We had to beg these actors not to change their haircuts and not to change any facial (hair)
or there would be continuity problems."

There also was a major costume problem: "The beautiful red-green (sweater) that Layla is
wearing when she comes down on the grass was a designer (piece) that our costume
designer (Zulema Griffin) had borrowed because a star from Hollywood was wearing it. In
September the last piece was sold so we couldn't get that piece. This is independent
filmmaking and every day's a war. She had to go and buy white wool and duplicate the
colors and sew one from our digital photographs and make it look like the real thing she
was wearing. In the living room and downstairs when she runs in the shot from the
balcony overhead she was wearing a very visible red and green and yellow sweater and
that was a designer one costing about a thousand dollars.

"Unfortunately, my costume designer thought that we could always get it back. But they had
sold the last one. We tried from American Express to find out the owner, but it was
impossible. Eventually, she had to sew it from wool that she colored the same colors, but
we couldn't go too close with the camera because the stitching was (different). But she
was great. She actually sewed a designer-looking sweater with the same colors that
exactly matches on screen the real one that had been shot three months ago."

All told, it was a very fast shoot. "In Europe they said this will take a minimum of two
months to shoot and maybe 5 million Euros, which is like 6, 7 or 8 million dollars," Jonroy
said. "But the actual shooting schedule was exactly 19 days and four nights -- a total of 23."

Included were some tricky scenes done on a sailboat that look as though they were shot
from a second boat, but were not: "Hitchcock's famous saying was that he hated (to work
with) dogs, babies and boats. Why boats? He said it takes a long time to turn around
sailboats. We obviously had one boat. People think we hired two boats. We only shot on
one boat. And on that day, the captain said the Coast Guard (license) is for private (events)
like honeymoon couples and there can only be seven people maximum (on board) with
himself as the captain. So David and Layla are on the boat. That's two. Himself. That's
three. The soundman. That's four. The cameraman and (assistant). That's six. And I was
number seven. I was that day director, first assistant director, continuity, make-up (and so
on). And we shot it handheld with my great DP (Harlan Bosmajian) and it looks wonderful."

Summing up his film's message of hope, Jonroy said, "Let's try to live together. We proved
we can do it in L.A., in Brooklyn and in New York and in Europe. Hopefully, in the Middle
East like Europe we'll learn to live together. There were two world wars in Europe, let's not
forget. They had the Holocaust, the Inquisition and pogroms. They eventually worked it out
somehow. And you had the Civil War here (in America). At the time, there was bloodshed.
People say (peace in the Middle East) will never happen and that it's a fantasy. Well, of
course, it's a fantasy right now. But we can always dream."

* July 20, 2007 / Hollywood Reporter