Commerce Township resident Sam Kadi, 37, is making his own movie magic right here in Michigan. Kadi came to Michigan from Syria and soon discovered that his passion was bringing stories to life on the big screen. After graduating from the Motion Picture Institute of Michigan, Kadi went on to produce a series of short films ranging from fictional to stories based in local school systems in southeast Michigan to help raise funds. His films have been viewed across the state and even in other parts of the world at different film festivals. Now, with his production company, Samer K Production (samkproduction.com) firmly in tow, Kadi is embarking on his most ambitious project yet, “The Citizen,” a feature-length film about a Lebanese immigrant coming to America just before 9/11. Kadi spoke to the Spinal Column Newsweekly about his journey in filmmaking, what is happening in his homeland, and his thoughts about the cuts in Michigan’s film incentives.
SCN: We understand that you just finished production on your new film, “The Citizen.” Please tell us about the premise of this film and what you hope that people take from the experience? How much of this film was made in Michigan and what did it mean to you as a Commerce Township resident to bring attention to your home state?
SK: The Citizen is basically about a Lebanese man who wins a green card lottery and arrives in New York the day before 9/11 to collect his citizenship, and we’re taking his journey all the way from that day all the way until our current day. It’s a movie about an immigrant journey of hope, struggle and success.
I would rather let people make their own conclusions on the film, but in a nutshell I think that this film is really talking about understanding each other when talking about the American dream and what people sacrificed and contributed to become citizens. It’s a very patriotic film and we have such a unique story that’s never been tackled from that angle and we hope that people like it. It’s actually inspired by true events, so I can’t call it an actual event because some of the stories are true and some of them are inspired by other stories that we actually adapted for dramatic reasons, and a portion of it is fiction, as well. We’re hoping for a theatrical release early next year in 2012.
This movie was shot about 95 percent in Michigan. There was a small portion that was shot in New York. I’m grateful. I’m always striving to bring production to Michigan. This is not my first movie here, I’ve done several shorts in Michigan. It’s just a unique state and the diversification is amazing. I always try to bring jobs here.
I think we have what it takes, especially with the film incentives going on right now. It makes it very tempting for any producers to shoot here and we’re fighting hard to keep this incentive in the state to bring more work and more business to the area.
SCN: What inspired you to become a filmmaker and who are the filmmakers you like to model yourself after?
SK: It’s a passion, basically. A filmmaker is a storyteller and it’s all about the way you tell your story, your vision, and I think it’s something people see in you when you’re a kid but you wait for the right moment and the right opportunity and the right timing to execute it.
It took a little time for me until I found the right place and the right school and pursue my dream. It’s very exciting and you have to be very passionate. It’s not for everybody because it gets very frustrating. It’s a journey in itself.
It’s a different kind of business. An independent filmmaker has to be everything — writer, producer and director, and someone who understands management to put your movie together. You have to know most of these traits to be able to execute a movie.
There are a lot of filmmakers I’m inspired by — Ridley Scott and Steven Spielberg and his vision. We have so many great filmmakers in this country. They always strive to do the best and they have a great vision and great movies that we all remember and we always look forward to watching.
SCN: We also understand that you’re originally from Syria. Please tell us about life in that country and how you found your way to the United States. How did you get adjusted to life in the states as an immigrant? Have you been following the protests happening in Syria and what are your feelings on the reports of protesters being killed?
SK: Actually, it’s was a peaceful place back then, especially (compared to) right now with what the country is going through. It’s basically a place where I went to school to when I was young and I have a lot of great memories over there.
When I came to the U.S., I came as a theatrical actor and writer, so I brought my play here to this country. I definitely enjoy this country and it’s a blessing to be in America, the land of freedom. I was in my 20′s when I came here, about 25. I came straight to Michigan and I’ve been here for a while. I have a family here and I don’t want to go anywhere. I love it here.
I think if there is a country where you can really feel like you belong to as an immigrant, it’s the U.S. Adjusting is always challenging. The language is always challenging when you come in and you start communicating with people, and it takes time and it’s not an easy thing. But what’s great about people in this country, especially with people here in Michigan, is they’re so used to immigrants and it’s a melting pot. This is what the U.S. is all about — it’s a country of immigrants. So when you come in here, you don’t feel you’re a stranger. People welcome you with open arms and work with you and try to help you out.
Adjustment was quick. The style of living is definitely different from overseas back in Syria. It took a little bit of time, but if you’re determined and this is what you want, you can do it.
(What’s happening currently in Syria) is very sad and I hope for those people. I definitely support them 100 percent. When people call for change, it’s time for it and what’s happening over there definitely has to stop. All these people in the street are calling for a new era for themselves and I hope everybody stands by them.
SCN: You originally started as a theater writer before attending the Motion Picture Institute of Michigan. After graduation, how were you able to get your foot in the door as far as the film industry is concerned?
SK: I started with a short film. The school opens up doors for you as far as getting you connected and telling you how to do things. You have to graduate with a film or something.
After that point, it’s a matter of how aggressive and how determined you are, and I started with a short film that made it to the Cannes Film Festival in France and it was successful and it picked up distribution.
I made promotional films that were very successful, too. My recent short film “Raised Alone” was really my calling card. The movie won eight awards and had six other nominations and traveled the world, and it was a great journey with this movie.
So basically if you want to put yourself on the map, you have to make something that people like and can see something different in you than others. You have to be determined and passionate and the doors will start to open up for you.
SCN: You also have your own production company, Samer K Production. Tell us how you formed it and what the challenges are in running your own company? With the recent cuts in the film incentives by Gov. Rick Snyder, do you feel that filmmaking can still thrive in the state of Michigan?
SK: I formed it right after the incentive came out and I thought it was time right now to really form a company and make movies. So I went ahead. There weren’t many challenges.
The movie business is strange. When you start writing and doing your own thing it’s a very small operation. When you go into post-production, it’s a humongous operation and so many people are involved.
It’s a cycle. It’s not like your 8-to-5 job, it’s a different type of job and it is exciting for these people who work in it. They work very, very hard for 2 to 3 months, then they take a break for 2 to 3 weeks to a month.
For me, I felt it was time for myself to have a company and to establish things. I wouldn’t really think of it’s as challenging, it’s the best environment to have business in the U.S. Sometimes it’s hard to maintain, but it’s been going good after Samer K Production. We’re moving forward and hopefully we keep making movies and keep everybody busy, including myself.
(Without the film incentives), filmmaking cannot survive the same way when they first came out. (Gov. Snyder’s) cuts are basically throwing a lot of people under the bus, and one of them almost was our movie. Our movie was almost moved to a different state, but when Gov. Granholm started this incentive, there was a great hope that this industry was going to be built right in this state and it was going to take time. A baby has to crawl before it starts walking and we thought in about five years it was going to be in there so studios can start establishing themselves, and infrastructures could be in there. All of a sudden, the new governor comes and decides he wants to cap it at $25 million dollars and that was a shock for everybody. At $25 million dollars, that’s nothing in filmmaking. That would be for one film.
Right now, there’s a movie “OZ” directed by Sam Raimi, a great director, a Michigander, and he’s bringing in about $200 million dollars with his project. We’re talking about a 40 percent incentive that’s way over $25 million dollars, and it’s only one project.
So this is a huge industry and it feeds a lot of families and it generates a lot of cash for the state. The hope was much bigger, and we were really excited about it.
I think this past year, we were ranked one of the three best cities to shoot movies in. I think we were right there with L.A. and New York.
It’s not just about creating jobs and making the state look better. There are so many things and so many elements. When this cut showed up, it didn’t make us look serious and made the state look like we can’t sustain a job and Hollywood and the other big movies started walking away.
I still like the big productions. They hire so many people and businesses and they put a lot of money on the table in about two to three months, spending hundreds of millions of dollars.
I always say we can compromise, we can change things. It’s been there almost about three years or so, so we can change the bill a little bit, but gradually. You cannot all of a sudden cut it or stop it. This is sending the wrong signal to everyone in the film business all over the U.S. and this is not what we want. Michigan needs a new industry and not just one, but several industries and this is one of importance. So we’re disappointed, but we’re still working with people who are putting a lot of effort towards putting a new bill out there and hopefully it will go through and bring the cap up to something reasonable and it keeps the jobs here.
SCN: Your first works consisted of not only fictional short films such as ‘Why Me?” and “Schizophrenia,” but also films such as “I Belong” and “Your Choice” that take place in schools and tells stories of different students. Why did you choose to shine a spotlight on education in those films?
SK: It’s all about education. If you’re a family man and you have kids and you want your kids to be raised in the right way, you always have to try to help education. I thought this was a great venue for filmmaking that not a lot of people touched on. I was asked to help these schools, raise funds and work with them and try to make something for them and promote for them, and I did. It was actually very successful and kept me busy for awhile because these schools were able to raise a lot of money, not just because of the movies that I made, but that they motivated people to put more money forward …
People are bored of speeches, they want to see a picture, a nice picture on the screen. They want to be emotionally charged. You’re trying to tell them in 10 minutes or 60 minutes, give them the whole story, why we should be a part of this school system.
I thought it was very important and it was my responsibility — if I live in the county or live in the city, if they need help to do something like this, then yes, why not. So I’m actually proud of these promotional films.
SCN: What does it mean to you to see your films receive numerous accolades and screenings at prestigious film festivals across the state, as well as in New York and at the Cannes Film Festival? What are your ultimate goals as a filmmaker?
SK: It’s actually a blessing and this is the payoff, I feel, for hard work. I know how hard it is. If a film doesn’t win in a festival, it doesn’t mean that it’s not a good film or my film isn’t a better film than someone else’s. There has to be so many elements that come together in order to win an award, to be recognized among great filmmakers and to win best film or best screenplay. It definitely feels great and it’s the greatest payoff for any filmmaker, just getting the recognition as far as his work, because it’s not just his work, there are so many people involved and we feel as filmmakers that we carry this responsibility to present the best possible product and put it on the table. And all these people that work with you, 50 or 100 people, they’re waiting on the final product. An actor, he comes to the set and leaves and moves to a different project, but he doesn’t really know how the film will look like in the end, so as a filmmaker, this is your responsibility. So when you win an award, that means you basically did a great job with it and that’s the result of everybody’s work and you’re happy that people believe in you and it paid off.
Basically, (my goals as a filmmaker are) to develop a better understanding of each other, to build a cultural bridge between cultures. That’s my mission and this is always what I strive for.
Like the movie we’re making right now, I think it’s such a unique story that really emphasizes a lot on how we should really know each other so we don’t fear each other. This world is big enough for everybody regardless of color, religion or any other thing, so I think movies are a great medium to show people to open eyes and bring awareness. That’s what I want to get out of my movie, when I attach myself or my life for three, four or five years to work on a movie. I would like people to get something out of it and to really stick in their mind and to stay for the history and I think that’s what I always try to do.
We have a great cast in “The Citizen,” a very international cast and these people came together just because of the story, because they felt it was important to work on, even if its for half of what they (usually) get paid because they feel the importance of these types of stories.
We lack this kind of drama in our theater nowadays, so I always want to give people something they’ll remember.
SCN: If an aspiring filmmaker came up to you and asked for advice, what would you tell that person? How can our readers find your films if they want to see them?
SK: Surround yourself with professionals, people who motivate you. Anybody who tries to tell you that it’s hard and you cannot do it, you don’t even want to be around these people. You want to isolate yourself from this group. You want to be with a group that is professional and is always motivated because this type of business can be very harsh and very hard and it’s tiring.
When we go to the shoot, I tell people I’m going to work. You work about 16 hours a day for two months, day after day. It’s very tiring and if you’re not determined and you’re not so passionate … you will fail.
You need professionals around you to basically help you out and guide you in the right direction, so I always tell people surround yourself with professionals.
It doesn’t hurt if you’re the least experienced guy on the set. You learn from others. Don’t let your ego get in your way.
“Schizophrenia” is on IndieFlix.com, “Raised Alone” hasn’t been distributed — after winning awards we decided to turn it into a feature film, so we actually held off on it, but the trailer is on our website.
“The Citizen,” we’re hoping to have it theaters soon. It’s going to have it’s own website and Facebook page and we’ll keep everyone posted until the movie comes out.