Sheila Jayadev quit law to focus exclusively on producing when Ali's Wedding came along
Sheila Jayadev is passionate about telling diverse stories and has written and directed various short form productions that have screened at film festivals in Australia and internationally. As her latest film, Ali’s Wedding, has its national release, we caught up with her to learn all about the film’s production.
Can you tell us a bit about your pathway to becoming a feature film producer?
My career in the film industry began through entertainment law. I practised as a lawyer for about seven years with Nina Stevenson and Greg Sitch’s law firm, all the while making short films. Being an entertainment lawyer was a fantastic training ground in terms of learning about the financing and contracting side of producing, and it also introduced me to many experienced producers – including Matchbox Pictures. I stopped practising law and turned to focus exclusively on producing when Ali’s Wedding went into pre-production in 2015. Other major milestones in my pathway included studying producing at AFTRS, where I met Lyn Norfor and Prue Williams, with whom I started Emerald Productions, and doing a placement at Scott Free through Screen Australia’s Talent Escalator program. There were many steps along the way and it took about 10 years to get to this place of releasing my first feature film.
How did you come to be working on Ali’s Wedding?
I was working with Matchbox as their Business Affairs Manager but they knew my passion lay in producing. So when Tony Ayres brought Ali’s Wedding onto the slate, the Matchbox producers asked if I’d like to be involved as an Associate Producer. I have a specific interest in diverse stories so it seemed like a good fit. That was back in 2009. And over the years they gradually bumped me up to Co-Producer and then ultimately Producer as a co-production with Emerald Productions. It was a fantastic way to hone my skills over many years and learn from some of the best creatives in the Industry.
What was your motivation to work on this film?
So many reasons. The people involved; I wanted to move into producing with the Matchbox producers. Then there was the charismatic Osamah Sami – an exciting, one-of-a-kind talent and a fresh voice. And of course, there was the privilege of watching the brilliant Andrew Knight, the co-writer craft a screenplay.
On a story level, Ali’s Wedding was really important – here was a feel-good comedy set entirely in a Muslim Arabic community. It was an opportunity to do something new and original, but also make a film that was socially, culturally and politically important for all the obvious reasons. It means a lot to me to put my efforts into projects that may help break down barriers and encourage empathy and understanding in the crazy world we live in.
Ali’s Wedding has a lot of precarious elements jumbled together — Muslim family drama, rom-com hijinks. How did you balance the various elements of the film and did you get the result you wanted?
There were many times in development and even through to the edit where we were thinking – is there too much going on, do we need to streamline? But there were strong arguments to keep every scene and subplot; it’s part of the beauty of the screenplay and a testament to Andrew and Osamah that they have weaved together all these elements so beautifully and delicately. Every scene was important to set something up that was paid off later, or was otherwise important to character. And ultimately, this was all part of Osamah’s incredible life and that’s part and parcel of the film’s tone – it’s chaotic and colourful and a wild ride. Director Jeff Walker managed to balance all this and bring home the emotion to achieve the heartfelt comedy we were aiming for.
Ali's Wedding has been billed as Australia's first Muslim rom-com. It's a tag mainstream Australian audiences haven’t really heard before. Can you share your thoughts about that tag?
That tag has really caught on with the media and it does give us a point of difference; there’s been lots of inter-racial or inter-faith romantic comedies, but none that I know of in Australia where both the hero and heroine are Muslim. So it’s a terrific angle to highlight the originality of the film and announce that we are bringing something new to Australian cinema. But it’s interesting because we never really described it as a romantic comedy during development – we referred to it as a comedy-drama or a “comedy with heart” as the father-son storyline is quite important and gives the film some of its most emotional and dramatic moments. Highlighting the romance through this billing does help emphasise that this is an accessible, entertaining and universal love story.
The film, which had its World Premiere at Sydney Film Festival in June, was a festival highlight. Do you think mainstream audiences are willing to embrace a story about a Muslim immigrant, in which there is hardly a white character in sight?
Time will tell. That’s our dream. I have no doubt that once people see it, they will embrace it. We just need to get that mainstream audience through the door. And where there is so much competition out there, that’s not an easy goal for a smaller budget film. So we very much hope that the word of mouth catches on.
One of the film’s strengths is the romance between Ali and Dianna. The chemistry between the lead actors is very charming – both Osamah Sami and Helena Sawires make irresistible leads. It’s rare for a feature to cast two relative unknowns in the top billing. Can you talk us through your casting for the film and why you wanted fresh faces?
Casting authentically and as close as possible to the scripted cultural backgrounds was always our aim, the story demands this and I think audiences are now much more savvy about casting. We didn’t set out to cast fresh faces, it’s just that there haven’t been many lead roles for actors from this cultural background in Australian film, so the result is we have a really exciting ensemble with many new faces. And I think Osamah and Helana are a great example of how striving for authenticity in casting can pay off – their chemistry is indeed one of the great strengths of the film. They land the love story in a way that still gives me shivers after watching the film 100 times. I remember watching them joking around between takes, doing funny voices in Arabic – they had their little in-jokes. That bonding they were doing through a shared cultural understanding was really cool to watch and it translated on screen.
Outside of Australia what is your distribution plan?
We are working with German sales agent Beta Cinema who have been fantastic partners. They hope to launch at a festival in the near future, off the back of what we pray is a solid opening in Australia!
What else are you working on now?
Emerald is working on a slate of debut features with some exciting female directors which we hope to be in production or late stage financing on next year. I’m working on the development of producing Matchbox Pictures’ feature film slate and I’d love to ultimately produce one of them. I’m also really excited to be working with Osamah on his next two projects – a wonderful feature animation and an adaptation of his memoir Good Muslim Boy.
Ali’s Wedding is out in Australia now: http://www.madmanfilms.com.au/alis-wedding/