by Amin Matalqa
In June of 2013, my wife Claire, who was at the time the U.S. Liaison for the Royal Film Commission of Jordan, introduced me to Producer Dan Halsted, who was developing a film based on the novel A New Song, by Sarah Isaias. He was considering shooting in Jordan and looking for a director who was familiar with the country.
The book was a love story between an American Jewish doctor and an Arab poet who travel from San Francisco to England, Spain, Egypt and Jerusalem looking for an ancient poem that connects Islam and Judaism. Writer Terrel Seltzer had adapted this thriller steeped in religious history into a screenplay where the ancient poem was changed to an even more ancient missing Dead Sea Scroll.
To make the most of a limited film budget, I proposed setting 90 percent of the film in Jordan, making the two lead characters younger and adding some humor. We set out to make an old-fashioned homage to the classic mystery adventures, a romp with a backdrop of religious artifacts and a touch of Indiana Jones.
INVENTION OF DEAD SEA SCROLL
First discovered in 1946 by a Bedouin shepherd near the Dead Sea, the seven scrolls are some of the oldest surviving religious texts, written between 135 BC and 66 AD. For our story, we invented another scroll, one that was interpreted as a prophecy to bring the Armageddon, pitting our main characters against a group of fanatics bent on bringing on the End of Days.
But we didn’t have a movie until we found our stars. The tone completely relied on the dynamic between Rachel and Jake. Above all, this was Rachel’s story. When Casting Director extraordinaire Lindsey Weissmueller suggested Stana Katic for the role – I knew she was our Rachel. I was instantly struck by Stana’s radiant beauty, her clever wit and down-to-earth personality. She was in turn won over by the opportunity to play a character that has never touched a gun — unlike her Castle character, NYPD’s Captain Kate Beckett, who knows a thing or two about kicking butt.
We found her match in Raza Jaffrey, known for his work in Showtime’s Homeland and CBS’s Code Black. When Raza walked into the room, be brought that debonair charm we were looking for to complement Stana’s fiery attitude and effervescence.
In February 2015, executive producer Amanda Rohlke and I started scouting locations, casting locals and assembling our crew. Jordan played as much of a character in the film as our leads, but I wanted to first show the city of Amman and its metropolitan scope before dropping Jake and Rachel into the desert.
FILMING IN WADI RUM
Some of the locations I wanted to use were instantly obvious. We had to shoot in the magnificent ancient city of Petra and in the hypnotic desert of Wadi Rum, where David Lean filmed Lawrence of Arabia. The Bedouin locals in Rum helped us find the most interesting and practical spots to shoot. In Jordan’s budding film industry, the tribes are becoming film experts themselves.
I tried to incorporate local flavors whenever possible, including an encounter with a herd of goats, a Bedouin wedding caravan and an epic desert jeep chase.
One of the trickiest things was walking the fine line between drama, comedy, suspense, action, and back to drama while maintaining the romance. It all relied on the dynamic between Jake and Rachel. Stana and Raza arrived in Jordan a week before production, giving us a few days of rehearsal. We talked about the chemistry between Cary Grant and Katherine Hepburn, and about the jazzy interplay of 1960s movie stars. At the same time, we had to stay grounded in real stakes and believable danger to meet a modern audience’s expectation.
Jake and Rachel are constantly on the move in their hunt for the scroll, so we filmed at a new location every day or two, becoming a fast-moving circus with a compact schedule. The resources and locations we found in Jordan helped us turn this film into something bigger than what we thought we could afford. With the exception of the interrogation room and the morgue, everything was filmed in real locations. Even the Los Angeles hospital at the beginning of the film is actually a Jordanian hospital.
We filmed in Queen Alia International Airport for a day, and were generously granted access to a Boeing 787 Dreamliner from Royal Jordanian Airlines.
ONE OF THE NEW SEVEN WONDERS OF THE WORLD
One of the New Seven Wonders of the World, the ancient city of Petra is a location in which I have long dreamt of filming. The authorities granted us carte blanche to film anywhere in the city, so we were able to use the narrow pathways of the Siq, Petra’s main entrance, to film our climactic chase.
Our last 10 days of filming were in the majestic desert of Wadi Rum. In addition to Lawrence of Arabia, the red shades of this desert have made it a lucrative double for Mars in movies like Red Planet, Mission to Mars, and Ridley Scott’s The Martian. In fact, although we did not know it at the time, the romantic scene where Jake and Rachel sit alone at night is in the exact same spot where Matt Damon’s character sits reflecting on his life before finally leaving Mars.
The Royal Film Commission led us to an abandoned “fort” built by a French production for a TV game show. It was the ideal location for us to set up base camp and shoot the bunker interrogation and escape scenes, which were among the most challenging in the film. Jake is getting beaten up by a muscular goon, Rachel is facing off with Lisbeth, the villain, and a little boy with a gun delivers one of my favorite performances in the film. The balancing act of comedy, action, suspense and drama all came to a head in this one scene.
After filming the beginning and end of the film in Los Angeles, beginning work with our wonderful Editor, Sasha Dylan Bell, and my longtime collaborator, Composer Austin Wintory, was a joy. We recorded the film’s score in Denver with the Colorado Symphony Orchestra along with some playful jazz piano to accompany Rachel’s investigation. For the mysterious scroll and the Armageddonites seeking it, he wrote an eerie theme for cello and saxophone. Austin surprised me with his end-credits suite, which incorporates a full orchestral arrangement of a theme I wrote, “Claire de Claire,” for my wife before we got married.