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An interview with Sena Tunali ("Zumrut")

1) Sena, congratulations on winning the Honorable Mention: Drama Screenplay. Before we talk about the project and the inspirations for it, we'd like to get to know you a bit better! Originally from Bulgaria, can you tell us a bit about your background, moving to the US, and what makes you fascinated by the art of storytelling?

I am originally from all over. Because of my dad's jobs, we always had to travel in between countries. My aunt was living in DC already when we immigrated to the US. Later we become citizens of the US. I am a concert pianist and started playing when I was a little kid. Music, Film, Theater, Art, all of them are amazing ways of telling stories. Till my high school age, I spent most of my time telling stories with piano in concerts around the world. However, I always had filmmaking and theater in my heart. Somehow, I felt half only with music to tell a story. I needed other forms of art makings to feel full at my heart. The art of Filmmaking fascinated me the most because it contains all forms of art in it at some point. Music and moving pictures of amazing things on a silver screen are more than fascinating. The sound, the music, the pictures, the people, and the places that the pictures are unfolding all together. Isn't it marvelous?

2) Where do you usually find your inspiration?

True stories inspire me the most. Family, true love, and history inspires me the most.

3) Alongside writing, producing, directing, and acting, you also usually compose the scores for your films. You've got a solid background in music, graduated from Vienna Music Academy and Bilkent Faculty of Music and Performing Arts as a professional concert pianist back in 2007. What is your approach to film scoring, and how is it different from composing other types of music?

I think the only difference between composing for film and composing other types of music: when you only compose music, you have the story in your head unless you have lyrics for it. It is more based the imagination without the image. However, when you compose for film scoring, there is an image in front of you unfolding a story. And looking at the moving pictures makes you feel something inside, which drives you to compose the type of music that works for that particular scene. I am so thankful that I had that musical education because now I can utilize that knowledge in the art of filmmaking and film scoring. My education in the field of music does not help compose music only. Sometimes, I use other music or effects and place them on the moving picture. That adds powerful nuances to the image, and I love it. It is more of the post-production part of a film, but I can’t help it. I find myself next to my editor and bugging him :D :D Then I find myself editing the whole project :D :D

4) What drove you to write Zumrut?

Everything started with curiosity about our family origins. I was writing about my family and its origins already. Interestingly, we researched coincidently and started to ask. The differences we see on the map about the family origins were incredibly different than what we have listened to for many years. As we kept on asking, the response from the other side was rather rude and hesitant. The family who raised Zumrut were avoiding answering any questions. That is human nature: when someone hides something from you, you inevitably dive deeper to find what's hidden. As we kept on researching, more truth came to the surface. We learned we listened lies all those years. I had to change everything that I had written before. I had to replace my notes with the new ones about the news discoveries. Later on, I turned all my notes into a film script. As we kept discovering, I added all to my film script.

And the most interesting part is it was not shocking for us. Because Zumrut grew up hearing people telling, "you don't belong to this family." The way they look is so different, and the way they treat us is never like family at all. After we found and made the necessary discoveries, we came to a point where nothing was helpful to find Zumrut's mother (in this case, my mother's side biological grandmother). Our hands are tied, and there is no other research left to make. We stopped up with a piece of knowledge on a Greek mother. I will turn Zumrut Script into a feature-length film. It will be our message to my grandmother. This way, she can watch it wherever she is in the world. And recognize the story eventually contact us. Making "Zumrut" a film as a message is our only hope to find her.

5) The story opens in a dramatic way, when a Greek mother hands her little baby to Katya, a Bulgarian nurse. Katya refuses to take the baby, but the Greek woman puts the baby in her arms and runs away. This is an excellent opening scene that presents the ultimate conflict. The Greek mother doesn't have a choice. She MUST give away her baby. On the other hand, the Bulgarian nurse doesn't want the baby. She MUST NOT take the baby ("I can not take your baby. It's illegal!"). For you, what is the best way to create conflict between characters?

The best way to create conflict between characters in my case (for Zumrut) was to write down what really happened. The story was right in front of me with all the antagonists and the protagonists. Honestly, I didn't use very much effort to place the characters on the script. Everything and everybody belongs to where they are. It is a period piece drama that is inspired by a true story. And the story tells it all, then the characters unfold.

6) When Zumrut celebrates her 5th birthday, we learn that she doesn't speak, which makes the reader relate to her character. The fact that her sister, Metanet, is mean to her ("I don't even know why you exist in this world"), makes us feel compassion for Zumrut. What are the qualities that made you connect to her character, and what do you think makes her so special?

The quality that makes me connect the most to Zumrut's character is that there is a big unfairness going on. I personally can not stand unfairness, especially in family matters. Every child deserves to live with their parents. It's their right by birth. And someone taking away that right for their own well-being is unbelievably frustrating. There are so many children kidnapped or used for human trafficking. Terrible things they see and live create enormous amounts of sadness in the collective consciousness of the human race. And I believe even one kid is unhappy, crying, that could affect the whole world's well-being and destiny. Children are our future. And we, today's people, should create a happy place to live for our children. That's why Zumrut character is very special and vulnerable to me because she is an unhappy kid. Zumrut being out of the path of her destiny affected her whole life and the people around her. I am sure it affected the collective consciousness very much as well.

7) A letter on the doorstep disrupts the family's routine. Moments later, Zumrut is in a coma. There seems to be no shortage of moments in the script - and many scenes take an unexpected turn. Tell us about your writing process. Do you prepare an orderly outline and work according to it, or do you let the characters lead the story?

I had an outline before. There is a time chronology of events, and I tried to stick with it. But later, I realized that trying to stick with the outline emotionally pulls me away from the story itself. Then I decided to let the characters lead the story. Because the way they acted created the events. It is like life. Pretty much the unexpected happens all the time in life, like the unexpected turns in the script.

8) Where do you see yourself in ten years? Would you continue to work in multiple fields, or are you hoping to focus on writing and directing?

I see myself with all my family members, including my mother's side grandparents. We reunited and are happily living together. I love acting, producing, and directing the most. I am sure in ten years I will be doing the same with an Oscar and Bafta awards added on my awards corner at home :) :)

9) What is your dream project, what's your role, who is starring in it, and what's the concept?

My dream project is Zumrut now. Finding my family members is the biggest dream of mine. Finding where I belong and where I come from is my everything. Now I am living half missing most of who I really am with the absence of my family members. In Zumrut, I will be playing my grandmother. Almost everybody says I have the same eyes as hers. I would love Viggo Mortensen and Bette Midler to be in our cast.

10) What's next for you and what's next for Zumrut?

I started writing Zumrut 2 and Zumrut 3. As the family is in a new country and their journey does not end yet. Zumrut will go through loads of more sad events. After shooting the Zumrut 1st, I will be shooting Zumrut 2. The journey won't stop till we find my grandmother :)

11) Throughout your carer, you've won many awards and coped with many challenges. What is your advice for young filmmakers who wish to follow in your footsteps?

I attended to New York Film Academy over in Los Angeles. Such a great school. Great hands-on experience. So happy that I was part of it and learned a lot directly from the Hollywood professionals. I educated myself as well. I read many books about filmmaking. I also worked a lot on film sets. In more than 40 short films, I acted in it plus, many film sets I worked in different positions. First, I started as a Production Assistant then moved upwards towards "Above the Line" jobs, including directing and producing. In the art of filmmaking, hands-on experience is the most precious of all is all I can say to the young filmmakers. Hands-on experience plus reading books or educating yourself for anything about filmmaking helps a lot. Learning never stops.

12) Where can our readers follow more of your work?

They can follow my IMDB profile, Instagram, Linkedin profile, and Youtube Channel to see more of my works.


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