How Andrea Riseborough's 'Luxor' Shot Inside Egypt's Ancient Ruins and Sites
After a rigorous 18 months of shooting ZeroZeroZero, Andrea Riseborough was supposed to have a few weeks off before starting Brandon Cronenberg’s Possessor, but once she received the script for Zeina Durra’s Luxor, those plans quickly changed. Set in Luxor, Egypt, Riseborough plays a physician named Hana, who retreats to a luxury hotel after being traumatized by her volunteer work near the Jordanian-Syrian border. Throughout the film, Hana reflects amid the ancient city’s various ruins, sites and monuments, many of which have never been captured on film.
“We had Egyptian producers because it was an Egyptian production as much as it was a British one. So we had the great privilege of not only going inside some of the tombs that only archaeologists had seen, but we were allowed to then capture it on film,” Riseborough tells The Hollywood Reporter. “The feeling and the preciousness of those moments was almost indescribable. And, yes, of course, we were all certainly on tenterhooks. When you take a film crew into an ancient Egyptian tomb, just that sentence alone sounds like a dreadful idea. We couldn’t shout too loud in those places, and we always had to be mindful of being very gentle with every step that we took.”
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With the coronavirus pandemic still in full effect around most of the world, Riseborough expects globetrotting projects like Luxor and ZeroZeroZero to become scarce for a while, but she does see a light at the end of the tunnel.
“There aren’t going to be many projects, certainly not projects like ZeroZeroZero, where we filmed in Morocco, Senegal, Calabria, all over Mexico and New Orleans," Riseborough says. "We were a moving beast. We had many tentacles, internationally. Projects like that are certainly going to be so difficult. But I don’t think it’s the end of that world in the sense that perhaps when we emerge from this, we’ll all be twice as hungry for that.”
In a recent conversation with THR, Riseborough explains the circumstances surrounding her last-minute decision to shoot Luxor in between ZeroZeroZero and Possessor. She also discusses what it’s been like to film four movies during a global pandemic.
Before we dive into Luxor, what’s it like to be working right now?
Well, basically, I’ve been working since the beginning of the pandemic, but there were about three or four months when I wasn’t working. I was in the middle of shooting a film called Geechee in the Dominican Republic when the pandemic hit, and that shut us down so we all flew back. That was in March, so then we resumed Geechee again in August/September. Unfortunately, it got shut down again for a different reason. [To Leslie] is now the fourth movie that I've worked on during the pandemic, which feels strange. It’s ever-changing as there’s more information found and we learn more about the virus and protocol changes. The guild’s white pages also change. It feels odd to be in the category of essential worker, which is basically how we’re allowed to make films during this time. As you know, the film industry is a huge part of the economy here in California. So it’s alienating, in a sense, because personally, you can’t touch people and see each other’s mouths. You can’t see which facial expressions people are making. (Laughs.) But at the same time, I just have huge gratitude for the fact that I’m able to make a living, and that everybody’s being so extraordinarily careful. And it’s funny. We can really throw anything at the film industry and it’s able to “pivot.” (Laughs.) I think there’s a lot of resilience in this industry, so people have very quickly become attuned to what they have to do to be able to keep working and are respectful of that.
Globetrotting projects such as ZeroZeroZero and Luxor, to a lesser extent, will probably become few and far between for a while. Thus, there’s now a lot of demand for virtual production technology or StageCraft, which is similar to what you used on Oblivion. Does working in that manner for the foreseeable future scare you at all?
I’m not scared of it at all. I thoroughly enjoy working, across the board. I think the wonderful thing about Luxor is that in this time, when we are feeling so solitary, you can spend two hours being transported to a completely different place. Of course, when we made the film, none of us could’ve anticipated how important that might be in the future. But I, too, share your worry, and it’s more than a worry; it’s a reality. There aren’t going to be many projects, certainly not projects like ZeroZeroZero, where we filmed in Morocco, Senegal, Calabria, all over Mexico and New Orleans. We were a moving beast. We had many tentacles, internationally. (Laughs.) Projects like that are certainly going to be so difficult. But I don’t think it’s the end of that world in the sense that perhaps when we emerge from this, we’ll all be twice as hungry for that. And I think, innately, humans crave connection with one another and they want to see it reflected in film.
So when did you shoot Luxor in relation to your other work?
So I was finishing ZeroZeroZero in Senegal, and I was sent Zeina’s [Durra] script for Luxor, perhaps two weeks before we wrapped that shoot up. ZeroZeroZero had been about a year-and-a-half long shoot. I also made different films while we were doing that shoot because we were shooting in so many places internationally. We’d also have to start up all over again every time we moved locations. So it was about two weeks before the end of ZeroZeroZero and the script came through, which was just so beautifully written. Then I watched Zeina’s first film, The Imperialists Are Still Alive!, which had such candor, wit and levity, and was such a unique way to explore conflict. Zeina is very interested in exploring conflict from different perspectives. So Luxor is very much a film about the fallout of war and how it affects people personally, and therefore, the communities around them. We explore this trauma that Hana is attempting to live through after the fact, and I think Zeina touches on that very human experience with Hana. She’s been working as a doctor for the Médecins Sans Frontières [Doctors Without Borders], or a company like it, on the Jordanian-Syrian border. So I think many of us can relate to the quiet moments that we spend with Hana after that has happened, though we may not have been through the horrors that she’s seen.
And so, once I read the script and I watched Zeina’s first film, I think I had four weeks before I was about to start Possessor in Toronto. So I called the people that I work with at my different agencies, and said, “This may sound a little bananas, but I really feel like I need to go to Egypt from Senegal to make this film. I think it’s going to be very beautiful.” And they all said, “On your four weeks off, really?” Although, they all loved Zeina’s work, which is how it came to me. There was just this incredibly strong pull. I’m sure you’ve felt it yourself when you have an opportunity and there’s barely a second or third thought about whether you’re going to do it. You just feel utterly compelled to begin, and from the moment that I read that script, it felt very much in my DNA.
How long was the shoot?
We shot the whole film in 16 days. We actually ended up doing 17 days because we bought an extra day at the end. (Laughs.) It was a completely immersive experience on every level. Creatively and personally. I went from a very fast-paced, almost sort of action rhythm show that we were making with ZeroZeroZero to the timelessness and hum of Luxor. It’s a place that moves to the beat of its own drum regardless of what else is happening around it, such as all the conflict that Egypt has seen. When you’re in Luxor, you’re so close to so many tangible relics of early civilization’s understanding of spirituality. There’s a sense that conflict comes and goes, that joy comes and goes, but there’s something eternal. And I think you see it in the film. There’s a reason it’s called Luxor, and it feels like its own presence in the film. Zeina and Zelmira [Gainza], our DP, captured the place in a way that shows how overwhelmingly epic and large it is compared to Hana, who’s walking through it, trying to make sense of how she’ll now live having seen what she’s seen. And not only how she’ll live, but how she’ll reconnect to the fire inside and to hope.
And I think part of reconnecting to that is her first love, Sultan [Karim Saleh], which is really the heart of the film because we all have that feeling. In the times when life is the most challenging, we’ve perhaps kept close in our hearts a special love, and that’s helped us put one foot in front of the other, as it were. There’s relief and playfulness in that she manages to reconnect through Sultan. This relationship that was so formative, perhaps between 18 and 25, is really why she goes to Luxor. I don’t think Hana had a plan when she bought the ticket or booked the Winter Palace, but I think that was a way to transition into going to wherever her transient home is that she doesn’t visit very often. London perhaps. So she had no idea she was going to see Sultan, but actually, of course, she sees him. And, of course, his life is still there.
Was it quite a challenge to get permission to shoot at all of Luxor's ancient sites and ruins? You probably couldn’t leave a single pebble out of place.
(Laughs.) I think, especially in our industry, we’ve done sometimes a fantastic job and sometimes an absolutely awful job of representing Egypt. Often, when I think of films that are set in Egypt, I think of films from the Western world, and I feel like I’ve seen quite a lot of plastic sets. So it was quite extraordinary what we were able to do with so very little money. We had Egyptian producers because it was an Egyptian production as much as it was a British one. So we had the great privilege of not only going inside some of the tombs that only archaeologists had seen, but we were allowed to then capture it on film. The feeling and the preciousness of those moments was almost indescribable. And, yes, of course, we were all certainly on tenterhooks. (Laughs.) When you take a film crew into an ancient Egyptian tomb, just that sentence alone sounds like a dreadful idea. (Laughs.) But there were so many precious moments and experiences that were happening very quietly and often underground. We couldn’t shout too loud in those places, and we always had to be mindful of being very gentle with every step that we took. It was an experience that was life-changing.
What’s interesting to me about you is that I don’t immediately recognize you from role to role. It takes me a minute to get my bearings since you’re so chameleon-like. I mean this as a compliment, but isn’t your ultimate goal to be recognized as your character first rather than Andrea?
It’s what my very short life’s work’s been about so far. So I am very grateful that that’s been recognized. It also affords me a different type of life where I’m able to be incognito and still have a relationship with as many human beings as I possibly can on a daily basis. (Laughs.) That is a huge part of how I do my work. Reaching people, learning about people, walking the streets in whichever town, city or hamlet I’m in, is how I absorb human nature, in a sense. So without that, it would be very difficult. And actually, right now, because we’re all masked, I’m finding it very difficult to not see people’s faces, to not see the tiny nuances of their movement and how clearly their character has affected their perception of the world.
Luxor is now available on VOD and Digital.
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