A romantic story about a man attempting to escape the world by heading to the island is set for international release. MELISSA HEKKERS meets the woman behind it

“It’s like running a marathon,” a proud but clearly tired Cypriot filmmaker Stelana Kliris says after selling the rights of her most recent film to Netflix. The romantic comedy Find Me Falling is set to premiere on Netflix on July 19.

But Find Me Falling’s accomplishment reflects Stelana’s years of drive and hard work in Cyprus’ relatively young and small film industry.

“Coming from a developing industry, I have had to multi-task a lot, so I have to be very focused, organised and persistent – it’s like running a marathon,” she says. “There are a million little steps that got me here and countless people who helped, but (my) major milestones were working in production on international commercials in Greece, then moving on as a freelancer in film in Cyprus and getting an intimate knowledge of the local industry and finally making my first feature Committed which was small, but taught me so much, not only about how to make a film, but how to sell it as well.”

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Stelana Kliris

She started in the film industry in 2004, with a short The Fiddler in 2009. “I have wanted to be involved with movies since I was six years old and saw The Sound of Music for the first time,” she says. It is a career that spans romantic comedies and social dramas – anything that has heart and substance, or at the very least is a feel-good film that can transport you for a bit. “I’m a child of the eighties, so definitely inspired by the sentimentalism of great directors like Steven Spielberg or Guiseppe Tornatore but I think that the process is as important as the result; I like to work with people I love, my ‘film family’ who genuinely care about the film and create a good atmosphere on set.”

It took ten years but Stelana finally started her own company, Meraki Films, and used every lesson learnt to get to Find Me Falling and Netflix. “It was incredibly difficult! We completed the film in 2023 and started showing it around to sales agents in the US. While the response was always positive, everyone kept telling us how bad the market was, that nobody was buying and how difficult this would be to sell,” says Stelana. “Last year was one of the worst ever for Hollywood so even though I had the advantage of two great and well-connected US producers, Steve Shapiro and Keith Arnold, and a star like Harry Connick, Jr [who plays a lead role in the film], it felt like we would not be able to sell. We held out for a while and then in October we signed with a sales agent who set up a private screening for distributors just before the American Film Market and the film sold before the market even started!”

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Find Me Falling. (L-R) Agni Scott as Sia and Harry Connick Jr. as John in Find Me Falling. Cr. Pavlos Vrionides/Netflix © 2024.

The original title of the film was The Islander, which Netflix wanted to change – “nobody knows their audience better than they do!” – and suggested it change to the name of a song that Harry wrote for the film. They also re-edited the film to tighten the pace although no scenes were cut. “Their level of efficiency is out of this world.”

Stelana has great faith in the Cyprus film industry – “our local features have done incredibly well on the international scene” – but is now looking to have a greater impact. “With Find Me Falling we’ve finally managed to break through and found a model that works. I’m incredibly proud to have the first Cypriot film on Netflix and the aim is that it will be the first of many”.

Find Me Falling was inspired by an article Stelana read about a kind man that lived at a ‘suicide hotspot’ near Sydney. “This hooked me immediately and I wondered what it would be like if a misanthrope lived in a place like this! And the story grew from there, with the development of a romantic element of course (otherwise it wouldn’t be my film!)” After a failed comeback album, rock star John Allman (played by Harry) escapes to Cyprus only to discover his new cliffside home has an unfortunate notoriety that attracts unwanted visitors and an old flame.

The film was shot over six weeks in May/June 2022 between Peyia and Nicosia. Other than a handful of cast and crew from the US and Greece, the rest of the team was from Cyprus with over 150 people collectively working on the film, a real “home-grown movie made with a lot of love.”

The female leads are Agni Scott and Ali Fumiko Whitney. Agni is from Cyprus and based in the UK who has played multiple roles and nationalities. Ali Fumiko Whitney is not only a talented actress, but also an incredible singer who had to learn to speak in the Cypriot dialect and sing in Greek for the film. They are backed up by a local cast including Tony Demetriou, Lea Maleni, Angeliki Philippidou and Athina Roditou.

But the film’s success would not have been possible without her earlier production. “It was that film that encouraged Harry Connick, Jr to come on board. It was a big leap of faith for someone like Harry to come and make a film in a small country like Cyprus with an emerging filmmaker, and for that I am eternally grateful.”

This connecting with an international audience is the challenge faced by Cyprus films but one that needs to be underlined to break out of such a small local industry. “For our films to be successful, they need to be able to travel and connect, whether in the festival arena or the mainstream world… this means harnessing our stories and learning how to tell them well”.

With the island itself keen to promote a film industry, Stelana did receive funding from the deputy ministry of culture for Find Me Falling, from the script stage onwards. “We were also the first film ever to make use of both the national fund and the Cyprus Film Commission’s cash rebate,” she adds.

But in order to grow, the local film industry needs a bigger budget both to bank roll production and to train those working in it, she says. “There is no more effective cultural ambassador than film, it is able to travel all over the world and promote not only our local industry but the country as a whole. While the new film incentives have been ground-breaking in terms of attracting foreign productions to Cyprus, without a thriving local industry base, we won’t be able to support them. We need to keep investing in our local crews, resources and productions to have a sustainable industry.”

As for the future, Stelana is preparing her next feature Apart from Her, a period romance set in Cyprus and South Africa based on her parents’ stories and developing Yianna Americanou’s next feature My Name is Lily as well as a series and a couple more feature scripts of her own.