Juliana Maio: From Hollywood Contracts to Espionage on the Nile

Maio_author-photo-783x1024For as long as she can remember, Juliana Maio has nurtured two identities: her creative side came with a love of literature and storytelling while her more practical diligent self longed for bringing greater justice and harmony to the world. As a child, she kept her classmates rapt with invented tales and plays and yet, as a refugee, it was impossible for her to remain untouched by her circumstances. “It was amazing to see even as a child how powerful words could be, what language was capable of, but equally I was also very much in touch with what was fair and unfair. I wanted to change the world and I thought maybe I could do this through words.”

Maio was born in a suburb of Cairo known as Heliopolis, City of the Sun. During the Suez Crisis, her third generation extended Jewish-Egyptian family was expelled from what had been a very pluralistic and tolerant country. Some went to Brazil, others to Italy, Canada and the United States, but thanks to her mother’s French passport, the three-year-old Maio immigrated to France. “We were basically refugees. My life was uncertain and unstable growing up. I never really knew if we were coming or going or where we might move. I went to boarding school from about 5 years to the age of 12 because my parents had to work full time,” she recalls.

After many years, Maio and her family took up an invitation from her uncle to join him and his wife in California. Eighteen years old at the time, Maio was less than positive about the decision, especially as she had just been accepted to study acting with a troop: “I ran away from home. I wrote a letter to my parents explaining I loved them but couldn’t join them in America. My sister was supposed to deliver the letter at 7pm. In the meantime, I had arranged to meet my boyfriend at 5pm so we could leave together. He never showed up due to a mix up with the meeting point and so I frantically ran home with my suitcases hoping my sister had not yet delivered the letter. Arriving just five minutes after 7pm, I was confronted by my entire family … I mean my entire family, my aunts, uncles, everyone was there. I was immediately locked up and that was the end of it!”

Initially the move to the US was very difficult as Maio did not speak English very well. “All of a sudden, language was no longer available to me. It was a huge handicap, both in practical terms but also in terms of my identity. I couldn’t express myself.”

Maio with her husband and daughter. Photo courtesy of Rebecca Sanabria

Thrown into the deep end, she enrolled at the University of San Diego and to her credit, did well enough to transfer to University of California at Berkeley. “God bless their hearts. I will be forever grateful to them for accepting me. I remember my first year. I was basically taking PE, French literature, Spanish, and maybe one English class. I studied very hard and wherever I went, I carried a dictionary.”

Maio graduated from Berkeley with a degree in Political Science, but realized she could not fulfill her dream of becoming a writer, journalist or even an actress due to language constraints. So she leaned into her other side, the wanting-to-change-the world side, and decided to go to law school. “I got in to UC Hastings, again I couldn’t believe my luck. I did very well as a student but I must admit I chose my classes carefully,” she laughs. “Finally I felt like I was on equal footing with everybody else. It was a new vocabulary for everybody. It was a new way to write and think for all the students.”

Realizing her English skills might somewhat limit her ability to be a litigator, Maio decided to become an entertainment lawyer. It was a natural extension of her love of the arts. “If I couldn’t be a writer or actor myself, then at least I could represent them.”

She interned with international law offices O’Melveny & Myers and after graduation, nabbed a plum job with a top entertainment law firm, Schiff, Hirsch & Schrieber. “I was drafting contracts for the likes of Francis Ford Coppola, Dick Clark, Cliff Robertson, Walter Hill, you name it. But even more lucky for me was my mentor Gunther Schiff, the head partner who himself had immigrated to the US as a teenager. To this day, Gunther is like a second father to me.”

Although women were starting to make inroads into the law profession at that time it was not easy for the less-than-conventional Maio. “I found it difficult as a woman, especially a woman with a French accent. Some clients crossed the line and asked me out. It was always a dance in terms of ingratiating yourself to them as a professional and yet making very sure you did not alienate them when trying to make it clear you had no interest in them in a romantic sense. Maybe because I was single and French and refused to put my hair in a bun … people made assumptions,” she says.

When the firm broke up, Maio followed her mentor Schiff to new offices where she continued to practice law for five more years. But the pull of the entertainment business was too strong and she briefly left law to indulge her creative side. She joined a studio, Triumph Films, a joint venture between Columbia Pictures and Gaumont Films, as VP Worldwide Corporate & Business Affairs, where she was involved with the acquisition and distribution of foreign and indie films. She loved it but it was hard going. “There was a tremendous amount of internal politics, and I was not comfortable in that environment. Law firms are much more businesslike. Even if you have issues, as long as you do your work, people treat you professionally. To be a lawyer is probably the safest profession in the entertainment industry. It’s a cocoon,” Maio explains.

The division was eventually dissolved at Columbia and, after the birth of her daughter, Maio returned to the safer soil of law, founding a new practice with her partner Leanna Heath. “Before we knew it, we were representing major talent like Frank Darabont as well as production companies like Vestron and New World, and even banks.” They ran the business successfully for five years until Maio decided once again to try her hand at the creative side of the industry. She teamed up with her husband, Michael Phillips, Academy-Award-winning producer of films classics like The Sting and Taxi Driver, to set up Lighthouse Productions. Maio was the business affairs manager and her husband’s “lawyer with benefits”.

Maio_bookjacket“It was wonderful to finally get so close to the creative process. Representing talent was the first step but as part of a production company, I was finding the books to turn into movies, seeking out authors, working with writers. I enjoyed it so much, I decided to launch myself more completely into the process and began writing myself.” An established lawyer with a husband and child, she finally felt she was in a safe enough place to take the time to work on one particular writing project close to her heart that had been consuming her for some time. She explains, “People would ask me where I was from. I always said France but at the same time I knew I was Egyptian. My family often spoke Arabic at home, I grew up on Egyptian food. I kind of poo-pooed it and yet my past was so complicated, I never quite understood it. Why were Jews living in Egypt? Why was my father Italian but spoke English, French, Arabic, and Greek? How did my mother get her French passport? I was simply curious and motivated by a deep desire to understand where I was from.”

When she started reading, she discovered the fascinating world her parents grew up in. “Egypt had hundreds of thousands of foreigners. Cairo, in 1941, was ten times more exotic than Bogart’s Casablanca. It was the tail end of the Golden Age where all these communities – including Arabs, Jews and Christians – lived together so peacefully. I couldn’t stop researching, I couldn’t let go of it. If I was so fascinated by it then others will be too. So it gradually it became the kernel for a book.”

She was elated to learn her agent in New York thought the first chapter had potential. She wrote five more chapters and waited on pins and needles for the response: “I was on vacation in Montana when I called her to hear her thoughts. All of a sudden, there was a bear and everybody was screaming, ‘Run! Get out of the way!’ and I remember just standing there with the phone to my ear as all hell broke loose around me. All I cared about was what this agent thought about my work. My heart fell at her words, ‘This is promising’, because I thought I had it done.”

And so basically for the next ten years what kept Maio going was ‘This is promising’. While still practicing law and working at Lighthouse, she wrote and rewrote, did additional research and tried to find that delicate balance between thriller, love story, and real history. “If becoming a lawyer was difficult it was nothing compared to becoming a writer,” laughs Maio.

Published in March this year, City of the Sun tells a tale of life in Cairo – “Paris on the Nile” – during WWII. To Maio’s delight, the book hit number 1 on Amazon’s bestseller list for eBooks on the 4th of July weekend. As NY Times best-selling author, Nicolas Meyer, says this work of historical fiction “weaves a tangled tale of espionage, wartime romance, political intrigue, and action in a city crawling with all four.  If you liked Casablanca, this story is for you.”

With plans for a sequel, Maio is obviously undeterred by the time it took to write the book. “I had a passion, I had a dream and had to get it done. But also I thought my book would make a difference as it portrayed how Europeans, Arabs and Jews lived peacefully together in an extraordinary society. It’s so disheartening to see that it’s gone forever. The hatred today is completely political. Politics hijacked the hearts of the people. But if it was possible before, maybe it is possible again.”

Tips from Juliana Maio:

  • Listen to your own voice and put blinders on (don’t compare yourself to others).
  • Be 100% focused and determined.
  • Do your homework.
  • Find people who believe in you.
  • Be grateful for having a passion.
  • Be ready for when the miracle happens.

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