FILMMAKER INTERVIEW: MARYAM KESHEVARZ TALKS ABOUT CIRCUMSTANCE
Circumstance, the award-winning film by Maryam Keshavarz, opens theatrically this weekend in Los Angeles and New York. After premiering at the 2011 Sundance Film festival where it won the Audience Award, the film has gone on to play numerous festivals around the world. This vibrant, sexy drama depicts the rapid changes happening in Iran and throughout the Middle East through the prism of one Tehran family and their rebellious children. Maryam participated in Film Independent’s Producers Lab with Circumstance; the film was also awarded Kodak Film Stock grant from Film Independent. Film Independent’s Director of Artist Development, Josh Welsh, talks with Maryam about the film.
First off, congrats on the film – it’s beautiful! I would love to hear a bit about your experience on the festival circuit so far. You premiered at Sundance and since then you’ve
played tons of good festivals, domestic and international.
First of all, it’s been an independent filmmakers dream come true — to be in competition at Sundance. You feel so secluded in the whole process of post-production – I edited in Chile in a small house with editor, cut off from the rest of the world, and then I came to LA because of the earthquake, and the whole post process was very contained and very insular. So to see the film with an audience at Sundance – that was my first public experience after such a long process. And the Sundance audience is incredible.
We won the Audience Award at Sundance and then at Outfest, and now the Audience Award at the Noor Iranian Film Festival in Los Angeles. To win the audience awards at the mainstream independent festival, the queer festival, and then the Iranian festival – it’s amazing. Those are the three groups that are somehow addressed in the film. The film is in Persian, it’s about Iran, it does have some queer content, and it is an indie film — so these are your cohorts, these are all the people who surround the filmmaking process. And for them to like the film is really special.
I would love to hear about your family. Your brother, Hossein, made the feature Dog Sweat, which played the Los Angeles Film Festival in 2010, and now your film Circumstance premiered in 2011. I’m curious what it was like growing up for you guys, and what role film and art in general played in your family. Was this cultivated in your family, or was it just something that you and Hossein were drawn to individually?
In our family, let’s see… Well, repression always helps the budding artist, I think [laughs]. Our family is very diverse, so it depends what part of the family you’re talking about. My grandfather on my mother’s side had been a political poet in Iran who had published and been harassed and incarcerated by the last regime – by the king, before the Islamic revolution. I grew up with stories of my grandfather being this rebellious guy who also wrote for the newspaper and had the secret police knocking on the door in the middle of the night. Those are the stories I was surrounded by, and I was very close to my grandfather. He died about ten years ago.
In terms of my immediate family, we’re typical immigrants. My parents came before the revolution, in the sixties. My dad was a doctor, and all of my other brothers are professionals, doctors and lawyers. But Hossein and I were at the bottom of the chain. All my older brothers had the brunt of the immigrant experience, all those expectations that are placed on that generation, the pressures of being the translators for the family, being the transitional point for two worlds. Being younger, Hossein and I didn’t have as much pressure. Hossein and I have always gone back to Iran a lot. We were always interested in the Islamic world, always interested in Iran.
Actually, Hossein is the reason I went to film school. I was doing my doctorate and I was on sabbatical in San Francisco when 9/11 happened. Hossein was in New York.
After 9/11, Hossein felt we should go into media. That was the place to make a difference. I was stuck in San Francisco and was making these weird experimental films in response to 9/11 and he was like, “Let’s go to film school together, let’s do it!” I told him, “I don’t want to go, I’m sick of academia.” He said, “I have a copy of your film, let’s just apply to NYU and Columbia. All you have to do is write your personal essay. Email it to me and I will drop it off personally.” So I emailed it to him, he printed it and took it to NYU with a copy of my film. And I won a full scholarship to go to NYU. And he got into Columbia. We were in school at the same time.
We have what we call the shit-kicker gene, of my grandfather, but it’s somewhat different when you’re an immigrant. It’s not as common, unfortunately, for people coming from the Arab world, or Iran, to let their kids go into media. We were a little bit older when we went into film, our late twenties.
What do you mean by “the shit-kicker gene”?
It’s the person who always asks why. The person who doesn’t accept the status quo, the person who is suspicious of the social or governmental structure, who’s always asking the questions. That’s definitely what my grandfather did that got him into trouble. And that’s what we did ultimately, in our academic work and then later on in our film work. It’s still narrative film, but our first interest is, How do politics and social environment affect your characters? Neither of our films are political in the traditional sense, but they’re political inasmuch as they deal with how political and social environments put pressure on individuals and individual relationships. We both deal with that. And his film and mine, they’re sort of a translation on some level of Iran. Through our experience of people who grew up between Iran and the US. Our films are very different than a film you would see made in Iran. Even the subjects we choose, what we choose to focus on, it’s a little bit of an insider-out perspective.
I read the script for Circumstance and thought it was a great script, but I have to say I was unprepared for the film when I saw it. It’s visually so beautiful and so accomplished in terms of cinematography and production design. Also, your casting was phenomenal. So this is a two-part question: could you talk about how you found your three leads, and anything you care to say about your casting process; and then also, talk about working with Brian Rigby Hubbard, your DP, and creating the visual world of the film.
I’ll start with the visual. Making my short The Day I Died was really helpful, because it was largely without dialogue. That was a good starting point in terms of learning to tell a story visually. Then I was in the Sundance Writers and Directors Labs and that’s where I met Brian Rigby Hubbard who became my DP. We really believe so much in how camera can tell the story – how does camera, shot direction, coverage, how does lighting, the palate of the film, what does all that tell you about the world of the film? This was a very in-depth conversation that Brian and I had, both at the Labs and then in the year that it took to get the film made. We had created a very extensive look book, so everything was very planned out in terms of the palate. It’s very monochromatic in the film’s exteriors, except for the girls, whereas in the home, it was very light and airy in the beginning of the film. The beginning of the film is dolly shots, airy, space, freedom on some level, and then as the film continues it becomes dark, claustrophobic, there are no more dolly shots, it’s more handheld, its more menacing on some level. The camera helps tell that story. Also the lushness of the private world of the girls is very much told in terms of color.
Brian is really talented and he really understood the world. He had lived in Chile during the dictatorship, so he kind of understood the underground world as a space of freedom. It was always really exciting to go to Brian’s apartment in Williamsburg and have these great, artistic conversations while we were trying to find money to make this impossible film.
And how about your casting process?
[Laughs] I am kind of psychotic about casting! It was such a scary endeavor to write the film and try to make the film, and if I didn’t have the right actors to really embody the film that was going to be incredibly terrifying for me. I was given a lot of choices of actors that weren’t Iranian. For instance, if I shot in English I could cast people who looked Iranian, so they could cast Arab or Colombian or whatever, which I was really against. For this particular film I really wanted it to be in Persian. Because it deals with the interaction between the west and the east, Iran and the US. The dubbing scene, for example, all the Western influences—these would be lost if they were speaking English.
I auditioned well over a thousand girls for the roles of Atafeh and Shireen. I cast physically in ten different cities around the world, including Europe and North America. I also used technology to our advantage. People could do video auditions and send us little video clips, or you could also do a Skype audition. That’s actually how I found the mother, through a Skype audition.
One of my last stops was Paris before I came to LA and I was really frustrated with how the auditions were going. It’s a hard thing to cast: the girls had to be over 18 because of the sexual scenes but look under 18, they had to be ok with sexuality, nudity, queer content, they had to be good actors, they had to have two passports, they had to speak Persian. There were a lot of stipulations before coming in for an audition. So that was very difficult. I asked a friend of mine who’s a photographer if he knew anyone. He said, ‘I know this girl, she’s a law student. She’s not an actor but she is Iranian, she might be the right look.’ And that’s how I met Sarah, who plays Shireen. I met her just hours before I left Paris. She auditioned and she was amazing.
The final call-backs were in Toronto because Canada has this huge Iranian population. I had the finalists for the three main roles there and literally just a few days before that I got a video audition from Nikohl, who plays Atafeh. She just had one short scene, she had no context for the scene, she didn’t know what the film was about, there was no synopsis. And when I saw her audition, it blew me away. It was so nuanced, she played it with such playfulness, and we see that in the film – she’s so full of life, this character.
I called her right away and said the final call-backs were in two or three days in Toronto. She was from a small town outside of Vancouver and she said, “I’ve never really been on a plane before!” She hadn’t been on a plane since she was six months old. Her mom escaped Iran and gave birth to her in the mountains of Pakistan. I said, “If you can get to this audition, we would love to see you, I think you’re very talented.” She was too scared to fly, so she flew with her mom to the final call-backs. That was the first time she was on a plane. And the second time was to fly to Lebanon for the shoot.
You’re the writer/director, of course, but you’re also a full producer on Circumstance. You were in our Producers Lab initially which is how we met you and learned about the film, so I’m wondering if you could talk a bit about why you wanted to be a producer as well as writer and director, and what that role means to you.
I’m very adamant about trying to be part of that process. At least in the kind of work that I do, I feel I’m the best person to know those worlds. I’m bringing a world of Iran, for instance, present day Iran, into a western production. So I feel I’m the key to that production on some level. There are things that I know, so even though I have producers who are amazing – and they were amazing, Karin and Melissa were amazing and did so much for the film, on so many levels — there was something that I felt that I had that had to be present on the producing side. Because it’s very specific knowledge of the world, and a specific way to talk about the film that I felt only I could do, in terms of talking to financiers, and in framing what the film is really about when you apply to grants, and things like that. Because it is bringing a foreign world to the west, perhaps, I felt I had a responsibility on the producing side to be active and not have that world misrepresented. I wanted to be very clear about what the film was about and why I was doing it. For me that was very important. But then, I did it only to a certain point. I wasn’t producing on set, for instance. I produced until prep, more or less. And then you have an amazing team, and I trust 100% the people I worked with.
What was the second part of your question?
What advice would you give to someone starting out?
People always think the filmmaking process starts when you write the script, then you get money, then you make the film. That’s the traditional way of thinking. But I really think there’s so much you can do as a writer/director – there’s so much work, so much work that goes into making a film! And so much of it is prep. So much of it just yourself, as an artist: what does this film look like? Start imagining the world, collecting references, watching films, really understanding how you ‘re going to shoot it. Start the collaboration with the DP, with the editor. Who are you going to work with? Production design, casting – you can be casting way before you have any money. There are inexpensive ways to start the casting process. You can put out a call, you can get space donated, you can start the process. Even in the rewriting process, you can hear actors read your words. Through the casting process I was rewriting my script – definitely. You hear someone read your lines, and you think, this just doesn’t work
There are so many elements that you can prepare for, that you can be excited about. Once you’re in the process, once you’re casting and location scouting, once you’re talking to DP’s, (a) it feels real for yourself and (b) it feels real for everyone around you, from the production team to the people who might invest, all the institutes like Cinereach, the San Francisco Film Society and Sundance, who provided financial support. They need to know you’re serious, that you are moving forward. And you can move forward without much that much money. You need to move forward and take these certain steps. If you really do have the money, you’re going to be so overwhelmed if you haven’t started the process yet. Then you’re on set and you think, “Oh shit, I wish I had thought of this!”
That’s something we’re always looking for, when we’re evaluating candidates for our Labs. In addition to looking for good scripts, we’re looking for people where you can see that they’re in motion, they ‘re actively moving things forward whether they have any money or not.
One of the huge things for me when I came to the Producers Lab, was being surrounded by people like that. That’s why I felt that when I came to FIND it just pushed me to another level. Or going to Sundance and their Labs. You’re around people like that – people who are so passionate, who are in the process of making the film without having all the money. You can feel the craft, they are crafting something, they’re in motion. That’s important, too, as a piece of advice: to be surrounded by those people and those institutes and organizations. I was really fortunate, obviously – when you see the credits, it’s this long list of places that supported the film. You cannot replace institutional support and the support of mentors. I used my mentor support so much. I wasn’t just, ‘Oh, I went to Sundance and FND and never talked to these people again’. I was always in touch with Gina Kwon who taught my Producers Lab – she was amazing, she helped me find [my producer] Karin Chien. All of my mentors at Sundance, I was always touching base with them and getting their advice.
Circumstance is adding 4 more theaters for the first weekend of September, Cinemas 1,2,3 at East 59th St., BAM, Stamford, CT, Huntington Arts on Long Island.
August 25th, 2011 • No Comments