Making indie shorts & features in LA, dealing with the past & the future - interview with director Amir Motlagh

Amir Motlagh is the director of the 2007 completed short film Knock.Knock and the upcoming features Whale (in post-production) and Micro (in production). To date Motlagh has completed over half a dozen short films and have screened them at festivals and other events. He is also a musician who just released a new album. In early June I spoke (via the magic of e-mail) with the filmmaker re: his current, previous & future projects, being Iranian-American and a few related matters.

Sujewa: Amir, can you please 1) list all of your previously completed & released films briefly (up to My Break Ups let's say, that's what you just finished the last time I interviewed you, in 2005) and, 2 ) then take some time and introduce us to each of the current or very recently completed films (post-My Break Ups), including Knock. Knock, that you are working on; titles & descriptions, along with what you hope to accomplish, creative wise, with each project?

 Amir: I’m just going to list them in order of completion dates:

Dino Adino - 2001
Love @ 11:47 - 2001
Still Lover -2002
Pumkin Little - 2004
My break ups into a million pieces -2005

Lessons in Self-Destruction (a six part series) - 2005

There are others, but I’ll keep it short. At least these are pieces that people have seen, or maybe a few people have seen…ha ha. So after that interview which I believe was in 2005, I will describe some of the newer projects. Please forgive the fact that I can’t just keep this discussion in film, because things in my life seem to intertwine.

In 2006 I started to film "Whale" which Is my first fictional feature film. I planned it out so that it could span time, the films idea is a sort of journeyman time travel. Not in the sense of science fiction, but in the banalities, or better, modernities of month to month. This film is my search of what story means, how it functions, and how important the things left out are to a story, as the story itself. Maybe its similar in some sort of spaced out way to Ozu’s concepts of mu, and mono no aware. There is no doubt an Iranian sensibility of Doc and Fictional merging. In truth, it is as simplistic as can be. Its about a man coming back home to his mother's house after a hurtful relationship. The man is a writer who has never finished a novel he has been working on for years. Coming home, many things remain the same, although he is almost thirty. In its form, it could be thought of as a fictional narrative verite. It will be done in 2007.

Also, during this time, I finished a small little film called, "Tracing the Edges" - 2006. It was a 16mm film, only 3 minutes long, that I wanted to do, to test a more traditional filming of drama with more of a traditional context. The film is about the boiling point of conflict in a relationship that should have been resolved a long time ago. You know, when people that shouldn’t be together, prolong a relationship for many reasons, but ultimately, should have ended it a long time ago. It all takes place in a tiny bathroom, and finishes in a flash. I think you have seen it Sujewa, but I have never really released it in any form. [Sujewa's note: saw it, found it to be interesting, definitely a quick snapshot/a moment from quite possibly an end of a relationship, well shot & well acted - if I recall correctly ] I didn’t even send it out because of other projects, and it was such a small little thing. But I liked my actors, both Tom Oconnel, and Rachel Sciaccia, who is a very good actress.

After Tracing the Edges, I finally finished the last recordings for the record, A Day Late: Instrumentals for Illegal Aliens with my band Shanks and the Dreamers. This record took two years because of film related stuff, but, shit, I have to plug it. It will be made available in a limited print on June 16th 2007 (go here to get info. on the record). It's been sitting, waiting to be printed since Dec 20th 2006, but there never is enough time.

In Oct 20th 2006, I had a video installation go up at the Seed Design Studios in Santa Ana, Ca at the Artist Village. The piece was called "The Astonishing Experience Box Set" and it included six videos played in a loop. I don’t want to get into a long winded discussion on this piece.

In Dec 2006, I directed a music video in still photos, creating a stop motion like aesthetic. I tend to use photos in my films.

Tom O'Connell

 aIn Febuary 2007, I stared production on the film Knock. Knock. It was shot in Super16mm by Zamir Kokonozi. I developed the concept with comedian/writer Chris Manz. A few months in its development, I asked him to be the lead, Chris in the film, since the character was based on him in many ways, not all, but the chance to do a fictional character study, with a real subject partly as that character was interesting. I had a great group of actors, Keaton Shyler who played Karla, Chris’s ex girlfriend, and Lene Pederson, who played Sharon. I feel that it was also important for me to work in a traditional narrative, that had broader appeal. Even though I never catered to a perceived audience, I tried to be engaging and kept from alienating by being too specific. I have to also say that I had wonderful production design by Tom O’Connell d editing by Rick Curnutt.

In the meanwhile, I have been cutting Whale. This summer will be its completion I hope, because I have an 11 day, 35mm project I’m shooting in October called, "In the night I forgot".

Also in July, I start a new feature project called "Micro". This will be a "whale 2", a sort of conceptual sequel but not really at all. I will continue to refine some concepts, and continue to try to form a different type of narrative, but hopefully, keep it interesting and accessible at the same time. I don’t know if its possible, but I need to try. This film will also take a year or so, because the design of the film is such.

The reason I do a film like Whale, then do one like Knock. Knock. is because I love the craft of filmmaking, but I also am an artist. Maybe if I keep working, the projects would start to assimilate and it would not seem like I fluctuate between more mainstream work and more art house. They will become the same thing. Hopefully, they already have.

Sujewa: As I said in my review of Knock.Knock, it is a light drama, almost (and I am sure many people will groan when I say this) Mumblecore-y in a way; something happens between a couple of people - not too clearly/explicitly defined, one character may or may not be significantly affected by it. Were you thinking of Mumblecore movies when you made Knock.Knock or did you come up with the story/film that you came up with on your own/through your own process & areas of concern? And while we are on the topic, what do you think of the Mumblecore movies that you have seen?

Amir: In effect, it might come across as light, but I think that it works more like a character study, with a light drama acting as its metaphorical barrier. For me, it’s a kind of personality film, yes; I would say that’s what drives the film. I wasn’t thinking of any movie before making this. Maybe in visual design, the cinematographer and I worked out a design based on seeing other large scale movies, but I don’t work from other films. I’m not sure about the Mumblecore comparison or what that means really, frankly because I have very little knowledge on it, only heard of it from blogs. I have seen Bujaski’s film Funny Ha Ha, and I liked it, but in my opinion these two films have nothing in common. It would be absurd to think of going into this film or any film without my own process. Also, I must mention that I did not write Knock Knock., I only worked on the scripts development, and also co-wrote the scenario. Chris Manz wrote the screenplay. I would never make a film based on something else, that’s not how my process works, unless it’s through influence, but still, that’s a whole separate issue. We worked on this film by a long improvisational developmental process, in an actor’s workshop sort of way. On another note, this work is different then my other films. It is not completely a separate entity, but I feel that it works different. And yes, there are areas of concern in this film that are my own even though I didn’t pen it. How else can you make movies?

Sujewa: For day job work you work on other people's projects, right? Can you talk about some of the jobs you've done recently, a quick run down of things?

Amir: Well, my work life I like keep private mostly. I work on project development, and as a director for a client based media company. I also work as an artist. I don’t mind working, but I do wish that all my source of income would be from project based.

Sujewa: This question is related to a bigger topic of identity/nationality that we were talking about earlier - on the phone a few weeks ago, the concept of being both American and other; so far you have not explored your Iranian heritage (and I have not explored my Sri Lankan heritage, although Sri Lanka gets mentioned a lot in Date Number One) in your movies. Are you thinking about tackling that aspect of your life through a movie? I'd like to do it with Sri Lanka, though I have not thought up of a doable movie (given the budgets I work under presently) where I think I can pull it off well; but I think it is only a matter of time 'till I figure it out. I heard Caveh Zahedi is about to do a doc about being Iranian-American. Anyway, on to you (Are you thinking about tackling/discussing your Iranian heritage through a movie?).

Amir: Well, my feature “Whale” deals with it, not quite as a direct subject, but it is inherent in the film, the character and the world. Also, “Micro” is an extension of that. But besides these more recent works, I have almost always dealt with identity in all my work, and at times through the notion of nationality. Both my documentaries “my break ups into a million pieces” and the featurette Pumkin Little deal heavily on these subjects. The only difference is that the subjects of both these films are Filipino. This was my way of easing into how to deal with my own heritage in filmmaking.

Sujewa: And another, perhaps sensitive subject to bring up; casting in your movies. Will you be casting minority actors in your future movies or do you feel that having minority characters in lead roles may make it difficult to receive wide distribution for your movies or will cause other obstacles for success? As an audience member, the films that had your presence in the acting arena, as the narrator of Still Lover and as the lead actor in Love @ 11:47, were more interesting to me since one of the things I look for in movies is a minority presence in the cast.

Amir: Again, I only deal with the work that is in front of me, without imposing a liberal agenda for its own sake. For “whale”, the cast is completely diverse, but then again, the film deals with the reality of that particular cinematic world. In Knock. Knock the subject of the film is dealing with an all white world. I’m not about filling quotas, that’s not my job. Someone can make a case that another nationality could have been in one of the roles, but then again I wouldn’t be making a film that was in front of me, I would be doing something else, and frankly, coping out of the material in some ways. I’m not political in that sense anymore, I don’t really spend time thinking much about these things maybe because of my own circumstance, whether I have an ethnic cast or not really comes down to the work, plain and simple. I’ve become color blind because of the diversity I was brought up in, growing up in Southern California, which by all means is different in other areas of the US.

Sujewa: This question does not have anything to do with film but about Iranians in America. What exactly does the term Persian mean? Why is Persian used by Iranian-Americans as opposed to Iranian or Iranian-American when identifying themselves beyond their American identity (this is something that I have encountered, maybe it's just unique to my experience, maybe you can shed some light on this)? Are you close with that community or is the existence of that community something that you do not give a lot of thought to? I think most Americans do not have a complex understanding of Iran, Iranians & Iranian-Americans, so this is my small step towards solving that issue :) Feel free to share any thoughts you have re: Iranians in America or the diversity (if so) within that demographic.

Amir: I believe that the word Persian is historical. It is epic and refers to a great period in national history. The word Iran came about during WWII, which refers to the original Aryan Race. To me, it really doesn’t make a difference. I guess I would refer to the times in which I live, making myself an Iranian American, otherwise, it just sounds ridiculous to bask in nationalistic pride of yesteryear's. Have you ever heard someone say Persian American? Well, I’m sure you have, but that’s a bit pretentious I think. I’m not that familiar with the community, although have been so more recently. They are a well-educated bunch down here though, which is pretty cool. Shohreh Aghdasloo is a wonderful actress. I’ve seen her in some plays as well.

Sujewa: Back to film; what's it like to be indie in the shadow of Hollywood (since you live near LA & often work in LA)?

Amir: Well, right now I am living in Los Angeles. I don’t even think of myself as Indie anymore, just a filmmaker, or artist that works in this medium. I’m just like any other artist that lives in LA. In terms of Hollywood, I can do what they can do craft wise, probably even better then some, so just give me the cash, just a little.

Sujewa: It felt like, in 2006, the interest in DIY film; ultra-indie production & self-distribution went up to a degree never before seen in this decade, and this new interest in DIY seems to continue until the present moment. Did you notice that, and if so, what do you think of it?

Amir: I think that name artists who go DIY really help, and this has been happening because it has become viable. But for myself, I am not into the politics or agenda of filmmaking. I just like to be creative, whether for myself or through a company. Doesn’t really matter. The only thing that I am happy about is that I came from these roots; where I can make a movie for a few hundred or thousand dollars, and still have lots of people see it. And even if they don’t, it’s still cool with me. At the same time, I have the craft to make the larger picture. In some sense, to really truly understand the situation, you have to have had both, and I have never had a truly commercial project, and have never worked for a studio as a director so my experience is rather limited. Of course, living in Los Angeles, I have worked in the studio world, but never as a director. I’m not going to fight something I don’t really know about. For me, both worlds are interesting, until I get fucked, legitimately by either. I don’t know if that’s possible in the DIY world, but I guess not making a living wage is getting screwed, as you age.

Sujewa: How are DVD sales of your various movies going? Do you have any tips for other filmmakers who are interested in making & selling their own DVDs?

Amir: They have been good, but I have stopped selling them directly. I have been trying to finish “Whale”. I also have a new film compilation coming out next year tentatively titled “Dependent Life”; so next year will be a better time for that question.

Sujewa: Is there anything else that you'd like people to know at this point?

Amir: Only the survivors survive. Peace.

Thanks Amir! Looking forward to Whale & Micro!

- Sujewa