DIY Filmmaker Sujewa Interview 

April 29, 2009.

Interview with Amir Motlagh, director of new film Whale

Amir Motlagh is a Los Angeles area based independent filmmaker & actor. After winning accolades from film festivals and web audiences for several short fiction & documentary pieces, Motlagh recently completed Whale - his first feature length film, a beautifully shot & edited work of fiction about an aspiring writer who returns to his parent's house to figure out the next phase of his life. I spoke with him recently about Whale, certain trends & other happenings in the indie film world - including the existence of several well regarded independent filmmakers with Iranian roots:
Sujewa: What was the starting point for Whale? What experiences, other movies, career needs, other things led you to create Whale?
Amir: Maybe I started Whale abstractly in 2001. It was the first film I had ever envisioned making, but I didn't have the know-how, resources and understanding of the filmmaking process. The physical production started in 2005, planning and prep. At that time, I was desperate to get back into narrative filmmaking, as I spent a year and a half working on two documentaries, Pumkin Little and my break ups into a million pieces. Both, and especially Pumkin Little, esoteric and reactionary. I was feeling like I reached the end of that particular process of filmmaking, and wanted to get back into fiction, the reason I was enthralled with filmmaking to begin with. Also, the need to make a feature was eroding my core, as I prolonged it because of many reasons (life). Whale is often a film about prolonging things.
Sujewa: Was it difficult to convince the non-actors (your parents, your friends) to appear in the movie? What was it like to direct them? How were you ultimately able to capture the necessary performances from them?
Amir: I have worked with both professional actors and amateurs from the beginning. There is a different approach and ultimately a different effect with both. I trained for two years as a professional actor (Adler, Meisner, Strasburg, Stanislavski), thus I think that this preparation helps me deal with actors of all kinds. Ultimately, when you stick a camera on someone, and it is a work of fiction, they become an actor. So, there might not be such a thing as a non-actor. Only an experience issue. Also, when you are using amateur actors, you might be using them because they provide the context already packaged for what you are trying to convey in character. The homework has been done, so then it comes down to convincing them, that the choices they naturally make as themselves might be best. Putting amateurs in films with heavy dialogue and conflict is very difficult. How would you expect a professional performance when you cast an amateur? But in these types of smaller, realist movies, the amateur brings authenticity that is hard, if not impossible, to get otherwise.
My parents, well that was fun. My mother hated the idea, and she still does. My father, he took direction well. I shot another film with them in it (Absorbed in Accidents, in post), and I feel that our working relationship is over. My friends, well, some of the cast in Whale was used in my first film, Dino Adino in 2001. This is a type of documentation for me. My relationship with them is not the same as then, as I am not in contact with them as much (in fact, Dino Adino was under similar but less distant circumstances). But they are old friends with lots of personal history, so a real camaraderie exists. In Whale, I mix my cast with professionals and amateurs, as I have done in many of my films. (Again, I want to reiterate that the film is fiction, these are actors playing a role. How much is fact or fiction is really an inconsequential byproduct in my opinion. I cast in terms of the story I am trying to tell and performances I want to get. I wasn't using amateurs that I’ve known as some philosophical stance, laziness, or because I couldn't get anyone else (this is silly to even make a point out of, because we all know how many great (unknown) actors are available to work with just by placing an ad in the trades). I had a sincere relationship to the cast, and I knew possibly what and how far I could take each individual. Also, this type of working condition is very personal, and is a different method to making film. In whale specifically, the other main cast member, Darren Oneil, who also co-produced the picture helped tremendously as a silent crew member throughout most of the production. There is no way that I could have handled all of this myself, and I feel indebted to the cast. All these methods for me are about the individual project I am working on. Of course, some intertextuality exists between my own films, but for everything they share, there are many differences, both in process and results.
Sujewa: Why did you use the DVX100 camera for Whale, as opposed to shooting it on film or another video format - HD perhaps?
Amir: Well, at the prep stage of filming, we really had two choices that I was sold on, a DVX100a or an HVX200. At that time, I was very familiar with the DVX, having used it in my break ups into a million pieces, but the shiny new toy was on the horizon. Well, we put in the order for an HVX200, but I had an opportunity to get two DVX100's immediately (this was a very shady set of circumstance, but all parties have reached a happy settlement). Also, the way I wanted to shoot, which was a long-term project, the work flow of the HVX200 didn't make sense. But in the most honest sense, I had set out to make a DV feature film. I loved the way SD progressive looked, in comparison to film. It was so reactionary at the time, and a historic change of course. How could you not be enthralled with the idea, to, say, fuck the system, fuck your resolution, your tools, history and ultimately the grand gatekeepers. What is an artist if your only guiding voice is to follow behind everyone else's footprint? So, I decided to continue with that mind state, if only a temporary delusional, angsty one.
Film was not even an option for this type of project. Film would also destroy a level of authenticity to the model of production for Whale. But, again, I state this in reference only to this project. I have no interest in a film vs. digital debate. That shit is so 1999. I love 35MM, what's not to love about it? Oh it takes too long to set up a shot, Jesus, stop being so fucking impatient. And it cost too much, well who said you should pay for it yourself? Don't!
Sujewa: How do you feel about the current state of film in America? What would you like to see more of or less of?
Amir: This is an incredibly broad and difficult question. Film in America, well, it depends on what glasses you are looking through. Maybe we are in resurgence again, in terms of American cinema. The nineties were an incredible time for American Indies, but the 2000's were not so stellar in my opinion. My feeling is that people have finally figured out the new tools available, and as the front line experiments, this will translate into the more traditional production methods loosening the grip on what they can achieve with narrative. It’s always good for the arts to experiment. I'm not talking about the avant-garde, because in most people’s opinion, film is a popular medium. When a mainstream director starts playing with expectations, then the form revitalizes itself in the eyes of the larger population. Being John Malkovich is this concept in effect. But, I don't know much else in the mainstream; I don't go to the theater every day to watch Fast & Furious. I mean, other then 12 year olds, who gives a shit (apparently lots of people judging by the numbers). It must be more exciting just to play the video game.
Sujewa: Let's see, I know of three active indie feature directors who are from an Iranian background: Caveh Zahedi, Ramin Bahrani, and you - are there as many Iranian-American directors working in Hollywood or in Television (that you've heard of)? And if not - or either way - do you think Iranian cinema influences Iranian-American filmmakers to tell stories in a certain "foreign"/"non-Hollywood"/"indie" way?
Amir: Truly, I don't know how many there are, those two are the highest profile, especially Bahrani these days. I also believe that Harmony Korine is half Iranian. Iranian cinema certainly might be an influence, but those directors are so different from one another. Maybe to the extent in which the narrative is dealt with. The similarities, or through line between us, might be our insistence on adding documentary style elements into narrative, and maybe for some of us, a persistent self-reflexive instinct. Is there a line differentiating doc and fiction anymore? My hope would be that as ethnic American directors, that we don't just repackage the type of work that appeals to just a film festival going audience. Especially some of the overtly sentimental elements induced by some Iranian cinema. I'm not exactly sure how to quantify that, only that authenticity remains central to the work, and not as maybe, just for critical effect. My focus at this time is more about the assimilation of the ethnic entity than the strict identity cliché. Again, this comes down to the notion of subtlety and restraint. It’s hard to keep from working the clichés when dealing with the obvious. Also, the culture of assimilation will remain a primary concern moving forward.
Sujewa: How do you feel about Mumblecore films & filmmakers? Are there marketing/publicity/career-building lessons to be learned from that group of indie filmmakers - stuff that may be useful for other indie filmmakers in developing their careers?
Amir: Ah, the Mumblecore question. First, let me get this out of the way, Mumblecore might refer to a social group more then anything. Second, is there a definable set of things that make a film Mumblecore? Maybe a certain lack of context, some ironic elements. Could it be DIY approach? With all that said, when you see it, you go, oh yeah, that's Mumblecore. So, with that out of the way, well, I want to be careful in how I word this, as to not be taken out of context. As far as cinema goes, and in comparison to say, Neo-Neo realism, Mumblecore might be a more original entity.  Neo-Neo Realism is just what the word implies, a newer form of what De Sica was doing in the late 1940’s. Mumblecore has elicited more excitement, and involvement to a younger generation then the aforementioned because it gives them an entry point, and it feels contemporary. That is a grand compliment. At the same token, much of the work is a little pedestrian for my taste (but who gives a shit what my opinion is). Regardless, I salute those filmmakers for also saying fuck the system, and continuing despite any related backlash, and regardless of critics. Time will sort all this shit out. Till then, you do what’s in your heart.
Sujewa: Did you enjoy coming out to New York for a few days to work on Brooklyn Fantastic recently or was that just a very painful experience?
Amir: It was a little bit of both. Also, it was more then just a few days Sujewa. Susan and Ryan were very fun. I didn't enjoy Chinese take-out much. Also, you have a way with waitresses.
Sujewa: That's a nice cryptic & fun answer - we'll explore that topic more when we do your Brooklyn Fantastic interview in a few months. Back to Whale - I thought the film was unique & very interesting - not like most other indie or Hollywood movies being made at the moment in America - what led you to use the methods that you used in Whale - including the use of documentary type footage, and at times almost an observational/security camera type footage where it feels like the camera is recording events unfolding in front of it without being guided by an operator, and sequences where a character is directly addressing the camera/as if he is being videotaped by another character in the movie - using those approaches as opposed to using the regular narrative story telling method of just characters interacting with each other in traditional scenes?
Amir: The methods used in Whale were my grand personal journey to figure out what DV cinema meant to me. I have always thought of Coppola's Fat Musician (Filmmaker) quote. What happens when you deconstruct the division of labor in film production, put the gear for an unlimited time into the filmmakers' hands, and let them do what they will, but still restrict the film to certain rules, mostly, not to bore the hell out of the audience.
As much as I love the films of Tarkovsky, we are far from those ideals now (maybe then too, I unfortunately wasn't around then). It’s a different world, so my question was, how to reach people but keep a certain, distinct voice. How to create an original product when we are often told that it won’t work? With all the tools and techniques available, why do we still insist on rehashing the same product over and over again? Certainly, from a careerist perspective, I see why, and only the bravest souls can keep the ideals of change or progression. Its always a losing battle, so as Gus Van Sant does, one for them, one for yourself. That’s the modern auteur.
Sujewa: There is a Neo-Neo Realist quality to Whale except it is not dull/deeply serious or at least did not feel to me like it was attempting to convey a somber, reflective "realism" at all times - there is a quite a bit of humor in the film - did that arise naturally out of your personality/the process of making the film or was that intentional/planned? Or, to put it another way, did you at first conceive the film as being just a drama type film as opposed to, in my opinion, the drama/comedy/journey type film that it ended up being?
Amir: This might just be a subjective response. Also, I do not find the Neo-Neo Realist films dull at all, although they are not expressively original, which is not meant in a derogatory way. As for Whale, I didn't make the film out of any genre. And also, the film deals in realism, on a personal, more forthcoming way, then in maybe a Neo-Neo Realist way. It’s just a different form of realism, because somehow, it is out of a subjective lens. Whale is not Cinema Verite by any means, but can go into it and does often. That is how new media works. When you introduce all those elements, then it breaks away from a concrete mood. In life, we deal with humor all the time, no matter how dire our circumstance, so maybe that’s where those funny moments came out in. The film also doesn't deal with matters of life or death (as when dealing with poverty), but a certain middle class dilemma. It might not be as sensational (overrated anyway), but the film does deal directly with a generation.
Sujewa: Whale points out the fact that its characters are aware of economic & racial/ethnic realities of life in America. How has the amount of money you have access to and how others react to you as far as you being "non-white"/other affected both the type of movies that you've made/your decisions to make certain movies/tell certain stories as opposed to others and your development as a filmmaker/career development? Do you think, in 2009 America, it is still easier for some people to "make it" in the film business due to either their ethnic background & perhaps gender & it is still difficult for others who are not a part of those favored categories? Or is it pretty much a level playing field now, in your opinion?
Amir: Again, I have found that the idea of race, and certainly economic realities in this film would be subjectively interpreted depending on one's own view. Certainly characters play the race card, but Cameron is fully integrated into a "whitewashed" way of getting on. Cameron is first an American, and an Iranian second. Suburban culture is formed by homogenization and regionalism, more so then ethnicity.
Also, one can't deny that they are living in what many would dream is paradise, but we are aware that even in the middle class, there are different economic realities, especially when you are still not able to get by on your own. There is certainly a type of desperation in some of the characters in the film.
Now back to the question, Bahrani's (and many others) success proves that everyone has a chance. Although, maybe it comes down to the stories you are trying to tell. It's never a level playing field, but if you are determined, hustle, and continue to be proactive, your time will come. The scale in which you work is another story all together, I’m certainly not going to guarantee your safety, be forewarned.
Sujewa: What's been the reaction to Whale so far? Especially from your friends who are not typically into art/foreign movies?
Amir: Well, it’s been very positive. While I was cutting it, I feared that it might be too esoteric, so I scaled down the length, and adjusted the pace. The fact that people who are mostly into Hollywood films have dug the film gives me great pleasure. Ultimately, I don't want this film only being watched by the art house crowd. That defeats its purpose in many ways.
Sujewa: What are the current distribution plans for Whale?
Amir: Well, we shall try the world of the film festival first. If they pass on it too frequently, I will turn to the web, VOD and DVD. I stand by the film, and you better get the fuck out my way, and I mean this in a very gentlemanly manner.