Chicago critic David Fowlie from KEEPING IT REEL Interviews Amir Motlagh
Originally published April 18th, 2018. You can find the original post by clicking here:
This is a repost without the media.
by David J. Fowlie
Two films from Los Angeles-based filmmaker, musician, and artist, Amir Motlagh, “MAN” and “Three Worlds” will be premiering at Chicago Filmmakers on Saturday, April 21st. The non-profit media arts organization on the north side will showcase a double feature that will serve as a fitting introduction for some to the prolific artist’s work. Although the two films from Motlagh have a different approach and style, because of the similar locations and experimental vertité vibe they share, they can easily be seen as existing on a parallel plane. Recently, I had a chance to chat with the award-winning Iranian-American artist in anticipation of the event in Chicago this week and we talked about his process, influences and approach to his work. But first, some thoughts on his two films…
“Man” immerses viewers throughout the single-day activities of computer programmer, Arman (Amir Motlagh), the titular character who is heard throughout the film more than he is seen. The audience is primarily viewing what he sees, as if we are a pair of eyeglasses he’s put on. While there are shots of the area surrounding his Laurel Canyon home in Los Angeles, but mostly we are his eyes as we see solely from his point-of-view. The interaction is restricted to the confines in and outside Arman’s home, as we see him hang out with his two dogs, use his iPhone (which includes a speaker conversation with his father) and computer, as well as a visit by Des (Rachel Sciacca), a friend with benefits. Obviously, the cast is sparse and the environment limited and although I never warmed up to the Go-Pro approach (mentioning that device purely as a descriptor) utilized, I did appreciate how Motlagh (and co-writer, Charles Borg, who also edited and shot the film with Motlagh) takes something as mundane as “daily activities” and turns them into an opportunity to observe the moments of our lives we gloss over or consider mundane.
On the other hand, “Three Worlds” is a different animal, yet one that could easily coexist in the same universe. “Man” would probably fit in a microcosm of the “worlds” Motlagh creates in this existential science fiction story. This film also stars Motlagh as Saam, one of the main characters, who works in the entertainment industry in Hollywood. The location and setting play a prominent role in this film, as it does in “Man”, but here its broader in scope, taking us along the L.A. freeways and up and down the Hollywood hills. “Three Worlds” is definitely more psychological, as it incorporates different time frames (some from the past and some alternative), thoughts and endeavors of the main character as he interacts with friends and colleagues. While difficult to follow at times, there is a without a doubt a definitive boldness to “Three Worlds”, both in its tone and aspirations, and it will certainly require viewers to lean in a little closer, which is never a bad thing. I may not have completely understood what I was viewing, but I did find it a curious and fascinating watch.
“Curious and fascinating” is certainly one way to describe this artist. Below is my conversation with Amir Motlagh…
DAVID J. FOWLIE: Both “Man” and “Three Worlds” feel very experimental yet quite purposeful. I happened to watch them in that order and found them to be interesting companions. What do you think about viewing them as a double feature?
AMIR MOTLAGH: They both exist in the same series, THREE MARKS, TOO MANY SIGNALS, which also includes a 2016 film + album called CANYON. They have some aspects about them that are similar but are told formalistically in different ways. i always wanted them to play together, but exist separately. I’m not sure how the audience digests it, but I like this option…both standalone and as a series
DJF: Watching them in that order, I can see how they could coexist, maybe even in parallel realities.
AM: Yes, exactly. My only hesitation here is that I want them digested with enough time…a double feature makes that a bit harder. But, my hope is that it coalesces after the credits come up and long after.
DJF: The films served as a gateway to your work for me, as I’m sure it will for others. Do you think about that when you make a film? If so, what do you feel is important for you to communicate to a viewer?
AM: Of course, I think that these are pieces that feed context into the larger body of work. I don’t think about it actively though.
DJF: I’m gonna go out on a limb here and guess that there is a lot of you in these films, not just because you’re in them, but there many versions of who you are form the images and ideas in these films. Do the ideas for these films build over time, dependent on your life experiences or do they happen pretty quickly?
AM: Yes and no. They do build over time. In a different sense than say, Linklater’s BOYHOOD, but some of the characters have existed in my work for over a decade. They make appearances as I weave the narratives and some of it has to do with the dual threads of filmmaking that I’m interested in myself. This line however, exists on the territory of creating work that mirrors an evolution after the DV era, and into digitalization. I take influence from Youtube & The Web as much as the auteurs that I’ve really loved. These films in particular are works based on limitations and finding ways to tell different stores, in the same vain as say, 90’s Iranian Cinema. Of course, different from that, but, with the same strict limitations, some by design, some by circumstance. MAN was shot on a regular film schedule. THREE WORLDS took many years.
DJF: You’re in front of the camera here as well as behind, as you are in some of your previous films – at any point, do you wonder what another actor would do with the material?
AM: For these particular works, no. I have to guide much of it, and it would be very hard to direct that way. I need the time. I need the skeleton crew. But, for many of the more traditional scripts I have, and for projects we haven’t been able to get off the ground, those are more traditional in the sense that I’m nowhere to be found. I do however like to keep both tracks going at the same time, because the process has formed part of my identity. It is like a limb. I can shed it, but I find catharsis in it.
DJF: You’re quite a prolific filmmaker. Can you easily identify when a project is done and then move on to the next thing?
AM: Yes. The best part is knowing when the last T has been crossed. My project cycles are getting much longer now, so I’m doing less overall. This last round took a long time. much of it just had to do with resources, but also, the nature of THREE WORLDS, which was built more like a documentary than I narrative. Well, that’s the second best part. Process is number one.
DJF: As I watched the films, I wondered how laid out or structured your screenplays are and what pre-production is like for them?
AM: So, these are extremely different films in terms of process, script, pre-production, production, etc. MAN was around a 15 day shoot. My partner Charles Borg and I outlined everything after we had sat in meetings for a couple months deciding what we wanted to communicate , and had the means to actually produce. A quick camera type rehearsal, then the shoot. I was living in the canyon, so much of the principal photography was just getting out and capturing what I needed to daily. Of course, a portion of that work was improvised, based on themes, ideas, etc. THREE WORLDS was a whole different approach. I used a concept called Shoshin (Beginners Mind) with it. I made to make it, piece by piece, as time went by, as time itself is an extremely important element, both thematically, and process wise . So, while I had a very vague, over arching idea, I would write scripted portions and set-up shoots based on that particular narrative thread. At the same time, I used aspects of real life to feed into that narrative, so I would be shooting everything that was necessary. Principal photography lasted a couple years. Post production on that film was challenging as well, to say the least. I brought on an editor, (Bryan Tuck), who very much found the essence after many long discussions.
DJF: What I appreciated in these two films is how you present your audience with experiences – they could be experiences that are relatable, some from the past or the present, and even some from what we imagine our future or dreams to be. I could be way off here, but how deliberate is that and how much of it is discovered or developed while shooting?
AM: Charles was my co-writer on MAN, and I brought him on to help produce THREE WORLDS late in the production cycle. We had many discussions about visual hypnosis, time, mono no aware and Shoshin. These concepts are important, because I wanted both films to feel like an experience in real-time. So that they feel familiar, but you have no idea what is going to come next. And not in some “narrative twist”, just in the same sense you experience something that breaks you out of your regular day. The other aim I had, was that these films must be relatable, and not experimental in esoteria (sp), just in structure. It is the experience of time, its passage, and its shifts that was a real concern. So that had to translate over in process. In MAN, the film takes place in one day. In THREE WORLDS, years. But they both should unravel like a new experience, because, they are working with a different set of rules narratively.
DJF: Both film are set in L.A., from Laurel Canyon to the nearby Hollywood Hills, is there a certain vibe about these locations/settings that you gravitate to, that you want to explore?
AM: The practical reason is that the THREE MARKS series was something that I needed to produce. So, that set some limitations off the bat. The second was that, because they are all related in some conscious & unconscious ways, they should share similarities that get cross referenced. (CANYON the third project gives added context). Third, was specific to each film. In THREE WORLDS, the character works in the business, and so LA fundamentally shapes his experience. Its also self reflexive and meta. All the driving, freeways, commercial shoots, etc. It’s also just 40 miles away from where I grew up, in Irvine California, which is also heavily featured. In MAN, Laurel Canyon was the perfect backdrop to seclusion in a metropolitan area like L.A. The location is literally a few miles away from the Sunset Strip, but also feels like its in another world. That dichotomy feeds into the essence of the story. L.A. is a strange, strange place. It has everything and nothing.
DJF: I was there briefly last month and definitely felt the strangeness and the beauty of it all. I stayed in West Hollywood, but did a lot of driving around to places I’ve always wanted to visit. MAN and THREE WORLDS reminded me of that recent trip and made me think about the random people I met and what their story must be like.
AM: That’s interesting. It’s really a place like no other…transient, hopeful and its opposite and with an incredible abundance of talent. But also, regular folks going about the day to day.
DJF: Can you talk about your working relationship with your co-producer/writer Charles Borg? You’ve worked on both films with him, as well as some of your other films – how did you guys meet and what keeps the two of you together?
AM: We co-wrote MAN, and he co-produced both films with me. He was there at the beginning of MAN, and joined in post on THREE WORLDS. I met Charles through a mutual friend, and I believe we went to school together, but I don’t think we met. We first worked as collaborators solely on feature scripts, more mainstream. He is very good at the traditional craft, and he helped refine some of my other screenplays. So, once we had established a working relationship, and since we share a similar liking of cinema, I brought him onboard to ANIMALS, my production/IP house. He has an incredible sense of breaking things down. And for both these films, we went through a First Principles type exercise to get to the core of why/what/how. I can tell him that I liked something about Fata Morgana, San Solie, or a Moment of Innocence and he understands the codex. That is the most important thing with working collaborations. Do you speak the same language. Can you be brutally honest. Can you scrap something that you worked so hard on if its not working. Those are all things I can say yes to with Charles.
DJF: The description about one of your “in-development” films has me intrigued. What can you say about one of your in-development projects, “Burn”?
AM: I can say, “single take”. Hmm, can I say that? Not sure. We have another film that we are currently writing that takes place in the Chicago area.
DJF: Ah, so is the plan to film here then?
AM: Yeah…its untitled for now. I have two films that are in that area. Part of Camel West takes place in Minnesota. And the new work takes place in the Chicago area. Charles now lives in Chicago and he sent out some pictures and we thought it would be great to create a story in that region. People have certainly been very helpful and he’s been busy making contacts.
DJF: I’ll keep your work on my radar. Thanks for your time tonight. I hope the double feature this Saturday is received well.
AM: Thanks for putting me on David. Appreciate it.
As mentioned, both “Man” (85 min.) and “Three Worlds” (90 min.) will be presented this Saturday, April 21st at Chicago Filmmakers, as part of a Double Feature preview screening. Producer and co-writer, Charles Borg and sound designer Stephen Holliger, will be in attendance for a discussion of the films.