Gambling with Movie Making
Caveh Zahedi Talks About Faith, Drugs & I Don't Hate Las Vegas Anymore
An interview by Lisanne Skyler
Release Print, June 1994
He's been called the Iranian Woody Allen by those speaking Hollywoodese. In fact, there is something reminiscent of the New York neurosis-meister in the way Los Angeles filmmaker Caveh Zahedi takes us on a cinematic tour of his own psychological bends in I Don't Hate Las Vegas Anymore. And, as with Allen, questions of faith and God and sex figure prominently in the maker's mind. The comparison, however, stops there. Zahedi's ultra low-budget, reflexive, vérité second feature shares little in the way of narrative strategies or production values with the Woodman's classic comedies. Zahedi, who clearly relishes being in front of the cameras, is our personal guide on an entirely contigent journey with his father and younger half-brother (plus a very forebearing three-person crew) to Las Vegas where he tries to achieve familial closeness by convincing his father and brother to take the drug Ecstasy with him. He also tries to keep convincing us—and himself—that a movie is actually taking place, even when someone fails to turn the camera on. Judging by audience reaction at the San Francisco International Film Fest, where Las Vegas had its North American premiere, Zahedi has, at least, half-succeeded. Many found the movie very funny and refreshing; others found it a humorless exercise in high-concept self-indulgence. Indeed, Zahedi is by turns a charming and irritating filmic guide. Amid mock-serious self-revelations and pop-funny social observations—he has a great sense of comic timing—Zahedi also reveals himself to be a somewhat calculating, even cold-heated filmmaker who can switch in a heartbeat from comforting a broken-hearted crew member to asking if that scene of comfort got on film. Zahedi leaves us questioning his sincerity perhaps more than he wanted, but to his credit he leaves such uncomplimentary bits in the film. Zahedi (whose first feature was A Little Stiff) was in town for the SFIFF shows and we asked Lisanne Skyler to talk with him for RP —Ed.
LS: In what ways did your budget for I Don't Hate Las Vegas Anymore restrict or enhance your filmmaking?
CZ: My budget defined the film. it was made because I had $20,000, and I had to think of a $20,000 film.
If you had had $40,000?
About the same. Now, if I'd had $300,000, I would have shot the script I wrote.
What was the original script?
It was a John Cassavetes homage. I have this friend who is a poet, and he imitates other people. He says that you think you're imitating someone's style and you're really not. It's different and that difference is your style. So I thought it would be interesting to make films like other people's. [My films] are all homages to somebody. Well, I mean you think it's an homage to somebody and then it really isn't. But when I wrote it, it was an homage to Cassavetes. And Godard.
So you had the script and it was an homage to Cassavetes and Godard and you couldn't get the funding for it?
Right. You see, I've been making films for a long time. I've done all kinds of styles. At some point [earlier on], I was trying to make narrative films. You know, mainstream films. And I just couldn't really. It didn't feel right. I'd been writing a script about vivisection... you know, experimenting on animals, and I'm against that. I think life is sacred. So I was writing a script about it, but I didn't know anything really. I know people go out and research stuff and get to know a subject. It's a temperament thing, I guess, but I just didn't like doing that. [So] I was trying to write about something I knew nothing about, and as much as I could try to research it, I never really would feel confident that I knew what I was talking about. So...I know the person who met Jean-Luc Godard. He asked him his advice to young filmmakers. Godard said, "Get a video camera and make films about your parents."
Did Godard do that?
No, he never did. But I attribute that to mean, don't worry about budget, don't worry about that kind of stuff, just make films about what you know, and that you have feelings about. I think that's really why I made [Las Vegas]. Before this I made a film called A Little Stiff. I was writing the vivisection script and I took acid one day and was laying on my back and I saw a plane writing in the sky. I forget what it was saying, but it was something strange that on acid just seemed written for me. And I had this vision of Buddha holding a flower in his hand. I felt what that meant was beauty or reality or truth or whatever is given, it's waiting here to be taken. You don't have to work for it. It's just there. And the clouds were so beautiful, it was like, why make a film about vivisection when everything around me is so beautiful? It's a question of being able to see it. It seemed after that that I really wanted to make films about ordinary things and show them in such a way that people could appreciate them. I guess what I don't like about Hollywood is that it invalidates your life, you know, the whole star system and beauty system...invalidates the lives that we actually experience. So I felt it was important to validate the things we all feel and experience. A Little Stiff was an attempt to do that. I wanted to take the most ordinary thing that I knew something about, and it had to be my life. I took my most recent crush on a girlfriend. It seemed everyone could relate to that, a crush, it was simple and I could, you know, control the locations. Just my apartment, her apartment. I made that film against the whole Hollywood narrative thing. Actually, I saw a John Ford film at the same time called Fort Apache. I'm not a big Ford fan, but there was a moment in the film where they're drinking alcohol on this cliff and they're deciding what they're going to do to kill the Indians or something. And one of the guys takes a bottle and throws it off the cliff. There's this three-second moment when—it's a wide-angle shot, a real long shot—we're just waiting for the bottle to hit. It's this beautiful moment that had nothing to do with the narrative, the experience of throwing a bottle off a cliff and waiting to see how long it's going to take before it hits. To me that was exciting, an extra-narrative moment that was so beautiful. So the whole film was kind of trying to stay on that line between narrative and non-narrative and never go so far out that you lose the story and get bored. But the narrative was not central. It was really just trying to find all those moments and string them together. I'm getting side-tracked...
We're talking about the original script for Las Vegas.
Right, so after I made [A Little Stiff], I heard the thing about Godard and I said I'd make a film about my parents [but] my mother would never consent, so I'll do my father. I wondered how could I make a film about my parents since all they ever do is go to Las Vegas every weekend. So I thought, well, why don't I go with them? At this time I was into recording everything and I hadn't really written a screenplay. I had blocks about it, writer's block. So I thought, why not just tape record our conversations. I knew that would be more interesting than anything I could think of. It'll take me three days. Worse that happens is it's terrible, but it's just a three-day investment, $50 in tapes. So I did it. I had a Walkman and just recorded and I thought, "God, was pretty interesting." All the little epiphanic moments. I actually asked a bunch of people what film I should make after A Little Stiff. I had more commercial ideas and everybody said they liked the Las Vegas idea, which surprised me. It was my favorite too, because it was the most personal. Also, American Playhouse was saying they were interested in films about Arabs because the Gulf War had just happened.
How did you feel about being put into a category like that?
Oh, I was happy.
Because it was money. I mean anything they wanted, any way they would give me money was fine with me. But they ended up not liking the script. Good Machine was going to produce it and they couldn't raise the money. Jim Stark was involved for a while and they went to all these people and everybody said, "No, it's not commercial enough, it's not narrative enough." They thought it was too weird. But it was a good script and people liked it, but we didn't have a three-act structure and the arc. It was very Cassavetes-like, all these moments that led to a very subtle epiphany. But, you know, to shoot it, I would have needed permits and would have had to shoot underwater. We budgeted it and it was $300,000. I didn't get the money and two years went by. Finally, I got a grant for $20,000. And I had no money at all. I couldn't pay my rent. In the meantime, I'd also written another script called I Am a Sex Addict, and I wanted to that film more because it was newer. I didn't know if I should take the money and make [Sex Addict], just say I changed [projects], sorry guys. But I thought that would be dishonest. So I told the [grant administrator] American Film Institute my predicament and they said as long as I kept the same title and the same basic premise, I could change it a little bit, but if it was a whole different thing, I had to get the NEA to approve it. I thought the NEA would never approve [Sex Addict] because it was very hard core and not very PC. So I said, "O.K., I'll make [Las Vegas] first." I knew it would make no money.
You really got it done for $20,000?
No. I got two more grants. One was $6,000 from the city of L.A. An Iranian grant. They give money to minority groups in the city. So I said, "I'm Iranian. It's about Iranians."
Are you happy with Las Vegas?
Oh, yeah, I love it. I keep changing it. Right now, there's one scene I'm not happy with. I might want to cut it down a bit.
Did you watch it on Sunday [at the San Francisco International Film Festival]? What was the response?
It's always astonishingly positive. I mean, there are people who hate it passionately, people who walk out, people who think it's incredibly self-indulgent and egomaniacal, and that hurts, it always hurts.
That hurts you?
Oh, yeah. Sure. I'm getting better at it, I guess. One is supposed to get tougher. I mean, I don't even know what that means, self-indulgent. What's not self-indulgent? It's just a category, not a category that I embrace. I can understand ego--that's a category--and somebody is ego-less or full of ego, but self-indulgent? My concept of the self is that it's transpersonal, and that by going towards the truest, deepest self, one attains the most universal, communal self. You reach others through the self and you reach the self through others. It's one of those things that at one extreme becomes the other thing. To say something is self-indulgent is not to see how the extremes merge. I think that art is self-indulgent in the sense that it's going within as in any spiritual quest. You go within to emerge on the other side. So the self-indulgent argument bugs me because it's such a different model of the self than the one I have. It implies that if you go in toward the self you cut yourself off from other people and that's bad.
Have people been critical of you specifically about the Ecstacy in terms of your dad's health?
Some people. I guess that's the main problem people have with it. They feel that it is immoral, that what I do is immoral.
And you do you feel about it?
There are so many levels. I don't believe anything is immoral. That's another category I don't really understand. I think there was definitely an unconscious paracidal impulse, part of me that wants him dead, unconsciously. That was one element of the film that I think I tried to be honest about. On another level, part of me was trying to prove something about God. It was like a gamble and people think it's irresponsible to gamble with someone else's life. I can see that, but I mean I gamble with my life and I gamble with other lives too. It's a weird thing. I guess it wasn't totally benevolent what I was doing, but I just used my intuition. I just thought that it's going to be a good thing if he takes this. True, he could die, it could be bad, but you know I didn't think it was going to be and then...it was a leap of faith.
Are you still going to try and produce I Am A Sex Addict?
I'm still trying, but actually I shot another film a few days ago.
What's that about?
It's called I Was Possessed by God. I've been experimenting with mushrooms for a few years. A year ago on Valentine's Day, I'd been taking large doses...I've been reading Terence McKenna's books, he to take heroic doses. I've done that. On this day I had an extraordinary experience and...I was possessed by a being which I don't know how to describe except as an angel or the holy spirit. This being knew everything and spoke in a voice that was not my voice and gave me information that I couldn't possibly know. It was the strangest thing, complete ecstasy and very spiritual--a sacred, holy, spiritual, religious kind of thing. I thought I must have attained a new spiritual plateau, that I'm accessing this spirit, these angelic forces. I took it again a month later to try to go there again, and I had a bad trip. I thought I was dying for six hours. I did it again and had an interesting experience and I had a vision of God, but it wasn't the possession spirit....I didn't do it again till January 1st of this year. My girlfriend....was there but she didn't want to take it, because she is afraid of drugs. I took three grams on January 1 and I had that possession again. This voice spoke through me and I was doing somersaults and flips in the air that I've never been able to do. I was being hurled around the room. I was like a thousand trillion watts of energy and my girlfriend was there, writing down what I was saying. At one point the voice said, and he talked like this, "THIS! IS! THE! VOICE! OF! THE! SIBYL!" It was very scary for her.
I can imagine.
It wasn't angry. It sounded angry but it was just this incredible energy that was going through me and it came out as incredible volume. It said that it was an oracle and the voice of the Sibyl and to ask it questions. [My girlfriend] asked all these questions and it answered. The first question was, "What should I do about my writer's block?" I don't know how but I knew how to let it speak. I could go back and forth between me and it. I could comment on it in my voice and we'd argue. I'd say something and it would yell at me and I would say something and it would say something back. My eyes would kind of go up in my head and I'd wait for maybe three seconds for the answer. And it said, "YOU! DON'T! HAVE! WRITER'S! BLOCK! THERE! IS! NO! SUCH! THING!" I felt like the voice, the being, wanted me to...record this. Well this was pretty trippy and it goes against people's ideas about God and humans, but at one point, it kept saying something about a lie. It kept saying, "LIE!" It was really stern, and it wasn't at all my vision of God which is very gentle and Jesus-like. This was an Old Testament kind of thing. My girlfriend asked, "What lie does Caveh do?" And the voice goes, "MY! NAME! IS! GOD!" Then I was thrown to the ground and put my forehead right on the ground. I felt that was a way of God telling me not to interpret this in an ego way. It's a very humble thing to be--God. It was, you know, trippy. And I thought, "O.K., I'm supposed to make a film about this." So I got a camera and was going to wait until I had enough money to do it right. I was going to grow mushrooms and show that and do it a bunch of times. I thought if God exists and I'm supposed to do this, then God will deal with the money.
Well, yeah, he did. He never dealt with it as well as I would've liked. I was going to start shooting on my birthday, last Friday, April 29, and I had no money at all. I said, "Well, the money will come," and it came in little dribbles. Jay Rosenblatt sent me $100 and some other friends sent me $300. Somebody sent me some short ends. I rented a camera for $275, got a deal, had these short ends and shot it for $400. I had a cameraman and a sound person. Suzanne [my girlfriend] did sound, and we filmed it, and it happened. The God thing came, and for a half hour I was struggling with it and I didn't know if it was going to happen or not, and it occurred to me that it was a choice. I think everything is a choice on a very deep level. I'd had this weird illness and I believe that illness is psychological and spiritual. So Suzanne asked it why I was ill. It gave this answer which was shocking to me, and at one point it said I would be healed. I went [clap sound]...and it was going. So that's what my next film is. I'm still trying to raise money for Sex Addict.
What's it like directing and acting? How do you orchestrate these roles?
It's nice. I mean, it's harder. I just have to give up more control during the shooting. I have to trust everybody else. I don't at all think about the camera. I don't think about aesthetic things. I just say, "You guys use your own judgment." [With Las Vegas], I never looked behind the camera. In [I Was Possessed by God], I was on drugs, so I didn't even think about it. My films aren't controlled in that way. That's not what I do. I mean, there are so many great directors who are able to control the image. We talked about making your flaws your assets. I don't think I'm the greatest filmmaker. I don't know much about cinematography or storyboarding. The one thing I have which I think is special is I think I'm brave. Maybe it's a kind of narcissism or exhibitionism or confessionalism. I don't know what psychological quirk makes me this way, but I'm willing to be honest and upfront about things in a way that most people aren't...and that's what I try to maximize.
It's an interesting point. Often the director has to put on a facade of being in control.
I think it's oppressive. Because it's not real. Nobody knows all the answers, and nobody is in control. It's just a lie. One of my gripes in filmmaking is the absurd hierarchizaton of things. My way is to try and work with friends who respect me, so if I don't know what to do and I'm freaking out, they're not going to go, "Oh, he's not as intelligent as we thought." When you have crews and you don't know them and they're techies who have this ego thing about being professional...I've been in that situation and it was murder. Everybody is judging you while you are trying to be creative. So I say never again am I going to have anyone on the set who I don't know already.
How did you approach editing Las Vegas?
First, I panicked because I felt it was terrible..., that no one would find this funny or interesting and I had made a big mistake and my career was over. I come out of an experimental film background, so I decided I was going to cut the film to very tight segments, just because I didn't trust the material. Also my last film was minimalist and subtle and very simple and I went to these festivals and I could tell people weren't appreciating the film. I would see other films that I thought were not as good as mine that would get much more acclaim.... I felt that in my next film I wanted to be noticed. Because A Little Stiff was subtle, I thought people would see it was sweet, but it went right by them, whereas Poison [by Todd Haynes, also at Sundance '91] had intense scenes with people spitting at each other, really transgressive stuff. I felt that I could out-transgress everybody if that's the game.
Do you think that's what it's about?
On some level. On the marketing level, I Am a Sex Addict is an attempt to address that. It was, "O.K., I'll show you transgression." It was an ego thing. I wanted to be noticed. I wanted to be recognized and respected. I felt that I hadn't been sufficiently. Um, what was the question? Editing [Las Vegas]...oh yeah. So I started making an arty, pretentious film. I think I was trying to impress everybody--I was doing this quick cutting and the weird stuff and had all these intertitles that I thought were strange. Rick Linklater [who directed Slacker, also at Sundance '91] let me use his non-linear editing system for free, so I went out there [to Austin] for about a month and tried to cut on that. Because it was so flexible, I was able to do really quick cuts very easily. I showed it to someone. They said, "Caveh, you're out of your mind." So we put everything back and made scenes longer and re-established it.
Are you optimistic about getting funding for your next projects?
I am but because I believe in God not because I believe in the fairness of the world. I believe everything is a choice and I choose to make film. A realization I had a couple months ago was [that] I Am a Sex Addict has a million dollar budget...and I've never done anything with that kind of budget before and I don't really have the credentials to get the money. It's not commonsensical to give money to me, but I just feel if I want it more than anything I will find a way.
Have you talked to any distributors about Las Vegas?
No. Nobody has said anything. It actually won a critic's prize at Rotterdam. The critics loved it and picked it as one of their favorite films, but it's just too weird. I think we'll be lucky if we just make a TV sale and recoup some of our money. We broke even with A Little Stiff. I made a German TV sale which paid for the film. But it didn't pay for living. So I'm not very optimistic about distribution for Vegas. I haven't really started the process of trying to find a distributor yet. This is the first showing in America, then I'm going to show it in L.A. in June...
At the AFI Festival?
No, they rejected it. Almost everyone has rejected it. Berlin, Sundance, New Directors, AFI...
I heard that Sundance didn't know what category to put it in.
No, they just hated it.
Oh, I should ask you what I ask everyone I interview. If you were interviewing a filmmaker, say it was Tarkovsky...
I would want to know what his favorite films are. I always want to know. I know what his favorite films are.
What Tarkovsky's favorite films are?
He likes Diary of a Country Priest by Bresson and Virgin Spirng by Bergman, and he likes Buñuel. He really likes Paradjanov. It's in his book. I think I would also ask him for advice.
What would your advice be?
Trust yourself. Have faith. Believe that whatever you feel or think or know is worth expressing.
Release Print © 1994