Caveh Zahedi: Life as a Film
A Conversation with Caveh Zahedi
An interview by Jessica Hundley
Mommy And I Are One, Summer 1996
Caveh Zahedi has made two feature films--A Little Stiff and I Don't Hate Las Vegas Anymore. He is currently at work on his third project, I Am A Sex Addict. I interviewed him because I feel he is one of the most intellegent, honest and innovative artists in the medium today.
Mommy: Why don't you start by telling me about yourself, where you grew up, went to school, childhood traumas, etc?
Caveh: I grew up all over the place: Washington D.C., NY, France. I went to boarding school in Switzerland for a while. I went to high school in Los Angeles. I went to Yale and studied Philosophy. Childhood traumas? My parents got divorced. I felt unloved.
Boarding school in Switzerland? How old were you?
And you went alone?
Well, my sister was there also.
And how old was she?
Wow, that's young! Did that make more independent or more insecure?
Well, both. I mean, I think in some ways it might have saved me. It might have been worse to have been home.
At your home, or at an American public school?
At my home. I went to an American public school later and it was much worse, a reign of terror. Junior high.
That's when people learn how to be asses, in 7th and 8th grade.
I learned how not to smile.
Why did you start involving yourself in film?
Well actually, in 7th grade, my English class made a film and I got to direct it. And I got really excited about it and I thought about it all the time. It was about the end of the world and, you know, it turned out terrible and I don't know what happened to it. That was the first thing I did. Then in college, I was painting and I was a political science major and I flet like these two interests were kind of at odds. Then one day, I think I was eighteen, I realized that film would be a way to do both. I got really excited and I wrote a manifesto which I sent to all my friends. I went and bought a super 8 camera at the end of the school year and I had just read Faust and I decided to make a film of it. I went to Europe that summer with a couple of friends and I shot the film all over Europe. I played the Devil and my friend was Faust and my girlfriend was Gretchen. And you know, it was terrible, but I thought it was really good.
How long was that first one? Was it sync sound?
No, it was silent. I think I put music and sound effects on it. It was thirty minutes.
A silent Faust.
Yeah, it was really bad. Then, I made this boring documentary about South Africa, just using stills and didactic voice-over narration. Then, I made this very naive nature film about running water. I just did all these sorts of derivative things. I made a film of a T.S. Eliot poem "Ash Wednesday," for which I borrowed a skeleton from the Anthropology department. Then, I got into Godard and I made a Godard-influenced film. Then, I got into Stan Brakhage and I made a couple of Stan Brakhage-type films. I basically just copied everyone I liked for a while there.
I want to talk to you a little about your relinquishing your role as director to God in I Don't Hate Las Vegas Anymore. You state in the beginning of the film that you want to prove God's existence by letting go of your own control. And I think ultimately you do; I think there are definitely moments where a celestial hand reaches in and makes things perfect. Particularly the moment where the film has been previously exposed and the cast is experiencing an hallucinogen and visually it becomes very hallucinogenic because there are two images on the screen and you're not really sure which image the sound is coming from. So for the audience, it is a hallucinogenic moment and it works perfectly, even though it was a huge technical error. Tell me about this and your relationship with God.
I believe in God. It's sincere. My relationship with God is derived from halluncinogenic experiences: that was my way in. I took hallucinogens a lot before I ever had a "God" period. But after a certain point, I started experiencing something other than what I had been experiencing before, which was, you know, the usual: incredible happiness and these great colors. But then, there was one experience which was really fundamental, where I saw God, I had a direct experience of God as a visible presence. He appeared as the face of a clock with the letters E=mc2 written on it. Then, there were other experiences after that that were even more mind-blowing. The first experience, on mushrooms, was pretty determinate, though--where I felt God approaching me--this love energy which was a billion, trillion, zillion times greater than anything I could even begin to imagine. I remember it coming closer and being just so completely blown away by it. It was like the sun, this heat coming toward you and you just begin to melt. It was this power of love that was something unimagined and I felt really scared and as soon as I got scared, it started to pull back. And I realized that the only thing that was keeping it away from me was my fear, and that God was there, waiting for me to not be afraid. And it was just a glimpse. I'm making a whole film about these experiences called I Was Possessed by God. It's about mushrooms and God and these possession experiences I've been having. But I can't do it too often for various reasons, like it takes a long time to edit and I've also been very broke. I'm a bit baffled about how to proceed with it.
(At this point, unbeknownst to me, the tape has run out. Caveh tells me that he feels his decision in I Don't Hate Las Vegas Anymore to let "God" or reality direct the movements of the film is what he is the most proud of and what is philosophically the greatest contribution of the film. We end up talking about David Byrne and Frank Black and the seemingly inevitable flagging of musical innovation that comes with age and security; maturity equalling complacency. Then, finally, I realize all this is being lost.)
Mommy: What were we talking about?
Caveh: God and David Byrne.
Oh, yeah. Do you feel like you could resign yourself to mundanity?
I feel like the challenges that hit you later in life are greater challenges. A lot of my work was created under these sort of artificial circumstances, you know, college and the kind of post-college freedom of not having to make a living, really. I made the last film on credit cards, and that's something you can only do for a little while before it all collapses on you. I was lucky enough to be able to eek two features out of that extended adolescence. And now, I can't. I have no money, massive debts. So how I proceed with my life can no longer be what it was. It seems really clear that in youth, you have this incredible grace and energy and that energy does dwindle. But that doesn't mean that there are not great masters who are old.
I think there are certain arts which are more conducive to maturity.
And I think film is one of them, certainly more than music.
Film and writing and visual arts. but music, pop music at least, does belong to youth. Well, what are you going to do? Do you have a plan?
Well, I'm just kind of making it up as I go along. I'm trying to deal with the realities of my life and the financial aspects, while being as true to the artistic and spiritual guides as possible and pray that it will all come out okay and I can die in peace.
Are you getting any encouragement, financial or critical?
Yeah, lately a few good things have happened. A Little Stiff was just bought by the Sundance channel. A little bit more money and a few more people will see it. I think gradually, posterity will be kind to those films.
And if you put it all in perspective, at thirty-five you are really young for the profession. Really, you're just a baby compared to most directors. How's your father?
What did he think of I Don't Hate Las Vegas Anymore (in which he and Zahedi's brother are featured)?
He saw it. He didn't really get it. He just hopes it makes money.
Is that what he expects of you?
Well, it's all he can really understand. It's the framework with which he understands life. My little brother liked it a lot, which is surprising. He went to a screening and people were laughing and he loved that.
Did you ever find out if your father actually took the Ecstasy?
Not really. I could never really get a straight answer out of him. He claims not to remember.
Tell me about what you're working on now, I Am A Sex Addict.
I think it's my most mature work, if I ever can get it made. I think it's the best thing I've done. It's autobiographical, like most things I've been doing. About ten years ago, I started becoming sexually obsessed with prostitues. And it became this huge problem in my life. I mean, all these realtionships were destroyed because of this thing....
You were unfaithful?
Yes, and I just could not stop doing it. And it took a lot of pain and destruction in my life for me to sort of get a handle on it and to figure out what it was all about and what I could do about it. And I guess, about five years ago, I started going to Sex Addicts Anonymous meetings. It really helped me a lot. The film is the story of my sex addiction.
Do you deal with it with the same sort of humor you've had in your other films?
Yeah, I do. I think it will be very funny. I'm kind of down on humor these days--I'm really into seriousness--but I think I can't help but make it funny. But I think it will be funny like a Cassavetes film is funny, more than like a Dumb and Dumber film is funny. Yeah, I'm trying to do it with humor. I think that's the only way I can do it so people won't throw up.
You must have an idea now of why you had this addiction. Do you want to talk about it? Am I prying?
No. I mean, that's what the film is about. There are so many ways to talk about it, psycho-sexually or Freudinaly or Jungianly but the way I think of it most of the time, is in terms of what I would call the Devil or the ego. I don't believe in the Devil in any kind of literal sense, but I do believe there's this thing in all of us that's attracted to what we consider evil. And this was just very attractive to me. It turns me on, to think that I'm sinning: to transgress. And for various reasons, I'm sure some of them childish, this was the way my destructiveness and ego manifested itself. It was really a high for me to do this. My father was very unfaithful to my mother. It destroyed my parent's marriage. So I knew it was "bad" and I felt I had to be the opposite of that. And I think that the schism became so wide that at a certain point, it was overwhelming. And it was this whole PC thing I had from college, being a good Marxist and feminist and all that, that you don't do that kind of thing. So, I went the other way and did justice to those impulses, but in a really extreme way. It had a healthy side too, an attempt to accept this thing in me that I'd rejected. But at a certain point, it definitely became addictive.
You say "sinned." did it have anything to do with your actual religious upbringing?
Well, I wasn't really brought up religious but my parents are both Iranian and I'm sure that had a lot to do with it. That culture is very puritanical and also very sexually unintegrated. In that sense, it was religion--not my religion, their religion. I basically started working on the film four years ago and it's been a really frustrating experience. I've never worked on anything this long and all these questions come up: Should I change this? Am I selling out? They want name actors. They want to change the ending. This thing has been surrounded by a maelstrom of Hollywood insanity.
Well, you've escaped that with the last two and I think escaping that long is amazing.
Yeah, it was. If the films had done a little better, I might have been able to continue to do that, but there's no money to speak of. I could be angry about it, but that doesn't really help. I think I just have to work in any way possible within the system, in America in 1996. And all the models that I love--Cassavetes, Bresson, Tarkovsky--they were coming from an entirely different economic milieu. So, I'm just really groping with how to proceed with this.
How to make concessions without sacrificing.
Yeah... I may be going too far, but as far as I've gone, I've never gone far enough. So I just go a little further and hope I don't turn into all those other guys.
Mommy And I Are One ï¿œ 1996