Just Lust: Caveh Zahedi Comes Clean
An interview by Johnny Ray Huston
San Francisco Bay Guardian, June 2005
'PEOPLE THINK OF my films as cathartic," Caveh Zahedi says. "But they're not to me, at all. I'm just trying to make a good movie." It's easy to see how the misconception comes about — Zahedi has constantly renegotiated his existence and his approach to cinema through a series of autobiographical works. Shot in stark black-and-white, 1992's A Little Stiff is a low-key record of a romance that never quite materializes. 1999's I Don't Hate Las Vegas Anymore finds Zahedi trying to transform his relationships with his father and younger brother by dosing them with ecstasy during a Christmas Day visit to the gambling capital. Taking its title from a John Ashbery line, In the Bathtub of the World is a one-year diary charting everyday foibles and small triumphs (a role in Richard Linklater's Waking Life) as the filmmaker hones a confessional style of radical honesty.
The up front first-person humor of the latter two works takes a new form with I Am a Sex Addict, Zahedi's most commercial effort to date and certainly a movie that spells out what its about. Nosediving in and out of narrative frameworks to examine his prostitute fetish and the damage it has inflicted on his love affairs and sense of self, Zahedi mixes unflattering observations with comic scenarios of the Woody Allen and Albert Brooks variety. If a scene requires him to go back in time to his younger self, no problem — curly wigs and spray-on hair to the rescue! Before the lights dim for the first-ever retrospective devoted to Zahedi's movies (at Yerba Buena Center for the Arts), I talked to the man himself about his methods and madness.
Bay Guardian: As the title suggests, you deal with sexuality directly in I Am a Sex Addict.
Caveh Zahedi: Obviously, the film is in part a reaction against the way sex is usually depicted. Recently there's been a trend of people depicting sex more honestly, less romantically. One example that strikes me is that great scene in Late Marriage — that's probably my favorite sex scene in a movie. Even a film like Nine Songs, which I don't like that much, is trying to depict sex in a different way.
BG: It's interesting that you recently interviewed Vincent Gallo for GreenCine, because the two of you have just made films about sexual compulsion. The Brown Bunny, however, is opaque in its approach to the subject.
CZ: Weirdly enough, I tried to cast him in this movie years ago. It was frustrating, because he wouldn't read the script. He'd ask me to pitch it to him, and then say, "No, I'm not convinced." So I told him, "You should just read [the script]," and he said, "No, I don't read." After a few months of that, I gave up.
BG: Did I Am a Sex Addict's title arrive early on in the filmmaking process?
CZ: The title was the first thing that came. I thought of it at the first [Sex Addicts Anonymous] meeting I went to, and I just went home and started to write it, telling the story so that it started at the meeting and ended there.
BG: Have people who've gone to Sex Addicts' meetings seen the movie?
CZ: Some people came up to me after a screening in New York [at the Tribeca Film Festival] and told me they were sex addicts and they were very moved and glad I'd made the film.
BG: I like how you go outside of dramatization to talk about the real-life women who've inspired the characters, and also to talk about the women playing them. What was your motivation in terms of doing that?
CZ: I've always had this dream of a film that would be both a film and the making of a film somehow combined. I don't know why I feel the need for that — maybe it's genetic, because it's something that Iranian filmmakers do frequently. For me it's a question of the ontology of what you're saying. To just say something — you can't do that anymore. You have to explain how you're saying it and why you're saying it in a way that has the correct level of self-consciousness and irony. It stems for our culture and how everything is so fake and suspect that you have to really address the foundations from which you're speaking. So it was a way of really challenging the truth of what I was talking about and the untruth — to put that in the right pitch.
BG: Did you want to make a movie that changes the way people talk about sex?
CZ: Absolutely. My main reason for wanting to make [the movie] was that it occurred to me that there's an incredible stigma attached to sex addiction, that it's more difficult for people to accept, process, and work through their sex addictions in a climate where there is a stigma attached to it. It forces people to hide it, not to share it, and not to seek help. I felt like the more that could be done to destigmatize a very human and very widespread problem, the better for us all.
BG: Don't you think addiction is woven into the fabric of daily life at this point? Simply using technology can be somewhat obsessive-compulsive.
CZ: Daily contemporary society is crazy-making, and we all have neurotic reactions to things that aren't human or humane, because we can't process our emotions in the face of this onslaught of technological change, alienated relationships, and complete political disempowerment.
BG: Something that's moving to me, looking at your films, is that certain people and their stories reappear. Have you had that in mind when making movies over the years, or did that come about naturally?
CZ: I guess I just started making a certain kind of film, and eventually it became more conscious, and I realized, "This is going to be great, the more I do this, the more dense and effective it gets" — like a long novel by Balzac or Proust.
BG: What do you have in line for the future?
CZ: A political documentary, although I'm hoping to reinvent the genre [laughs]. My father's second cousin's father was a general in the Iranian army. He was the guy who overthrew the democratically elected prime minister of Iran, who had nationalized the oil industry with the help of the CIA. He overthrew that guy and put the shah in power and became the prime minister and created the secret police under the shah, which tortured everybody.
His son, my father's second cousin, married the shah's daughter and became ambassador to the United States. He was a big figure in the '70s, dating Elizabeth Taylor, hanging out with Andy Warhol, and throwing these lavish parties where he would give people diamond rings and Rolls Royces as presents. This was while a lot of people in the country were starving, and when the revolution came, they put a price on his head, and he's in hiding.
I want to make a film about the CIA coup in 1953, which was actually the first CIA coup to overthrow a democratically elected government — how that action led to current problems in the Middle East.
BG: Will you be dealing with it from a first-person perspective?
CZ: I will. I don't want to do a dry documentary.
BG: I've noticed that taking hallucinogens and documenting your trips is a recurrent element of your films. You often mark special days, such as holidays and your birthday, with drug trips.
CZ: Basically, my whole oeuvre comes out of a drug experience I had, an LSD experience during film school. I was trying to make Hollywood movies, but then I had this LSD trip that really changed my whole way of thinking about reality and the purpose of art. I decided it was more important to reflect reality as it is than to create these fantasies. I started on this path, and drugs were very important to me during that period — I would use them, like you say, to mark occasions, but also for inspiration. One of my film projects, which I haven't finished but I've been shooting over the years, is about drugs. Every birthday I've been shooting an installment.
At this point I really like filming my drug trips. I don't know if I'll get that into the Iranian film, but I'll try.