Tripping with Caveh Zahedi
An interview by Craig Phillips
GreenCine, May 2004
"I'm just trying to be real."
Indie with a capital "I," filmmaker Caveh Zahedi has appeared in his own films and the films of others (including an animated version of himself in Richard Linklater's Waking Life and in former film school chum Alexander Payne's Citizen Ruth). Unlike meeting other enigmatic filmmakers, when it's often hard to know how close you'll be getting to the real person when you meet them face-to-face, with Zahedi there's no such obstacle - what you've seen is what you get, up to a point. But as I discovered during an enlightening chat at Zahedi's San Francisco apartment-slash-post-production facility (where he's hard at work on a long-in-the-making magnum opus, I am a Sex Addict), Zahedi is a more personable guy than some may expect - given the amount of hate mail he's received over the years, due to what many perceive as the narcissistic nature of his films as well as for the controversial elements he dares to confront. They are indeed highly personal works that explore the self in "lay it all out there" fashion, but, as Phil Hall wrote in Film Threat, "unlike irritating one-note navel-contemplators like Henry Jaglom, Zahedi's films are rich with his extraordinary energy and optimism... even though his energy often seems to be channeled in the wrong directions and his optimism borders on delusional."
Whatever your take on Zahedi's films to date, he's indisputably one of indie filmdom's most maverick of directors, and a fascinating person. Now that he's resolved to let go of ever making his films "more commercial," Zahedi the artist (and philosopher, sex addict and actor) might only just now be coming of age. GreenCine celebrates the addition of some of Zahedi's films as Video-on-Demand titles with this engaging conversation.
Tell me about the project you're working on now.
It's a film called I am a Sex Addict. We're way over schedule and over budget. I've been working on it for three years.
Is it a documentary or a docudrama, or a mix?
It's a weird kind of hybrid. I talk to the camera, and I re-enact scenes with actors. And I'm using real documentary archival footage. It's a true story, but I'm using actors, as well as some of the real people involved.
When you appear as an actor in films, is your "character" different from your off-screen persona?
I try to be as close to myself as I can, to be as honest as I can. But it's hard. You're definitely trying to emphasize certain aspects of yourself, so it's kind of a weird mix of persona and non-persona. I'm not trying to do a persona. I'm just trying to be real. But there's an inevitable amount of "persona-making" that occurs in that effort, regardless.
Do you find that, with yourself or the other actors playing themselves, that the camera makes them act differently than normal?
Yeah, sure, the camera always alters them - but it doesn't just make it faker. It can also make it truer. It's like a distorting lens but sometimes that lens brings out something that's there already, but wasn't visible before.
Did you choose DV because it's more comfortable and easy to use than film, or is it purely financial?
It's totally financial. If I had more money I'd do it on film. I actually started shooting it on film a few years ago, but ran out of money and only had enough to shoot on video. We recently looked at some of the old film footage and it looks so much better. So we're actually going to use some of that in the film. But yeah, a DV camera is smaller and more invisible, but mostly it's just cheaper. I'm still trying to find the person who knows how to make video look as good as film. If you meet them let me know!
Video is so versatile - there are certainly things you can do with it that you can't do with film. Ideally you'd try to find something that has its own aesthetic and isn't just "sub-film." Julien Donkey-Boy looked nice. It was washed-out looking and very grainy. I thought some of the things that Hal Hartley did in Book of Life was the right idea.
Speaking of which, paraphrasing from your character in A Sign from God, are you really "not jealous of Todd Haynes and Hal Hartley for the reason" you think?
Well, if there's any rivalry it's purely on my side, not theirs. [laughs] I don't know, they both were at Sundance the same year I was and we were all at a certain point in the same group, and their careers took off a lot more visibly than mine. So I just felt a little left behind for a long while. But increasingly I've realized that what I'm doing is very different than what they're doing. It's definitely less commercial and probably less accessible. And I feel more comfortable with being who I am, and accepting that I'm not going to have as wide an audience as they will.
I seem to recall you saying that you didn't have the greatest Sundance experience. What was disappointing about it?
I'm always having these salvational strategies in my life, like, "If only this would happen then everything would be okay." And one of those at a certain time, was Sundance. And I think that's true for a lot of filmmakers, because so much can happen there. It's like winning the lottery; it can change your life. It almost never does, but it does sometimes. So I think I just had this salvational thing around it - "I finally arrived" - and then, you know, you really haven't, you just happened to be at Sundance for a few days.
Any thoughts on how new technology - DVD and computers - may affect how you put out your films, and how people watch them?
I think DVDs are having a big affect. I remember I once saw this documentary about the band Half Japanese, The Band Who Would Be King, and in it [singer] Jad Fair was sending tapes of his albums to all these different radio stations and people, trying to get them to listen to it. I thought that's really how you should do it. If your stuff is good, it'll get distributed through that system. I thought the next time I make a film I should make a thousand copies and just send them to influential people or people I like. With video it became more viable but with DVDs it's become even more so. You really can just bypass the theatrical distribution network, which is a killer for an independent filmmaker. They're like the devil - they block the gates and won't let anyone through unless you meet certain criteria, and if you don't go through those gates you go nowhere. And DVDs have allowed people to see films by much more obscure filmmakers. GreenCine's really a great example - they're creating an alternate network for a different subculture. People want to see these films, but before they couldn't because the distributors wouldn't let them, and the filmmakers couldn't show them for the same reason. So now there's another way around it. I think the technology really has made something possible that wasn't before.
How do you feel about people watching your films on their computers?
Ideally you want people to pay attention, but you can never control how people are going to watch your movies anyway. Any exposure is really better than none. If you write a book, people may use it for toilet paper if they want to, but they may happen to read some of it in the process. You can't really control what people do. You just put your stuff out there and hope.
I think it was David Lynch who put his films on DVDs without chapters at all, because he didn't want people skipping around scenes in the wrong order.
I think people should watch movies any way they want. When you make a film, you make it with a certain pacing in mind, including how long it's been on, how bored they'll be at this point and what's happened before it. But that said, once there was video you could no longer control how people watched it, how much they watched or where they started or ended. I know I prefer to watch DVDs over going out to the movies because I like to be able to stop it and get something to eat, talk about what I just saw, or replay a scene. It's much more empowering for the viewer.
This may sound trite but I'm genuinely interested: Who were some of your filmmaker influences? Filmmakers you like?
American experimental filmmakers like Brakhage and Bruce Conner. And Peter Kubelka. And I was hugely influenced by Godard. But I think Cassavetes is my favorite filmmaker. I also really love Ozu, Bresson, Tarkovsky. Lars Von Trier is my favorite contemporary filmmaker. I also really admire Harmony Korine, Ken Loach, Mike Leigh...
Mike Leigh has a process of putting his films together by collaboration with his actors. Do you do anything similar when putting together your films, in terms of improvisation?
Not really. Leigh has a theater background and his process really speaks to that. I really don't. I guess I'm more authoritarian or something, I know what I want and try to get people to do it. I'm much less collaborative with the actors than he is. It works for him but I wouldn't be comfortable doing that.
When you're filming, do you ever consciously channel another director, someone you appreciate or were influenced by?
I know Godard pretty well, know how he would have done things, at certain phases of his career. So there are times I may think, "Should we do it the Godard way or the other way?" But I'll usually try to find some new way that other people haven't done. Some of the early films, like A Little Stiff, had a lot of how Godard would have done it. Or not even necessarily like Godard would have done it but coming out of a certain tradition, and then trying to push the envelope of that and other traditions, Neo-realism and other things. But I don't really feel there's much of a tradition for what I do now. There are people who do things that are kind of close [to my work]. Alan Berliner is one who comes to mind - he made a series of personal documentaries. One about his grandfather called Intimate Stranger and one about his father called Nobody's Business. And then he did one about himself called The Sweetest Sound. He's very clever and inventive with using images and sound to convey things. I haven't so much studied his films as much as think, "Oh, he did that really well, I wish we could do something as well as Alan Berliner," or, "Something Alan Berliner-ish here would be good." And also a little Errol Morris. He does really great things, too. I just saw The Fog of War recently and have been thinking: I wish we could make my film more like this. So I guess it's more like osmosis.
Are you interested in the recent surge of reality and voyeuristic television programs?
Yeah, it is really interesting. I think it's a good thing. A lot of it is bad of course, but it's inevitable that something interesting will be alloyed with deleterious elements. But reality is where it's at, it's where people "live," it's what's deep and true. Our society has become increasingly fake. People's interactions are increasingly fake. Television is increasingly fake. And advertising is a big part of it. I think people really crave the genuine article. It's a really healthy impulse that people are more interested in reality than artifice. Reality does get alloyed with artifice but I think the trend is good. A lot of it is because of the technology - video has made it possible to film certain things that couldn't be filmed before. So there's been an explosion of people just filming their own lives and the lives of the people around them. There's a lot of bad stuff out there, but I think it's all to the good. It's like when people learned how to write - there's a lot more trash written, but a lot more good books written, too.
The technology's just starting to be old enough now where there are people who are adults whose entire lives have been filmed. I know some people who have hundreds of hours of footage of their lives. I don't - my parents never filmed me and I was born before video, so I have very little of that material to work with. But I bet there will be a whole bunch of films coming out that will encompass an entire life. And that's what films are great at, showing the passage of time. There was a film at Sundance this year kind of like that, Tarnation. And there was Capturing the Friedmans. It's definitely the wave of the future, because of the technology and the number of years it's now been around.
You brought some of your family members into your film I Don't Hate Las Vegas. How was that experience for you and for them, and would you incorporate them again?
I try to make films about whatever is most current in my life, or on my mind, or in my heart. This Sex Addict film I'm working on I've been trying to make for thirteen years. It was something that really occupied my mind for a long time. It takes awhile to make a film, and by the time you make it, you're usually already somewhere else. Which is both good and bad. But the issue that's closest to me right now is failure. It's something I've wanted to make a film about for a long time - coming to terms with your dreams not being realized. How that makes you feel and what you can do about it. And hopefully, how you can grow from it. Rilke once said: "The point of life is to fail at greater and greater things." But we live in such a success-oriented culture that there's almost no room for the lessons of failure. So anyway, my family isn't really that pressing to me right now. It's not where my head is at.
How did they feel watching that film?
My little brother liked it a lot. I think my father didn't really know what to make of it. Overall it was a good experience for everybody, but there was definitely some discomfort around it. I'm very embarrassed about my parents seeing my films, really.
In a way, your films are actually non-egotistical - in that you really lay yourself out there, warts and all. Is it hard to decide to keep certain embarrassing moments in when editing?
I definitely feel uncomfortable with things in all my films, because I just believe that what makes them good are those bits. David Lynch once said in an interview that all great films have at least one really embarrassing moment in them. And I try to make them as embarrassing as I can. The downside, of course, is that it really is embarrassing, but that seems a small price to pay for making a good movie.
It makes you more endearing to people...
Some people. [laughs] It also makes a lot of people really angry.
What sort of angry reactions have you gotten?
Well, I get hate mail. Very personalized. Some of them I respond to graciously, some of them I just ignore. It depends on whether there's any point in responding.
Is it from people who misinterpret what you're trying to say in the films?
Yeah, I think it's always based on that. And then a lot of people are just outraged at what they perceive as the solipsism of it. Some people get really angry about the drug stuff. Either they've had really bad experiences with drugs or family members who've been f----ed up by drugs, and then they feel like anybody who makes some drugs seem like not a bad thing is causing harm.
"It's a process of searching and flailing."
Drugs are one of the taboos in this country, and sex - and those are two of the things you're primarily dealing with. How do you feel about the way other American films have depicted drugs?
There have been really great depictions of drugs in movies, in various ways. I mean I thought Contact, which is not one of my favorite films, had an incredible drug sequence, when she meets the aliens - that's totally like a drug trip! Whoever made that had to have tripped, it was such an accurate evocation of the experience of tripping. The sudden shifts, and the bliss.
Drugs have been very helpful to me in my life, but I'm only interested in hallucinogens. I'm not into heroin or anything addictive. I can see why people are down on addictive drugs. I don't drink or smoke or anything. But hallucinogens get a really bad rap in this culture, and yet they're an effective way of attaining spiritual insights. So I think that part of the equation needs to be spoken.
I was interested in the way you depicted hallucinogenic experience because I once had a strange, interesting trip that I tried to write about, but I had a really hard time recapturing what the experience was like. Writing is probably even harder than film, but I thought you captured the experience well in I Was Possessed [by God]. After you watched the film did you feel it was close to how it actually felt for you?
Well, no. I mean it's impossible to film a drug trip. It's such an internal experience. I've been making the same film for years of tripping and filming it; every year I'll do a drug trip and then I'll film it. It's been going on for ten years now for a film I want to do about drugs. But every time I think, "I've finally captured it, this is it." And people will see God, or whatever was so clearly visible to me as it was happening - and then I look at the footage and it looks like a crazy person gesticulating wildly. I'm always really disappointed. So I actually don't think I do capture them very well, but think there's something that comes across in the physical seeing that is valuable. But it's just a fraction of what's going on.
Did you see Terry Gilliam's trippy Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas?
I didn't, no. But I was thinking of [Finn Taylor's] Dream With the Fishes - there's a very well-done drug scene in that film. And there was a scene in Go that was pretty good, where the cat's talking! [laughs]
Do you go back and watch your old films?
I don't. I don't like watching them. Well, occasionally there'll be a screening, and if I haven't seen that film in a while, I'll watch it just to see how it holds up.
How do you feel you've changed as a filmmaker? Have you come into your own?
A lot of people still think of the first, A Little Stiff, as my best film. I like it, but it's my least favorite because it's the furthest from my current preoccupations. Do I get better, do I get worse? I don't know. I try not to repeat myself too much, try to do new things. With the new film, I've been trying a lot of new things, and some of them don't work very well because I've never tried them before and don't know how to do them. It's a process of searching and flailing. That's why it's taking so long. I know how to do A Little Stiff and could make another film like that pretty easily, using little tricks to make it work and make it easy, or to deal with limitations. But I don't want to do that twice.
Are the "new things" you're talking about technical things?
Yeah. A Little Stiff was done entirely with master shots. One way to deal with the fact that you don't have dollies and therefore can't move the camera very smoothly is to not move it at all. You just set it down somewhere and let the actors move. And it works - as long as you make that your style. It comes out of poverty, but it works. Then you also avoid continuity issues and sound editing issues. And if you have people play themselves, then you avoid certain kinds of "acting issues" where you have people not playing the character properly. So there are things you can do to really minimize the downside of not having much money or experience.
I was interested in the piece you did for the Underground Zero film, particularly because it confronted a lot of the issues without being direct about it. Have you thought about doing any other pieces about 9/11 in the three years since?
I did that piece because I was really angry at the media and fearing World War III. I do think that the personal is political and that's what that film is trying to say, and my other films are getting at the same basic problem in their own ways - just not as overtly.
How did the class react to that piece? Did you ever go back and watch it with them?
The class actually ended before the film was finished so I was never able to show it to them. So I don't really know how they reacted. I've heard different stories, that some people really liked it, and some didn't.
Did any of them write to you?
I got a few nasty anonymous letters and emails.
Are you going to collaborate with Jay Rosenblatt on anything?
I would like to. I like working with him and we've been talking about doing something together for a long time. But I've been so busy. Anyway, it's on the table.
I enjoyed listening to the commentary that you and Greg Watkins did on A Sign From God's DVD - you guys sounded like you were having a good time and I picked up a few things.
We did that on the fly in one session because it's really expensive to rent the studio time. You just kind of do it and then regret it later, thinking, "Oh I should have said this!" or should have said that. But [commentary] really is an art form all its own. I think for my next one I'm really going to take the time to really think it through and do different takes and try to construct it more rigorously. It's a lot more work but worth it because it's there forever. I'd like to do commentary for all my films. That's in the works, too.
Do you remember hearing any DVD commentary you liked on other people's films?
I remember thinking the Trees Lounge commentary by Steve Buscemi was great, very down to earth and unassuming. Scorsese's commentary on The Last Waltz DVD is fascinating. Everything he says is fascinating.
So you're not going to do "the all-midget Little Women"? That was one of your pitches in Sign from God.
I'd like to. They have these annual little people conventions and this year's is in San Francisco, so I'm going to try to go and come up with a script based on what I see.
The pitches that you made in that scene, it was hard to tell whether the people you were pitching to knew beforehand what you were going to pitch, and then they laughed. Did they know?
No, they didn't. That's why they kept laughing. We thought we'd surprise them and let them react spontaneously. It works in the scene. It's kind of how it really was, where they really did laugh and then passed on every single idea. It was based on a real pitch session I had with American Playhouse, after I got a little attention from A Little Stiff. It was right after the First Gulf War and they were trying to do things on "Arab subjects." Because I'm of Middle Eastern descent, they asked if I had anything that might fit. So I went into their New York office with Greg Watkins, my collaborator, and told them all my ideas, and none of them fit at all. I think they were looking for more PC stories about, say, an Arab family with children who are getting picked on in school by other kids calling them names, and how they deal with racism, and of course, there's a well-meaning principal and a lesson learned by the bullies. You know, American Playhouse kind of stuff.
Could you ever conceive of doing a film that was farther removed from your reality? More fictionalized, or even a genre piece?
Yeah, I mean if somebody plopped a bunch of money down and said "Make (X)" I would do it - for the pleasure of exploring something different and, frankly, because I'd need the money. But in the absence of money, the things I naturally gravitate towards are the things that I do. And it's so hard to make a film that you really have to be excited by it. Money can excite you, or obligation can excite you or force you to do something. But as no one's made any offers, I'm just making the films that excite me. I've struggled with this a lot - I realized if I made more fictional-type stories I'd probably be doing better career-wise. And part of me really would like to and aspires to that. But when I get down to it there's always something within me that subverts everything and de-commercializes it.
Godard did Alphaville which was "science fiction" but more purely Godard...
Yeah, he's somebody who can't make a normal movie. And God bless him. He'd be a more popular filmmaker if he could, but those aren't the films he wants to make, or that he can make. He doesn't get excited by the same old narrative strategies. I'm starting to realize I'm not Hal Hartley or Todd Haynes. Both of them do their own thing. They have their own style - Hartley's style is a little more recognizable, whereas Haynes can straddle a broader spectrum of styles - but they're both true to themselves and are both really interesting filmmakers. But them being true to themselves is more accessible to most audiences than me being true to myself.
Some people don't find Hal Hartley's work very accessible either.
Right. But he's still more accessible than I am. The numbers prove it, I think. His films have made X and mine have made Y.
What about Alexander Payne? I know you had a small role in his first movie - would you want to work with or for him?
I knew him from film school at UCLA. I like him and what he's doing. It's not the kind of thing I would do. He has to make some compromises, he's trying to do good things within the system. I respect that. He's not somebody I feel especially close enough to cinematically to collaborate with. Except maybe we'd do drugs together.
I have this other film project called Tripping With Caveh. The idea is like Fishing With John, but instead of fishing, I'd trip with celebrities. I just did the first one, where I tripped with Will Oldham [singer from Palace Brothers, etc]. When I'm done putting that together I'll send it to a bunch of people and ask them if they want to be in the series.
I like it. And you, er, see this being on cable TV, or distributed on DVD?
I'd love to see it on TV but I can't imagine anybody showing it. I don't think television's ready for it.
Who else would be on your wish list for that series?
Everybody I like. I'd love to have Harmony Korine on it. I was reading an article about Charlie Kaufman and I was thinking he'd be an interesting person to trip with.
Yeah, although with him it's probably kind of redundant.
Hmm. I like Spike Jonze a lot, too. He's really great. And I heard Bill Murray trips - he'd be great.
I'd pay good money to see that.
Yep, me too.