Independent filmmaker Babak Anvari (above, right) won this year’s WGGB Best First Screenplay Award for his impressive debut feature film Under the Shadow, which he both wrote and directed. He is currently in post-production with his second feature, shot earlier this year in the USA.
In this special Q&A for the Writers’ Guild, he talks to Film Committee member Anji Loman Field about his filmmaking journey.
What first inspired you to write?
Writing was an accident really. I’ve always wanted to be a filmmaker ever since I was a young child – so telling stories through the medium of film. But when it came to my first feature film, I realised that I had to write the screenplay myself if I wanted to get it done. I didn’t have the resources to hire a writer!
Did you have any particular influences?
Yes, many. In different forms and shapes. I remember Paul Schrader’s Taxi Driver was the first screenplay I read over and over when I was a teenager. It had a great influence on me on how to write screenplays. Throughout university I read as many screenplays as I could, from Paul Thomas Anderson, David Mamet, Darren Aronofsky, Aaron Sorkin, etc. Basically, I was a geek and went and read the screenplays of the films I liked. I also like Chris Nolan’s way of writing. They’re so efficient. It is very obvious that they are written by a filmmaker. Obviously, reading novels, stories and plays has influenced me too.
What has been your industry training and experience?
I’ve got a BA in Film and TV Production from the University of Westminster (now Westminster Film School). After graduating in 2005 I did a lot of small jobs in the industry like being a runner, etc. Then I started working at MTV as a video editor. That lasted eight years. I was making short films and writing feature screenplays on the side in the hope of getting them made. Under the Shadow was my third attempt.
Tell us about your first film – it was an animation, right?
Yes, my very first film was a short animation that I made when I was 16. I did it with the help of my friends at school. It was a combination of still images and 3D work. It’s only 7-8 minutes but I think it took me 13 months to complete it. Mainly because I could only use the computer after 9pm on school nights!
And then you wrote and directed a short film, Two &Two – how did that story come about and how was the film received?
Two & Two came much later. I made many other shorts in between. I made Two & Two in 2011. I was still working at MTV back then and it was a side project for me. I co-wrote it with a friend and colleague Gavin Cullen – we used to work on it after work for fun. Then I decided to co-produce it with my friend, long-time collaborator and cinematographer Kit Fraser (who also shot Under the Shadow). I put some of my savings in it and Kit helped as well and we pulled many favours and managed to get it made. It went to various short film festivals and eventually got a BAFTA nomination in 2012, which was a big deal for us.
What was the inspiration for your debut feature Under the Shadow?
It stemmed from a personal place. I was born in Iran, during the Iran-Iraq war. It was quite a dark and stressful time, so I thought it’s a unique and original setting for a horror film with a very emotional and personal through-line. So, it was basically about tapping into my childhood memories because I was more or less the same age as the child in the film during that time. A lot of the things that inspired the story were conversations I had with my parents and stories I heard from relatives and family friends. Even the characters in the film are sort of inspired by people I’ve met in my life when I was growing up in Iran, but I obviously fictionalised and dramatised all of these. It’s not an autobiographical film. It can’t be because it’s genre. It’s a work of fiction.
How did the film progress, from script to screen?
From the moment I started writing it till the moment we started shooting, it took three years. That’s because I still had a full-time job at that point working as a video editor for MTV. So I could only work on the script during my free time, in the evenings after work and on the weekends. I was very adamant to shoot it in Farsi for the sake of authenticity. A lot of my friends called me crazy and told me to give it up because nobody would back a Farsi language genre film set in 1980s Tehran. But I was tenacious. When it came to finding a producer it wasn’t easy though.
I met a dozen UK-based producers, but they all found the project too risky, especially when it came to the language. The only producers who didn’t were the ones at Wigwam Films, who took the risk. I developed the project further with them until they managed to finance it through private funding. This is also how I found my current producing partner, Lucan Toh, who was one of the producers of Under the Shadow and used to be part of Wigwam Films. He also produced my second film with Annapurna Pictures and a lovely American producer Chris Kopp. Lucan and I have now set up our own production company called Two & Two Pictures (taken from the name of my short film) and we have a few exciting projects in the pipeline. So, one big lesson I have learnt is that, if you believe in your project, stick to your guns!
The film won the Writers’ Guild Best First Screenplay award this year. Are awards important and, if so, why?
Winning the Writers’ Guild’s ward for Best First Screenplay was amazing and such an honour. It felt great to be recognised by the Guild and receive such an accolade. It was even more special because the person who handed me the award was Tony Grisoni (pictured above, left) who was my screenwriting lecturer back at the film school. I hope I made him proud. Winning a BAFTA also opened many doors for me. I see awards as encouragement. As a nice pat on the back and a “well done”, especially when they’re given by experienced, fellow industry members. But it’s also important to not get spoilt by awards – the focus should mainly be on telling a good story.
Tell us about your next film.
It’s set in America, in New Orleans to be specific. It’s about a bartender whose life turns into a living nightmare after he picks up a phone left behind at his bar. It’s based on a short novella by an incredible genre writer named Nathan Ballingrud and it stars Armie Hammer, Dakota Johnson and Zazie Beetz with Annapurna Pictures financing it.
What would be your ultimate ambition for the future (or where do you see yourself in 10 years’ time)?
At the risk of sounding cheesy, I want to be one of the best filmmakers out there. I want to be known as someone who tells original and interesting stories and I want to help other people tell their stories too.
Aside from winning awards, what have been your best career moments to date?
There have been many. Making my first feature film is probably one of them. Making my second film is probably another. I think just waking up every morning and realising that I’m doing the job that I love and I have dreamt of since I was a child is a great feeling.
What are the three most important things you have learnt about writing a great script?
That brevity is key. If you feel there’s something off about certain sections of your story, then other people will definitely notice that too, so don’t delude yourself. Also, that a script is ultimately a blueprint and without the help of actors and your filmmaking team it cannot turn into a compelling film, so don’t be overly precious about it.
Watch a clip from Under the Shadow
Photo: Matt Writtle