Interview with Babak Anvari (Under the Shadow)

Director Babak Anvari introduces Under The Shadow at the Film Society of Lincoln Center. Photo by Julie Cunnah.

UNDER THE SHADOW, written and directed by Iranian born Babak Anvari, premiered at the 2016 Sundance Film Festival and it broke viewer’s  minds, literally (an audience member actually screamed ‘I can’t handle this’ during the show).

The follow up to his British Academy of Film and Television Awards nominated short 2×2, Anvari wasted little time working on SHADOW. In fact, his need to get SHADOW made overlapped the nomination a.

“I literally started writing UNDER THE SHADOW when 2×2 got nominated,” Anvaris said. He added, that is you look closely enough, the teacher from 2×2 actually makes a short cameo in the start of SHADOW.

After the screening of SHADOW left the somewhat unsuspecting Sundance audience happily creeped out, Anvari said that he felt a bit of relief.  “Oh good, I’m happy,” he said, exhaling a gleeful sigh.

Another relief was the reaction by the movie media. Most of his interviews were running long as the director was in demand. It was a situation that was a relief. Interviewers had no problem waiting to talk to someone who did something unique, something vibrant and fun. And to add to it there is an inherent attraction to the work as it’s not every day you can say that the next great horror film has come out of Iran

The film is the enigmatic tale of a mother trying to protect her daughter from an evil unknown, SHADOW takes place during the Iran-Iraq war of the 1980’s. This is something Anvari experienced first hand and it shows.  It is with a deft hand that he intertwines cinema and reality.

“I was tapping a lot into my memories from childhood,” Anvari said. “From that era, from the wartime, because I was born there. Those are real experiences and I was using those. Using what terrified me as a child.”

SHADOW has drawn comparisons to the BABABOOK (Another Sundance fan favourite) and Del Toro’s THE ORPHANAGE. While these two films embrace some of the elements of SHADOW, it does stand on its own with an invasive setting and evocative historic timeline. As in 2×2, Anvari shows off his multifaceted storytelling skills with tactical aplomb.

Still from “Under the Shadow’

“I’m not a sadist, but yeah, I wanted to create the feeling of oppression and uneasiness,” he said. “I wanted to make (the audience) feel unsettled. And the best way to do that is to sit down and think what would creep you out as a filmmaker and put that in.”

During the interview, Anvari looked physically tired, but in his eyes, there was something wonderful happening. He was aware that what he was doing was taking effect. He was excited to talk about his work, like a proud parent fawning over their protégé child. All the hard work and the lack of sleep was paying off.

“At that point (during the filmmaking), I had a day job so I would have to come home and do the work late at night. I was in that headspace for so long that when I’d try to sleep I couldn’t because I just spent all this time freaking myself out.”

A day job was not the only difficulty that Anvari faced. A bit of a logistical nightmare having to pull actors from all over, his talented youngster Dorsa (Avin Manshadi) almost didn’t make it into the film due to passport problems. In the end, it was all settled and the film is better for it.

It is within the pacing of his scenes that his talents shine. A fan of 70’s horror (specifically Polanski’s 1976 psychological thriller THE TENANT), Anvari’s use of slow-burn tension to draw out the viewer’s imagination is skillfully employed.

“One of my hopes was to create that uneasy atmosphere where you are not sure if something is or isn’t going to happen,” he explained. “That is why I had all these long takes, and you are thinking about what may happen or not happen. That is why I had all these really long takes. Then, later on, something does happen. Making the audience feel unsure, just like the main character. It has people paying attention and asking what is going on?”

With artistic success comes the payoff. Vertical Entertainment and XYZ Films have partnered for global distribution of the Farsi-language film. As well, Netflix is handling the global distribution of SHADOW. All of this is gravy for Anvari as success comes in waves. Those waves, to keep the water analogy alive, were all started with a script that flowed from him.

“I think the writing process is a way to work things out,” he explained. “The first draft is where you get everything out, it’s the vomit draft. You just write anything and everything that comes to your mind. Then you go back and tweak and refine it.

“Loads of things had to be taken out with new things added in. That is a very fun part of the process.”

UNDER THE SHADOW is a multi-layered symbolic juggernaut rife with passion. This will no doubt lead to its being dissected by fans. Anvari embraces this, as it is exactly what he used to his favourite films. Just don’t expect any clarification from him.

“I love when people get their own interpretation,” Anvari said. “For me, those are the types of films that I enjoy. I want people to have their own theories.

“Obviously, the stuff I put in the script is crystal clear (to me) as to why I put it in there, but I never want to explain it to people. I want them to experience it their own way.”

Anvari said this with a thoughtful smile, which seemed that he realized what he had created but didn’t want to play his hand. Even greatness knows humility, which makes UNDER THE SHADOW that much more enticing. With that said, people are going to want more and he knows that.

“I only got a chance to sit down and think about what I’m going to do next about two months ago,” said Anvari. “Only when the post-production of SHADOW was finished and completely done. I have an idea I’m working on, but it is in the very early stages of development. It’s very exciting because I’m thinking about what will be the next step. I really don’t want to disappoint. I really have to think long and hard about what I want to do next.”

This is what is called a good problem.

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