Interview with Babak Anvari (Director of "Under the Shadow")

Film News Editor and Podcast Host James Perkins recently interviewed Iran-born & London-based director Babak Anvari on his feature length debut "Under the Shadow". His film has been submitted as the UK's entry for "Foreign Language Film" at next years Academy Awards.

JP: First of all, I’d like to congratulate you on the successful and critically praised release of ‘Under the Shadow’ and for being submitted for the UK entry for Best Foreign language film at next year’s Academy Awards.

BA: Thank you very much

JP: I’d like to get to know more about yourself and how ‘Under the Shadow’ came to be. What or who were some of the films and filmmakers that inspired you to pursue this career?

BA: I guess it was watching Spielberg and Tim Burton films around the age of 10 or 11 when I thought this is what I want to do. It was only later when I grew older that I found my other idols like Kubrick, Lynch, Haneke, Aronofsky, etc.

JP: Was Horror a favourite genre of yours growing up?

BA: It is a genre I like a lot but I’m not fanatic about it. I’m not one of those guys who watch every B movie or grindhouse film. But I really like a smart, character driven horror film with an interesting story. I enjoy other genres too.

JP: Where did the idea for ‘Under the Shadow’ originate?

BA: It originated from some of my childhood memories from that time. I was born in Iran right in the middle of the Iran-Iraq war and by the time the war ended I was more or less the same age as Dorsa in the film.

JP: The themes within the film are very emotional and heart-breaking (sometimes both at the same time). Were these themes important to you on a personal level that you wanted to include them?

BA: If you speak to any Iranian who lived through that period they have stories to tell – some more horrific than others. So Under the Shadow is really inspired from my own memories and stories I heard from parents, family friends, relatives, etc. But obviously heavily dramatized and fictionalised.

JP: Were there horror films that you drew inspiration from specifically?

BA: As for the films that inspired me I’d say there are many. But to name a few – early Polanski films like Repulsion, Rosemary’s Baby and The Tenant. Jack Clayton’s The Innocents and Robert Wise’s The Haunting.

JP: How vital was it for you that the right actors were found to portray the mother and daughter? How was the casting process?

BA: Finding the right actors was very important because I wanted to create a believable 80s Tehran. The key factor was finding actors who are skilled and talented but who can also speak Farsi fluently and without an accent. So we looked everywhere. We were very lucky to find Narges Rashidi (who plays the main character Shideh). Narges grew up in Germany but she’s now LA based. She has done loads of TV series and films in Germany so she’s very experienced and incredibly skilled and talented, which worked out very wall because the entire film is on her shoulders. And we found Avin, the little girl who plays Dorsa, by approaching the Iranian community in London. She’s a non-actor, so raw talent really, and Under the Shadow was her first experience in acting. But she is super smart and talented so we were once again very lucky.

We found all the cast members from across the world –UK, USA, France, Italy, Germany – and we brought them all to Amman, Jordan to recreate Tehran.

JP: I noticed throughout viewing ‘Under the Shadow’ that an incredible amount of attention to detail was paid in building towards the scares which is rare and extremely welcome. How did you want your scares to differ to those of modern day Hollywood Horrors?

BA: I think the number one rule from day one was that less is more and let’s also pay attention to the atmosphere and build up. I think you need to make sure the audience understand the setting and the rules of the world and also you need to leave a bit to the audience’s imagination. I always get really disappointed when I see the monster in horror films. A bit of mystery and enigma is exciting (as long as you as the filmmaker know the answers but only leave clues for the audience to imagine the rest themselves).

JP: Were practical effects and over CGI always the plan from day one?

BA: We tried to do as much of the effects in camera as we could, and I’m really happy with how it turned out. I’d say the end result is 50-50 (half in camera and half in post). We filmed everything and then tried to enhance/fix things in post. The VFX company, Outpost, came on board during post and did a lot of amazing work. We had real references for all the VFX and the important thing was to make sure the effects are as realistic looking as possible and I think Outpost did a great job. Especially because we didn’t have an unlimited budget.

JP: Needless to say, people will now once again fear what’s under the bed. The setting of War is a horrifying scenario on its own. How important was the setting in conveying the narrative?

BA: Very important. 80s in Iran was quite intense because of the war and at the same time the country was going through a lot of changes because of the revolution, and change on that level is always stressful. So it made sense in my mind to make a horror/psychological thriller in that setting.

JP: With a filming schedule lasting 21 days, how was that experience as a first-time director?

BA: It was great. Obviously it was tough because of the tight schedule but it forced me to be as efficient as possible so I learnt a lot.

JP: Finally, what was the most enjoyable moment on set with the cast and crew during filming?

BA: Tough to say. I think every day was enjoyable and everyday was also challenging and tough. I can’t really think of one moment. I was lucky to have an amazing, supportive cast and crew.

JP: Once again I’d like to thank you for taking the time to talk with us here at The Digital Fix.

Under the Shadow is now available to watch on demand at Curzon Home Cinema. Be sure to check out the full review of the film here (coming soon)

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