Interview: Babak Anvari on the British-Iranian Duality of ‘Under the Shadow’

As one of the most promising debuts of the year, Babak Anvari’sUnder the Shadow” made quite a splash with its Sundance premiere. And since then, this Iran-set horror film has only grown in acclaim. “Under the Shadow” now sets its eyes on Oscar glory, as it heads into the Foreign Language race as the United Kingdom’s official submission. Earlier this week I had a chat with Anvari to discuss the film and its unique British-Iranian identity. Below is the transcript of our conversation.

Shane Slater: What made you decide to make a horror movie set during this time period in Iran?

Babak Anvari: The spark of the idea came from my own childhood memories. I was born in Iran during the Iran-Iraq war and by the time the war ended I was more or less the same age as the child in the film. Eighties Iran was a dark and tense era and I thought it would be a great setting for a psychological thriller/horror. It just made sense to me.

SS: I did get the sense that the film came from a very personal place. Those Jane Fonda videos felt very specific, for example.

BA: One hundred percent! Like I said, that’s where the idea originally came from and using these well-known tropes. Ultimately, it’s a very gothic tale. Mother, child, haunted house. Is it haunted or is it a metaphor for some type of repression? It’s very classically gothic. But I just wanted to put that in a different setting that people are not used to.

SS: The film has the distinction of representing the U.K. for the Oscar, even though it’s also very Iranian. Are your filmmaking sensibilities more inspired by British or Iranian cinema?

BA: Both really, because ultimately I’m British-Iranian. And I always tell people I spent all my childhood and teenage years in Iran, but I spent all my adult like in the U.K. I moved to the U.K. when I was 18 turning 19. So I would say both. I grew up watching a lot of Western films, those were huge reference points for me. But also I’m a huge fan of Iranian cinema and it’s part of my culture. So I get inspiration from those films as well.

And that’s what I tried to do with “Under the Shadow” actually. For the visual style of the film, I wanted to have kind of a signature of Iranian cinema. When the film starts it kind of feels like a social realist drama. But as it develops and we get more into the character’s head, it becomes more expressionist with the camera angles and lighting. So I would say both of them are a part of me.

SS: As the film touches on, the society is very conservative and prone to censorship. Were there any compromises you made during the filmmaking?

BA: To be honest, even though it’s set in Iran and is about Iran, it’s a British film. I’m based there and the producer and production company behind the film are British. And we went and filmed in Amman, Jordan specially for that reason. So that we don’t have to deal with certain limitations and censorship. So that I could tell the story as honestly as I wanted to. That was very key for me. So I had the freedom to tell the story I wanted to.

SS: So are there any plans to screen the film in Iran?

BA: No, to be fair I don’t think it will ever get officially released in Iran. I don’t think there’s anything offensive in the film personally. But I think certain authorities there might not like the film, just because there’s a bit of sensitivity about films that are made about Iran but outside of Iran. So I don’t think it will officially get released. But Iranian people love cinema and they always get their hands on the newly released films, from indies to Hollywood blockbusters. And I know that people there have already started watching it, but not officially.

SS: I was so impressed with your two main actresses. How did you go about their casting?

BA: The first big thing for me was to find actors who could speak Farsi fluently, as well as be able to act. So we started looking everywhere around the world for Iranians who could speak Farsi and are actors. And Narges came from a recommendation from the amazing actor Navid Negahban, who played Abu Nazir in “Homeland.” He recommended her and then I started chatting with her on Skype. She’s now LA-based even though she grew up in Germany. I really liked her and we continued having Skype chats. Then she came to London and I met her personally and that was it. I thought she was incredible.

With Avin, the little child, we approached the Iranian community in London and said we’re looking for talented Farsi-speaking children. I saw about 12 to 13 kids but Avin was the one that blew me away. As soon as she walked into the room for the audition I thought, ‘This is her.’ She’s incredibly talented and intelligent. And this is the first time she’s acting. She’s fantastic.

SS: Going forward, do you see yourself as a horror filmmaker or are you planning to branch out into other genres?

BA: I’m one hundred percent going to branch out. I love to show variety. I don’t want to be pigeonholed as a horror filmmaker or a certain type of filmmaker. That’s very important for me. It’s a fun genre and you can do a lot with it, so you never know. Maybe later on I’ll come back to it. But the next project I’m working on isn’t going to be a horror film.

SS: How has the awards season experience been so far?

BA: So far it’s been incredible. We just had an early taste of it with the British Independent Film Awards on Sunday. We were very fortunate and honored to win three awards. It was fantastic to get the love and support of the British indie scene.

“Under the Shadow” is coming soon to DVD and VOD.