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In March 2020, actor-rapper Riz Ahmed released The Long Goodbye, a concept album inspired, in part, by the rise of far-right political groups and anti-immigration rhetoric in a post-Brexit U.K. Ahmed, who was nominated for the best actor Oscar last year for Sound of Metal, says the critically acclaimed album came about after “thinking a lot about identity [and] my place in the world.”
It was around the same time that Ahmed connected with filmmaker Aneil Karia. Finding a commonality in their British Asian identities, the duo say they were immediately interested in collaborating on a project.
The result is the short film The Long Goodbye, which incorporates music from Ahmed’s album. Ahmed also stars in the film, which depicts a South Asian family in suburban London — in the distant future, or perhaps chillingly in the present — as they prepare for a celebration. But what begins as a lighthearted look at a close-knit family gathering quickly turns sinister as news reports begin depicting scenes of violence and an all-white militia, aided by the police force, knocks on the family’s door.
The Long Goodbye, which culminates in a searing monologue from Ahmed, is a terrifying look at an everyday nightmare for members of certain marginalized communities. Ahmed and Karia spoke to THR about their largely improvised film (now Oscar-shortlisted for best live-action short), balancing the daunting tonal shifts and why the production felt a little bit like therapy.
How did you two first begin collaborating on this project?
RIZ AHMED There was no project — I just wanted to work with Aneil. A mutual friend put us in touch. He said, “You should meet this guy Aneil, he’s really special.” I had just finished this album, and I was thinking a lot about identity, my place in the world and people like me. I got into conversations with Aneil and he was thinking about similar things, and we talked about just creating something. I was like, “Let’s do a short, let’s just do something. I just want to make stuff now, and I want to make something from the heart.” It was through a series of quiet meandering and increasingly surreal conversations that we landed on this idea — really, Aneil did, he presented a two-page prose outline. It comes from such a personal place, from a place that we all recognize. It’s the nightmare that he’s dug out of the back of our brains and put on the screen.
As we were prepping and creating this story, I played him the album, and he really responded to it. And he said that was the missing piece in this: “I’m going to use some of that as a score.” I wasn’t too sure about that, to be honest. But in the final result, the juxtaposition of the horror onscreen and the upbeat music at the same time — it’s almost Scorsese-esque. It just shows how many different wheelhouses Aneil is able to play in, from the social realism at the start to this musical, horror in the middle, and then ending up with this very artistic, direct-address poetry. He is working through such a broad spectrum of genres in such a short space of time. And it was just a really special creative experience.
Aneil, can you tell me about the big tonal shift in the film? Was it a challenge to pull that off?
ANEIL KARIA Definitely. I was very daunted by that particular aspect and how to navigate those shifts and gear changes. But that was the most exciting and important thing, because I think what I was propelled by was this fear of the “worthy” version … a bleak journey where you’re battered over the head with a social issue, and everything’s relentlessly kind of serious and downbeat. What we needed was something that took us to a raw, challenging place, that confronted us with our worst nightmares that live inside us, but also had an attitude of defiance. That was what was important about those tonal shifts. There is a beauty, warmth and love infusing that front half — that’s what Riz and I have experienced within our families and extended families, but the exact thing we don’t see onscreen. There is an energy and chaos and almost a weird thrill in the middle section. Then it ends with this poetry, all the anger and rage you feel at the world and people’s treatment within it distilled into this beautiful controlled delivery. How we executed those shifts was a constant source of anxiety for me, a constant challenge.
Much of the film was improvised, which makes the first half of the film feel so natural. How did you hit the beats you knew you wanted without a script?
KARIA It was another [source] of anxiety, that if we didn’t paint this totally believable, grounded portrait of the family, then you’re going to go into this intense violence in a way that felt cynical. It had to be effortlessly horrific, I suppose. The improvisation was a very important element of that. [As Riz mentioned,] I came up with this prose document and then something quite dry and dull — an Excel document to beat out each scene. There is a shape to these scenes, it’s not like [I said], “Let’s go to the bedroom and see what happens.” It’s not that free-form. We’d discuss [the characters] and the nuance and specifics of how we get from A to B, and we had this openness and unpredictability that brings that authenticity and reality. It was a perfectly calibrated semi-improvisational approach that relied on getting that structure right, and then also the brilliance and instinctiveness of Riz and the other actors. It’s a deceptively difficult thing to really nail.
Riz, as an actor, does improvisation come naturally to you?
AHMED I thought it did. My first film was [directed by] Michael Winterbottom, and it was basically totally improvised. But when I started working with Aneil, he’d have to keep coming up to me going, “Yeah, just stop doing that …” (Laughs.) I guess I had some anxiety about how we’d kind of convey all the themes, ideas and emotions of all our conversations in this short. It just takes tremendous confidence to just let it play and sit with it. He was much more hands-on in making us hands-off than I think he’d admit. He kept stepping in to get us to step away, if that makes sense. That’s why there’s this tremendous fluidity in Aneil’s work, and also a sense of breathing space — breath in that it feels alive. My experience was a lesson in just letting things happen. If you let things happen, one thing leads to another, and we ended up where we did. It’s one of the best films I’ve ever been a part of, and one of the most creatively satisfying experiences I’ve ever had. That was because I was in Aneil’s hands and because he took us from an emotional place at the start to the emotional place at the end, through all these different genres, in a day and a half of shooting.
You’ve described the film’s ending as having “an attitude of defiance.” The first part of the film depicts a South Asian family preparing for celebration, which may be something viewers haven’t seen before on film. In a way, is showing that — something white audiences may not have seen before on film — itself an act of defiance or resistance?
AHMED I honestly have never been part of anything that’s got less of an eye on what people think about it. I think Aneil and I just made this from a very personal place. We made something very emotional and very visceral. Aneil’s technical ability is at work, but it’s just from a very raw place. I mean, for me at least, it felt like therapy. In terms of how it may or may not be received … I mean, it feels crazy to know that people are discussing this in the House of Commons in the U.K. Parliament or people calling me up from all around the world and commenting on it. It’s just a testament to Aneil’s talent.
KARIA I think the question is quite interesting, actually. Maybe that wasn’t conscious, but I see what you mean. And I think it is an affront on you when you’re from a particular minority community and you’re constantly seeing portrayals of that community on the screen in lazy, shorthand ways. I’m plucking an arbitrary number here, but [the] 10 tropes about a community begin to define it again and again and again and again.
You’re watching it and thinking, “Hang on … is this supposed to be my family or my community or my people?” There’s just so much more depth and normality and mundaneness. Maybe unconsciously there was a defiance about getting that portrayal right. And “therapy” is a really good way of putting it. When you were saying that, I was thinking how when people say “it’s therapeutic,” [they mean] it was cleansing and nice to make. But actually, the reality of any therapy process is that it’s kind of scary, uncomfortable and a bit nauseating. If you’re doing it, you’re really going deep. That’s true of this film, [because] confronting those subjects, particularly the middle chunk of the film, is deeply unpleasant. It was something that was challenging for the actors to go through. I think “therapy” is great, because you go through something turbulent, dirty and fearful. Through doing that, you come out with some kind of strength or clarity.
Interview edited for length and clarity. This story first appeared in a January stand-alone issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine. To receive the magazine, click here to subscribe.
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