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Few filmmakers can boast the sort of debut splash like Babak Anvari landed with Under the Shadow.
A Farsi-language horror film set in post-revolution Tehran at the height of the Iran-Iraq war, the film had already sparked something of a buzz before its world premiere in Sundance in 2016, swooped up by Netflix ahead of its first public screening. But the following 12 months would see it surpass all expectations, submitted as the U.K.’s foreign-language submission, win three British Independent Film Awards (from six nominations) and even claim the BAFTA for outstanding debut.
The film also propelled Anvari to the top of many most-wanted lists, with the British-Iranian director quickly being signed up by WME.
Three years on and his follow up, Wounds — a psychological horror based on Nathan Ballingrud’s dark novella The Visible Filth — is now one of Sundance’s most hotly anticipated titles, produced by Annapurna and with a lead cast including Armie Hammer, Dakota Johnson and Zazie Beetz.
Speaking to The Hollywood Reporter from his native London, Anvari describes making the “water bottle tour” that all hot new names must undertake in Hollywood, turning down the advances of studios and big-budget features for a more gently-gently career trajectory, and why he barely spent any time in his Wounds luxury trailer.
Winding the clock back two years to Under the Shadow, what was that experience like as an exciting new director suddenly on Hollywood’s radar? Were you instantly bombarded with offers and people wanting to meet up to discuss ideas?
That’s exactly what happened. Having my first film premiering in Sundance opened many doors. I did the usual “water bottle tour,” because you go to L.A. and go from one production company to another studio to another production company, and each time you only order a bottle of water. And it’s like back to back, literally eight hours a day, meeting after meeting after meeting. And you keep repeating yourself. But you get offered some exciting stuff and my biggest thing was that, because Under the Shadow was an indie, low-budget film, I just wanted to be very careful about jumping on a big-budget project that I could lose control of.
So you were getting some big-budget offers?
Yeah, and I turned most of them down. Because I said I just wanted to do it one step at a time, bit by bit, bigger and bigger.
Were you getting nudges from agents to go for these bigger offers?
They’ve been very supportive from day one. My U.K. agent has been there since I made my first film, but I signed with my U.S. reps after Under the Shadow, and on day one I told them this was my plan, that I’m not going to rush into the studio world and get burned. Which happens a lot. So I just thought I needed to be really careful and not get sucked into that hype of, you’ve just made your first film, you’re brilliant, come and do this… because it wouldn’t give you that creative freedom.
We’ve all got egos. When someone tells you that you’re an amazing filmmaker and they’d love to get you on board for a big, ambitious project, is it difficult to reign that in?
It is. And sometimes you do ask yourself, what are you doing? Other filmmakers would be so excited to do this, and you’ll get a fat pay check, relatively to what you’ve been paid before. But I guess for me it’s that I’ve waited so long to get here I don’t want to ruin it by just rushing it. Don’t get me wrong, at some point I’d love to do a big-budget film and hopefully my next will be slightly more ambitious, but slowly.
I always get a feeling that Hollywood and studios love to find talent at Sundance and then they say, well you’re not experienced, let us tell you exactly what to do. Obviously there are success stories. But the filmmakers I idolize did it one step at a time and hopefully when I get there I just want them to have some level of trust and respect for what I want to do.
So how did The Visible Filth come your way?
So I basically did the water tour, started getting offers and I had a project at Film4 that is still in development and ongoing. But in the meantime, Lucan [Toh, Anvari’s producer and partner at Two & Two pictures] sent me this novella The Visible Filth. At that point I’d just done a — I hate to use the term — “elevated genre” film, and didn’t know whether I wanted to do another with genre elements. But I read it and I just fell in love with it and it spoke to me on so many different levels. And I knew exactly how to turn it into a film. I spent a few days thinking about whether this was something I really wanted to do, and you know when you have that gut feeling… I just couldn’t stop thinking about it.
We didn’t pitch it to many people — Annapurna was one of the first. I obviously had a lot of respect for them because of their taste and slate. And they hadn’t done anything in this horror/thriller/’elevated’ genre areas – ha! So they were quite excited.
Annapurna obviously had a few blips last year with films being dropped and staff leaving. Were you ever worried?
Yeah, they had their ups and downs, but we survived. Obviously when you start reading things in the news you do wonder what’s going on and ask that question. But it was their own internal stuff so I can’t comment much further. But we managed to reach the finish line, so that’s the most important thing for us.
With it being only a novella, and a very dark one at that, how faithful is Wounds and how much did you have to add to make a feature?
It’s quite a faithful adaptation, but it’s a really short book. So I had to change certain things, add certain stuff. But overall the foundation of it is the same, and I was constantly in touch with Nathan, the writer. He read every draft and was super excited and super helpful. It was a joy writing it. And we got his full blessing. He was saying that he always heard stories when an author sells the rights to his books and the nightmare of it changing into something else, but that he had none of that on this one!
The cast is absolutely outstanding. How did you land Armie Hammer?
Casting was a constant conversation with Annapurna. I must say, [Annapurna’s former president of film] Chelsea Barnard was one of the first people to suggest Armie. And at that point I hadn’t had a chance to see Call Me By Your Name. So I saw it, loved it, met Armie in L.A. and it was just one of those meetings where after five minutes you’re best buddies. He’s such a warm and generous guy. I sent him the script and I think it took him 48 hours to respond. He just said, “It’s really dark but I’m well up for it,” something along those lines. When we were shooting I remember saying to him, “I don’t think I’ve ever seen you in such a role,” and he was like, “That’s because I’ve never done such a role.” But he’s incredible in it — the entire film is basically on his shoulders.
And Dakota Johnson? Another A-list bit of casting…
After we cast Armie, that’s when the conversations happened with the others. I met Dakota in London. She’s a lovely human being. She was done with the 50 Shades franchise and was looking for other projects.
And she wasn’t turned off by the darkness?
I think she was pretty excited by it. She’d just done Suspiria when I met her so was on a roll. And then Zazie Beetz, who I was a massive fan of, because I was writing the script as I was watching Atlanta. Lucan and I were like, “Zazie Beetz would be amazing.” She was the one I kept saying I’d love to have in the film. And we were so lucky.
The budget for Under the Shadow was just under $1 million. Was this a whole lot more?
It is a whole lot more, but obviously it’s not Guardians of the Galaxy. It’s still a relatively low budget, in comparison to a lot of films. But it felt like a comfortable level of budget for me and my second film. Funnily enough, because this is my first experience shooting in the U.S. and you learn about the unions and how they work and all that, even though the budget was much more than Under the Shadow, it still felt like you were up against it. Especially with that level of cast. It still required perfect planning. It didn’t feel like ooh, Hollywood luxury …
So you weren’t in a luxury Winnebago?
Nah. It’s funny, because apparently part of my contract was that I got a trailer, but I was barely in it. It was literally just sitting there for no reason. I was just like, I don’t know what to do with it because I don’t like leaving the set.
Did it feel like a major step-up in terms of the scale?
It did, but not in a scary way. So that’s why I think it was a good step forward, a good upgrade. It wasn’t daunting, but obviously felt bigger. And I learned a lot on it, which is what I wanted.
So are going to follow that path of gently growing the scale with each project?
What was the biggest pinch-yourself moment in the wake of Under the Shadow?
I guess the major one was winning a BAFTA. I had no idea that our little Farsi-language film would get so much love.
Also, [high-profile U.K. film critic] Mark Kermode choosing the film as one of his top 10 favorite films of the last 10 years was pretty incredible. I used to read and listen to Mark’s reviews back in the days when I was a student, or when I was an employee dreaming of making a feature film one day that he could review … so I was genuinely proud.
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