How an Iranian-American Rom-Com Is Celebrating "Different Ways Love Can Exist"

A Simple Wedding - Still - Nousha and Alex- Publicity Still - H 2020
Ziv Berkovich

Ahead of Sara Zandieh's feature directorial debut, the Iranian-American director explains how 'A Simple Wedding' celebrates multiculturalism and feminism while also breaking down stereotypes.

There's a scene in A Simple Wedding, a new Iranian-American romantic comedy by Sara Zandieh, that captures the film's spirit.

Nousha Husseini (Tara Grammy) and her Iranian family are breaking bread (in this case, nan) with her white, militant feminist boyfriend, Alex (Christopher O'Shea), and his family. Before awkward questions and heated comments commence, Alex's mother, Maggie (Rita Wilson), asks about the beautiful calligraphy framed on the wall.

Nousha's mother, Ziba (Shohreh Aghdashloo), explains that it is a poem written in Farsi by the 14th-century Persian poet Hafez — as she declares, the "greatest poet of all time." The stanza reads, "Long live love, for I have not heard a more merrier word than love."

Speaking with The Hollywood Reporter, Zandieh says her feature directorial debut aimed to show the "different ways love can exist." A Simple Wedding, in select U.S. theaters and on VOD this Valentine's Day, includes plenty of examples.

The film follows Nousha, who has a habit of sabotaging her relationships and frustrating her parents, as she is their only hope for a real Persian wedding. Nousha falls fast when she meets Alex, an artist, activist and DJ living in an old warehouse. When her parents discover that she and Alex are living together before marriage, chaos unspools as they prepare for her wedding. 

Throughout the film, we see love story after love story unfold — new love budding between Nousha and Alex, love found later in life by Nousha's uncle Saman (Maz Jobrani) and Maggie, love built over time in the arranged marriage of Ziba and Reza (Houshang Touzie), as well as the tumultuous love that comes with blending families. 

Zandieh says all of these relationships, plus Nousha's journey to self-actualize and Alex's progressive gender politics, resulted in "a romantic comedy that still pushed the issues I care the most about, which are multiculturalism and feminism."

"The artist's job is to reflect what they see," she added. "These are just the people I see every day and talk to, and I don't really see that represented."

As to why she went the rom-com route, Zandieh explained that the film was initially a family dramedy but she turned to rom-com to best portray her colorful characters. "Humor was the art of survival in my family. It got us through war, immigration, language barriers, and social exclusion," she said.

Despite Hollywood's goals to open doors to diverse stories, Zandieh said that when she shopped the script around — including to Participant, Sony and Fox — "everyone was basically like, 'We love it, but we can't really finance this because it's too niche. It's too culturally specific.'"

"I kind of shelved the project for a couple of years and worked on the screenplay on and off. I moved to L.A. and was like, I really think this story is worthwhile. I just couldn't start anything else. I couldn't write anything else with as much devotion. I just felt like I needed to release this story into the world," Zandieh said.

The film was finally produced by Mainstay Entertainment and made its world premiere at the L.A. Film Festival in 2018. Blue Fox Entertainment secured domestic distribution and worldwide rights last February.

"This was an independent film made outside the Hollywood system with private equity," Zandieh said. "It looks like a Hollywood movie, but it was made outside of Hollywood."

With a low-budget film, Zandieh said the story was tailored for what she had, including cast. For instance, Nousha's character was initially more timid; after casting Grammy, Zandieh restructured the character to match her actor's rambunctious personality — Celine Dion impersonations and all. She then lucked out with Aghdashloo and Touzie, as she had always pictured Nousha's parents as the two prominent Iranian actors.

"I worked with them and I did a ton of rewriting for them, especially for Houshang, the father. We collaborated, and he was like, 'I feel like my character would want to do this.' I rewrote a lot for the parents. I rewrote a lot for Nousha. Up until I was shooting, I was rewriting, honestly. I wanted it to feel as natural and as grounded as possible."

Zandieh wanted to represent Iranians the way she knows them and their culture — as "fun-loving, kind and adaptable." With Iran constantly in the political crosshairs, be it this administration or ones prior, Zandieh said, "our wonderful culture gets buried under politics."

From panning shots of ghormeh sabzi and saffron rice, to the setting up of a sofreh aghd (traditional Persian wedding spread), to a heart-to-heart conversation between a granddaughter and grandmother about following one's heart, Zandieh feels she accomplished her goal to humanize an Iranian Muslim family while also bringing to life the diversity of love.

"What always surprises me is how similar we all are," she said. "We all turn to ritual, we all want to celebrate, we all want to love."

The interview has been edited for length and clarity.