'Under the Shadow' Producers on How Their Farsi Horror Film Earned a Netflix Deal and an Oscar Submission

Courtesy of Sundance Institute
'Under the Shadow'

Babak Anvari's debut feature, which is being released across the U.S. on Friday and later on Netflix, has been submitted as the U.K.'s entry in the foreign-language Oscar category.

While the likes of Birth of a Nation and Manchester by the Sea were the largest noise-makers at this year’s Sundance film festival — mostly for the multi-million dollar bidding frenzies they sparked — those with an eye for something a little different were buzzing about Under the Shadow.

A Farsi-language horror film set in post-revolution Tehran at the height of the Iran-Iraq war in the 1980s, the debut feature from British-Iranian director Babak Anvari became one of the festival’s must-see titles, quickly compared to The Babadook and nabbed by Netflix for worldwide SVOD rights.

The first project from London-based film and TV startup Wigwam — which also has the Maisie Williams-starring iBoy coming soon and a new alliance with its Under the Shadow partner XYZ to develop more features — the film has now been submitted by the U.K. for next year’s Oscars in the best foreign-language film category, and with the reverberations from Sundance and ongoing critical acclaim spreading globally, could have enough attention to make it through to the next round. Development of an English-language remake is already underway.

With Vertical and XYZ having partnered to day-and-date release the film across the U.S. on Friday, The Hollywood Reporter sat down with Wigwam’s Lucan Toh and Emily Leo to hear how Netflix’s early Sundance deal for the film ruined their hopes for a war room full of checkbook-waving bidders, but did allow them to go skiing instead.

Congratulations on the foreign-language Oscar submission!

Lucan Toh: Thanks, it’s really great news. But all the hard work begins on the campaign now — it’s a genre film, something the Academy hasn't historically responded to. With its political and social themes, we're hoping this offers more than that.

It must have been great to have such buzz from audiences in Sundance. Was it this that brought Netflix on board?

Emily Leo: We actually sold it before we went to Sundance. It was quite a competitive situation, essentially down to the heat and the buzz around the film.

LT: It was so disappointing! We all wanted to go to Sundance and lock ourselves in a war room! Somehow the film ended up on a distributor’s desk in New York who said, “I’ll buy the U.S." and suddenly we had a minor crisis. Well, not quite crisis, but we sat down with XYZ and said, “Who can buy the world?” So we went and screened it for 4-5 people and had bites from three. And then it was kind of about who’s going to pay the most and give it the most reach. Netflix were super keen and I think they liked Babak and what the film was about, and it kind of fitted in with their Middle Eastern rollout as well.

So given that it sold before, what did you get up to in Sundance?

LT: Well, I love skiing. But it was great — all the risk was gone. And we were left with a really cool window to [do] something fun. We get a nice release in the U.K., U.S., Middle East and Australia and I think some Asian territories as well. Netflix took SVOD worldwide, which is what they wanted.

How did the project land with you?

EL: Babak’s agent sent it to us along with a load of other producers. Babak met everyone, and I think it was just the fact that we weren’t freaked out with it being a foreign-language movie. I remember him saying, “It’s going to be in Farsi. Is that OK? And it’s not going to be shot in the U.K.” and we were, like, “sure.” It’s so simple, yet devastating as a piece. It has really deep, political themes, and deals with gender, but he doesn’t force it down your throat. He sort of smuggles it into the storytelling.

LT: I think it shows that this the kind of content we want to make, and that this is the kind of emerging filmmaker we want to work with.

How did the financing come about?

EL: We knew we had to make it for not a lot of money; i.e. how much can we get away with? We got support from Doha, then we had an equity investor, the U.K. tax credit for the postproduction, which was from Creativity Media. It was around $1 million in total.

Was Under the Shadow the first project you began working on?

LT: The first script we took was actually iBoy. It was already a seminal book on the U.K. school syllabus. Ha! It actually is.

EL: We attached Will Poulter to the film when we came on board, but Joe (Barton, writer) and Adam (Randall, director) were already on it. We came on to fund it at the very beginning, it’s been a long process — four years!

LT: But it became an easy film to get off the ground after Under the Shadow. We had a very small budget for it, but after that we thought, oh, maybe we can increase that now.

And what came before Wigwam?

EL: Lucan and Ollie (Roskill, Wigwam co-founder) had a company called Holland Park Pictures.

LT: Yeah, you know, we thought we were going to make huge Hollywood movies! But instead our first was a slow-moving British drama. It was cool though — Having You, it had Anna Friel and Romola Garai. It was an experiment that became an incredible lesson. We were playing as producers and that we knew what we were talking about. It was just a 24 days shoot with a first-time director, who was a close friend.

So when did Holland Park become Wigwam?

LT: I guess when Emily came on board in about 2012. I think we really needed to just stop pretending that we were a posh production company.

EL: I was like, there’s no way I’m being part of a company called Holland Park. Although they did try to convince me that there was branding!

LT: The whole naming process was great. We ended up coming up with lists and lists and lists.

EL: We’d come up with these names of companies that were brilliant but already existed — clearly we’d just seen it somewhere. Bad Robot is awesome, let’s call our company Bad Robot.

LT: But Wigwam was kind of fun. We thought it was quite indie and cool. Indians have Wigwams, right, and then when we checked the definition, we saw it was about three supporting people coming together. We were actually doing commercials for the first year under the name Teepee!

In Cannes you announced a bigger deal with XYZ for two to three films a year. How did this relationship broaden?

LT: They first came on really early for Under the Shadow. They took a risk on that film before we went into production and were just amazing. We enjoyed that experience a lot, and we’re great friends with those guys now. When they come to London, they work from our office. I think our taste is quite aligned in certain ways.

So what sort of slate are you now looking at with them on board?

LT: We have four things with XYZ at the moment, of which two are probably very real and happening. One of those is in development. In terms of our slate, we’d love to do two things a year, decent-sized things on the feature side. But I think it’s about finding that early talent in the U.K. and nurturing it, and at the same time holding on to that talent.

As you’re doing with Babak, who is making his next feature with you, right?

LT: Yeah, it's a contemporary Hitchcockian thriller called I Came By we're developing with Film4 and aim to shoot in 2017. The plot is under wraps. But we're also producing the English-language remake of Under the Shadow.

Whose idea was that?

LT: It was ours. We’re such lazy producers! No, but really we wouldn’t be doing a remake of this unless we thought there was an original story there.

EL: It took a lot of talking about and convincing. The knee-jerk reaction is that that’s a really obvious thing to do, why would we do that? But there are so many interest themes. If you get another writer on board … there are elements of our original film that we can absolutely transplant into a new environment and reinvigorate.

How involved is Babak?

EL: He’s sort of said he’ll let us get on with it, but is then like, “By the way, I‘ve been thinking about this …". He’s definitely going to be involved creatively, but it’s more for interest. I don’t think he wants to step on anyone’s toes.

And when can we talk about the film you’re making about Football Manager, the hugely popular soccer management simulation video game?

LT: We’re doing director meets. In terms of deadline, we’ve got to shoot next summer, because we want to hit the 2018 World Cup for release!