In Jaffar Mahmood's "Shades of Ray," American-born Ray Rehman comes home one night to find his Pakistani father on his doorstep. Ray's Caucasian mother threw him out. It's an awkward time for his father to move in as Ray just proposed to his Caucasian girlfriend—who hasn't given him an answer. While trying to get his parents back together, Ray meets a South Asian girl of mixed descent, just like him, and must decide where his identity truly lies. The film, which received the Audience Award at the 2008 South Asian International Film Festival, has been released exclusively on Amazon VOD (available here). indieWIRE offers our own exclusive clip of the film below, along with an interview with director Mahmood.
Please introduce yourself.
I was born and raised in Toms River, NJ. It’s a pretty quiet shore-town that doesn’t exactly scream Hollywood, but I was the kid in high school you came to when you needed an argument settled about who starred in what movie—we’re talking pre-IMDB days, so I actually had value. I grew up on a steady dose of 80’s comedies like “Three Amigos,” “Coming to America,” and “Spies Like Us.” Those kinds of movies were my childhood. I literally bought my first pair of blue jeans when I was 7 because I wanted to be Marty McFly in “Back to the Future.” I came to LA wanting to be the next Jerry Bruckheimer until I got my hands on a camera. The minute I was able to shoot my own little stories, I was hooked. Directing was where it was at for me.
Please discuss how the idea for "Shades of Ray" came about.
It was spawned from an interview I saw with John Singleton. He was talking about his experience with “Boyz n the Hood,” how the reason he got the chance to direct that film was because he wrote a story that only he could tell. I was inspired by that and focused on an aspect about my life that I thought was unique—my father is from Pakistan and my mother is from the not-so-ethnically-diverse state of New Hampshire. I grew up in a multi-racial, multi-religious household. A fan of character-driven stories that examine familial and romantic relationships, I thought there was something interesting in exploring the issues of a bi-racial protagonist who attempts to make sense of his life while trying to please his overbearing parents.
Please elaborate a bit on your approach to making the film.
As an adult, my tastes adapted to the style of Billy Wilder and Woody Allen, but the John Landis touch was still in my bones. When it came to finding the tone of the script, I really wanted the characters to be going through real emotion and heartache, but I still wanted to have fun and never get too heavy handed. Casting likeable, relatable actors was the first step in achieving that goal. I was truly blessed with the cast I got, especially considering it was my first feature film.
While the number one goal I had was to simply try and make an entertaining and enjoyable film, there was definitely an underlying interest to shatter the stereotype that a Pakistani or Muslim character in a western film has to be the bad guy or pigeon-holed as the cab driver or 7-11 owner. Why can’t a half-Pakistani character have the same issues Ben Stiller has in one of his comedies? I’m really hoping the success of “Slumdog Millionaire” will finally make Hollywood start moving more in that direction.
What were some of the biggest challenges you faced in developing the project?
Originally, I thought the ideal budget would be about $1M, as the script didn’t have a big car chase or any kind of special effects. It was then, however, that I encountered the issue of obtaining financing to make the film. There were two different production companies who said they loved the script but would only be interested in financing if I would change Ray’s ethnicity to either half-African American or half-Latino. South Asians aren’t a proven movie-going demographic is what I was told, so the companies didn’t want to finance a movie for such a niche market. I thought about the financing they could bring to the table but knew that it would no longer be my story if I changed the ethnicity. So, I walked away and I put my MFA in producing to work. I created a business plan and along with copies of my short film “Eastern Son,” approached private equity investors. Eventually I raised about half of my original goal from 38 individual investors and got to make the movie I wanted to on my own terms with no concessions.
With the economy the way it is right now, no theatrical distributor is willing to take a chance on an indie unless it’s from a proven director or Brad Pitt’s starring. So instead of waiting for however long it’s going to take for theatrical distributors to take risks again, we jumped at the chance to distribute the film on Amazon VOD. The film just went up on the site and we’re already getting a ton of hits and positive responses. We’re still playing at film festivals, but now anyone in the US can download and see the film off Amazon VOD at their own convenience. That was a really attractive option to me given the immediacy and the ease of a consumer’s access to the film. There’s no doubt about it, this is the future of film distribution. I think it’s only a matter of time before the DVD is dead.
How did the casting for the film come together?
I had a wonderful casting director, Jamie Rudofsky (who at the time was the casting director for the “Gilmore Girls”). She brought a lot of great actors to my attention along with our executive producer, Jake Kasdan. Jake’s involvement with this film was a godsend. It immediately legitimized the project and got real actors to pay attention to us. We ended up with a dream cast. The film stars: Zachary Levi (NBC’s “Chuck”), Sarah Shahi (NBC’s “Life”), Bonnie Somerville (“Friends”), Fran Kranz (Fox’s “Dollhouse”), with Kathy Baker (“Picket Fences”), and Brian George (“Seinfeld”).
What other genres or stories would like to explore as a filmmaker? What is your next project?
I’m always going to gravitate towards characters over genre. I just finished a feature length script for Outlaw Productions. It’s a high school teen-comedy set in present day Lahore about a sixteen year-old Pakistani boy looking to throw a house party to impress the girl of his dreams. It’s a fun, lighthearted movie that was written predominately for western audiences in an effort to show that innocent and beautiful things are still happening in that part of the world.
Are there other aspects of filmmaking that you would still like to explore?
I’m very interested in television in addition to film. I’ve written a handful of original pilots. Being a show-runner and/or director of a series someday is certainly something I would love to achieve.
What is your definition of “independent film,” and has that changed at all since you started working?
My definition of “independent film” is any movie that gets produced and financed outside of the Hollywood studio system. I can’t lie that it irks me when films like “Burn After Reading” are labeled as independent films by some. Really? Try begging 38 individual people to be investors in your movie after every company slammed their door in your face—that’s independent.
What advice would you impart to emerging filmmakers?
If you want to be a director, you also have to be a writer. The two come hand in hand at first. No one is going to come up to a short filmmaker and say, “I’ve got this great script for you, will you direct it?” You’ve got to create your own material. So start writing. Any story that excites you. And then another and another. The more you do it the better you’ll get at it. And get your hands on a mini-dv camera and start shooting shorts that you can post on YouTube. Young filmmakers today have such a great opportunity to get their work out there.
Please share an achievement from your career so far that you are most proud of.
I think it would have to be the cast/crew screening of “Shades of Ray.” It took four years from script to screen. And I had been working to get to that moment for six years before that. My parents were at the screening. Thank God they’ve always been supportive. But, for the first time since I had moved out to LA, I could see it in their faces that maybe I wasn’t wasting my time chasing some unattainable dream.