For more than two decades, Caveh Zahedi has been exploring his neuroses and desires in awkward, provocative detail. From his first feature “A Little Stiff” through 2005’s “I Am a Sex Addict,” the film diarist has proved to be an amusingly off-beat guide to his own life. That tendency may very well reach its apotheosis with “The Show About the Show,” the irreverent meta web series that Zahedi launched this fall on the Brooklyn-based cable TV and digital network BRIC TV.
As the title implies, “The Show About the Show” remains within the confines of its meta premise, tracking its wayward protagonist as he pitches the program to a baffled BRIC executive named Aziz (portrayed with a hilarious deadpan by filmmaker Dustin Defa). Zahedi’s ensuing adventure finds him shooting a sex scene with actors Alex Karpovsky and Eleanor Hendricks, but it’s really about the conditions of that shoot and the various bumbling exchanges Zahedi has along the way. Speaking to the camera as he guides viewers through each new installment, the filmmaker captures the essence of a creative crisis while resolving it at the same time.
The result is a delightful mixture of improv comedy and self-reflexive storytelling unlike anything else out there. Zahedi spoke to Indiewire about the genesis of the show and why the format speaks more to his strengths than the feature-length film. (You can also watch the first three episodes of “The Show About the Show” below.)
The whole show, we’re watching you talk about your plans for the show with other people — your wife, the staff of BRIC TV, your actors. But you use actors and edit the story very carefully. How much of what we’re seeing is real?
Well, it’s all true. It’s definitely my perspective on stuff. Sometimes I’ll leave out certain details for narrative purposes. For example, there’s a lot of conflict with Sam in the show. There is a lot of conflict with Sam in real life, but also periods of non-conflict. And with Aziz. I’ll show the conflict with Aziz, but I won’t show us sorting it out. I stick with what’s dramatically compelling to keep the suspense of the relationships going. That’s the liberty I take — leaving out certain things that might diminish the narrative drive.
The Aziz relationship is awkwardly funny in a lot of ways. He’s tasked with encouraging your experimentation, but at the same, he’s worried that you’ll do something that will get him in trouble. You’ve been making diary films for over 20 years. Didn’t he expect you to do something based on real life?
Yeah, but they didn’t realize quite how much. Aziz has really come around. Right now, he loves me. He’s basically being very tolerant and trusting. It just took a while for him to get there. That might change at any moment. I’m not focusing on how much he loves me right now. I might, if it becomes useful for the show. That relationship is pretty solid at the moment.
How does this kind of short form, episodic approach differ from your other projects?
To me, it feels like a distillation of everything I’ve done. Every movie I’ve ever made is in there somehow. A few people have said that television is a good medium for me, and it’s kind of true. It’s hard to explain, but people are really responding to it. I don’t know what it is. Maybe that my work is an ongoing thing, so it’s episodic, like television. Maybe I’m at a place where I’ve got a style going that’s more coherent. It seems to be working, but to me, it feels similar to what I’ve done before.
How exactly did this collaboration come together?
It’s all in the first episode: Adam Schartoff, who hosts the Filmwax podcast, introduced me to Aziz because he thought they’d be interested in a series about getting stoned. They weren’t, but we started talking and they let me pitch other stuff. So I was trying to find a network that would have me. It seems like I can’t get meetings anywhere else. BRIC said from the start that they were open to taking it to a bigger place. There are people who have approached me about doing that, so it’s all being negotiated right now. I never saw it as ending up on BRIC permanently.
You had a very low budget for each episode. How did that restrict the kind of story you wanted to tell?
It doesn’t put any restrictions on the story. I run out of money if I do too many reshoots or too many actors or too many shooting days. So I’m kind of in the hole, because then I’m paying for it out of pocket. Basically, if I’m just efficient and well-organized, I’m able to do it. It just makes me a better planner. Nothing is expensive. It’s just actors and a crew.
Every episode revolves around your first person address as you talk us through the production history. It feels very off the cuff, but it has to work within the confines of the episode’s length and arc. How much of that do you work out in advance?
Basically, whenever I’m done with an episode, I think about what happened during the making of that previous episode, and I jot down a one-page outline of the story: this event, that event. I have a little map on paper with bullet points. I don’t look at it. I just try to remember it. Usually, I do three monologues and then spend a few weeks editing together different takes to see how they fit together; I create a map for the reenactments. Then I shoot them. That’s pretty much it. Usually I have someone editing with me to bounce ideas off of and make sure I’m not doing anything crazy.
While you’ve certainly been making personal films for a long time, there’s something more contemporary about the approach in the YouTube era.
Truffaut has this quote about how the film of the future will be super-personal. That always resonated for me. The rise of YouTube makes sense to me because that’s what’s satisfying and needed — people need to express themselves and see their lives reflected in things. In the old days, I wouldn’t have been able to make my films, either. To me, it seems like a no-brainer. I feel like my work seems less solipsistic than it used to, 20 years ago, because of all this. A lot of people were pissed off back then. What’s so special about this guy? That question doesn’t seem to be posed as much.
But then you have this cast of characters — real people — who drawn into your story. What sort of logistical challenges does that pose?
It’s a tightrope. I’m always on the edge of falling off the cliff and pushing people too far, which I think gives it the dramatic edge. The ethical question this poses — which all my films pose — is how to negotiate this complicated new landscape of public/private erosion. What are the ethical implications of that? How do you navigate that? So it seems a little less crazy, I guess. It’s not just me. Everyone is tied to other people. Some won’t like it and some will love it. That will cause a lot of conflict. Trust issues are going to constantly come up. That’s what makes the show interesting. It’s what interests me.
Your relationship to your wife is very clearly laid out in revealing terms. Is there anything she won’t do as part of the show?
In this new episode, I wrote a scene where I wanted her to give me a blowjob in the episode. She said, “I’m not going to do that, but I will suck on a banana as a metaphor.” So I’m going to do this whole thing with that, which is good. It’s more interesting to do it with the banana than to fake the blowjob.
But if she’d said yes…
Oh yeah, I’ll do anything. But I really want to do what’s interesting and true. The banana is more interesting.
It does feel like anything people around you do might wind up in an episode. For example, there’s a scene where Aziz is worried that you’ll portray him as racist. Is there anything they can do to prevent you from using real events on the show?
These obstacles are always opportunities for more interesting solutions than the obvious ones. I welcome them. Eleanor Hendricks’ friend, who didn’t want to be mentioned — to me, that’s much more interesting to try to work around that than to try to tell the story straight. So I’ve been able to find a solution to everything so far. I pride myself on my ability to do that. There’s a solution to that problem. Always. You just have to be able to think of it.
Is there any particular arc for the show? Do you know where you want it to end up?
I have no idea where it’s going. I think I’ll come up with something good for the finale. For me, it’s an ongoing thing. I don’t see any reason why I can’t keep doing this until I die.
What can you tease about upcoming episodes?
Episode 4 answers the questions that Episode 3 poses, as it should. I don’t know where Episode 5 will go yet. But I have the story of Episode 4 locked. I just haven’t done the reenactments. That’s what I’m doing next.
How has your relationship to feature-length films evolved?
The feature film format has not been kind to me, and I don’t think it was ever a natural fit. It was always me trying to force myself into that box. The demise of the feature film — and it is dying a very clear death — means that it’s hard for me to change, too. But I’m happy to leave it and embrace this other format. I have other feature projects that I’m trying to do now. It’s not like I never want to make a feature. But I do find the short form conducive to biographical stuff.
Which filmmakers excite you these days?
I really love Rick Alverson’s stuff. I’m really excited by what he’s doing. He’s my favorite recent discovery. Anybody doing something that feels new to me, off the beaten track, is something I’m very excited by. I love “Entertainment.” But I love a lot of films. What’s happening in the Brooklyn film scene, which is really tiny…there’s a real amazing thing happening and I’m really happy to be a part of it. I’m excited to put some of those filmmakers into my show — like Dustin Defa — into my work, and cross-fertilize.