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Sundance Springboard: How Babak Anvari Made the Festival’s Most Terrifying Feature

Sundance Springboard: How Babak Anvari Made the Festival’s Most Terrifying Feature

READ MORE: Sundance Review: ‘Under the Shadow’ is the First Great Horror Movie of the Year

Indiewire’s Springboard column profiles up-and-comers in the film industry worthy of your attention.

One of the most exciting (and, often, very tricky) things about preparing to cover a festival is anticipating what films are really going to make it big, especially the ones from first-time directors, a fresh cast and little else to go on beyond the always-hard-to-describe “buzz factor.”

Babak Anvari’s “Under the Shadow” had that buzz factor — a horror-loving friend who also works in the industry called it “this year’s ‘Goodnight Mommy,'” which is some pretty big shoes to fill — and it debuted at this year’s Sundance Film Festival with arguably the biggest pre-festival chatter of any film, and certainly of any other Midnight title (and this is a section that includes such titles as “Yoga Hosers” and “The Greasy Strangler”).

The Farsi-language film plays up classic horror themes — from a haunted house to a strained parent-child relationship to some good, old-fashioned monsters under the bed — to deliver a fresh new entry in the genre. Set in 1988 Tehran during the Iran-Iraq War, “Under the Shadow” stars Narges Rashidi as Shideh, a mother struggling to hold her household together under immense stress, not the least of which is provided by an eerie presence that appears to be haunting her young daughter. Is it, as Dorsa imagines (Avin Manshadi, in her first role), a djinn stalking her? Or is it something far, far worse?

Indiewire sat down with Anvari at the festival to talk inspirations, horror heroes and how the hell he made a single apartment building look so damn terrifying.
We knew that there was certain buzz around it. We didn’t know it was going to be this much buzz. It’s very exciting and great. It’s jaw-dropping, basically. I’m over the moon. It’s so exciting getting all this attention. The great thing about all these deals is, I came to the festival and now I can relax and just enjoy and meet new people, rather than stressing about how to sell the film and who’s going to buy it.

Since the day I started thinking about wanting to become a filmmaker, it was my dream to one day make it to Sundance. Little did I know, my first feature film gets a premiere at Sundance. It’s just, “Wow, this is a dream come true.”

When I found out I got in, I jumped up and down, hugged my girlfriend, jumped up and down more, called my parents. Obviously, I talked to the producers. My producer Emily [Leo] called me and told me. Called one of my best friends, who is also the DP of the film, Kit [Fraser]. I was just going nuts. I’m a pacer, I’m hyper-active, so I basically I think I paced for four hours, just back and forth in my apartment.

The idea [for the film] came to me and I couldn’t let go of it. It kept bugging me, to the point I just had to sit down and start writing it. And then soon I realized, this is the one I wanted to do as my first feature. I felt like it had enough potential to stand out and sort of like show everyone who I am. 

I was very adamant to make the film in Farsi, rather than in English, and obviously for a lot of producers, that sounds risky. It’s an ’80s horror film set in ’80s Tehran! The challenge was to find a producer who is as excited about the project as I am. Wigwam Films, who got on board, they didn’t flinch about the Farsi thing. 

It took about two years to get the script to a place where I was ready to send [it] out. Then Wigwam Films came on board, and we spent another year developing it together, developing it further. Then, literally after a year, they had the financing, and we went off and made it.

The key thing for me was to find actors who can speak Farsi fluently without any accent. I just started looking around the world [during the casting process]. There are loads of actors who have immigrated from Iran to different countries across the world. I started looking around, asking people if they knew anyone that they could recommend. The whole cast, we found them in the U.S., the UK, France, Germany, Italy, and brought them all to Jordan to recreate Tehran in the ’80s. The casting process was tough, but we did it.

We filmed in Jordan for 21 days. It was quite intense and jam-packed, but it was fun. 

[The set] was an actual building that we found in Jordan. It wasn’t just a set. For the lighting purposes, my DP Kit Fraser, he came up with the fantastic idea of tenting the whole building, especially the ground floor. It made the actual location turn into a semi-studio, so they can completely control the lights. Even though it looks very naturalistic, it was very, very lit. 

I watched loads of films, not only horror films, when writing this script. I was heavily influenced, from the script stage, by ’70s and ’60s horror films, like “Rosemary’s Baby,” “Repulsion,” “The Tenant,” the original “The Haunting.” The fantastic British horror film “The Innocents.” These are some of the films that really, really inspired me and influenced me.

I would say that if there is one name that influenced me to become a filmmaker, and this is a very cliche answer, it’s Steven Spielberg. When I was 10 or 11, watching his films, I was like, “This is it. This is what I want to do.” Fantastic storyteller. I was also obsessed with Tim Burton’s stuff. Those two filmmakers, they were really the ones to inspire me to become a filmmaker. It was only later that in life that I had other film idols like Lumet or Hitchcock. The starting point was Steven Spielberg.

“Under the Shadow” premiered last week at the Sundance Film Festival. Netflix recently picked up streaming rights to the film, and Vertical Entertainment and XYZ Films will release it day-and-date on both digital and VOD, in addition to a theatrical release, later this year.

READ MORE: The 2016 Indiewire Sundance Bible: All the Reviews, Interviews and News Posted During The Festival

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