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An Interview with Independent Filmmaker Caveh Zahedi

Since the release of his debut feature A Little Stiff in 1991, Caveh Zahedi has proven himself to be one of the most consistently exhilarating filmmakers working in the modern independent scene. His work is at once formally ambitious, deeply intimate and bitterly funny, blurring the line between fiction and documentary, public and private, empathy and exploitation. In 2015, BRIC TV commissioned Caveh’s first foray into serialized storytelling with an experimental web series called The Show About The Show. The premise is just as simple as its title promises: each episode tells the story of the creation of the previous episode, utilizing a combination of fly-on-the-wall footage, interviews, direct address and dramatic re-enactments. The result was one of the most fascinating American artworks of the year — a piercing exploration of artistic hubris, censorship, self-reflexivity and social performativity. This year, The Show About the Show returns with a second season — the first two episodes of which recently premiered at this year’s Sundance Film Festival as part of the newly formed “Indie Episodic” category.

I met with Caveh to discuss influences, the advantages of episodic narrative, the evolution of his career and the future of the series.

James: As I was watching the first season of The Show About the Show, I found it striking how the project feels like your earlier films, yet it differs in many substantial ways due to the piecemeal nature of its production. For example, you’re able to reflect on viewers’ reactions to an episode within the content of the next. How did the episodic format alter your working style?

Caveh: It enabled me to more organically integrate what was already episodic in nature — i.e. the on-going story of my life — with the medium that I was working in. The feature-length format has never been a natural fit. The episodic format is much more appropriate to the work I do.

Because a lot of what I do relies on chance (or on the unfolding of fate, depending on your theological presuppositions), it allows certain narrative echoes to occur without pre-planning. I don’t control their representation in the same way, and that creates surprises and rhymes that more closely resemble the experience of life itself.

James: Did you have any cinematic influences in mind while working on The Show About The Show? I’m not sure if you’ll agree with this, but the playful self-reflexivity reminded me of Jafar Panahi and 80s Godard, while the expansive narrative made me think of Raúl Ruiz’s television projects.

Caveh: Those are all people whose work I admire, but I didn’t consciously have any cinematic influences in mind. I think my main cinematic influence is my own previous work.

James: I’m interested in hearing about how you shape each episode. Do you have a clear idea of how you’re going to structure it in advance, or do you shoot a lot of footage and then determine the arc of the episode in the editing room?

Caveh: I have a rough idea of how I’m going to structure it in advance, which is basically just a list of topics or stories to tell. Then I just talk to the camera extemporaneously. Afterwards, I make changes in the editing room and typically re-shoot the camera address several times in the course of finalizing the episode.

James: Do you plan to create more seasons? And, if so, do you envision that each one will be based on a significant format change?

Caveh: Yes. I am already preparing Season 3, which will be very different once again. It will be a love letter to James Joyce’s Ulysses.

James: Sounds incredible! When you shoot the recreation scenes, do you work from documentary footage of the real events or do you work from memory?

Caveh: I work from memory. When I have documentary footage of the events, I usually use it. So, if it’s a re-enactment, it means I probably don’t have doc footage of the event I’m re-enacting.

James: What are the difficulties that come with directing performers who are playing versions of themselves? Do you find that they tend to be more guarded?

Caveh: I think it’s easier to direct performers who are playing themselves than to try to get people to play someone different. They sometimes have reluctance to portray themselves the way you see them, but that’s not about acting as much as it’s about wanting to control the narrative.

James: You once said in an interview that the hidden theme of all your films is the positive nature of failure. Could you elaborate on this, and how it relates to The Show About The Show?

Caveh: I don’t remember saying that, but it sounds like me. Leonard Cohen once said that the only thing we were here to learn was acceptance, and that always struck me as true. I think the hidden theme of all my films is acceptance.

I like failure because it’s spiritualizing. We think we know what will make us happy, but we’re usually wrong. Failure forces us to rethink our salvational strategies. By telling the story of these failures, The Show About the Show transmutes the dross of failed salvational strategies into the gold of acceptance.

James Slaymaker (@jmslaymaker) is a filmmaker and freelance journalist from Dorset, UK. His writing has been featured in MUBI Notebook, Senses of Cinema, Film International, Little White Lies, Sound on Sight, Popmatters, Alternate Takes, Bright Lights Film Journal, College Humour, The Vulgar Cinema and McSweeney’s, among others. He’s also contributed a chapter to the upcoming book ‘Hard to Get: The Films and Female Characters of Howard Hawks.’ His first book, ‘Time is Luck: The Life and Cinema of Michael Mann,’ is due for publication early next year. 

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