Gavin Schmitt Interviews Kasra Farahani
A term that tends to be overused is “rising star”. An actor or director has one good film and they get tagged a rising star. A year or two later, they are all but forgotten. Not to jinx him, but I think Kasra Farahani might be a rising star who stays the course.
His background is as a concept artist, working on many big films from “Men in Black III” to the latest Marvel Comics adaption. But he also has a feature under his belt. “The Good Neighbor” received positive buzz, and how can it not? When your lead actor is James Caan, you can expect nothing but good things.
Farahani is back with an even bigger film that is grabbing headlines. And that is “Tilt”, starring Joseph Cross. Ostensibly, it is about an unemployed documentarian who not-so-slowly is driven to madness. But the timing was just perfect to really capture the political zeitgeist as well. Kasra was kind enough to sit down with me on July 19, 2017, and we had a nice chat about our attempts to avoid adulthood.
GS: You started your career in movies as a concept artist; what does that entail?
KF: A concept artist is basically somebody who, with aid of the script and director, as well as the production designer, creates the initial visualization. It may be key moments of a story, or what visual effects will look like. This might include character design, vehicle design, set design… or it might be a key frame of the story.
GS: You mentioned working with the director. One director you worked with was Tim Burton, who is very much known for his visual style. Does a director’s style influence your concept art?
KF: Absolutely. Especially if it’s somebody as distinctive as Tim Burton. All things in a film really start with the director, from the tone to the last facet of filmmaking. That includes the visuals, and if a director is known for a style then a concept artist would want to tap into their body of work. This helps create a clear vision.
GS: Being a relatively new director, did the success of “The Good Neighbor” help with financing and other issues for “Tilt”?
KF: Certainly the experience of shooting a film helped with shooting another one. Moving from the first film to the second, I knew what I liked about the experience and what I didn’t like. So that helped going into “Tilt”. It was actually the same financier and producer, Giri Tharan, on both projects. We had a good working relationship the first time around and thought we could do it again.
GS: So you already knew who was producing “Tilt” as you went into it.
KF: Not exactly. At the time that co-writer Jason O’Leary and I were writing the script, we didn’t know who would produce it. But once it was done, we shared it with Giri and he liked it. He responded well to the material, so we moved forward from there.
GS: People are interpreting “Tilt” in different ways. Some see it as a commentary on how adulthood is pushed back more and more.
KF: Yes. (laughs) Absolutely. Yeah, I think if you live on the coast or in any of the metropolitan areas of the United States or Europe, you’re witnessing this trend towards a reticence to accept adulthood. My parents’ generation was married in their 20s. The generation before them, it wasn’t unheard of to be married in your mid-teens. Now, we’ve reached a point where people are saying, “Oh, forty. Forty seems like a good time to do that, maybe think about children.” (laughs)
In terms of the character of Joe Burns… and this is something I can relate to… he comes from a practical family where the last two generations fought in wars, had conventional jobs, and accumulated a certain amount of wealth and stability. So Joe doesn’t have to think about the things that defined previous generations. I’m of course generalizing. There’s a privilege and people are told that they’re special all the time. This is Joe Burns, but now it’s time for him to give up “his” moment. He wants to show the world how important his thoughts are, but his life is pregnant so he can no longer deny that he’s an adult. He’s no longer on the front line of mortality because here’s another generation on the way. We’re watching him try and fail to reconcile the recognition of adulthood with his belief that he’s a genius, iconoclastic thinker.
GS: The character of Joe Burns has sort of an anti-capitalist approach to politics. What research went into his character and his “Golden Age” documentary?
KF: A couple of things. First of all, neither my co-writer nor myself are natural horror buffs. We’re trying to create real, true, almost banal type of horror. We wanted a character who is shockingly realistic. Hopefully people see Joe Burns and say, “Oh, I know someone like that.” So we took some of his political views and made them familiar, relatable. Our intent is to make the audience uncomfortable by having this guy do morally reprehensible things while espousing political opinions that they absolutely agree with. The other part is that I came across a cache of footage on the Library of Congress website. It’s no secret that the film was made for relatively little money and it was a resource I had at my disposal to give the film specificity and scope.
We were writing the script in the autumn of 2015, the primary season just getting underway, and there was this emergence of angry Trump voters. That shaped the script by creating a duality. Outwardly, Joe Burns lives in a west coast, liberal enclave and shares those views. But maybe deep down, as a white male, maybe he secretly admires or agrees with the Trump contingent – even unbeknownst to himself.
GS: I know you identify with Joe’s ambitions in some ways. How does an artist know if his project is worthwhile or just a distraction?
KF: (laughs) I don’t think you do. I don’t think anyone knows. My humble opinion, and I’m neither an expert nor an authority, is that you just have to feel passionately about what you’re doing. And even that’s rather vague. You just have to check your motives. I’m 39, not married and no kids, and time keeps moving forward. The struggle is real. There was an actor on set – and I won’t name any names – running lines with their significant other. Some of the content of the lines made them very uncomfortable because it was just too close to home with their own relationship and they had to stop running the lines together.
GS: When the film was being made, Donald Trump was not expected to win the election. Because people are latching on to the Trump aspects, does the election outcome change the way the film is perceived?
KF: You know, it’s interesting. In many ways, it has become very frustrating. Some people have watched the film in a very lazy way and have come after us in a mercenary way saying that Jason and I were riding the Trump wave. But again, we wrote this in autumn 2015 when there were something like 19 Republican candidates and Trump was not seen as a serious contender. Everyone was pretty sure it was going to be Hillary Clinton running against Jeb Bush or Marco Rubio. That was the climate we were writing in. We expected that the film would harken back to this weird “blip”, this moment when Donald Trump went further than anyone thought possible and stirred up an angry, white male hostility. We were surprised that he was not only able to stir up this sentiment, but also turn it into a viable political movement. We never thought it was going anywhere. We were done shooting the film by the time he was named the Republican nominee, and then it began taking on a different meaning. Ironically, by Trump winning the nomination, I actually worried the film would become dated because we still figured he would lose. Now he wasn’t some strange blip but an actual part of history. Then he won. And the film took on a whole new meaning and we never had any sense that this was going to happen. Now the things that we had bubbling in Joe Burns’ subconscious aren’t just being uttered publicly by a candidate, they’re actually part of mainstream politics.
Things we didn’t think possible a year ago are now being weighed in on by the Supreme Court, literally today. (Editor’s note: Kasra is referring to the travel ban.) An article in the New York Times today says that fiction writers have said the Donald Trump presidency is so implausible that if you had written it, you’d be laughed at. But yet, here it is. And in “Tilt”, the Trump aspect was never meant to be pivotal, but it has sort of overshadowed the rest of the film. The part we found pivotal was Joe’s contrast of the false “Golden Age” in the 1950s and his own subconscious rage as a white man. He is living a life where he’s essentially unemployed, emasculated, with his wife as the breadwinner. So on the surface he sees the promise of the 1950s as a lie, but deep down he feels that growing resentment. He’s part of the contingent that believes they’ve been left behind in the era of globalization. Joe has been marginalized.
GS: Not being a Trump supporter, has that made it more difficult for you to sit through screenings now that the absurdity can’t just be laughed away?
KF: It’s painful. We selected the clips of Trump that appear in the film based on how outlandish they were. We felt each one of them was disqualifying, with him saying the American Dream was dead and the country was full of “losers”. We thought they’d be funny. But now they’re no longer funny because they turned out to be precursors, pre-shocks of an ongoing earthquake.
The real frustration is when people describe this cynical motivation to us. There was (an interviewer), and he just straight up said that we tacked the Trump parts on. That was what he presumed. Which is silly. The election was in November, and the film premiered at Tribeca in April. So people apparently have no idea how long it takes to write, shoot, and edit a film, on top of the time it takes to get it into a festival. So that’s been irritating. But I’ll take the good with the bad.
GS: Well, it’s a great film, and I thank you for your time.
KF: Thank you so much.