Under the Shadow made its highly-buzzed debut last Friday as part of this year’s Sundance Film Festival Midnight strand, meeting rave reviews across the board.
Whilst Netflix acquired digital streaming rights to the Farsi-language supernatural shocker before the film had even screened at Sundance, Vertical Entertainment weren’t far behind them, teaming up with XYZ Films to roll the film out with a global day-and-date release on digital and VOD platforms, alongside a targeted theatrical release in select territories. Vertical and XYZ will be coordinating the release with Netflix, the streaming giant who will be serving the film up worldwide shortly after its theatrical and transactional debut.
From director Babak Anvari, the story blends the real-life horror of the Iran-Iraq War with an apparent supernatural threat to create something truly original. SCREAM’s Howard Gorman caught up with Anvari just after the initial screenings at this year’s Sundance Film Festival to discuss the film’s instant success and his inspirations for setting a supernatural shocker amidst the turmoil in Iran in the ‘80s…
SCREAM: You must be on a cloud right now with the film having been nabbed by Netflix and Vertical.
Babak Anvari: It’s very exciting. Obviously, when I sent out the script some producers were a bit dubious and saw it as a bit of a risk but London-based production company Wigwam Films were the one’s who never flinched and took it on board and here we are now. It’s been amazing that all this good news has come at the very start of the festival and it also means now I can just chill and relax and enjoy the rest of the festival and meet new people.
SCREAM: What were your main motivations behind shooting a supernatural film set amidst the Iran-Iraq war?
BA: The reason I went for this story is two things. When I was a child there was a war happening in Iran and at the same time djinn is one of the famous myths or legends in middle eastern history. I used to hear all these stories from other children – because children love to scare each other – about djinn and how they come around and possess people. I guess when I was thinking about the story these two things merged into what ended up being Under the Shadow.
‘80s Tehran was a very intense time and era just because of the Iran-Iraq war and it was right after the revolution and the country was going through a lot of changes. Those were very dark times for all Iranians so I thought that was the perfect setting for a horror film because of all the uncertainty of war and political turmoil. It just made total sense and it’s never been done before. Having said that though, the whole idea of having a fictional horror story set against a real backdrop is not a new one, and I love those kinds of films. I’m a really big fan of Del Toro; he does them really well. I’m also a big fan of the series Carnival, which is set in depression times, so I thought it would be great to do something similar but set it in Iran, the place where I grew up and somewhere I know a lot about.
SCREAM: Last year some articles criticised the film as being Anti-Iranian.
If you’re Iranian and you want to tell a story about Iran, people would perceive it in a political way because Iran now is associated with geo-politics and you cannot escape that. At the end of the day this is a personal story. I’m a filmmaker, not a politician or a political commentator. I just wanted to tell the story that I wanted and I guess the sensitivity in Iran lead to a quick judgement even though they didn’t, and they still don’t, really know what the film is about. But at the end of the day, this is a UK film and I personally don’t think there’s anything offensive in there.
SCREAM: You couldn’t shoot in Iran so how did you manage to keep everything as authentic as possible?
BA: The first and most important thing was that I wanted all the actors to speak Farsi fluently without any accents. So I went looking everywhere around the world with the producers and I talked with each actor to make sure their Farsi was perfect. And then, obviously, the second step was to find a location that we could use to create an ‘80s Iran and we settled on Jordan and it was a great choice because it really does remind me of Tehran and it really made me feel nostalgic when I was there. So that was it, and I had an excellent team on board who helped me. I went through a lot of old photos, family photos and researched everything and shared that with my team so we could go about recreating Tehran in Jordan?
SCREAM: I was seriously impressed by a clip of the film that came out in December, particularly given the distinctive shooting style.
BA: My DP Kit Fraser and I and collaborate very well. He’s a very good friend of mine and I’ve known him for over 13 years. We met at film school and we’ve done shorts together so we complement each other and he was the very first one who knew about this idea for Under the Shadow. Throughout the writing process I was always chatting to him about the look of the film and how we should go about making it. He was heavily involved from the beginning so by the time we got to shoot the film we both knew what we wanted and we worked very closely together and we spent 3 weeks devising every scene for the cameras and coming up with ideas. It was all out of collaboration but I’d say that ultimately it was Kit who executed it all so it just shows how talented he is, and his team were also very hard working.
SCREAM: Was it a challenge to keep the film ambiguous as you tease the audience in terms of whether what they are seeing is really something supernatural or merely a figment of the protagonist’s imagination?
BA: Yeah. Basically that was precisely why we chose to shoot almost all of the film handheld in a very natural way following the main character as she goes through this journey. So basically we thought that if the camera movement was very natural and handheld then it would really help to create tension and make the horror moments that much more effective. It’s kind of like when in real life when you can sense something in the corner of your eye that you think could be a shadow or something but you look around and there’s nothing there. That was always our plan, to create that ambiguity as to whether this is all really happening or if it’s in the main character’s head.
SCREAM: Obviously your heavily promoting this film at the moment but have you got any ideas as to where you’ll go from here?
BA: I have an idea or two of mine that I’m working on but it’s very early stages now and I just need to keep developing them. At the same time, I’m reading loads of material that is being sent to me so it’s an exciting time and I just have to figure out what will be the next logical step forward for me.
We’d like to thank Babak for speaking to us and until a firm release date is confirmed we’ll leave you with an exclusive clip of the film to savour what’s in store:
Words: Howard Gorman (@HowardGorman)