The past can haunt you long after you’ve seemingly moved on. That’s the chilling message at the heart of The Night, a new psychological thriller from director and co-writer Kourosh Ahari.
The film follows Babak (Shahab Hosseini) and Neda (Niousha Noor), an exhausted married couple with a small child, who take shelter in the grand but eerie Hotel Normandie after a night out with friends. Throughout a seemingly endless night, mysterious disturbances ruin their rest—and the couple soon realise they’re trapped with a malevolent force that hungers for the dark secrets they’ve kept from one another.
To celebrate The Night’s release in the US, we sat down (virtually) with Ahari and Hosseini to discuss the film’s themes, setting, and ground-breaking release. Special thanks to our translator for making this interview possible.
SCREAM: I know that this is the first US-produced Iranian film to get a theatrical license in Iran since 1979. How does it feel to know that you’re breaking new ground?
SHAHAB HOSSEINI: This is a very pleasant feeling—I am very excited about this. I have always believed that there are no boundaries to art, and as much as politics tries to divide us, I believe that art is the one that brings us together and joins us together. So I am very happy that for the first time after 1979, we are doing a co-production between Iran and the United States.
KOUROSH AHARI: I’m echoing that. I feel proud. We set out to do this from the beginning, so the fact that we’re sitting here and we’re talking about it now… It’s an amazing feeling.
One thing that immediately struck me about the film is that the characters predominantly speak their native language, Farsi, which is somewhat rare for US-produced films. What that important to you, Kourosh, when you were writing the script?
KA: Yes, it was. We had a lot of conversations about this, because it could have been any couple. It could have been an American couple—it can happen anywhere. The story itself is universal, and I think most people can resonate with it. But when we decided to go with an Iranian couple, it was important—especially for an Iranian couple that has recently immigrated to the US. There’s still a lot of connection and roots from their own culture and their own language, so they would not speak in English in their own private settings. So for me, it was very important to keep that authenticity.
Another reason for it was I wanted this to be an Iranian film and about the Iranian couple who lives here, and also a film that can be shown in Iran for my own people. They have to feel this authenticity as well. So that was a key factor for me, and I knew it would make it a foreign film, but I think staying with the truth and the reality of the situation was way more important than anything else.
It was very refreshing—it takes me out of a film when a couple speaks English for no other reason than the audience might speak English. Now Shahab, you spend most of the film either completely alone or alone with your co-star Niousha Noor. Was it challenging to take on such an intense role?
SH: My greatest challenge was that we had to do the shooting in a very short amount of time, and the schedule also changed. Originally, we were to do this in Oakland, but then the conditions changed and we had to do it in Los Angeles, so we had to do it in a compact way and in a quick way. The main challenge was the speed, and I believe that there were times when I lost the continuity of my feelings because we had to do it in a scattered manner. So my biggest challenge was the short period of time that we had to do this in, but we were able to overcome this just through the adeptness and skills of Kourosh, as well as the great team that we had. That’s why we succeeded in doing this.
Babak and Neda had a sense of history to their characters, even before the many secrets that they’ve kept from each other were revealed. How did you both work to bring that sense of history and heartbreak to those characters?
KA: We start off with a normal setting: this group of friends getting together, having fun, playing Mafia, having dinner. But even with our normal gatherings, sometimes you can feel that that couple, that friend, maybe there’s something that isn’t right—something makes them unhappy, something’s wrong with them. We wanted to have that little tension. It wasn’t anything significant, but something between these two characters has happened before, and it’s gone and they’re starting new, but you see the remnants of it still in certain behaviours. We wanted to set that up from the beginning and start hinting at certain things that come from their past, so as we go into the main course of the movie, we’re more familiar with their characters. We can start building them for the audience and connecting the audience with those characters—so as they go to the hotel, the audience can follow these characters and be with them.
SH: I believe that the most interesting thing about this film—and it was a realisation that I had upon reading the screenplay, because when I read the screenplay, I read it as a member of the audience—the most interesting thing that I noticed in the screenplay is that it was saying that our nightmares are quite often things that have happened in the past; we have tried to forget about them, and at the time, we thought that to be justified. Our type of life—the way in which we live our lives—could create nightmares for us, snd some of the nightmares that we are dealing with at the current time have to do with the events that have happened and the things that we have done in the past. That was something that I found interesting. And because we are Iranians, we do see a lot of supernatural things in our literature. With regard to our nightmares, these supernatural things are things that have been there throughout our stories. One thing that I like about this film is that this it communicates that to the audience and it makes members of the audience look within themselves and search within themselves. And in that aspect, I think it succeeded.
The setting of the hotel really amplified that, since hotels are such transitional places where people come and make memories and then leave, and perhaps leave those lingering memories behind. Kourosh, since there are so many hotel horror stories, did you draw on any influences when you were working on the script with your co-writer?
KA: Yes and no. It’s funny, because as we were going over the script, we talked about this when we said “What if we take it to a hotel location?”—because the script, originally, was written to be in a home setting. It was set in Iran, and this couple was coming back from a gathering, and then they go home and certain events start happening. But as we started talking about it, I wanted to be in a hotel setting.
This brought up the same question as we were discussing it: would this make the story similar to some of the great genre films that are based in a hotel? The answer was yes, it could give that feeling, but the part that I was most interested in in terms of the hotel location was that, to me, hotels have a significance. That significance is that we check-in and then check out, and it’s very much like the world that we’re living in—we check into this world, and then how we check out is the key. We brought that, in the presence of the hotel, to represent the world that we are living in. Each one of us is a human: how do we go about our lives and how are we going to check out at the end?
Well, that is a creepy way of looking at hotels. And the setting is great. How did you find the Hotel Normandie?
KA: The kudos goes to our producer, Alex Bretow. As Shahab said, it was supposed to be set in Oakland—we actually had a hotel that we were going to shoot at, and certain things happened that meant we had to relocate, so Alex immediately started going all over town in LA looking for the hotel that fit the story. He found this one, he just started sending me the pictures, and I was like, “This is it. Let’s lock it down.”
It’s certainly a creepy-looking place in all the best ways.
KA: Hopefully the audience can go there!
Yeah, I want to check it out. You mentioned that the film was originally intended to be set in Iran and then you changed it to America, and I think it touches on some elements of the immigrant experience and the isolation and anxieties that can come with it. I know you emigrated to the US when you were 18, Kourosh. Did you draw on your own experiences at all?
KA: I came to the US at the age where I was starting to be more involved with the society in Iran. I was very involved even at a young age, and my root is my culture and where I come from, so I have so many connections. There are so many stories that I heard, read, and I brought that with me here, and then I started introducing myself to this new culture—this entirely different perspective of everyday life situations and how we interact with each other, how we go about things.
When I started making this film, I had so much from both cultures that I could balance both. It was set in Iran and it had a straightforward story, but once I came in, I wanted to bring some of that experience into it. I wanted to bring the experience of getting into a situation where you face the police officer in the US, and how, as an immigrant, you deal with that. What is that immediate fear that you have without even committing any crime? Being a foreign person, am I going to be treated equally? There’s already a tension because I’m not an American.
So I brought some of those experience, plus some cultural belief. For me, with The Night, there’s a story on the surface and then there is a much deeper story underneath. As we talk to people who are seeing it for the second or third time, they say they got much more and they enjoyed it much more because there are so many elements that we put into the frame from the beginning to the end. All that is injected into this movie. Sometimes it’s just a matter of symbolism, and I think that’s an advantage that I have—having a deep, richer culture in my background, and then coming to a new culture and trying to find a balance between those.
That’s great. And Shahab, how did you bring that perspective to life in your character?
SH: When one tries to start a good relationship and one succeeds in that, everywhere in the world is a homeland to that person. When I came to America, I did not find America to be a new land. It was a feeling of acquaintance that I had. I found the people to be similar to the people of my own country: they were kind, they were involved in their day-to-day affairs. I believe that we were able to communicate greatly with them. People everywhere in the world are similar in that sense, and in that way, the whole world could be one’s homeland.
When I came to America, I brought some of those experiences with me, and I brought this as a souvenir or as a present—a culture present—to the people of this new land that I came to. Luckily, I was able to find very good friends, and we became like members of a family. This feeling of family is what allowed us to create this film.
When I was playing in this film, I did not feel like I was playing an immigrant. This is something that could have happened to anyone, anywhere in the world. As I stated earlier, the film wants to say that the shadow of the things that we do in the past follows us into the present. And I think this theme is much more important in the movie than the theme of immigration.
That’s very true. Thank you both for sharing your thoughts with us!
KA: Thank you!
The Night is available to watch now on demand, VOD, and in select theatres in the US.
Words: Samantha McLaren (@themeatispeople)