Friday 30 July 2021

Home - In Conversation - A Foot on Both Sides: An Interview with Shadi Karamroudi

24Frames: The charm of filmmaking, of creating a new fragment of reality can be too hard to resist, especially when you are constantly in touch with this universe. In a conversation with Shadi Karamroudi, an Iranian actress and recent filmmaker, we discuss the experience of being a member of the professional cinema industry, as well as the short independent cinema, and her newly unveiled talent as a director. Shadi’s second and newest film, ALL THE TIME, has been selected to compete in Busan International Film Festival 2020.



1. What led you to the world of cinema and how long have you been active in this field?


My entry point was through the film Cat and Fish by Shahram Mokri, about 8 years ago. I was chosen for the character Maral, from the video archive of Karnameh institute, because I used to take acting classes there and it often happens that directors use the archive to choose an actor or actress from the students. After that, I played in other feature films such as Mastaneh or A Very Ordinary Citizen by Majid Barzegar, which was unfortunately never screened in Iran, as well as the movie Darkoob. I also acted in a series that is currently being shown. About the time of Cat and Fish, I participated in a few filmmaking workshops by Mokri too and I have been interested in directing from the very beginning. I made my first short film around 2013,2014, but there was a big gap between its shooting and editing, and even after that I didn’t put too much effort in releasing it because I wasn’t well experienced and I felt like it didn’t turn out to be what I had hoped, and eventually kind of let go of it. However, in 2018 it was selected in Bilbao Film Festival’s review of works by Iranian female filmmakers and it received some positive critique but it was too late to restart the releasing process again. I have acted in several short films, but I tend to be very picky about them. Normally, I don’t accept roles unless they really trigger something in me, or they discuss an issue that I’m concerned about, because otherwise, it wouldn’t feel rewarding to me. To name a few of the shorts that I’ve acted in and have found truly interesting, I can mention Like a Good Kid by Arian Vazirdaftari that helped me get a role in a feature film this year, as well as Spotted Yellow that was competing at Locarno Festival just a few months ago, for which my acting was much noticed.



2. You’ve starred in both short films and feature films; in what ways are the two experiences different?


Without a doubt, one of the main factors that make a difference between these two settings is the atmosphere that you work in. Usually in short films, at least in my experience, the cast and crew are your friends or people whom you already know of, so there’s a closeness and a friendly tone behind the scenes that really affects your performance. It is rather different in feature films’ case since first of all the scale is much larger and there are more people you work with; so naturally, the relationships between the members differ and everything is more serious and more formal. Another thing worth mentioning that’s not necessarily true about other countries, but is the case in Iranian cinema, is that we have less variety in genre in feature films, compared to short films; thus, the possibility of trying out different roles is higher in short films. For instance, I have taken roles in drama, fantasy, and even horror films, which is something that happens less often when it comes to feature films, due to its more conservative nature. Clearly, there’s also the difference in the duration of shooting, but that hasn’t implied much change in my process of getting into a character. This duration difference stroke me more while shooting the series, since it took about a year, and in these situations, you face more pressure and difficulties. Regarding what you’re expected to do in these two modes, because I’ve had more freedom to choose my roles in shorts, I have often picked leading roles which require more attention to details and a deeper reading of the character due to the general focus of the film on me, but this doesn’t mean that supporting roles are less important to me. I try to work as hard as I can to prepare for each character.



3. Do you think short film acting is a gateway for a feature film acting career?


As an actor, when you aspire to work in a professional setting, starting with short films is always a great stepping stone. This gives you an opportunity to not only gain experience in acting, but also trying out leading roles, without the troubles that come with feature films, such as the need to become a celebrity and so forth. Having a role that carries the weight of the story is very important, regardless of it being in a short or feature. From what I know of working in Iran, if you get a role in a short film that becomes successful enough, you will most likely get a chance to be seen by judges in festivals who happen to be mainly directors or other significant crew members of feature films, and that can open new doors in your career. I think right now there are two attitudes regarding the production of short films here; one is when there’s a rather big budget and more serious and professional members working on it and this is normally not the case for directorial debuts or even second or third films. This was the case in Like a Good Kid or Not Yet, both by Arian and even in the second one he had actual celebrities for actors. The other type, is when the films have an experimental nature, with smaller budgets and a semi-professional team, like most student films, and as the director is experimenting, so are other members such as the cinematographer or the actors. I have worked in both situations, and I believe both teach you valuable lessons on how to behave in front of a camera and other techniques that don’t necessarily have anything to do with the emotional side of acting, but the times that I played main roles have taught me the most in terms of managing something that the entire film relies on.



4. You’ve recently directed a short film All the Time; how did you find the experience managing to direct and act simultaneously?


It was honestly a great experience. I tried to remember some of the lessons I had learned from my previous film and apply them this time. One of those, was that last time, my script for the film wasn’t quite ready and I was hasty turning it into a film, but for this recent one, I put a lot of time and energy into my script to make short it’s complete and doesn’t have major errors, at least for the time that I was working on it because after some time passes and you look back on your work, it is still possible that you would dislike it. My team, including my DOP, my set designer, my editor who was with me from A to Z, and of course Arian, who stood beside me both as a producer and my husband,  as well as my actress were all highly supportive. That helped make our experience easier and more pleasant. Since I was acting and directing at the same time, I had to reduce the unforeseen improvisations on set to the minimum, and rely strongly on the decoupage and a detailed storyboard, so that when the shooting was happening, I could focus on my acting with less worry about supervising. Although I’m a firm believer that not everything you prepare will work out for the best on set and the flow of shooting is really important; this was simply the measures I had to take to make sure we get everything we need in the limited time frame. Another challenge that we faced was that after two or three sessions of practicing, I wasn’t happy with my own acting and it seemed like I was being too conservative. I couldn’t see myself from an outside view so I asked Arian to help direct my acting. One thing I tried out was to place my assistant instead of myself in the shots and after everything was ready, I would switch places with her for the recording, but after a couple of shots, I noticed it’s not working well so what I tried next was to set the monitor where it would align with my point of view and analyzed the frame as it was ready to be recorded. Later I found out that Mani Haghighi does the same thing. We had a lot of practice sessions, especially with my actress; this helped balance out the process because even though the monitor checking took some time, we didn’t have to do numerous takes for each scene. The role of my producer was really bold during the whole production as he performed like a true professional and higher above the standards of short film producers here. He was very precise in managing what exactly should happen at each stage, as well as cutting the line between his responsibilities and mine; that was crucial for making level-headed decisions with his less emotional attachment to the film compared to mine, so it was truly amazing how our professional relationship was not affected by our personal relationship.



5. Where did the idea for this film come from and what was the process of turning it into a script like?


The Idea of the film comes from something in the news that was published in 2017, but since the film has not been screened yet, I will spoil it if I tell you what the news exactly was; but this news became kinda personal to me, and it became a mixture of that and my own experience that got me into writing the script instantaneously. I had the plot ready and I had worked on it a bit but I was doing several other projects and my master’s thesis during that time, as well as getting married, so all of that contributed to postponing finishing the script. Last year, Ten Film Festival had a call of support for filmmakers, and you had to send your script to a jury and they would decide whether you’re eligible for assistance or not. This motivated me to put real work on the script for the pitching, which meant that I had to go further than a simple script by providing an overview of the locations, possible actors, and so on. I only received the second prize at that time which was getting the necessary equipment to make my film, but that was the spark for me to take the film seriously. Little by little, as I explained my idea to different people and got positive feedbacks from them, I was pushed to go forward with actualizing the idea. This was very significant for me because my previous experience wasn’t particularly successful and I had low confidence in myself, in this area. This was my second film but I have written a few other scripts besides these two, one of which was the film Not Yet which Arian and I wrote together. Usually what I do is to write down my plot step by step to see the dots I have to connect in the storyline and I can’t work well keeping it all in my head. After this stage is completed and I have a solid plot, writing the script doesn’t take too much time for me. When I’m finished with the script, I try to ask for only one or two people’s comments to make sure what I had in mind is communicated correctly. My new film is almost identical to my written script, partially because when I know I am going to be the one directing it, I put implicit decoupage in the text. I do acknowledge that you should be open to needed changes based on some issues on set, or to get rid of parts of that don’t do anything for the film. Even though I had to make a few adjustments at times, the story of this film is so clear and linear that it leaves very little need to change.



6. How has your background as an actress helped you as a filmmaker?


In terms of positive effects, I can’t really think of anything significant I gained from being in front of a camera. My acting career perhaps helped with directing the actors more than anything else, but I think if there has been an effect, it would actually be more on the negative side, because as an actor, you have a passivity; I don’t mean that there’s no creativity in what you do, but there is a sense of relief for that you know you are going to be led, rather than leading. As an actor, you don’t feel the need to hide your tiredness or frustration after long hours of work, but as the director, if you show exhaustion, it’ll drop the overall energy of other members and the whole project, because after all, you are the person in charge of making sure everyone is doing the best they can; so I had to double up my own energy to keep everyone motivated to continue. This is especially the case in short film production because of the high pressure of the limited budget and time, and after a point, it might not even be ethical to ask that much from your cast and crew, yet there is no other way around it; this is the point that you need to provide emotional support as well, which is something you don’t have to deal with as an actor. This was something I hadn’t really experienced before and needed to explore within myself.



7. Do you plan on making more short films or possibly feature films in the future, alongside acting?


Of course, I’m already working on a new short script, however, I am kind of scrupulous when it comes to writing; the same reason that it took a long while between my two films, but I’m trying to manage that to be more productive. Meanwhile, I’m working on a plot for a feature film and really looking forward to creating it, but I will most likely make at least a couple of more shorts before I get to that point. Thankfully, my current situation as an actress is going well too and I’m getting good offers and to be honest, I don’t see these two paths as separate ones or that one would be replaced by the other. Interestingly, the period that I was working on my film and shooting it, happened to be one of the busiest acting times I have experienced so far. I had some trouble managing two other projects I was working for, on the same week that I had planned to shoot my own film. It happens often that there are times which you don’t get many offers as an actor or actress and the fact that you are not working might bring along some levels of depression as well; when you try to make a film at these periods, precisely because you are trying to do something just to fill in your time, the results are seldom substantial. As soon as you get a new job offer, you will leave your project behind and focus on something else. Hence, I think if you look at filmmaking as a replacement for whatever other occupation you have, you will lack the persistence and motivation to progress in it. Not to mention, as an actor you normally have a lot of free time; I haven’t met many people that do more than two films per year, and that doesn’t take more than 4 to 5 months. So it rarely happens that doing one of these blocks you from getting into the other, and for me, both of these passions grow together and in a peaceful manner.



8. What are the main issues that any filmmaker faces with their first works in your opinion?


For both short or feature films, the first challenge is the financial aspect. It can shape your project to a good extent, as there’s a noticeable difference between when you make your film with 50 million Tomans versus when you make it with 5 million. I have seen many examples of well-known short films that have gained respect for their plots because of the fact that they essentially wanted it to be a low budget film. The other thing that is just as important,  is your script; I think these two are the golden duo and if you have a good script with just enough money, it is almost guaranteed that your film will succeed, or it would at least be something similar to what you had anticipated. One of the worst scenarios that can happen in my opinion is when you have money, but your script is not ready. Financial opportunities are not stable, especially in a place like Iran, and if you do get this opportunity while your script is not well-prepared, you are likely to face a huge loss, because not only you will have wasted the money, but also an idea that could potentially turn into something amazing. Other than these two, I don’t think there’s any challenge that determined filmmakers are not able to handle. The risk that directors are willing to take, in these situations is bigger for feature films, compared to short ones, because with short films, the worst thing that can happen is that you run out of money and your film will not be successful, and since this happens mainly in the first or second attempts, you shouldn’t have to worry about your reputation. Even in my case, if the film hadn’t been premiered internationally, basically no one would have known I even made it. I heard this from someone, that before you make a feature film, you’re an artist full of potential that people are looking forward to seeing what you have to present, but as the scale gets larger, the damage you might face grows as well, and that’s why if a feature film fails, it would be much harder to recover from it and the failed work would be peoples reference to decide whether they want to work with you after that or not.



9. What are some new lessons you’ve learned from directing that you might have not paid too much attention to as an actress?


I made this film in a rather difficult situation; we were at our pre-production when the internet blackout happened and the whole experience was touched by several other issues too. By the time it was supposed to get premiered, COVID rose and changed our plans again, but this unpredicted situations helped me gain more flexibility and quicker decision making abilities because we had to conform to what the situation asked us to. When the internet was out, we had to use delivery services to get the script to our actors or to settle on the props we were supposed to use, so it helped me grow a thick skin as a filmmaker. Another instance of the importance of being flexible to what the situation requires is that the original name of my film, Never, Sometimes, Always is mentioned in the film and plays an essential role because there’s a sequence that loses it’s meaning if the name is not said. After the production was finished, we saw a list of films from Sundance 2020 and after that Berlin Festival, including an American film called Never, Rarely, Sometimes, Always, and that was really unlucky because my film was done and I couldn’t change the lines or do anything about it, so I decided to eventually change the English name for it to be able to enter those festivals as well. So these types of happenings, from the pre-production up until the film’s release really taught me how to see the bigger picture, make sacrifices, and consider different options along the way.


Interviewed by Parnian Gharehsoory

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