Caveh Zahedi: SRF Interview

To label Caveh Zahedi’s I Am A Sex Addict, being released in New York City today by IFC Films, a documentary, a docudrama, an essay-film, or a fictional narrative inspired by true events misses the point. Whatever you call it, I Am A Sex Addict is a great film, easily one of the best American films released so far this year.

The film isn’t for everyone; that’s obvious. Its title alone will warn resolutely unadventurous moviegoers to keep their distance, and for good reason. I Am A Sex Addict critically, and often graphically, charts the filmmaker’s addiction to prostitutes through a series of re-enacted scenes from Zahedi’s past. Yet in spite of having such lurid subject matter, Zahedi’s movie is often funny, deeply moving, stylistically adventurous and, ultimately, a life-affirming film. I Am A Sex Addict is, in the end, a story of redemption through love, but one far more convincing than the dime-a-dozen romantic comedies that Hollywood churns out these days.

I am an acquaintance of Caveh’s (he was an organizer of Underground Zero, a 9/11-themed anthology in which I participated), and I’ve admired his work for some time, so in December I asked if Caveh would be interested in doing an interview for this website. My intention was to help draw attention to his film because, at the time, he was self-distributing it to theaters. Caveh agreed to the interview and, during our exchange of our emails in January, I Am A Sex Addict was picked up by IFC Films — an exciting development. The IFC pick-up also made some question the sincerity of Caveh’s recently-published self-distribution manifesto. (I skipped asking about that in the interview because I assumed, correctly it turns out, that the issue would be dead by the time the movie came out.) ADDENDUM: After this introduction was written, yet another controversy arose — Mark Cuban’s refusal to screen the film in Landmark Theaters. On the same day that this interview was published AJ Schnack posted a recap, and a thoughtful consideration, of the events.

In the interests of drawing attention to the film when it was most useful, I delayed publication of our brief exchange until now. I Am A Sex Addict hits theaters in NYC today, and will continue to roll out to cinemas across America over the Spring. Go see it.

On to the interview:

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In January, when I Am A Sex Addict won the Gotham Award for “Best Feature Not Playing at a Theater Near You” IndieWire wrote that you chastised the audience at the awards ceremony, in effect saying that the award was a backhanded compliment. Can you share the text of your speech (or at the very least, the essence of it)?

Well, Indiewire got that wrong, I’m afraid. I didn’t chastise the audience. What would be the point of that? On the contrary, what I said was that the existence of such an award was evidence that there was something wrong with the current state of film distribution, but that it wasn’t the fault of the distributors. The fault, I said, was with us, the filmmakers. I argued that we independent filmmakers need to stop relying on distributors, in much the same way that independent filmmakers no longer rely exclusively on Hollywood studios for financing. I argued that if we have the resourcefulness to obtain financing for our films, we also have the resourcefulness to figure out how to get them seen, and that we need to stop relying on distributors to give us permission to show our films to audiences. We have the power, and the problem is that we’ve given our power away and don’t realize it.

Part of taking that power back, it seems, is Video on Demand, which you’ve been a proponent of. [Note: Caveh’s films are available for download at GreenCine]. What have been the ups and downs of that?

There are no downs that I’m aware of. Only ups.

How did you get involved with it?

I was approached by GreenCine and I said yes. My feeling is that the more people who see the film, the better. Plus I get royalties for each download.

Do you have any advice — practical or philosophical — for filmmakers that want to pursue distributing this way? Should filmmakers work with a service like GreenCine, do it themselves…

My understanding is that the technology is rather complicated and expensive, so until that becomes easier and/or cheaper, I would recommend going through a service like GreenCine. They’ve been wonderful to me. I can’t say enough good things about them.

Let’s talk about the movie itself. I Am A Sex Addict is a textbook example, in many ways, of the kinds of films that this website was set up to champion: It is a personal, hand-crafted film that tells a story we’ve not seen in movies. It was made with a small crew. It was made for very little money. And you make assets of these things that others might call liabilities.

Can you talk about the very basic production aspects: What tools did you use that let you work this way? How did you budget the project? What kind of agreements did you make with Greg Watkins (cinematographer), Thomas Logoreci (editor), and the actors, many of whom do some very brave work? How long did you shoot?

We bought a DV camera package, microphones, lights, and an editing system. We had very little money, so we didn’t pay anyone, unless we had to. Instead, we made deferred salary agreements with the principal actors and crew people, and shared points in the film. We shot for three and a half years, editing and revising as we went.

In an interview that you conducted with Henry Jaglom, you pointed out the fact that, while other people have always produced his work, Jaglom himself is independently wealthy and that that’s how he managed to pay the bills while producing films. (I’ve found this to be true of a number of filmmakers, too.) I presume that’s not the case for you — In the Bathtub of the World and Underground Zero both show you as a teacher. How did you support yourself during the writing, shooting, and editing of the film? Did you teach?

I tried to teach and make the film in my spare time, but I found it impossible. The demands of the film were just too great. So I ended up persuading the investor to pay me a monthly salary to work on the film, so that I could quit my teaching jobs and devote myself entirely to the making of the film.

My girlfriend and I watched the film together, and this is a question — and a compliment — that she insisted that I bring up. In almost all the movies we’ve seen where characters are (or become) addicts — whether it’s GoodFellas or Boogie Nights or Trainspotting or Requiem for a Dream — there’s some point where we lose sympathy for the characters. And after we lose sympathy, in some cases at least, we lose interest in the narrative altogether. But that doesn’t happen here. Like many addicts, you do some absolutely despicable things, yet we still found you charismatic, sympathetic, and pathetic (as in pathos). We were rooting for this addict, even in his worst moments.

Why do you think that is? Is it because the addiction regards something (i.e., sex) that many people have experienced instead of to a more illicit and illegal substance (i.e., heroin, cocaine, etc)? Or is it something else?

Well, first of all, I have to say that not everyone watching the film feels the way you do. A lot of people lose sympathy for me quite early on, and some never develop sympathy for me in the first place. These issues of audience sympathy I find much more subjective than is commonly assumed. But to the extent that you did maintain sympathy for my character, despite my “despicable” behavior, I don’t think it has to do with the fact that most people are more familiar with sex addiction-type behaviors than heroin or cocaine addictions, etc. I think it has to do with the ontological pitch at which the film is delivered.

If a recovered heroin addict made a film in which he or she told the true story of their heroin addiction, using both direct camera address and re-enactments of key scenes in which they play themselves, and incorporated actual documentary footage of the real people involved, and weren’t trying to make themselves look better than they actually were, I think the viewer would have much more sympathy for such a character than for the same character seen through the lens of the typical Hollywood version of such a story. Because the film itself would be a kind of performative speech act that would command one’s respect because of its truth quotient and courage. I think honesty and courage are both very likable qualities in people, and I think a viewer will forgive a lot of “despicable” behavior if honesty and courage are present.

I’ve read that earlier drafts of the script that were less forgiving. What sort of transformations did the script go through to reach this point?

The original script was 300 pages long, so the first challenge was getting it down to a manageable length, which was a difficult and painful process. And then once it whittle down to a manageable length, the next challenge was finding the money to make it. This took ten years of my life, and even after ten years, I only obtained a fraction of the money I needed to make the film as written. So I had no choice but to re-conceive the film at a much lower budget. As it turns out, this was the best thing that could have happened to me, because it forced me into making aesthetic decisions that ended up making the film both a lot funnier and a lot more radical than it would have been otherwise.

Regarding the “ontological pitch” you talk about, Darren Hughes points out how you really walk a tightrope as far as tone is concerned. I agree. For me, a lot of this had to do with how visually diverse the film is — from the animation, to the direct-address documentary scenes, to the scenes where you become close to each of the women in your life (which reminded me of another tragically romantic film, Chris Marker’s La Jetee). Was it originally conceived this way, or did this kind of mosaic of styles evolve?

The film was not originally conceived that way. The mosaic of styles evolved during the shooting, and arose out of the need to solve very specific aesthetic and narrative problems.

Two of the great moments in the film are the moments where you face up to the compromises made in making the film — one comes early in the film, when you admit that you’re substituting San Francisco for Paris; the other moment is when the actress playing your second girlfriend refuses to do a sex scene you’ve written and you ask the viewer to imagine it instead. Compromises are part of making any film. But you make the most of these compromises — to the point that it feels like, on an essential level, an almost uncompromised film. Do you feel that way, that it’s uncompromised? Or were there parts of your vision for the film that didn’t make it on screen?

For me, the film is totally uncompromised. I made exactly the film that I wanted to make, given the budgetary and time constraints. That’s not to say that I think the film is perfect, or that there aren’t parts that I think could have been done better, but I did the best I could given my own limitations as a human being.

What’s next?

A film called How To Legally Overthrow The U.S. Government.

4 Responses to “Caveh Zahedi: SRF Interview”

  1. Sujewa Says:

    Good interview Paul.

    Sujewa
    ******

  2. AJ Says:

    I concur, it’s a fine interview – and a nice counterpoint to much of what I wrote on my blog about the variety of controversies that have been swirling around Zahedi. I do wish you would have asked about the Filmmaker thing only because I’m beginning to wonder (and aluded to as much on my own post) whether much of this is calculated. The constant David v. Goliath stance (just today you have him picking a fight over a NY Times review that is clearly very positive) if you will. Far be it from me to deny an indie filmmaker every tool in the promotional shed to get an audience, but at what point does the rabid underdog thing get old?

  3. Paul Says:

    AJ –

    I thought your post was a nice counterpoint to mine because it addresses some thoughts and even misgivings I’ve had about these “controversies.” But to include them in the interview would have been a) impractical (since it would mean trying to initiate another round of interviewing during a busy time for CZ) and because b) it likely would not have led to any new revelations. Caveh has his own blog — whatever he wants to share, clearly, he can share.

    My main regret with this interview is my feeling that it had been rendered a bit stale by the self-distro vs. IFC debate and then, more recently, the Caveh vs. Cuban stuff. But then, perhaps one useful thing about the above interview is that what it mainly concerns itself with is the film and that is ultimately what we’ll be left with long after the other discussions fade away. If it had been an uninteresting movie I doubt any of us would have busied ourselves with his business.

    Paul

  4. AJ Says:

    Paul,

    I don’t think the interview seemed stale at all. In fact, I thought it was nice to read about the film itself, which seems almost to have been buried under the weight of these various battles. I haven’t seen the film yet so I can’t talk about those qualities – I’m merely observing the skirmishes – but reading your interview made me at least want to see the film, something I was getting less inclined to do the more I read and heard about the extraneous stuff.

    I only brought up the Filmmaker article because you talked about it in your preface and I thought it was interesting that although that controversy had died down, others (which raise similar questions) have taken its place.

    AJ