An Interview with Visionary Indie Filmmaker Kourosh Ahari

By Kevin Scott,

I recently had a chance to talk with Kourosh Ahari. He’s a very promising young filmmaker that not only appreciates all the facets of good storytelling, but also embraces the technology that would allow him to tell those stories within and outside the realm of known possibilities. That approach has worked pretty well for guys like Spielberg and Cameron, so I relished the opportunity to talk to someone with that same passion at the dawn of their career.

He has already crossed genres with some pretty surreal and powerful stories involving human emotion intersecting with extraordinary circumstances, and now he’s using an innovative new three screen technology in his horror short film THE SECRET OF 40. Ahari talks with me in this interview about his beginnings, his very impressive body of work thus far, and what may be next for how we watch and enjoy films.

MH: I’m going to start with the most common of questions just as a jumping off point. Tell me a few basic things about yourself to break the ice.

KA: I’m 28 years old filmmaker. I was born in Iran and grew up there, I moved to the US when I was 19. I never thought I would become a filmmaker, I didn’t have a camera to go around and shoot as a kid. What first made me interested in filmmaking was when I started watching behind the scenes. Every time I would watch the BTS of a movie or TV show, it seemed like so much fun that I wanted to be a part of it. It was just a nice thought that I never took seriously until I transferred to San Jose State University with the goal of getting into the animation program. That year, due to high demand for that major and it being over capacity, they wouldn’t take any new students. So I was left with two choices: wait another year to see what happens or pick another major. After doing some research, I found out that film students very often collaborate with animation students on various projects. Since I didn’t want to waste any time and wait another year, I decided I would major in film and somehow make my way into the animation program, not knowing that’s not what the universe had in store for me. The summer before I started school as a film student, I bought a DSLR, went on YouTube and spent days and hours learning a few basics of shooting and making a film. I made my very first short film before I started school and that film went on to win Best Drama and Best Acting awards at a school level short film festival, and that was really the start for me. We as human beings have the desire to make a difference and make the world a better place, but don’t always have the means for it. Seeing that level of engagement from an audience for the first time and how visual storytelling could change the way some look at the world made me realize filmmaking was what I wanted to do all along.

MH: What was the social climate like in Iran growing up, and good or bad, how did it inspire you to want to make films?

KA: The social climate in Iran when I was growing up was of course very different than it is here due to the culture and certain belief systems. However, it did not really inspire me to want to make films at the time, I didn’t discover I wanted to make films until I had been living here in the US for 5 years. That said, growing up in a completely different culture and being there for the most critical development stages of my life, give me the privilege of having a unique and different perspective on life and social matters that definitely influence my films and the way I tell a story.

MH: What brought you to California and San Jose State?

KA: I came here with my family. We came to California only because my uncle lived and worked here for many years and he was the one that supported us in coming to the US. That said, being in California for almost 9 years now, I can’t see myself living elsewhere in the US. I love it here a lot. As for San Jose State, I wanted to attend there because they had the top animation program in the nation and many of their students went off to work at places like Pixar and Dreamworks.

MH: You had some pretty remarkable things happen while you were at SJS. You got a nod from Cannes for your film MALAISE. Could you tell me about MALAISE and how it got the attention of Cannes?

KA: Thank you! I was just lucky to be in the right place at the right time with people that inspired me and helped me grow to become a better filmmaker. “Malaise” was a product of collaboration with that same group of amazing and talented people. I was approached by two of my very good friends Eric Anderson and Christian Klein, to direct “Malaise” for a campus film festival known as CMF, where we had to make and complete a film in the duration of a week. So we made “Malaise” and it went on to win the Jury Award and Best Actress at the campus level and Best Picture at the national level. Through the same organization, we were then invited to attend Cannes with our film. Needless to say, the experience at Cannes was nothing but greatness and inspiration in seeing some of the most top notch filmmakers and their diverse work from around the world.

MH: You went on to something that spoke to you personally. It was an adaptation of the book “The Yellow Wallpaper”. It sounds like the type of film that can be debated and discussed almost indefinitely because it could be laced with so much subtext. It deals with a woman who is imprisoned by her husband in a room with yellow wallpaper. I’m going to let you take it from here.

KA: Yes, I studied “The Yellow Wallpaper” book in one of my English classes back in college and it is definitely a book that can be debated and discussed indefinitely due to the subject matter. I found the story very intriguing, there are many subtleties and much subtext in Gilman’s words that can easily be overlooked by a reader. There is so much human psychology, empathy and unspoken language in the story of “The Yellow Wallpaper” that I felt could only be told through visual storytelling. After becoming a filmmaker, it was one of my goals to bring this story to life on screen. So I did extended research and what I found was that there are many film and theater adaptations of this title, but they all mainly focus on the horror aspects of the story. Being influenced and inspired by John Cassavetes’ A Women Under the Influence, I really wanted to focus on the woman and the psychological stages she goes through as her disorder elevates and the world around her (including her husband who is also her physician) turns its back on her and her needs as a human being. The version we made during my time at SJSU was done as part of the university’s summer project. At the end of each school year SJSU’s Spartan Studio select a student to direct the summer project. After a conversation I had with one of my professors, Barnaby Dallas, about “The Yellow Wallpaper” he strongly encouraged me to consider it for that year’s project. I was hesitant at first since I was not ready and wanted to spend at least a year researching and studying the book before making it into a film, however I was convinced to take the challenge as thought at the time I may never find another opportunity to make that film. Taking that possibility into consideration, I decided to go for it and the whole process of writing the script, pre-production and shooting, all happened in the duration of two months, if not less. We made the film, and while it was such an incredible learning experience working on this film with it’s amazing cast and crew, it did not satisfy the vision I had for the story, partially because the whole process was far too short for a film layered with so much subtext, not to mention we had only seven days to shoot a 74 minute film. I learned a great deal making the film, however should the opportunity arise again, I would love to make “The Yellow Wallpaper” properly and do the story justice.

MH: You also spent some time on the set of “STEVE JOBS”, a studio film starring Michael Fassbender and directed by Danny Boyle? What was that like?

KA: I did. During my time at SJSU, I was constantly looking for opportunities to get the (real world) on-set experience, so I was fortunate to get on the sets of “Steve Jobs” and “San Andreas” as a set PA for a couple of days. It was so wonderful to be in that environment and watch how big movie sets function and how different it is from what we do on smaller projects. Particularly, watching Mr. Boyle in action and how he directs was a humbling experience. Though it was short, I’m so grateful to have that experience and I left those sets feeling that I wanted to be back soon and keep learning.

MH: I’m going to give you another standardized question for filmmakers. You had great success at the university level and with formal training on the craft of writing and filmmaking. How different do you think things might have been if you had taken the “learn by doing only” approach to making and writing films? Do you think you would have ended up with same sensibilities you have now as a director and writer?

KA: That’s really good question. The knowledge that I gained from SJSU has definitely made a difference on my approach and sensibility on filmmaking. Without doubt, filmmaking is not something that could be learned only at film school without having hands on experience. What we learn at film schools are just basics and theories that become effective only by doing them. I’m not sure if I would have ended up with the same sensibilities if I had taken the “learn by doing only” approach, but what I do know is that being at SJSU and learning about film history, and understanding the American Cinema, had a great impact on me as a director in my approach to the films that I’m making, so that they resonate with me as a storyteller, yet at the same time meet American audiences’ taste.

MH: I found you by hearing about your film “The Secret of 40”. It’s unique on several levels. It deals with questioning the merit of the finality of death. A child has the chance to resurrect a deceased parent through supernatural means. It seems that everything that is holy tells us that dead is better. Only the dark forces want the dead to return to the physical realm. You wrote and directed it. What drew you to the subject matter?

KA: Thank you, Kevin! Well yes, that’s true, it seems to be that way with everything that is holy. Some also say that after someone’s soul departs, it leaves the physical realm and won’t return. However, there are supernatural existences that live in a parallel universe to mankind’s that have so much resentment towards human beings that if we open up to them, they will/can take the appearance of people that we know or loved ones that we missed, and mess with our minds in doing so. Therefore, they could sometimes be mistaken for the “ghost” of the deceased person, when in reality, they’re another entity. This is a concept that we are exploring very briefly in “The Secret of 40”, but more so in the feature script of this film. A few years back while I was in Iran, I personally had some experiences with the supernatural realm and witnessed things that are unlike anything that we see in horror films and I wanted to share some those experiences in the world of my films, and that’s what drew me to the subject matter for “The Secret of 40” - Short. The idea came from a book titled, “Secrets of Number 40” that I read back in Iran. It is a book of prayers, all associated with the number 40 - whether to repeat a prayer 40 times or for 40 days, etc. One of the prayers involved sitting in a candlelit circle, having a basket of fruit and reciting a surah from Quran 40 times and you would get your wish granted. The description warned of the possible appearance of supernatural beings as the prayer approaches its completion and advised not showing any fear to these supernatural beings, but to offer them a fruit from the basket and tell them your wish. We took that concept and created something dark from it. In The Secret of 40, a teenage boy, Josh, unknowingly and in hope of bringing back his deceased mother, performs a ceremony designed to call out for a powerful evil entity by calling its name 40 times.

It’s worth mentioning, that although I wrote the story for “The Secret of 40”, the screenplay was written by a talented female writer and friend of mine, Amy Liz Roberts, who also wrote the adaptation of “The Yellow Wallpaper”.

MH: The cast is impressive. The son is played by Julian de la Celle, a young actor who has had notable roles in series such as HEROES and BLACKISH. The parents are played by iconic actors Judie Aronson (FRIDAY the 13th THE FINAL CHAPTER, WEIRD SCIENCE, AMERICAN NINJA) and Robert Rusler (WEIRD SCIENCE, A NIGHTMARE ON ELM STREET 2). Was casting serendipitous or did you pursue them?

KA: Thank you! Yes, they were all so wonderful, including George Maguire (FIGHT CLUB, PURSUIT OF HAPPINESS) and Christy St. John, I had a great pleasure working with all of them. Julian was absolutely serendipitous. We found him when we contacted his agency for another actor and they recommended Julian. He was the perfect fit for the character of Josh and it was such a joy working with him. The casting of Robert Rusler and Judie Aronson on the other hand was the hard work of my Business Partner and Producer of the film Alex Bretow. Alex, through some of his associates at Agreement Pictures who were also interested in the film, got the script to Robert Rusler first. He read it and wanted to do it, so he then sent it to Judie Aronson, and she wanted to do it too. It was a great pleasure working with both of them and to have their reunion from “Weird Science” in our movie was a delight.

MH: THE SECRET OF 40 pushes the boundaries of the way we watch films. It utilizes the Barco 3 screen cinema technology. It’s also the first horror movie to use this system. The most innovation we’ve gotten lately is the resurgence of 3D for better or worse. This technology is, in my opinion more immersive and less distracting. I was most impressed that using three screens not only gives a panoramic shot of a single scene, but also allows two simultaneous perspectives without the limitations of a split screen. Tell me about the challenges of filming and editing such an ambitious project?

KA: Yes, as you said very accurately, Barco Escape 3 screen cinema technology is more immersive than anything we have experienced with 3D technology. It truly pushes the boundaries not only in the way we watch films, but also in the way that we tell stories. For us filmmakers, it creates many new possibilities as we work on such a vast cinematic canvas. Panoramic shots and showing two or three simultaneous perspectives are just a few of these possibilities. When it comes to horror and thrillers, we can create suspense and shock audiences while they are distracted with one screen, as we creep in an element of terror on another. We can blend two or more worlds together and play with time and space in a unique way. The list goes on as the possibilities of creativity are seemingly limitless with this technology. Equally important, it invites audiences back into theaters to experience something that they can’t get at home, and for us filmmakers there’s nothing more rewarding than seeing an audience experience our films on the big screen and be fully immersed. I was lucky enough to be one of first few content creators for Barco from its inception and had the pleasure of working with Ted Schilowitz, who’s the creative brain behind this incredible technology and has been a huge supporter of us from very early on. I produced a short film for Barco Escape in its first year of experimenting with the technology, titled “Withdrawal”, which was the story of a father helping his daughter through heroin withdrawal. We used Escape to show three simultaneous perspectives highlighting present time, past and hallucinations in the mind of the daughter. Overcoming all the challenges that we had to go through to figure out how to work around the technology, the short was a success and well received at Cinequest Film Festival. It was after getting to experience Escape in the theater and how immersive it was that I thought of creating “The Secret of 40” for this technology, as it was the perfect platform for horror films. After joining with my producer Alex the following year, we decided to make “The Secret of 40” which was also the start of a great partnership for me and Alex, from which we created Mammoth Pictures. We wanted to embrace the wide panoramic shots to invite the audience into the world of our film and make them feel as if they are actually there. The main challenge that we had to face was shooting on one 6k camera with the craziest aspect ratio of 7.1. On set while filming, it created a difficult viewing experience as we were looking at a very narrow strip on the monitor as opposed to entire surface, and in post, we had to edit the film on three monitors and deal with splitting the footage into three “screens”, coloring them and then stitching them back together. All of that said, experiencing the final outcome in the theater with an audience was worth all of the hard work and finding solutions to the challenges.

MH: Lastly, What’s next for you?

KA: We are currently developing the feature script of “The Secret of 40”, currently titled “Qareen”, that takes place in the same world, but some of the plot has changed. The story shifts its focus to an Iranian-American journalist, Leila, who is following up leads on scientific research about a supernatural entity that is believed to exist in Middle Eastern culture, known as Jinn. Leila, who now takes science over religion after living many years in the US, has to reconnect with her faith to save Josh, whose life is threatened by a Jinn he unknowingly summoned into the physical realm.

MH: Thank you very much Kourosh.

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