After being awarded with another screening following Turquoise’s Lift-Off debut at the First-Time Filmmakers Showcase, we spoke to director Roozbeh Misaghi to discuss the making of his first short film.
Interviewed by Claire Richardson and Sneh Rupra
Hi Roozbeh. So we first met at one of our First-Time Filmmakers Showcases at Pinewood Studios. How did you find that?
It was lovely. When I saw it on FilmFreeway I never expected it to be that good. The structure of it, with the team feedback and one-on-one feedback allowed me to understand the first impression that my film makes on people in the industry. Not just my aunt, uncle and friends! It was very friendly and open.
And since then, Turquoise is set to screen with us in two more of our festivals. Are you excited to be screening in Sydney and London?
Oh it is perfect, thank you! It’s very exciting to be screening in two countries. Especially australia – I’ve never been!
Can you tell us a little bit about what made you want to pursue a career in film?
Well, I studied my bachelor in Sociology and in the middle of that I realised that I like documentary photography. Then I watched 2001: A Space Odyssey and I realised I like writing for screens and after a while, I told myself why don’t I make my own writing into films, and then I wanted to become a filmmaker.
What is it about short film as a medium that draws you?
Short films are the best possible way for young filmmakers to express their feelings and stories. The ability to tell a story in a short time is highly rewarding, however, I believe short films are not just there as business cards for young filmmakers who want to create feature films. Short films are unique forms in cinema, they are not a shortened feature films. Short films are there to give filmmakers more freedom to test and to tell stories in a new way. They can be complicated and have three acts or they can be just a fraction of a story. I love the fact that appreciated short films are the one that firstly they make you feel something and secondly they have something to say.
As your first film, what inspired the story of Turquoise?
I studied at MET film school, and that was a good time for me to fail in assignments! I thought I had to make good things, but of course sometimes I really hated what I made, but that is a good thing for me as when it came to the graduation film I had a confidence in wanting to make it enjoyable and tell a story that I really wanted to tell.
I explored many areas/stories and I chose one, however, I never fell in love with it. It is hard to find a “worthy” story. Then I started calling the people who I liked and trusted in their taste in storytelling. I called Sama who became the DOP of Turquoise as well. I asked him do you have a story? He told me: “What if a box gets discovered from underground and then it returns to the ground”. It got me, because we needed a base to start telling what we wanted to tell, and then we started working and writing it from there.
Did anything change drastically from script to screen?
No not much. We spent a lot of time on the script and we found and fixed any glitch we could find. We risked everything as well – It was in the writing process right up to the night of the shooting, and then we started falling in love with it, which is dangerous. I am satisfied that I was able to achieve what I wanted which was turning the reality close to the vision of the script, however, I believe there should be a general 80-20 relationship. 80% well-prepared script and 20% freedom of the inner child who wants to play with the scene and change it. I believe you have to prepare as much as you can and then just let go of everything and put your mind on the set, not on the paperwork.
What was your casting process? I remember you saying that most of the cast were not actors. Why did you make that choice?
For the main roles (Morad and Nemat) I needed two professional actors. The challenging part was the different dialect of people in the north of Iran. It is completely different from Persian language and even I couldn’t understand it! It was also almost impossible to find an actor who is suitable for the roles, especially for Nemat, whose character is around 70 years old. Three weeks before the shooting dates I didn’t have the actors. I started calling whoever I had in my contact list and then a friend suggested Reza. He was a professional theatre actor, born in the north of Iran and completely capable of talking and understanding the North dialect. Most importantly, he was just perfect for the role. Eventually I found the supporting actor for Nemat’s character (Serroddin Alavi). He was one of the villagers who owned most of the land and had a big impact on the others in the village, and after visiting him and talking with him, there was nothing that can stop me from working with him even with the fact that most of the script’s dialogue belong to this character. I was more than happy to take the risk for him.
The rest were all non-actors, real farmers, villagers and fishermen. Well firstly from a producer’s point of view, I chose an age group that is hard to cast in a short film. There are very limited options. But most importantly, as a director, I really wanted to explore working with non-actors, something that is very prevalent in Iranian short films at the moment. I wanted to know what this was like, as it is something I have never done before. It felt good, and the dynamic was very different.
Were there any unexpected challenges you faced during production?
On the first day of the shooting Serrodding Alavi (who plays Nemat) wanted to pull out. I had to film the graveyard scene first, because it was the weekend and therefore the most crowded day as people came to it from the city, which meant I had a lot of extras. It was hard for Serrodding to remember the lines, and stand there and preach his friends and neighbours, so we had around 27 takes for that scene. After finishing, he wanted to pull out as he thought he was not good enough due to all the takes. We paused and I took him for a walk and told him different stories from different films and assured him that he is doing perfectly. From that moment I told my crew that I was going to blame them whenever we needed to do more takes, so I could tell all the non-actors “we have to do another take because of lighting, or sound etc…” That way they wouldn’t feel bad about it.
The second challenge was the cold weather. It is -10 degree in January in north of Iran, which we solved with portable fire pits wherever we shot. There was no heaters inside the villagers houses as well, and it was all natural heaters with burning woods which could turn off in the middle of the night. But it was fun!
What is the lasting message you want the audience of Turquoise to walk away with?
The lasting message is in the film itself and I will ruin it if I translate that message back to words again!
Overall, how did you find making your first film?
The first day of filming was terrifying! But I thought of something my friend said, that when it’s your first time doing something – just fake it like you’re a professional! And that works after a while. So yes, it was terrifying. It was beautiful. And now, I really miss it!
Why did you choose to set your film in Iran?
There were many reasons I chose it really. I wanted to find a story that was honest and true to me. I had to say something about my culture, a story that happens in my culture. The second factor, to be honest, was to do with my small budget of £8000. That money can go further, with production values. Also, I have lots of friends for crew out there too, and of course my family.
Why do you think we don’t see enough Iranian film and culture?
Unfortunately there are two main difficulties that Iranian filmmakers, especially young filmmakers, face. One is the ban on international banking, these sanctions mean we cannot pay the fees to festivals, though thankfully some will give fee waivers. The other factor is probably lack of confidence. People of Iran don’t know what is going on with short filmmaking in the Western world, so they make their own films but have nothing to compare to. These are the indie, young filmmakers of course, it’s very hard and confusing for them. So yes, political boundaries are the main reason you are not watching many Iranian films – but I assure you lots are being made!
And why would you say it is so important for people to see films from different countries and cultures?
The first important thing, especially at the moment, is that when you see a film from a country like Iran, it is under a lot of coverage by the media but the main concern is the politics, not the culture. So you get to see something that the news doesn’t show you.
An Iranian director – made a film called A Separation – best foreign film academy award. I asked myself why people liked that film? It was about an Iranian couple who could not emigrate because of the father’s disability. And I realised that we are all human, we all love, we all marry, we all get divorced etc… and that is a concept that anyone watching can understand and make a close connection with it. Yes, it’s a different custom, it’s a different geography, but the filmmaker’s concepts are always about contemporary human beings. It’s universal. People of the world have to watch as many cultural films to see more unity between humans.
Tickets for Turquoise’s screening in Sydney are available here:
For the full programme see below: