Wednesday, February 06, 2013

INTERVIEW: Director Lena Khan Talks Tiger

(Note: This is a mock-up poster)
As longtime readers know quite well, two areas of special interest for me are Muslim issues and movie issues, so when we see a conjunction of both, that tends to pique my interest in a big way. On that score, one of the more intriguing projects to cross across my radar of late is The Tiger Hunter, a film to be directed by Lena Khan from a script co-written by my cousin Sameer Gardezi.

A coming-of-age dramedy in the vein of American Graffiti, The Tiger Hunter looks to have a lot of humor and a lot of heart, and is currently in the process of raising funds via Kickstarter. I had the chance to chat with Lena a few weeks ago about the project, the job of trying to pull together money for indie films, and what the difference is between "Muslim films" and "films about Muslims." Here's how it went:
Maybe we can go back to the start a little bit and talk about the genesis of this project, where it started and how we got to where we are now. 
I had come out of UCLA film school and I had been working at a production company, and I wanted to make my own work. To do that I was doing my own music videos and commercials and things like that but to make your own work before you really establish yourself you need to write your own work. I was writing different scripts. I had pitched a few of them to people in my production company and one script that I had written was inspired by a lot of the stories that I heard from my dad growing up. My dad’s father was a tiger hunter.

It was at a time when literally tigers would wreck villages and kill people and things like that. It wasn’t necessarily for sport. I was telling the stories one day to just a partner in our production company and just telling him about my dad and his dream of coming here in the shadow of his father and some other people this idea of, in the 70s, trying to establish yourself in a world where you’re not going to necessarily live up to the ambitions you set up for yourself.

A lot of the movie’s about becoming okay with mediocrity. And it’s obviously a comedy with those core themes but it’s part of my dad. I interviewed a lot of people and they had hilarious stories that I don’t think I’d ever be able to think of myself authenticity. Then I wrote two drafts. I worked with Scott Myers who was a really, really great producer. He runs the blog Go Into the Story, which is fantastic.

Then I worked with story editors and then after it all we wanted to market his film a commercial project which is a different ball game all together. You can’t just have a mediocre script. So we were like, ‘Let’s hire a really great writer. That’s the smart way to do it. That’s the way we used to do it when I was at the production companies.’And that's how we were introduced to Sameer Gardezi.

He wrote for Modern Family, he wrote for Aliens in America, Outsourced. He just got hired for Fox’s Goodwin Games. It’s not easy to write for these shows on TV. He called us back, sent me his work, loved the script, now he’s on board and then we had a process of rewriting it. He did fantastic things with it. Then for the last six months we’ve been financing and then to get some interestin the film as well as get it out there, help people be involved with it. That’s the long and short of it, I guess. 
What’s the most time consuming aspect of the process? 
The most time consuming aspect is probably juggling everything at once. On the one hand, and I haven’t even gotten to everybody yet, I’ve sent about 1400 emails to just about anybody I’d ever hopefully made some sort of difference in their lives, or friends, asking them about the campaign. I didn’t want to do a mailing list. And that took days and days to write all of those. Now of course, I’m getting replies from all those people. 
What do you see as the window for getting it produced and getting it out there? Or is that TBD now? 
If we do get our financing we’d be trying to shoot at the very beginning of next year. For people who aren’t too aware of film, I think readers of your site seem like they’re pretty savvy, it doesn’t really take that long to film a movie. Everything is pre-production. It’s only going to take about a month and have some scheduling where it stretches out but the filming day is not that long.

Then post production for a couple months and then of course we’ll do the professional circuit. But the way that film launches they won’t release films like this in the middle of the summer. You have to wait pretty much till the fall so that takes you all the way up to late 2014 or early 2015. Again, things could change but that’s where we’re looking at right now. We’re in pretty good shape so far on that schedule.

In terms of the market for films that are by and about the Muslim experience, would you say that that’s broadened in the last ten years? Would you say a lot of the structural roadblocks that would have been there are coming down or do you still find a project like this a hard sell? 
It’s not so much that it’s a hard sell but it is the time where they’re just starting to get out there. To give you an idea we didn’t go into saying, ‘We’re going to make a Muslim film.’ It was more so, I told you, it had come from my life, mostly my dad’s life. Obviously it’s not my dad’s character anymore but my dad is a Muslim, Indian man so that is where my character started. It wasn’t that I was going into it saying, ‘I’m going to make a Muslim movie,’ I had a character that was organically his identity.

It’s not a movie about him being a Muslim. It’s about his character even in the fact that a lot of them are south Asian. It’s not about them being south Asian for a lot of them. It is for the main character obviously because he immigrates. One of them is struggling with a relationship with his girlfriend, for instance, and that has nothing to do with him being south Asian. That’s something that happens to everybody. 
So it hasn’t been a problem so far. Do I think that right now is the time to launch a film where the guy is praying every two seconds and things like that? No. I don’t think you can do it. I think you have to do it starting with movies like this. We always reference Seinfeld. Our character is Muslim inasmuch as Seinfeld is Jewish. You know it and he mentions it, things happen, there’s a reference but you only had maybe one or two episodes about his Jewishness and that’s the model. 
I think as somebody who’s in the thick of this that’s something that I personally as a Muslim film buff don’t want to see is ‘Muslim movies’. I want to see movies that happen to have Muslims in them. 
Exactly. That’s a little bit of the truth of who we are. If I think of who most Muslims are and what they’re doing. They’re not just sitting all day long talking about their Muslimness. They’re out there being real people. You being a professor, other people being baseball players, I guess it’s more basketball now. That’s the way movies are; it’s storytelling and if we’re going to be part of the stories it has to have some truth of who we really are.

Who are some of your inspirations as a filmmaker and storyteller? 
I have a lot of stylistic inspirations. Stylistically I love Danny Boyle. I loved him before he did Slumdog Millionaire. I saw things like Trainspotting. He’s making casual films but he’s doing it the way he wants to do them. The sorts of like stylistic leaps that he does in his film whether it’s...He’s not necessarily non-linear but the way he tells things. Even in 127 Hours how he can tell a story with a guy trapped with his arm under a rock the whole time. How he was able to do that by bringing in different things.

I’ve always loved Wes Anderson. I’ve always been inspired by directors who have peculiarly their own style but if I felt like who inspired me instead of who I just think is really cool. The movies of Spike Lee I obviously thought were awesome. The stories that were true to him and experienced people in his community. They were never like, ‘I’m beating you over the head with this,’ but they were true, authentic stories and growing up I always thought he was cool and wished I could be like him. He inspired me.

What advice would you give to people who are trying to make their bones in either the film industry or other media industries about what they need to remember as they plough through it? 
I think the biggest thing they need to remember is no matter what support you’re getting, whether it’s from your family, your community, or whether you get an in, you need to always make sure that you have somebody telling you whether or not you’re good or you suck. I think that’s the problem we have for a lot of young filmmakers. I have a lot of them come to me and say, ‘Why is nobody supporting me?’ Or, ‘Why is it so hard to move up in this industry?’

I really do think that it is one of the most competitive industries out there. You always need somebody else reading your script; you might believe in it, you might love it but if you really want to get anywhere you need that second pair of effective eyes telling you, ‘This is good. You are good at this but this is what you need to start getting better at it.’ Then you have to work at it a lot and just keep improving yourself. You can raise money and you can do all those sorts of things but you’re not going to get anywhere at the end if things are not good.

Check out the Tiger Hunter homepage to get a sense of what the flick is all about, then jump over to the movie's Kickstarter page to toss some coin into the pot. Time is ticking, and every little bit helps! Also, be sure to check out this very insightful piece by Lena over at HuffPo on what the film represents for her.

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