Filmmaker Files: Episode 5 - Featuring Shahrzad Davani / by Casey Kohlberg

Shahrzad Davani has been an assistant director and producer for over fifteen years, working with celebrated directors such as Ana Lily Amirpour on A Girl Who Walks Home Alone at Night,  James Gunn (Super) , Lee Toland Krieger (Celeste and Jesse Forever & The Vicious Kind),  Shira Piven (Welcome to Me), Liza Johnson (Hateship Loveship), Jeff Baena (Little Hours) and most recently with Janicza Bravo on Zola. Movies that Sheri has worked on have premiered at Sundance, TIFF, and so on.

She is now embarking  on the next phase of her career as a director and one of her upcoming films includes Bad Status, a comedy that she co-wrote.

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Describe a moment in your career you felt most brave.

Shahrzad Davani: Earlier in my career, when I was going to work on a new film I was afraid because I didn’t really know what I was doing. The irony is that as an AD you must have all the answers even though you don’t have a lot of time to think about them. Once on set, everything moves faster than your fears, so you just work, with confidence. That being said, I don’t think I ever got the feeling that I was doing something brave.


How has your work or attitude evolved from when you were starting out?

SD: I spent a lot of time doing jobs that people told me I was good at. When I was told that I was a good AD, I thought - “Cool, I’m going to stick with that.” I waited a long time to say out loud that I wanted to direct. Coming from an immigrant Iranian family, from Virginia, with no ties to Hollywood, I didn’t think directing was an option. Being able to be on set felt like a gift in itself. But now I’m taking that a step further. Perhaps this is my moment of being brave.

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Do you think there’s a correlation between saying what you want out loud and then it happens?

SD: I do believe in training the subconscious. When you say things aloud, then your actions start to move towards that. Then each day, every week, you get closer to your goal. But this isn’t something that happens on your own –– especially with filmmaking, which is so collaborative, and requires intention at all levels. I believe that if you’re not willing to say it out loud, you’re not willing to do it, and there’s no way it’s going to happen. So, say what you want, because you never know who’s going to help you get there.

Now, on reflection. What was THE film that made you want to be a filmmaker?

SD: I always liked movies, period. When I was a kid, I got sick with leukemia, so I wasn’t allowed to go outside and play. Movies became my friends, and were my window into American culture, into things that I didn’t know. When I first I saw Welcome to the Dollhouse, I thought that if bizarre yet simple movie can get made, with no explosions while being a really introspective story, then I can make movies too. It may not be my favorite film, but it’s one that I had a poignant response to.

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What was a recent film, video or series that you had a visceral response to?

SD: Paul Thomas Anderson’s Phantom Thread, which is just a great analogy for being a creative. How torturous it is to create, and how intolerable it is to be around that person who is creating. It applies to filmmakers as well.


You’re now moving into directing. What has being an AD taught you about directing? What have you learned from other directors that you’ve worked with?

SD: I’ve AD’ed almost 45 features, and I would say that 80 percent of the projects were helmed by first-time filmmakers and second-time filmmakers. I learned from their mistakes as much as I learned from their specific visions - from the variations of blocking, the importance of figuring out the space, and knowing more about the technical aspects. It’s also important to learn how to pivot and to think on ones’ feet. I witnessed a lot of directors freeze in moments when things didn’t turn out exactly as they planned. You have to be extremely adaptable when it comes to filmmaking, especially in the independent film world.


What was one of the hardest moments you had as an AD where something might not have gone your way?

SD:  I was on set not too long ago, and we ran out of time, and the producers told me to pull the plug. But I knew that if we didn’t get this one shot, we wouldn’t have a complete scene, which would affect the edit. I’m the AD fighting for the shot.

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Is there something you’d like to change about how a set functions?

SD: When I was coming up, I witnessed the transition from analog to digital. Frankly, I’d rather go back to that earlier time when film was taken much more seriously. You would come to set, with everybody working on point, hitting their marks, there’d be a few rehearsals, and then shoot. Every action had more weight. With digital, we’ll roll on everything, including rehearsals, and it’s sloppy, in a sense. While digital does open other doors, I do miss the respect and structure of the past.


On the future. What is next for you?

SD: I’m planning on directing my first feature this year. It’s a film that I co-wrote with Nazanin Nour, and Mitra Jouhari will also be in it. I am inspired by Hal Ashby’s The Last Detail, a simple yet profound movie with a premise where everything changes over the course of a few days. When I was contemplating a personally relevant and current version of that, I came up with the story of young Iranian girl on a student visa for medical school in the States, but after committing a foolish action, her visa is revoked and she has to return home. We follow her over the course of her last 48 hours in the US. But it’s a comedy, I promise.

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8 favorite filmmaker quotes or movie lines:

If you're going to tell people the truth, be funny or they'll kill you.  - Billy Wilder

Laughter is not our medicine, stories hold our cure, laughter is the honey that sweetens the bitter medicine. - Hannah Gadsby

Humor is just another defense against the universe. - Mel Brooks

The only safe thing is to take a chance. - Mike Nichols

Don’t talk about the moon as though you invented it. - Louis Malle, The Lovers, 1958

I’d drop a guy for a film. I’d never drop a film for a guy - Francois Truffaut, Day For Night, 1973

The past is just a story we tell ourselves.  - Spike Jonze, Her, 2013

Life is a state of mind - Hal Ashby, Being There, 1979

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This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.

Interview by Casey Kohlberg
Photography by Rachel Kessler
Edited by Shruti Ganguly