RADIO DREAMS Interview: Babak Jalali On Absurdity and Working with Lars Ulrich

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RADIO DREAMS Interview: Babak Jalali On Absurdity and Working with Lars Ulrich

Iran-born writer/director Babak Jalali will enter the history books of the International Film Festival Rotterdam as the first winner in the revamped main competition where instead of honoring three emerging filmmakers, the award goes to only one. Jalali debuted with the first feature in 2009, Frontier Blues, shot in his hometown of Gorgan. In fixed shots and a dose of absurdity, the director follows four protagonists and the topic of isolation. Isolation is tackled also in his award-winning sophomore feature Radio Dreams (read the review), set inside a small radio station broadcasting for Iranian community in Bay Area. Jalali infuses the melancholia of his debut into Radio Dreams as well, however he never forgets about subtle, deadpan and absurd humor in capturing proceedings of one crazy day in a crazy radio where Afghanistan´s first rock band is about to meet the world´s greatest band, Metallica, as the radio tries to pull out this PR stunt to crank up the audience and keep odd local advertisers smiling.

ScreenAnarchy met with Jalali to discuss Radio Dreams, a life of a minority in a big country, disillusionment, working with Lars Ulrich and making films in Iran.

ScreenAnarchy: You were born in Iran and then left...

Babak Jalali:....correct, I was born there and left with my family for London in 1986. I am originally from Northern Iran but I grew up and was educated in London since I was six. I went back to Iran in 2009 to make my first feature Frontier Blues.

When you shot Frontier Blues, did you have to follow the protocol domestic filmmakers have to as, for example, consulting the board of censors?

Yes, the same case. I wrote the script and we went to the Ministry of Culture in Tehran to get an approval for the script. We got the approval, they informed us there will be some people coming to the set but in the end, they did not show up, probably because we were shooting in the middle of nowhere. I removed three scenes of which I knew they would not approve of. When we sent them the script, I took out three scenes. But during the shooting, I shot those scenes. I asked the actors, the crew if they are okay with it. They said yes, so we shot it. At the end, you have to, of course, show the film to get the approval for release but I ended up not doing it. I just took the film outside. I shot it on 35mm.

But Iranian filmmakers explained to me that even if the board does not agree with some scenes, they will allow you to screen the film outside the country.

We did not bother with showing them the film. We knew this film won´t be screened in Iran.

Weren´t you afraid of consequences stemming from such act?

Of course, the producer said there is a risk of that but it happens that I was selected for Locarno, so we were on the deadline, so literally we finished the film, I took my suitcase, kept a reserve of the film in Tehran, in case something happened, and left. But I mean the scenes I cut out of the script was a guy drinking a moonshine, one with old communist song and a guy touching naked breast of a mannequin. I was told these won´t be approved by censors. I was editing the film in Iran, Berlin, and London and then I was doing the final confirming of the negative in Iran. So yes, there is a risk of doing that and if I was to make another film in Iran, it might have been problematic.

Are you connected to Iran somehow?

Well, I am connected to Iran so much as the people I worked with on Frontier Blues...

...I meant maybe like dissidents, Jafar Panahi or Mohamad Rasoulof who are under the ban of making films.

It is interesting they are banned from filmmaking when they are making a film a year. They are much more prolific that people that are not banned. I like Asghar Farhadi, I know him and met him a few times. But if you ask me about films that came out of Iran in past six years, I really did not see anything. But not out of choice, but because I did not have an opportunity. Regarding cinema in general, Sohrab Shahid-Saless is my favorite but speaking of national cinema, I prefer Scandinavian cinema over Iranian as a personal taste.

Your latest film Radio Dreams has this leitmotif of uprootedness. Does that come from your own experience?

It is not so much autobiographical even though Radio Dreams is about Iranians abroad. Obviously, there is a huge population of Iranians living outside Iran and all types – for political or social reasons. But the story is about a group of Iranians and Afghans living in San Francisco. It is the idea of living in a place that is not your own nd it is fairly absurd set-up in a way and at the same time, it is about doing something that is not ideal. You have other dreams, other aspirations but you fall into something and have to compromise.

Why did you pick the setting of a radio station?

The bands Kabul Dreams and Metallica played a role in the decision. Actually, we found that Kabul Dreams lives in Bay Area of San Francisco, they recently moved there. They are an authentic band...

...as Metallica...

...exactly. Kabul Dreams is Afghanistan´s first ever rock group. And then the idea of the film´s protagonist Mister Royani played by Mohsen Namjoo who himself is a very famous musician in real life living currently in New York. But I did not want him to play himself, a musician, I wanted him to play a somebody who was once someone else. His character was a writer making a name for himself but once in an exile, he found himself in a situation programming for a pretty crappy radio stations.

And I want to portray him as kind of being stuck in a place where he feels no one understands him but despite that he is still having ambitious goals like bringing Metallica to the station and introducing the world´s greatest rock band to Afghanistan´s first rock band and have them meet and jam.

He is trying to make the best of a pretty shitty situation. And I think the set-up of a radio station could really show his situation. He is pretty intellectual and has ideas what is interesting which is very peculiar to himself. The general public would probably not find his programs that interesting. But if only the world would listen, he has something to say. And for this to happen, a radio station was a nice environment.

Does the character of Mister Royani reflects the life of Mohsen Namjoo in some way?

No, the protagonist is completely fictionalized. Mohsen Namjoo is an iconic figure among Iranians. He is a singer-songwriter who came to the scene around ten years ago and caused a stir in Iran with the music he was doing. It was very innovative and he developed a cult following. It came to the surface and lot of people became fans and devotees to him. He moved out of Iran like six years ago and carried on with his music. That´s what he does and maintains enormous following inside and outside of Iran. So it was not really based on his life.

How did he end up on a board of the project?

My producer approached him because she knew him from before and she has known him for quite a few years. I knew him through his music but not personally. He acted once before nine years ago in Iran and he has done some plays but cinema-wise, he had only done one feature before. The producer approached him, explained what we were doing and he came on board very early.

I had the script but the process of shooting the film was quite fluid, I did not stick rigidly to the script as much and some stuff, for example, Kabul Dreams and Mohsen Namjoo, I talked to them quite a lot and things were improvised.

Do you prefer spontaneity?

I do enjoy it. I think you are much more open to it when you are dealing with non-actors. Frontier Blues was the exactly same thing. I had the cast entirely of non-professional actors and it is interesting when you see them off camera during the shooting.

You talk to them or just observe them as they are waiting or thing they do and that influence you too and you may think why do not we put that into the film, that could be interesting. Sometimes on Radio Dreams, when a camera was rolling and Namjoo just went on and on and we did not cut because it was interesting what he was saying and some of that made it into the film and some not.

Radio Dreams has a very minimalistic design when it comes to the interior scenes at the radio station which looks almost like DIY. Was this conscious choice?

It was. We built the radio station in an apartment and it was a decision based on the fact that we wanted to have the sense of disclosed confinement. But the lead character has a big office at the radio station.

It is loosely based on the fact that in San Francisco, there is a huge Iranian population. There are so many radio and television stations run by Iranians and I would say a vast majority of them are terrible.

And I mean really terrible. In the programming, commercials, advertising, it is unlike anything else.  I mean in London, from where I am, you would never hear a dentist on radio advertising his services like "Come to me, I will give you the shiniest teeth in the world". But I think Iranians are in this sense influenced by American radios.

In America, if you listen to a radio, a plastic surgeon will come on air saying "Nobody could give you new tits like I can. I give the biggest, nicest tits in the world". I imagine in the rest of Europe, you do not really have that.

Would you say this is a part of assimilation?

I guess. It must be because, in Iran, you do not have such thing. But it is taking another level with Farsi language radio station. A lot of Iranian television stations in America are very cheap productions, and I mean very cheap. Some of those even look like a Skype session, they broadcast like that.

They are almost like vanity projects where you have totally uninteresting and uninfluential person who goes on air with "what the fuck I am going to tell the world" attitude. And it does not matter whether they are talking about the royal family of Iran or another topic, they all have their agenda and there is certainly a quality in some of them, I am not denying that.

When you asked about whether Radio Dreams is biographical, to be honest, and as pretentious as it sounds, if I turned on a radio, I would have dreamt of listening a show about El Salvadorian poet. That would have a much interesting drive that listening to Rihanna. And those kinds of programs like Days in Lives of Iranian immigrants or talking about El Salvadorian poet that are in the film are things that I would listen to, if I was going home in a car.

The protagonist in the film is somebody like that who thinks there are interesting things to tell on a radio and he is pretentious and arrogant sometimes but he wants to give these kinds of things a chance on radio whereas people who are running the radio wants stupid commercials or somebody who became famous because of a beauty pageant.

Did you employ the scenography in the radio to convey the sense of entrapment of the protagonist?

He is trapped and irritated and annoyed but he has no other option in a way. He is there and he wants to give it the best chance possible. But he always falls short. He is always unsatisfied. And that also builds on the sense of feeling trapped and helpless.

We can also feel a strong sense of disillusionment. That´s correct. I imagine if these people, the characters, were in Iran, they all could be from different walks of life. The protagonist is a writer but we do not know the occupation of other characters.

If the writer was in Iran, he would have been writing his novels in Farsi, people would read them even though it may not be a wealth-progressive occupation but you know, no wealth but glory.

And yes, some people came on board because of the American dream and some might come and just continue in what they were doing. Maybe this guy would be writing in San Francisco and getting some sense of glory and appreciation. But because of different reasons, language barrier, he does not receive. If you do not speak the language, you become mute- worthless.

So I think the idea of immigration inspiring to do something better when out of the country, sometimes I just want to do what I was doing in my country only somewhere else. But if you cannot live in your country because of social reasons or other reasons, you realize you have to leave. And as an example, my favorite filmmaker in history was Iranian director Sohrab Shahid-Saless who made two feature films in Iran and left the country before the revolution because he was against the system and the king and migrated to Germany where he made six or seven films primarily in the 70s and early 80s.

Then the work land dried, he could not make his films and unfortunately passed away in 1998 having really horrible last years in life. And I think in instances like that, he did not come out in the West to make blockbusters, he wanted to make small beautiful films he was making but it became difficult for him.

In Iran, he was doing something he knew and was passionate about and maybe as he left, he did not have anymore this passion. And I think this may be the case of the protagonist, he just wants to find an inspiration, a voice but it really does not click in the place.

There two planes - individual and social - in Radio Dreams. 

In a way, Radio Dreams is an observational film about a group, one might say a group that happened to be a minority. I wondered if I made a story about a group of American guys living in San Francisco who decided to start a radio - they are maybe like deadbeats who do not know what they are doing - and I wonder whether it would have the same effect as a story as having a group of Iranians and Afghans living in San Francisco.

I do not know because I did not make that film but in general, I would like them to be seen as a group who is lost in a kind of fairly absurd situation which is that one particular day, another day might have been quite uneventful.

Once I decided that it was going to be about this group of people who are Iranian, Syrian and Afghani that it only made sense that it is a story of how are you adjusting, adapting, how are you existing in this alien landscape.

In this sense, the story focuses on minorities but the idea is that it´s about individuals within a minority in which the context of the story should be seen.

There is a very particular deadpan humor in the film. Does it come from your British upbringing?

I like more, whether in literature or film, this kind of humor, that is, let´s say, in a story by Beckett or my favorite filmmaker, if the whole body of work is considered, Aki Kaurismaki. I think when you present characters behaving this way and things like tragedy or humor, you are not quite sure which is which.

It all gets messed up, and I like that, where it is not clear whether it´s sad or funny. My first film Frontier Blues had the same elements. I shot it in my hometown and it was much more autobiographical in a lot of ways and it has the fluidity between tragedy and humor which mixes all together.

In Radio Dreams, when we were setting up the set design and the acting, it was always intended to be this way. I am aware there is a fine line and I am sure there are viewers who will see it and the humor won´t appeal to them and others will watch it and think I am overdoing it humor-wise.

I am asking because I think there ae moments which are incidentally funny compared to maybe others that are calculated and built-up to a gag.

Sure and I am going to give you an example. There is a character doing a television interview with the main character and he goes off and says, if the king of Saudi Arabia played percussions and Bill Clinton a trumpet, then there would be peace.

The actor went on and we just did not cut and the segment ended in the film. Some of it is certainly incidental because also in the beginning, when we were rehearsing, all of the actors are non-professionals.

Whenever you meet a non-professional actor for the first time, their perception is over-acting, they want to perform. Once you say no-no-no, this is the way it is going to be and they fall into a character, you realize they are doing something for themselves which is completely incidental but that´s okay, if it fits into the concept, it could be funny.

But you rehearsed with all of them?

Not extensively. I do not like to rehearse that much particularly if it´s non-professional actors. The first time, they do it well and the second time they do it is never as good as the first time. So the first they do it, you hope the camera is rolling.

A few of them knew each other from before, so they were not strangers  and they were amazing as people, passionate to do it. And once they got my stylistic choice, they fell into it, they improvised, gave ideas and even reenacted their ideas of which several made it into the final cut. It was not so rigid.

Why the story could not be shot in the UK?

To be completely honest, the money for the film came from America. Basically, the person who funded the film, the executive producer is from Neda Nobari Foundation which is based in Bay Area and almost exclusively, their fund is aimed at Iranians in America, primarily in West Coast.

Because of the presence of Kabul Dreams in San Francisco and because the producer was there, we decided on primarily logistics reasons. I think the film could be shot in Paris or London but San Francisco was by fault rather than by design. Also, the Iranians live there, Lars Ulrich lives there.

It is emphasized several times in the film that Kabul Dreams is the Afghanistan first rock band. Why is this important to mention it so frequently?

It is important just because of the history of Afghanistan. This is a country where any kind of music was forbidden for a long time. Kabul Dreams formed in 2009 and their story is very interesting because they are three guys coming from three different ethnic communities in Afghanistan. All three speak a different language, have different religion, different background but they were living outside Afganistan when Taliban was there after 9/11.

They lived in Uzbekistan, Pakistan and Iran and came back in 2008/2009. They got together and started playing rock music which did not happen in Afghanistan. Afghanistan has rich music tradition, the traditional one but this westernized music - guitar, drums, bass and singing in English - was unheard of.

Afghanistan has a rich tradition of poetry, arts and culture and these guys are influenced by that but they wanted to do what young people want to do, whether it is rock, rap or whatever. So they formed the band. It was quite a big deal because there was CNN covering them, Guardian wrote something, BBC wrote something as they were seen as a fresh breath of air coming from Afghanistan.

They migrated to America two years ago in order to continue what they started in Afghanistan and to enhance themselves because they are very talented, very intelligent and ambitious. And I think they are in a way pursuing American Dream. There is only a certain level to which you can take that kind of music in Afghanistan because of the tradition and things you are said you are not supposed to do and then it becomes suffocating.

And we played on that in the film because it is a country that passed years since the late 70s, since civil war, and the only thing you will hear about Afghanistan is Taliban, psychos, maniacs and the country that was ruined because of civil war, Soviets, West fighting battles there carpet bombing them.

And it means something to have such a group coming from there and they paved the way for rock bands to come forward. This is a generalization but I think Afghani people are wonderful people, so generous, pure and no matter how much success they will have, they will still stay pure, genuine. I think they deserve, as people, to have rock bands, punk bands because music plays a big part life, in my case it surely does.

You have a couple of odd characters in Radio Dreams as the owner who is completely indifferent to what is going on in radio and suddenly, out of blue, he starts teaching a guy wrestling.

Yes, he is completely indifferen.He sits at his desk and then comes a guy who is kind of built well...

...did you intend it to have a homoerotic vibe?

...I mean not entirely but there is an element of homoeroticism. He sits there watching the guy play a keyboard and out of nowhere asks him whether he was thinking of becoming a wrestler. And the kid just goes along it despite the fact that he does not know what the hell is going on.

This only shows the whole absurd mood of the place and shit shows they are running. This was not really in the script. What happened was that we were shooting that scene where he is playing the keyboard. We shot it as it was supposed to be shot and then for a reverse shot, I asked everyone to leave. And there was just the boss left staring and it was the way he was staring at him. So I said off camera "Say this..." and he thought just for a second, he looked like he wants to do something, so I went ask him if he can wrestle.

This is how we came out with it and then just built on it. And then we put the wrestling paintings into his office, just after that, it became a thing. I saw the dynamic between them and I wanted to keep it.

The boss´ daughter who basically runs the place is depicted as overly ambitious and responsible among other things.

If I imagine based on my friends and women around me, mother, sister, aunt and my father and men around me, if I had to put them into a critical situation, women will be always in charge. Maybe it is sexist, I do not know but my personal experience has shown it. In real life, if I am in a situation, when I need somebody´s advice, I go to my mother. The girl in the story is not very likable character but she is not a bad person. She is just behaving professionally, and she stands out in this mayhem because she is trying to organize the anarchy into something. She is also frustrated but at the same time she does not go overboard. She keeps it respectful in a way. 

Was Metallica in the play from the beginning or was it just coincidence?

We had them in mind and only Lars Ulrich agreed to come which was okay in the end. He was great, very nice guy and I was huge Metallica fan in my teens. When he ame, he was ready. He has done a research on Kabul Dreams, Mohsen Namjoo, listened to their music and was really interested in it, very professional and down-to-earth on the set.

We did not know if we are going to get them but we had them in mind. We did not want to not show them. If they did not agree, I would have rewrite the script. I am not sure how, but thankfully Lars Ulrich did not say no.

The making of Radio Dreams happened very quickly, from the moment the story was written to production, it was really fast. And in that period, in the pre-production, when the script was being written, we asked them. And they gave a very quick answer after he read the script and listened to our explication, so we knew. But I was still on standby. We send him the shooting schedule and worked out the day we could shoot with him.

Did Lars Ulrich need more takes[Laughs]?

No, he nailed it.

Even some snippets from the conversation with him made it into the final cut since he has done his research.

He came and started talking about Kabul Dreams´ music. But there are situations where he improvises quite a lot, for example, the jamming session, obviously we did not rehearse that.

Did he have to approve the final cut?

Contractually no but he wanted to see the cut. However there was not a situation where he would be like "I do not like my angle in this scene". Lars was good as gold. And a very cool guy to have around.

Are you already preparing next project?

As a matter of fact, I am. I just spent couple of months in L.A. doing casting for my next project which I have been developing for last four years, so Radio Dreams was made in the middle of my next project Land, shot entirely in English language in America with American actors and it will be French, Italian, Dutch co-production, entirely European funded.

We are planning to finish pre-production in March and to start shooting in May. It will be contemporary fiction set in the Indian reservation and native American family and their relationship with a caucasian white population on the border and also on the national level with the military.

It´s told through eyes of three middle-aged brothers and is about natives serving in U.S. military and also about caucasian liquor store owners who build liquor stores outside reservations exclusively for native Americans.

And this will be a serious drama. I spent four years going back and forth through reservations and natives on the cast are completely non-professionnal actors.

What drove you to this topic?

I was interested in the native American history but the history like 20 years ago but I did not know what was happening there now. You do not get to see that many contemporary Indian films.

Six years ago, before I left England to shoot my first feature in Iran, I read a report from a South Dakota reservation and the pictures looked a lot like my hometown.

And I read about their existence there and it was shocking, the statistics like 90% unemployed, 80% alcoholic. It was basically Rwanda but in the middle of America. And I was always interested in the idea of borders, my first feature is about my hometown that is on the border with Turkmenistan. Indians live in an autonomous territory but have border and that is U.S.A.

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