Babak Anvari interview: Under The Shadow, horror, Statham

The director of the brilliant Under The Shadow chats to us about how his childhood memories and love of horror movies inspired him

Every now and then, a horror movie comes along that gets people excited. Not just horror fans, but critics and cinemagoers who aren’t normally into scares. Recently we’ve had The Babadook, with its story about grief and difficult relationships between parents and their kids, and The Witch, which grabbed attention with its authentic 17th century setting and hard-to-understand accents even before the devil worshipping kicked off.

Now, there’s another scary movie that’s racking up glowing reviews left, right, and centre – everyone from the Guardian to the NME to Variety and, well, Den of Geek has raved about Under The Shadow. A brilliantly scary portrayal of life in war-torn Iran, it’s got a claustrophobic atmosphere, stunning camerawork, and some excellent performances – plus more than one scene that’ll give you nightmares.

Honestly, it’s hard to find enough superlatives to heap on it, so when an opportunity arose to chat to writer/director Babak Anvari, there was no way I was saying no. Here’s what he had to say.

Firstly, congrats on Under The Shadow. It’s brilliant, and you must be so pleased with how well it’s been received!

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Thank you, yes, it’s been such a relief – it’s been such a ride!

One of the things that’s really great about this movie is its focus on characters and establishing their world. What were you drawing on there?

Basically, it was just tapping into childhood memories. I was born in Iran during the Iran-Iraq war, and by the time the war ended, I was more or less the same age as the child in the film, so a lot of the things that inspired the story are chats I had with my parents and stories I heard from relatives and family friends, and obviously I took inspiration from them. Even the characters in the film are sort of inspired by people I’ve met in my life when I was growing up in Iran.

But saying all that, it’s not an autobiographical film. It’s a work of fiction. It’s a horror film!

Of course! And it really is a horror film – it seems like a lot of the time, when a horror film gets as much acclaim as yours is getting, people start saying “it’s not really a horror film, it’s a thriller, it’s a drama, it can’t be horror because it’s actually good!” Are you happy to say, yeah, it’s a horror film?

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Yeah, I’m happy to say it’s a horror film, though sometimes I’ll say it’s a psychological thriller just to be diplomatic. It depends who you’re talking to. It’s so funny, ever since the film came out, you see people saying “it is a horror film, I got scared,” and I think, “great, I love that,” and then you see people comment saying “it’s not a genre film, it’s not a horror film, I think it’s a lot more than that,” and I think, “cool,” or they say, “we’re not a big fan of horror films but we really like your film because of the background” and I’m happy with that too. So to be honest, as long as it pleases the audience…

You don’t care what they call it?

Yeah, exactly! I just wanted to tell a story, an exciting one.

That’s what the best horror films do, isn’t it? There’s no point trying to be scary without telling a story. Anyway, tell me about the casting – it must have been super important to get the right actors for your two leads, for Shideh and Dorsa…

The process was hard at the start, because my number one rule was that they needed to speak Farsi fluently and without an accent. Because you get your second generation immigrants who grew up here or in the US, they speak Farsi, but with an accent. So that was the number one rule, so we started looking around everywhere and in that Iranian diaspora around the world.

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The cast came from everywhere – the US, the UK, Germany, France Italy – and we took them all to Jordan to recreate ‘80s Tehran.

With the two leads, Narges Rashidi who plays Shideh was recommended by an amazing actor. Navid Negahban who played Abu Nazir in Homeland recommended her to us: she grew up in Germany and she’s done lots of film and TV in Germany but she’s moved to LA now, so I started Skyping with her and I thought she was fantastic. And then she came to London and when I met her I thought, she’s great, she’s the Shideh I had in mind.

And the little child, she’s a non-actor – this is the first time she’s ever acted. We approached the Iranian community in London and said “we’re looking for a Farsi speaking child”. I saw about 12 or 13 children who were recommended, and the moment Avin Manshadi walked into the room I knew she was the one. She’s so amazing and clever and creative that she blew my mind.

Speaking of the film’s language, did you find it difficult to get funding for a film written in Farsi? Were you ever encouraged to make it in English instead?

Not my producers, the ones who went for it; they were always supportive from day one. But at the beginning I was struggling to find people to come on board. When my agent sent the script out, I met about a dozen producers and almost all of them, when it came to language, were like “it’s so risky! It’s a great script, but is there any way we can make it in English?” and I said, “no, that’s going to be ridiculous”.

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So Wigwam Films took the risk and came on board and supported it the whole way.

The film does feel very authentic, was it difficult to get all the details right?

I was so worried – there are so many films, especially Hollywood films being made about Iran, that as an Iranian when I watch them I think, “whoa, this does not look anything like Iran!” Iranian audiences are very specific and I didn’t want to annoy them. And I thought even an international audience will always find something’s a bit phony if you don’t get it right, if you don’t have that sense of authenticity. So that was really key for me.

I left Iran when I was 18/19, so I went back to my memories, and I had folders and folders of reference images. I went through old family albums from the ‘80s, both our own and family friends’, and just collected images, and when it came to pre-production I sent all those folders to my great production designer Nasser Zoubi, who’s a Jordanian production designer based in Amman, and he was fantastic. He took them all on board and we worked closely with my DP [Kit Fraser] to create the setting.

The key thing, also, is because Nasser himself is Middle Eastern, that really helps. He got the DNA of it right. Even though they’re different countries, he knew how to create the sort of ‘80s Iran feel.

On the more horror-y side of things, you’ve got some really scary moments in this film, some really striking scares. Where did they come from – what were you influenced by?

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There are tons of references! Let’s start with the main one: I always say early Polanski movies are huge reference points, like Rosemary’s Baby and Repulsion and The Tenant.

And sort of more gothic stories like Jack Clayton’s The Innocents, and the novel The Turn Of The Screw, and the original The Haunting – definitely the original, not the remake, the Robert Wise one! Those films are heavy on atmosphere, and in my film, it’s kind of a gothic tale but in a different setting. It’s a mother and child in a haunted house so those were huge influences.

And other obviously classic horror movies that I love like The Shining and The Exorcist, and Del Toro is another huge reference because he always loves to tell a fantasy story against a real backdrop, so that was a great inspiration… yeah. I can carry on talking! J-horror, as well, like Ring and The Grudge

And maybe Dark Water?

Dark Water, yeah! And Don’t Look Now

The list goes on!

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I’m telling you, all those horror films that I love, they just kept coming back to me. And Poltergeist! I was listening to the score of Poltergeist a lot while I was writing the script actually, for inspiration. It was really helpful.

I thought what you did with all those influences was really clever, the way you kind of used the gothic tropes but inverted them, so for example Shideh and Dorsa start off in a building that’s full of people, but then they leave, so it’s eventually an abandoned building. Or the way that Shideh doesn’t believe in the supernatural but all her neighbours do, when it’s usually the other way around.

Thank you! I’m so glad you liked that because for me, from the beginning, I thought it has to be a very unremarkable building at the start and then once things kick off, after the missile hits, it gets wounded and it gets infected, and the building gets more and more, you know, dark, and more and more like a haunted house.

Yeah, I thought that was great. You see so many films where people move into a haunted house and you think, obviously this is a bad idea!

Yeah, that’s right.

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So what are you working on next?

I don’t want to get pigeonholed as a horror director, though I love the genre so I’m probably going to revisit it at some point, but the immediate one that I’m doing now is a Hitchcockian neo-noir thriller, set in the UK – definitely in English after the challenges of a Farsi language one! That’s with the same producers [as Under The Shadow] and that’s the one I’m most focused on.

But there are three or four other projects that are at very early stages both here and in the US that still need developing, so let’s see what happens.

Finally, I have to ask you. What’s your favourite Jason Statham movie?

Well, I must say… Snatch.

That’s quite a common one.

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I wonder why! [laughing] Great question.

Babak Anvari, thank you very much.

Under The Shadow is out in the UK now, and you can find a cinema showing it near you at the film’s website, here