SPOTLIGHT February 2020: Sara Zandieh, Filmmaker, A SIMPLE WEDDING

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As Hollywood moves to course correct in wake of the #MeToo and #TimesUp movements, Iranian-American director Sara Zandieh checks off a lot of requisite boxes, especially the one marked: TALENTED. After changing her career from journalism to making narrative films, each of her stepping stones has been a milestone. While working towards her MFA in Film at Columbia University School of the Arts, she made her first short – The Pool Party – and it nabbed a jury award at Tribeca Film Festival. Her first post-grad effort is her first feature, the romantic comedy A Simple Wedding. She was accepted into NBC Universal’s Female Forward program and is directing an episode of NBC’s Good Girls.

“Very recently, in the last year, Hollywood is suddenly open to new voices, and they’re interested in new perspectives –cultural, gender,” Zandieh says. “In that sense, it’s a wonderful time to be in Hollywood because people are more curious now. It’s a good time to be authentic.”

FROM IRAN TO D.C. TO NYC

Born in Iran, Zandieh’s family moved when she was four years old to a DC suburb in Maryland. Through high school, her projected career path seemed clear. “Growing up in DC, the only available career options that I was exposed to were to be a journalist or a lawyer. I thought I wanted to be a journalist, and so I went to college [Hofstra University] and studied communications and French,” says Zandieh.

After graduating and spending three years in a newsroom and working on documentaries, she had an awakening. “As a journalist, I did a couple of profiles on directors and I was like, ‘I think this is what I want to do, I want to work in the fiction world.’”

So, she went back to school on a Fulbright scholarship to Columbia’s graduate filmmaking program, which centers on writing and directing. “It’s a very high-brow film culture, it’s definitely more auteur centered – they’re not, like, grooming you to be a commercial director,” she says. “I was very interested in arthouse film. I had a mentor: a female director named Bette Gordon who made a lot of feminist indie films in the ‘80s — Variety being one of them. She helped me realize the power of film, and she’s been a wonderful support and mentor over the years.”

As Zandieh continued in her studies, she realized that arthouse has its limitations if you truly want to change hearts and minds. “I developed an interest in dramedy,” she says. “I got curious about making films more accessible to a broader audience.”

As a student, she made four short films. The first, The Pool Party, made a splash. “I had a lot of questions about my Iranian identity, and I really wanted to go back home [to Iran] and try making a film there,” she says. “It ended up winning an award at the Tribeca Film Festival, and that’s what started my nonfiction writing career.”

From there, she started to expand her scope. Her last short, Reza Hassani Goes to the Mall starring comedian Maz Jabrani, also won several awards. “[It] led me to my first feature, which was a full-blown comedy, and I think is accessible to a variety of people,” she says, referring to A Simple Wedding. “It’s multicultural and multigenerational.”

A SWEETHEART DEBUT THAT PUTS DIVERSITY/INCLUSION FIRST

With a Valentine’s Day release, A Simple Wedding follows Nousha Husseini, a first generation Iranian-American attorney whose parents’ Persian values and cultural expectations clash with those of her fiancé Alex, a politically progressive, sexually fluid Caucasian with divorced parents, one of whom is gay and now in a same sex marriage.

“It’s an accessible romantic comedy, but it’s still pushing the issues I care the most about which are multiculturalism and feminism,” Zandieh says. “We’ve never seen an Iranian Muslim family represented in this way, and we’ve never seen this particular culture mashup with the American [culture].”

The writer-director says she’d never seen anything reflecting her life on the big screen, and broadening representations was essential to her. “The story is coming from a personal experience, and I just don’t see my world – the people in my world — represented in the way my life is,” she says. “Even [Nousha’s] two best friends, the two women raising a child and are parents, is very true to my life. I never see LGBTQ characters represented in a way where it’s not a plot point. They’re just parents, they’re just people. It isn’t a plot point.”

Wedding includes a rare appearance of a bisexual character as a male love interest. Nousha is initially unsure if she should date a guy who dates men and women, but her friends help her realize the initial dating pool may be wider, but if you’re “the one,” then you are the one. Zandieh says Alex is based on many of her New York film school friends. “He’s open to the idea of gender as a spectrum. A male lead with a more progressive gender politic than the female was new and very reflective of my life,” she says. “I’m friends with a lot of artists, and they’re very forward thinking and future thinking, and they’re like that. They’re not threatened by having open sexuality or nonbinary or panqueer, or however you want to label it. They’re just open minded and don’t think sexuality can be put into a box.”

Still from A Simple Wedding

Unique gay characters in comedies are often played over the top – overly effeminate or butch – but A Simple Wedding portrays them as real and complex people. “I try to get performances as natural as possible,” she says. “I like to work in a way where the script is just a blueprint for the performance. I do love improv, I love when actors say the words they feel comfortable with.”

REALIZING HER VISION

A Simple Wedding took six years to complete. Zandieh began writing it in New York, where she imagined she’d film it. However, when she relocated to Los Angeles, she saw the characters living in Southern California and she restructured it as a romantic comedy. Rewriting, honing, and more rewriting is part of Zandieh’s process. “I worked for two to three years on my own, starting from a very personal space, and that’s where I got the story and the characters,” she says. “I enlisted my friend from film school, Stephanie Wu, who is a Taiwanese-American screenwriter…I thought she would understand the experience of the main character because she’s also first generation and has been in a relationship outside her culture where that caused problems. I thought she’d understand the pathos of this character and this world, even though she’s not Iranian. We worked really well together and took the script to the next level.”

Zandieh found her “Nousha” in Iranian-Canadian comedic actress Tara Grammy, and she started rewriting again, incorporating Grammy’s ability to do a hilarious impression of Celine Dion. “I did a big rewrite of Nousha that was more tailored for Tara and her type. I rewrite a lot until I’m shooting – I did a rewrite for the budget I had and for the cast I was getting — when I got Shohreh [Aghdashloo], Rita [Wilson], Christopher [O’Shea] – so I’m rewriting for everybody.”

Having Rita Wilson on board to play Alex’s mother and as an executive producer had its blessings. “She wrote an original song that’s in the movie, Heart Unknown,” says Zandieh. “She’s a really good producer so she gave a lot of guidance on production.”

Zandieh’s a pretty good producer herself. She drummed up the financing on her own through private equity, finding financiers who supported her positive portrayals. “Two of them were Persian. They were just interested in seeing us represented in a positive, light-hearted way, in a human way. We’re so often demonized in the news,” she says. “This was a story that showed our normal life, this family life as people facing the same challenges that ‘normal’ Americans face – not like political ragamuffins. Iranians are so politicized and we have a wonderful culture, and unfortunately we get buried under the tense political climate.”

Last year, A Simple Wedding premiered at the 2018 LA Film Festival, where worldwide rights were acquired by Blue Fox Entertainment for distribution. With the film opening in limited release Feb. 14, Zandieh is breathing a sigh of relief that she doesn’t have to compromise her stories or vision.

“These movements hadn’t started when I was in film school, there was no Time’s Up,” Zandieh says. “When I started film school, I was thinking, ‘How can I make my stories more white? How can I make them more mainstream? And more American? No one will ever want to see content about Iranians, or they’re not interested in feminist stories, or female stories.’ Those were thoughts I had in film school, and now I feel that’s changed a little bit. And, now I feel more proud and encouraged to share the stories that are specific to me.”

WHAT’S NEXT

Zandieh’s one of five women selected for the NBC Universal Female Forward director’s program – and, it’s led to her first paid work as a director. “It’s a wonderful program. It’s really been a game changer for me because it broke me into episodic directing,” says Zandieh about the episode of NBC’s Good Girls that she’s currently shooting. “They have you shadow on an NBC show – you shadow two episodes, then they give you one to direct. What changes the game is credits. I had shadowed on several shows before, but I could never get an episode. With this program they guarantee you an episode and then it turns into a credit.”

WHY WE CHOSE HER

Sara Zandieh reset her career and started over from the basics: taking four years to get an advanced degree from an esteemed film school. She’s an up and comer who gathers accolades and recognition with each project by delivering a surprising comical voice in a multicultural space where humor hasn’t previously thrived. Her journalistic eye translates observations about characters you recognize and human behavior that’s familiar, making situations authentic and relatable – even if you’re not Muslim or have two dads. Her socially relevant vision promises to impact mainstream culture on screens big and small. Sara Zandieh is achieving her goal to broaden the perspective of viewers beyond the typical borders of white, Christian, heterosexual, binary American characters and stories. — Tara McNamara

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Tara McNamara

Tara McNamara has carved out a niche as a movie journalist with expertise in family films, including serving as the Fandango’s Film Mom and a Common Sense Media movie critic. She led the recurring "Reel Moms" segment on “Today," was Variety's news anchor on Sirius Radio and a regular contributor to "The Insider," "Entertainment Tonight," and "Inside Edition." She currently runs 80sMovieGuide.com and co-hosts the '80s Movies: A Guide to What's Wrong with Your Parents podcast.