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Interview: Caveh Zahedi

 “You see, I used to have this sex addiction problem,” Caveh Zahedi tells us in the opening moments of his film, I am a Sex Addict. The slightly built writer/director/ star of the film is addressing the camera, speaking directly to the audience. He is dressed in a tuxedo. A glimmer of nervous excitement shines through his casual yet verbally dexterous manner. He tells us he is going to be married in a few minutes, and that this will be his third marriage. The film that follows these opening moments is the story of Caveh’s life, his relationships, his “sex addiction problem” (a compulsive desire to visit prostitutes, among other things), and how he arrived at the point in his life he is now, moments away from being married.

The film is shot and edited much like a documentary. Zahedi uses animated sequences and stock footage, much like a documentary. There are segments of home movies. Much of the film consists of various scenes from Caveh’s life, reenacted with Caveh playing himself and actresses standing in for the numerous women (prostitutes, wives, and girlfriends) that he has known. However, this film is not a documentary. Nor is it completely a narrative film. It is more of a cinematic memoir, a creative piece of non-fiction filmmaking. Some will call this work masturbatory and self-indulgent, but while we do watch Caveh struggle with masturbatory problems, his film itself is not one of them. And yes, Caveh is self-involved, but from the first moments of the film there is something immediately likeable about him. Intelligent, well cultured, funny without being cynical, and above all honest, he has given us a film of equal merit; a film where the audience will laugh at the absurdity of life and also be touched by the moments and people that make it worth living.

As a filmmaker, Caveh Zahedi has made a wise decision not to explore the subject of his addiction in a much darker fashion. This is possibly the least disturbing film about an addiction ever made, but also one of the most moving. Though there is a good deal of nudity and sexual content, none of it is the shock content that a less mature filmmaker might have included.

In the press I’ve read, Zahedi feels that the success of this film will determine whether he is able to continue his career as a filmmaker. That said, I certainly hope that this film is successful, because Zahedi is a gem both behind and in front of the camera. His previous work, which includes the films A Little Stiff, I Don’t Hate Las Vegas Anymore, and In the Bathtub of the World, have brought Zahedi to the attention of indie favorite Richard Linklater (Slacker, the upcoming A Scanner Darkly). Linklater has made good career for himself balancing his more experimental, non-mainstream films such as Tape and Waking Life (in which Zahedi has a small role) with more mainstream efforts like Before Sunset and Dazed and Confused. Zahedi would be wise to explore a similar path with his own career. With I Am a Sex Addict, Zahedi has shown he possesses a rare kind of comedic and artistic ability that can deliver a charming and uniquely compelling story. I hope Zahedi has the opportunity to make another film. I am curious to see what he will do next, where he can take his ability.

I recently met with Caveh while he was visiting New York City:

Caveh Zahedi

Jameson Kowalczyk: Can you summarize the situation with Mark Cuban and Landmark that I’ve been reading on your blog?
Caveh Zahedi: We were set to open in Berkley on Friday, and that Monday I think I got a call from IFC saying the screening had been cancelled because Mark Cuban the owner of Landmark Theater chain had decided to pull it from that and some of the other Landmark theaters because of a long story he couldn’t get into. So I put something about it on my blog, and he answered, my blog, and he explained why he did it. And he said it was because Comcast wouldn’t carry HDNET, which is a TV station he owns and he was trying to get on Comcast. And I guess there’s only a certain amount of bandwidth and it’s competitive, which stations get on. And IFC Films, who are distributing my film, had made a deal with Comcast to show my film, and some others also, as a simultaneous video-on-demand download to their theatrical screenings. And he was mad that Comcast wasn’t showing HDNET and he was not going to let IFC Films show there because they were associated, and since my film was IFC, it got axed. So I kind of went back and forth with a lot of emails, and his story kind of kept changing, and he got a lot of flack on the internet. But I think he had lots of different reasons for wanting to do it, and he was just kind of trying to figure it out, rationally. His final reason that he gave was because IFC wasn’t sharing revenue with the theaters. And with his own HDNET day and date release. See the irony of it all is he’s been this guy who’s been this proponent of day and date releases, which means you simultaneously open in the theater and on video.

JK: I read Steven Soderberg just did with something like that…
CZ: Bubble. Mark Cuban did that. He actually financed the film through his HDNET company, and then he released the film as well through his Landmark theater chain, and on his TV station, HDNET, which also financed it. So what he has here is a system where he has a production company which makes films, he has a theatrical chain to distribute them theatrically, and he has a TV station to show them on television. And he’s doing a simultaneous day and date thing, and he’s arguing that this is good for the industry. And he’s right in some ways, but the catch is that he owns the theaters and the TV station, so if he’s not going to make that much money in the theater, he can recuperate on the TV thing and also he has a DVD deal with Magnolia, well, he owns Magnolia also. So he owns the DVD company, he owns the TV station, he owns the production company, and he owns the theater. So it’s a vertically integrated system he’s got, which is what the studios used to have in Hollywood, and then there was this law passed, an anti-trust law, to sort of stop that. So in a way it has sort of creeped back in. So that’s why it’s kind of like, controversial. But he argued that if you release simultaneously in the theaters and on DVD, that wouldn’t be a bad thing, because you could take advantage of the press from the theatrical for the other thing for the people that don’t go to the movies, don’t want to go to the movies but will watch it on TV, for example. Or those who want to rent it on DVD. I think it makes sense. And I think it’s a good thing. The problem with it is the theater owners were very much opposed because they felt that if people could get it on TV or DVD it’s less incentive to go to the theaters, which is true, it is less incentive. But he said no it’s going to be fine, but he owns the theaters, so even if he loses money, he makes money somewhere else. But the theater owners, they don’t own that stuff. And in response to all their criticisms, he proposed this plan whereby the theaters could play the film, and they could get some of the money from the DVD sales. Perfectly legitimate way to solve the problem. That’s not what he did, because he just showed the film in his own theaters. But he’s been proposing that as a model. So his last argument to me was, IFC isn’t sharing their revenue with the theaters so why should the theaters play them. Because the theaters are taking this big risk, and the theaters often don’t make that much money, and Comcast stands to make easier money because there’s less risk involved in putting something on TV than in a theater. So, it’s all very complicated, but basically the problem with his argument is this, some films make a lot of money in theaters, and most theaters decide on what films to show based on what they think it’s going to make. And IFC has this other film, CSA, which has done pretty well, so far. And it was the number one or number two at most Landmark theaters where it played, and then Landmark pulled it because of this Comcast thing. So it’s not like they pulled it because they weren’t making money from it, it’s just because of his attempt to sort of control Comcast and to have his larger agenda met. I mean, I think it would be fine for IFC to give some of the revenue from ancillary markets to the theaters, you know? That’s something to be negotiated. But then I suggested to him why not ask IFC if they’re willing to give a percentage of ancillary market revenue to the Landmark theaters that agree to play the film, if they really want to play them at those theaters. I mean, it could be worth it for them. And he never answered that. I don’t know. I don’t know what will happen, I mean he pulled my film from the Berkeley screening, and it’s also pulled from the Chicago and Atlanta screenings. I keep asking him to reverse his decision, but he hasn’t so far.

JK: What was the hardest, or most challenging part of completing this film and getting it released? Was it hard to get investors, find a distributor?
CZ: It took ten years to get an investor. So that was pretty hard. And then it took one year to find a distributor. That was pretty hard too.

JK: How long did it take to film?
CZ: It took four years to film. I guess that was hard.

JK: So it’s taken fifteen years to complete this film, how has your vision of the way in which your story needed to be told changed over fifteen years?
CZ: Well, when I wrote it, I wrote it the night I went to my first sex addicts anonymous meeting, so the way the film started and ended was it started at the meeting where I sort of tell the story of my addiction to the other sex addicts, you know, like an AA meeting. And it ended when I got to that first meeting and I started telling my story again, sort of a circular structure, bookended by the meeting. But over the ten years it took for me to get the money a lot had happened in my life. I got married again, I got divorced again, and I was about to get married again, so we decided to bookend it at the wedding. So I’m at the wedding basically telling the story of why my other marriages failed, and why I feel this marriage has a chance not to. So the film now, I tell the whole story and then I go into the wedding and we actually see me get married. So that changed, over ten years. And then I had written the script to do it somewhat naturalistically, and so I needed a two million dollar budget, because we’d have to go to a lot of different countries. And then I didn’t get that money that I needed, I got only fifty thousand dollars, so after ten years of trying to get two million and failing I finally just decided to do it for the fifty thousand, so I had to rethink the whole style of the film. So I came up with this idea of this very Brechtian style that’s not naturalistic at all, that asks the viewer to suspend their disbelief.

JK: I liked the style of the film.
CZ: Yeah, I liked the style too, and I think I like it better than I think I would have liked it had I gotten the two million dollars to make it the way I wanted to make it, so in a way it was a blessing in disguise.

JK: What do you hope will draw an audience to your film?
CZ: Well, I was hoping that the title alone would draw an audience in. And the subject matter to me seems like it would be inherently interesting. But I’ve been surprised how hard it is to get people to come to a movie. The movie is doing pretty well, but it hasn’t broken box office records yet, which I was hoping for. [pause] I don’t know what would draw and audience in. I’m hoping word of mouth, people hearing people talking about how much they like it, and people have been very enthusiastic for the most part. Some people also hate it. But the people who love it really love it. So I think it’s going to be about the slow burn, word of mouth kind of thing. And also there isn’t that much money for marketing, so it’s kind of a low budget venture.

JK: What do you hope people will leave with after seeing your film?
CZ: What I hope people get out of it is, I actually hope that people have a different image or idea of what sex addiction is. I guess I feel like there’s kind of this stereotype about the kind of people who go to see prostitutes for example, or engage in sexual addictive behavior, and the stereotype is this kind of Neanderthal, sleazy is the word that’s used, and like vulgar or something, sexist, of low moral fiber or something. And the people at these meetings are just really normal people from all walks of life, and often very evolved people who have this problem, who have had this problem. And I feel like a lot of careers are wrecked because of sex addiction, especially in politics. There is this kind of shame around it, a stigma attached to it that’s really pretty big. And I think it makes it harder for people to actually get help because they can’t admit to having this problem. In the old days you couldn’t admit to all kinds of things you can admit to now, which makes it a lot easier. I mean, being gay was like a really obvious one twenty years ago, it was really hard to say, ‘I’m gay.’ And now it’s still hard, but it’s not nearly as hard. And that really, I think is a great thing. So I think if people could be able to say ‘I have a sex addiction problem’ more easily, the world would be a much better place. And I think just even the whole thing that happened with Bill Clinton is a really good example, I mean if he could have said ‘I have a sex addiction problem,’ instead of having to lie about it, which was what he felt he had to do because he felt that there was no context in which anybody could accept what he had done, then he wouldn’t have lied, he wouldn’t have faced impeachment, and we wouldn’t have spent two years of taxpayers money on something that was absurd, and Gore probably wouldn’t have lost the election, all kinds of things.

JK: The country would be a different place.
CZ: Yeah, the country would be a really different place, just that one shift in people’s perceptions. That’s kind of what I’m hoping to do with the film, to help move the cultural perception of something to a truer place.

JK: What’s the harshest criticism that your work has received? What criticism hit you the hardest?
CZ: People say I’m ugly. I mean as part of a film review. That hurts.

JK: As part of a review? Ouch. What’s been the best compliment you’ve received?
CZ: ‘Your film changed my mind.’

JK: Do you have a favorite shot or a favorite scene that you’ve captured on film or video in your career as a filmmaker?
CZ: I think my favorite scene that I’ve captured is actually the shot in this movie at the end, where I go from the camera address into the wedding in a continuous take.

JK: Why is that your favorite shot?
CZ: Well, it’s in real time, and in the course of it, as a viewer, you go from this very artificial construct, where everything seems artificial, to this completely realist construct where you realize that it’s not artificial, that the whole thing has been true. And there is a kind of epiphany that happens for the viewer there, where you realize that this is really happening, so the fictionality of the film suddenly shifts into it’s documentary truth. And what interests me in film is precisely that line, and how all fiction has a documentary component and how documentaries have a fictional component, and the film kind of switches over in one seamless camera move which I find really kind of breathtaking, and it epitomizes to me sort of the essence of cinema.

JK: How does this film differ from your previous work?
CZ: When I made my first film, I made it just as a really pure act of radical self-expression, and my basic feeling was ‘Fuck the audience.’ I didn’t care what they thought. I was going to force them to enter my world. And after suffering from seeing people walking out of the movie theater [laughs] during the screening, I kind of became less arrogant about the importance of the audience coming to you rather than you going to them, which to me had always seemed like a kind of selling out, a kind of pandering. But the other way of looking at it is generosity, or just complete communication. And I think if you want to seduce somebody, which is what I think filmmaking really is, you don’t just say whatever comes into your head, you really think about the other person’s needs. And so as I’ve been making films, I’ve been doing that more and more, and with this film I really did it a lot, I really thought about the viewer and what the viewer would want and need, and to have pleasure at each moment. And often when it wasn’t even something that would give me pleasure as a filmmaker, I tired to give the viewer pleasure, and it’s really made a difference.

JK: Do you know what your next project will be?
CZ: Yes. It’s a political film. It’s called How to Legally Overthrow the U.S. Government. It’s basically a how-to manual, for doing that.

JK: Legally?
CZ: [laughs] Legally. Through the electoral process. It’s a comedy, but it’s also serious, like my other films.

JK: What was the first film you ever made?
CZ: When I was eleven I made a film about the end of the world. There was going to be a nuclear holocaust and everybody had one day to live, and it was about what people decided to do with that one day.

JK: What advice would you give to aspiring filmmakers?
CZ: Well, I guess what’s really struck me over the years is how many mediocre filmmakers succeed through sheer perseverance, and how many talented people end up quitting, and how ninety percent of it is really about perseverance. I think if you just keep at it and have the ability to improve, which requires I think a certain amount of humility, then you really can’t fail.

JK: What would you like to be remembered for in cinema history?
CZ: [pause] I’d like to be remembered for pushing the envelope, and going places no one had gone before.

IFC Films releases I am a Sex Addict on April 12th in New York and will see a limited release in other theatres in the weeks to come.

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