BY ROBERT GOLDRICH
NEW YORK – Over the past couple of years, director Kasra Farahani has broken new ground in New York. First, his short film Concerning the Bodyguard was honored at MoMA’s 45th annual New Directors/New Films event in Manhattan. Shortly thereafter, Concerning the Bodyguard earned Farahani a slot in SHOOT’s 2016 New Directors Showcase, presented at the DGA Theatre in NYC. Fast forward to today and Farahani’s second feature film, Tilt, is slated to make its world premiere in the Midnight section of next month’s Tribeca Film Festival.
Farahani is no stranger to the festival circuit. His feature debut, The Waiting (since retitled The Good Neighbor), rolled out at the 2016 South by Southwest (SXSW) Film Festival.
Furthermore, Farahani has made inroads into the ad arena with work directed via Chromista, the commercial production/branded content house founded by Oscar-nominated director (Black Swan) Darren Aronofsky and EP Scott Franklin who head the shop along with partners/EPs Sandy Haddad and Ted Robbins.
As for his latest film soon to debut at Tribeca, Farahani not only directed but also co-wrote Tilt (with Jason O’Leary), a psychological thriller that centers on married couple Joseph and Joanne Burns, portrayed by Joseph Cross and Alexia Rasmussen, respectively. They are expecting their first child, ostensibly bringing that new life into a cozy, familiar domestic setting. But something is amiss with Joseph, a would-be filmmaker who isn’t realizing his aspirations. Late at night, unbeknowst to his wife, Joseph prowls the streets of Los Angeles, deliberately courting danger. He is an alienated man, not all that excited about becoming a parent. Joseph’s behavior starts to worry Joanne. However, she’s not as worried as she should be.
Tilt explores how quickly the most familiar person in your life can become the most terrifying--and how quickly we can become terrifying to ourselves.
In some respects, Farahani sees parallels between Joseph and Taxi Driver protagonist Travis Bickle (played by Robert De Niro, a founder of the Tribeca Film Festival). “While he’s in a more subtle, mundane lifestyle than Travis,” observed Farahani, “Joseph is a man who’s similarly alienated from society. Joseph’s aspiration for broad creative achievement in his art is not so rare. There are a lot of people who think they are smarter and more talented than the average person--and if they got a chance, they believe they could make a huge creative impact on the world. Like Travis, Joseph is wrestling with the fact that despite being of above average intelligence and having some seed of greatness, it hasn’t been enough. Now his time is up. His wife is pregnant. He has to be a grownup and fulfill his life and obligations. We’re witnessing a collision between his ego and the realities of living in modern life. It’s a common and familiar collision that people in a creative world go through. But with Joseph, it’s set in an individual who’s particularly unstable and vulnerable, with darker impulses that have likely always been there though he’s managed to keep them at bay. Tilt is set in a two-week window where all these strains and stresses are culminating within Joseph.”
For Farahani, among the biggest creative challenges posed to him by Tilt was to present “a well-rounded and realistic depiction of somebody, showing his humanity and eliciting some empathy--yet at the same time having him do things that are shocking and unforgivable. So often in these kinds of films, it’s simpler to rely on archetype shorthand, to tap into pre-existing ideas about morality that the audience already has. But when you do that, there’s a lot of oversimplification and a loss of dramatic nuance. What makes the figure of Joe Burns tragic is that his character is shaded.”
Helping create those shades was the lensing of the nighttime street scenes where Joseph sought out danger, getting as close as possible to self-destructive situations before pulling himself out of them. Farahani collaborated closely with cinematographer Alexander Alexandrov on night exterior location work, capturing action in natural, low light levels. “The exteriors didn’t look contrived at all. It looked very naturalistic, thanks to the extensive amount of scouting Alexander and I did in advance. We were able to show the naturally occurring color you have in an urban nightscape. There’s a lot of character there,” assessed Farahani who gave credit for the desired visual end result to Alexandrov’s artistry and the selection of the ARRI ALEXA Mini digital camera along with “incredibly fast” Leica lenses. “These scenes were very interesting, had an authentic look and provided a great contrast to Joseph’s banal domestic life which has him cleaning the cat litter box at home and talking on the phone with the cable company.”
Practical Film School
Farahani’s path to the director’s chair began with his work in the art department, leading to collaborations with the likes of David Fincher (Farahani served as conceptual illustrator on The Curious Case of Benjamin Button), Steven Spielberg (assistant art director on The Terminal), Tim Burton (assistant art director on Alice in Wonderland), Sam Raimi (concept artist on Spider-Man 3), Michael Mann (conceptual illustrator on the feature Miami Vice), Barry Sonnenfeld (art director on Men In Black 3) and JJ Abrams (art director on Star Trek Into Darkness, which earned an Art Directors Guild Excellence In Production Design Award nomination three years ago in the Fantasy Film category).
Farahani observed that his work in the art department--interpreting the written word and translating it into the world in which the story takes place, solving creative problems, the practical aspects of picking locations and doing ambitious stage builds--made for a great filmmaking education.
In addition to short film and feature fare, Farahani’s education as a director also spans the earlier alluded to commercials at Chromista--including “Mr. Sun” for Mollie’s Fund, which takes viewers backwards in time through a young women’s emotional struggle with skin cancer. In the first six seconds, our attention is grabbed as a broken glass moves from the floor to a young girl’s hand who is staring up at us from a hospital bed. Her head shaved and oxygen tubes in her nose, all we hear is the sound of beeping from her heart rate monitor and the voice of a girl singing a cappella about Mr. Sun. She sits there, looking weak and defeated. Everything continues to move backwards as we watch the young woman in her hospital gown “un-shaving” her head. In the next shot she is in her bathroom with long flowing black hair, holding a chunk of it in her hands. Her hand moves in reverse back onto her head. We watch as she sits in a doctor’s office “un-hearing” seemingly terrible news and having a large mark on her arm being tested. The spot continues as we find her in her kitchen finding this spot on her arm for the first time, then chopping vegetables in blissful ignorance. In the final shot, the camera pans down from a blue sky and open ocean waters to the golden sand beach that our young girl lays in, singing, soaking in the rays of the beautiful day, unaware of what the future holds. A message appears on screen which reads, “Just five sunburns increase your child’s risk of melanoma by 80%.”
Via Chromista, Farahani also directed a promo spot for the Square Enix game Final Fantasy XV out of agency Omelet. Titled “Stand Together,” the commercial takes on an epic scope and features Florence + The Machine’s cover of the song “Stand By Me” and encourages the spirit of adventure as four young “David” insurgents tackle an intimidating “Goliath”-like foe.
As for what’s next, Farahani would like to continue to direct a mix of commercials/branded content and features. On the latter score, he and writing colleague O’Leary are teaming on a film which Farahani described as “a magical realism drama.”