Interview: spending The Night with director and co-writer Kourosh Ahari
The Night is a psychological ghost story with an Iranian/American pedigree, and as such the themes can speak to so many people with dual identities. It was screened recently at Grimmfest’s Easter Horror Nights, and I had the pleasure of discussing the film with director and co-writer Kourosh Ahari on the day of its screening.
Kourosh had produced and directed short films until now, and The Night is his first feature film. I asked whether he had always wanted to make films. “That’s a funny story actually,” replied Kourosh. “I had wanted to do animation, and I transferred to San Jose State University, one of the top schools for animation. But then they couldn’t take any more students for animation that year, so I had to either wait for one year for a space or pick another major. I looked into that and saw that the film department often collaborated with animation students, and so figured that was a possible way in to an animation career. I did that, and the summer before starting I dug further into what that department produced, watched some YouTube videos, got myself a camera and shot a little short film at the pizza place I was working at. When I started school, there was a school-level film festival and I entered that film: it was well received, won a couple of awards. But what really got me was watching something I made on a big screen for the first time, with the audience actually reacting to it, being impacted by it emotionally. That magic of it really got me, having the power to tell stories through this media, and since then it’s all I want to do.”
So what was it like moving from producing a film to directing? “Well when I started, I wanted to learn everything about making a film. The very first set I worked on, the student project, was BTS [Behind the Scenes] photography, and that allowed me to see other aspects too, like lighting, make-up, and so on. I got a feel for everything that way and worked in different departments, which helped me to become a good producer, because I had a sense of everything that needed to happen for a movie. I also had the desire to tell stories myself, so I had to try directing: that was the short film Malaise, which was pretty successful and made me want to do more and more. You know directing is all I want to do now.”
Acting is the one aspect he’s not done so far. “No, that’s the one area, though I know it can be very useful for developing the directing skills. Maybe I’ll take acting classes one of these days.”
Kourosh wrote The Night, too, along with Milad Jarmooz; and I asked him to tell me about the writing partnership. “Alex Bretow, one of the producers, and I have a production company, Mammoth Pictures. So when we decided to move into the feature world, we set up a screenplay competition on Filmfreeway, and invited writers from around the world to submit, with specific guidelines: we wanted a psychological thriller with horror elements, with human condition elements and a deep story. One of the submissions which really stood out was the original script for The Night, written by Milad in Farsi, and we really liked it and wanted to adapt it for a movie for here [the USA]. So I started to rewrite it with him: we both had experiences to bring. We had a really good connection when talking about the story, and we spent about eight to ten months reworking the script. It was originally set in Iran, with the couple going back home there. I wanted to set it in a hotel, not to make a hotel horror film, but the location had a meaning in the story: a temporary place, where we check in and check out, like the world we live in. What happened to the couple is ideally placed in a hotel, as if it’s a parallel place. I brought my own personal experiences to the deeper layers; there’s a story on the surface about the couple, then there are deeper layers with hints and signs throughout the film. I find audience members who have watched it coming to me maybe on the second or third viewing saying ‘oh I saw that thing now and it makes sense’: that’s always fun, personally, I love films that make me think and then rewatch to catch anything I might have missed, so I’m putting that in my filmmaking.”
Having watched the film and observed that the central couple didn’t seem to feel like they belonged, I had a question I had to ask from possibly a place of ignorance or privilege: is that really what it’s like for people with an immigrant background living in the USA? “I must say yes, as an immigrant myself” said Kourosh. “I didn’t want to highlight it in the film, just make it about an Iranian couple, and make this a normal thing; but at the same time, there are certain things that immigrants do deal with when they move to a different country – United States or anywhere – especially at that age like Neda [played by Niousha Noor]. She’s a grown-up woman, who’s lived in a different country with a different cultural perspective and brought up similar to how I was brought up: I lived in Iran until I was nineteen and then moved to the US. So that part of the culture is rooted in me, and I’m aware that adjusting takes time. You always try to analyse your behaviour: was this appropriate? Was it the right thing to do? How will the other person react to how I talk or do things? I have experienced certain things myself, like encountering a police officer here in the United States: that’s already a scary thing, but then being from a different background and speaking English with an accent, you naturally are aware of the first impression you might be giving to that officer; will he treat me differently? I’ve seen a lot of immigrants struggle with the adjustment, and for her in the story who came to the USA only one year earlier, although her husband was here for five years, everything is new.”
I wondered how different it could have been if the story had stayed set in Iran. “I think we would have used different elements specific to that culture. The scene with the police officer might have been different, or we might have brought other cultural beliefs and perspectives into the story. The location definitely changes things.” This reminded me of Pablo Arrayales telling me recently about the prospect of remaking his Mexican Rendez-vous for the USA.
The Night has been widely released in Iran, and has been received well. “The feedback has been positive: they call it the best horror movie in Iranian cinema. But that’s partly because Iranian cinema does not celebrate the genre much, focusing on drama, social comedies and so on: this might be only the fifteenth horror film since Iranian cinema started. I think it’s a step forward for Iranian cinema to view a genre movie like this well, and filmmakers there are hopefully encouraged to look at a broader range. I know for a fact that Milad is directing a TV series now based on Iranian cultural horror stories.”
Considering the genre is uncommon for Iranian filmmakers, I asked why Kourosh had chosen horror for his first feature. “Well I’m a big fan of horror,” answered Kourosh, “mainly of the supernatural and psychological. One of the first things I experienced when I moved to the USA was watching a horror movie at the theatre: I’d watched horror movies in the theatre in Iran, but the experience was different; it was nothing compared to what I experienced here, with the sound and atmosphere. I think the first one was Drag Me to Hell. That was something I’d never had in Iran and since becoming a filmmaker I wanted to make something with a similar standard of quality, cinematography, sound and so on that could play in Iran. There isn’t enough good content to satisfy the fans over there.”
So he was keen to make something of a similar quality to Raimi’s film that would work back home. “Exactly; but something that works universally too. I think with this film, what the couple is going through is very universal: people can connect to it from anywhere around the world. But moving forward, I definitely want to look into cultural mythologies from the region, but adapted for an English-speaking world.” Sounds intriguing.
I recognised what Kourosh said about the universal experience of The Night’s characters, but they didn’t come across as “types”. I asked whether they were based on people he knows. “Yes and no,” Kourosh responded; “for the most part yes. Definitely some is taken from my own experience, as writers do, and people from my own life.” But he declined to give any specifics.
I asked about a particular “universal experience”: the baby. Was she difficult to work with? “She was amazing” said Kourosh. “First time filmmakers are always told to stay away from three things: shooting at night, children and animals. We went for all three in this film. So already, we had a challenge: we shot at night, in a working hotel, with specific hours that we could access. As for the baby, well there is nothing to direct: you just have to hope and pray to the universe. We were very lucky with her and she was extremely well behaved. The most difficult bit was when Babak [played by Shahab Hosseini] and the receptionist were talking downstairs, and the receptionist was feeding her the bottle: you might have noticed when they entered the hotel, part of the receptionist’s finger is missing, and later when they had that conversation, I wanted the baby to hold that same finger while drinking from the bottle. The first time we tried it, she wouldn’t take the bottle, so I said to take her away and we’d do the coverage of the two people and we can bring her back later. When they brought her back, all of a sudden she took the bottle and held his finger the whole time, even reacting to what he was saying: it was magic! So yes, I’m very happy with how it turned out. I wanted the real baby in all her scenes, though some people tried to persuade me to use a fake baby: she brought something genuine to her scenes though.”
I wanted to ask a bit about the meanings of what I saw in The Night; though to avoid the risk of spoilers, instead asked about how it flitted from one thing to another (mirrors, tattoo, confessions, etc.): was it intended to come across in the style of a dream? “Not necessarily,” said Kourosh “but I’ll tell you this: because I have a certain perspective on what’s happening to them, but any individual viewer can also have their own interpretation. It really goes back to the audience and what they want to take from it: it points to some fundamental psychological and spiritual things within all of us humans. Even the ‘horror’ elements come from their own internal fear. As we wrote the script, we asked ourselves what if fears come to the surface for the characters? But everything is answered in the movie from the tattoo, the mirror, the displaced man outside, the painting; everything there is answered, though you might not catch the connections until the second or third viewing. I purposefully didn’t leave things unanswered: I just didn’t make things too obvious.”
I’d seen in some of the publicity a comparison to The Shining and asked Kourosh how he felt about that. “It’s comparable to The Shining, because of the couple, the baby and the hotel location. There are shots that resemble shots in that movie, but I’ll tell you nothing was planned to specifically reflect it. We never decided ‘let’s compose this shot like The Shining’ and so on. But you know as filmmakers we watch a lot of films, and there are certain ones that have an impact and stay with us, so it’s natural to be inspired; so famous films like that might show themselves in our work, but not intentionally. Truly, we wanted to tell the story of this couple; and as I said, the hotel had a meaning: it wasn’t just to make it ‘a hotel horror’”.
To me, it brought back a different hotel horror film more than The Shining: 1408, based on another Stephen King story; and also another non-hotel film, Jacob’s Ladder. “The three films that had a big impact on me when making The Night were The Others, The Sixth Sense and Jacob’s Ladder.”
As with every filmmaker I’ve spoken to so far, I asked what it had been like for Kourosh working during a global pandemic. “It sucks in a way, because this is my first feature, and the moment I really want to celebrate. I want to go to festivals and watch it with audiences, get their reaction. The most rewarding part of filmmaking for me is watching the film with an audience: that’s when I feel I’ve got paid. Not having that opportunity, apart from Santa Barbara, it was a little hard. This movie was really made for a theatre experience, not for streaming: it was made dark, supposed to be in a theatre so you can feel the atmosphere. But there are upsides: because of the conditions we’re in, it’s been seen by more critics around the world instead. What put us back was that we were supposed to do the final sound mix of the movie back in March last year, just when the pandemic was getting worse, so we had to wait eight or nine months.”
To finish the conversation on a positive note, I asked Kourosh Ahari what he is working on next. “There are some scripts we’re looking at in the genre, and I’m developing a specific story based on a Persian cultural horror belief that takes place in an older time, about ‘the well’s bride’. When the water wells were the main source of water for the land and for drinking, the belief was that the young daughter of a family must be bride to the well and sleep for one night down in the well. I’m adapting that story right now, and it will be in a similar tone to The Witch.”
The Night is available to rent from Amazon Video now.