With the release of Under The Shadow in 2016 writer and director Babak Anvari announced himself as a formidable new talent in the horror genre. Dubbed by some to have been the best film of that year Under The Shadow has now finally been awarded a Blu-ray release, so we sat down with Babak to discuss drawing on his Iranian heritage, scaring audiences and his influences.
Starburst Magazine: One of the most noticeable elements in the film is that, given the relatively short running time, you really take your time to set up the characters and this world. Was that important to you?
Babak Anvari: Yes, from day one that was the plan. First of all, I always wanted to position the film as a social drama paying homage to Iranian cinema. Then bit by bit it twisted into this expressionist horror film. And I missed the fact that, back in the 80s and 90s, films took their time to set up the world and especially in horror films. In Alien you don’t see any aliens for ages. Jurassic Park is the same. These days everyone seems to be in such a rush. And I was making this film knowing that a lot of international audiences don’t know what Iran was really like in the 80s, so I was keen to take my time.
Did you feel a responsibility then, telling not just this story but any story set in this time period?
I guess the sense of responsibility was in getting everything as authentic as I could. I was born in Iran; I grew up there. Hollywood makes films about Iran but they’re not accurate representations. It was important for me to take the time and I talked to lot of family and friends, did a lot of research as I was roughly the same age as this child during the war. I felt it was my duty to set it up as authentically as I could.
You mention there about being the same age as the child, and you’ve talked a little about this in the past. You’ve drawn on your experiences, but did you also have a little fun going back to that time, like with the VCR and so on?
Oh, I had a lot of fun. I was constantly feeling the nostalgia when I was writing it. Little nuggets like the VCR, Jane Fonda and the Yazoo video. That was great fun.
And the phone; little things that take you back and put you right there.
Yes, the orange phone!
The development process of a film is always interesting. As both the writer and director did the film change or mutate from when you finished the screenplay to when you finished the film? Was the end result what you thought it was going to be?
Not very different. When you’re writing you have a version in your head, and what the characters look like. So, there are little changes, and also due to logistics and budget. It’s such a collaborative medium, though, that when you’re working with your team, they can suggest things that make it even better. But it wasn’t drastically different. The location we found to shoot in in Jordan was much better than I had in mind though.
It’s a very lean film, starved of clutter. Was it difficult at times to remain disciplined and strip it back, like you said, to remain authentic?
It was, and it was a great exercise. It was very low budget and we only had 20 days to shoot so we had to be efficient. It can be a good thing because it forces you to make the correct decisions. It could never be about getting footage and figuring it out in the edit, you know. We knew we could only shoot what we needed.
There’s a little of Hideo Nakata’s Dark Water in there, Poltergeist as well. Now with a little distance and time, looking back was there something, a film or an influence that was most prominent in guiding you to what you wanted?
One of the huge influences was Roman Polanski’s apartment series, especially Rosemary’s Baby and The Tenant. And I am obsessed with Poltergeist and I was listening to the score when I wrote Under The Shadow. Another film that was really influential was Jack Clayton’s The Innocents because I felt what I was writing was a classic gothic ghost story, just set in Tehran rather than England.
One of the things you play with is that the central character is so insistent that none of this is really happening, and you’re going with her as, at that time, you don’t know if this is going to be psychological or horror.
We had an arc for Shideh as she’s a doctor at heart and she doesn’t believe in Djinn or evil spirits. And then it ends up just her and her daughter and she’s under immense pressure, and that’s when people give in. We enjoyed exploring her being so resistant and then beginning to believe.
One of the most intense scenes is when Shideh flees from her apartment building and she’s arrested. You have all this supernatural horror going on and then suddenly you ground it in reality.
That was on my favourite moments. It’s one of the first times she’s alone in the apartment and my thought was that’s when you’d run away. The problem is that she runs she’s forgotten to cover her hair and there’s still a dress code at this time. It was an interesting way of saying that even if you want to escape you can’t. That scene kind of happened organically.
It’s an oppressive scene. Throughout though, you have women to the fore. Men are secondary and such background characters.
It happened a little organically. We knew we had a lot of strong female characters and the story was essentially about a mother and her daughter. Actually, a friend of mine mentioned that all the men are in the background and I hadn’t really noticed, but I’m so glad it happened.
You really do seem to be playing with your audience. It’s a slow set up and then about two thirds of the way through there is an incredible jump scare that changes the tone. Many films seem to avoid what they see as a cheap trick but you embraced it.
That’s exactly why we did it. People always say they’re cheap and that it’s all about the atmosphere. But then I thought I’m just going to do it and I’m pleased people responded to it. Before that moment audiences seemed to be on edge of their seats because of the atmosphere and then we have this scare, and then people are expecting more of them.
And you use a lot of other horror tropes…
I always said to my producers that I was going to use a lot of horror tropes to lure people in, those who perhaps were less familiar with them.
There are lot of wide shots, where the character is to the left or right, but what you’re really looking at is what might be going on in the background. And you think you see things. A curtain moves or something. Is there anything like that in there or is it just the atmosphere of the film playing tricks?
Ha-ha, I’m not going to spoil it! A friend of mine did say that they saw a shadow in the background of one scene but there’s really nothing there. I’m glad it’s working!
It’s fashionable for films to be labelled as something these days; psychological thrillers and so on. It’s almost like films are embarrassed to be called horror films. But that’s what Under The Shadow is isn’t it?
One hundred percent this is a horror film and I’ve very proud that it is. I think the perspective is changing though. People can see it as whatever they want but for me it’s horror.
UNDER THE SHADOW is out now on Blu-ray in a feature packed Limited Edition box set, courtesy of Second Sight.