From the biography on his website: “Caveh Zahedi began making films while studying philosophy at Yale University. After graduating, he went to Switzerland to try to work with Jean-Luc Godard, but Godard refused to meet with him after he phoned Godard at three in the morning to offer his filmmaking services. Disappointed, Caveh returned to the United States and got a job trying to teach video to autistic children.
When fellow workers started mistaking him for one of the autists, Caveh quit his job and moved to Paris to try to raise money for a film about French poet Arthur Rimbaud.”
The story continues in both heartbreaking and amusing directions, and might be one of the most self-effacing biographies you’ll read about someone on their own website. It also proves that nothing can stop Caveh Zahedi.
He is the winner of an IFP Gotham Award for “Best Feature Not Playing At A Theater Near You,” the Rome Prize from the American Academy in Rome, and a Sundance Documentary grant. His films have won critical acclaim, yet they haven’t been widely seen. Each is autobiographical and fearless in the way they investigate Caveh’s idiosyncrasies and addictions, which probably doesn’t equal box-office success, but the film maker creates what is true to himself, and we like that quite a bit.
Caveh was good enough to speak with us over the last couple of months, and here’s what he had to say:
grippinglyauthentic: Let’s start with where we first “met” you, so to speak, which was the segment of Waking Life – Richard Linklater’s beautiful and ground-breaking film – called “The Holy Moment.” Can you tell us how you got involved with the project and how your segment was set up? Were you simply asked to have a conversation or was it scripted?
Caveh Zahedi: I got a package in the mail one day from Rick Linklater, who I’d met at Sundance in 1991 when we both had films in competition there. I was there with A Little Stiff and he was there with Slacker and we liked each other’s films and became friends.
The moment I got the package in the mail is actually documented in my 1999 year-long video diary film entitled In the Bathtub of the World.
In the package was a scripted scene as well as animation samples by Bob Sabiston, the head animator, to show me what it would look like. I loved the animation but I didn’t think I could deliver those scripted lines very convincingly. I explained this to Rick and he said “No problem, we’ll figure it out when you get here.”
So I flew to Austin and Rick asked me if there was something else I’d rather say instead. I said I had four ideas for things to talk about and he asked to hear them. I told him the four ideas and he said he liked all of them and that we might as well shoot them all and that he would decide later. We shot the four scenes in about half an hour and that was that.
He later used one of the deleted scenes for his own segment about Philip K. Dick. That scene (about a dream I’d had) was pretty much verbatim what I had said on tape, and he simply re-enacted it. If you listen to it carefully, you can hear the same verbal rhythms and inflections that I typically use. I thought it was a really good idea to put that scene in the movie at that point but with his character saying it.
The idea of the holy moment I kind of just made up, but the term is used in a slightly different context in A Course in Miracles, a “channeled” book that I was obsessed with for many years. In that context, it refers to a moment in which two individuals surrender their egos to what the Course calls the “Holy Spirit.”
ga: We’re not surprised that you talked about what you wanted to. You seem incredibly adept at being Caveh Zahedi, at stating your mind and being present, for better or worse. The performance felt spontaneous. What you were saying and how you said it, along with Sabiston’s ethereal animation, reminded us of those perfect little epiphanies we have when a degree of clarity enters our minds and we see what is truly important to us. We’d like to live in those moments, though it would probably be exhausting.
Experiencing someone on a level that feels authentic and sincere is always elevating, almost like a kind of high. Can you talk about some of your own epiphanies, when some piece of seemingly divine information opened up to you and maybe changed the way you saw the world around you or the way you lived in that world?
CZ: A lot of my epiphanies have happened on drugs. I was on LSD once and I “saw” a Buddha with a flower in his outstretched hand. And what I got from that was that “beauty” (symbolized in this case by the flower) is always available and right in front of you and that you don’t have to go looking for it – it’s right there in front of you!
ga: It seems that accessibility is an issue you constantly deal with, whether or not anyone will see your work. Admittedly, it took Richard Linklater to introduce us to you, and fortunately what we saw in Waking Life was compelling enough to inspire some investigation, to make us seek out your work.
You’ve collaborated with film makers who reach larger audiences with some regularity, whether working with them in creating a film or staring in their work. Is there some level of frustration you feel regarding the size of your audience?
CZ: There is definitely a level of frustration regarding the limited audience I’ve been able to reach. It may be that having a small audience is a condition of the type of work that I make, but I love a lot of films that reach a much larger audience, so I would prefer that.
One of my favorite filmmakers is Lars Von Trier, and he manages to reach a much larger audience without sacrificing depth or extremity or innovation. If I could have the filmography of anyone other than myself, I would choose his filmography (with the exception of his pre-Breaking the Waves films).
ga: Even when Von Trier makes a film that isn’t necessarily easy to “enjoy,” he seems faithful to his ideas and faultless in his integrity. These are qualities we appreciate in your work as well, admirable in a business where art is often turned into product, integrity traded for market appeal. Though Von Trier reaches a large audience in Europe, there’s still some strong resistance to a lot of his work here, especially because of the explicit sexual content.
Do you think your willingness to talk about drugs in your films is something that scares people?
CZ: I don’t know if my openness about drugs is holding me back from broader acceptance. In a way, it’s part of the appeal of my work, I think, since there aren’t a lot of filmmakers who are open about it.
I gave a talk on hallucinogenics recently – really just the autobiography of my drug use, and it was given at Pete’s Candy Store in Brooklyn – and it was pretty packed and people seemed pretty hungry to hear and talk about this stuff. It would certainly be great if there were an intelligent debate about drugs for a change, and I’d totally be interested in participating in that. I love marijuana, but I think hallucinogenics are the really interesting drugs.
ga: Does being a parent have any impact on drug usage for you?
Caveh Zahedi: My wife doesn’t like me to get stoned in front of our toddler, so it means there are fewer opportunities.
ga: As far as audience-friendly films, is directing someone else’s story something you would consider?
CZ: I would certainly consider directing someone else’s story if I loved it (which is rare). I once got hold of the last screenplay that John Cassavetes had written before he died, and I thought it was ASTONISHING. I tried to get the rights to direct it but I was unable. I would have loved to direct that particular script. But it’s probably the only one I’ve ever read that I was DYING to make. The directors, other than Cassavetes, that get me excited – Von Trier, Ken Loach, Lukas Moodyson, Michael Haneke, Frank Capra, Mike Leigh, Andrei Tarkovsky.
I recently saw a film by the Safdie brothers called Daddy Longlegs that I loved. Other films I saw recently that I loved are Head On by Fatih Akin (which is not terribly recent but which I only saw recently) and Precious by Lee Daniels.