For this week’s Fast Forward Friday, we interviewed Iranian writer-director Tara Atashgah who lives in Los Angeles Her awards include Best Student Female Director from the DGA, a Student Emmy and an Oscar-qualifying award from the Cleveland International Film Festival. Tara was one of six writers honored by the WGA for the 2018 Feature Writers Access Project. With the same screenplay, Under an Olive Tree, she was also a finalist at the 2015 NBC-Universal Emerging Writers Fellowship. To learn more visit www.taraatashgah.com.
Q: What are you currently working on? Tell us about it.
Two things and I’m equally excited about both.
I’m re-writing my feature screenplay Under an Olive Tree, which is an ensemble story set in Israel and Palestine about hatred, love, revenge and peace. It’s inspired by true events and similar to the movie Babel. It recently received a recognition from the Inclusion and Equity department of the WGA, which got me excited and back to writing new drafts.
I’ve also been writing a spec TV pilot and bible called Affinity with another writer, Amanda Azarian. We’ve been working on it for more than a year now and are close to crossing the finish line. Woot Woot. Our story is a fantasy, drama, mystery about two estranged sisters who suddenly inherit a special power that forces them to work together and discover the truth about an “accident” that split their family apart. It’s really good and I’m not being biased. It’s a show I’d watch and would get hooked on. We’ve arced two seasons and have an origin story thought out for season three. I know writers normally focus on just the pilot script and a bible, but we just couldn’t stop writing.
Q: What was the inspiration and impetus for doing this project?
The inspiration behind my feature script Under an Olive Tree was the story of Ismail Khatib. He’s a Palestinian father whose 13 year-old son was shot in the head by an Israeli soldier. Instead of seeking revenge, Ismail donates his son’s organs to Israeli kids in need of transplants. Wow … It gets me every time. I was so moved by this that I started writing a fictional story inspired by Ismail’s decision. I wanted to share both the Palestinian side and the Israeli side. So in my ensemble story set in the heat of the Israeli/Palestinian conflict, Ismail and the soldier are only two of the four protagonists. Our antagonist is the news, the politics, the propaganda, and the separation wall that is being built between Israeli and Palestinian territories. There are different storylines happening parallel to one another and at the end, you see that everyone is in pursuit of the same thing… peace.
Q: Who are your artistic heroes – who have had an impact on you and your work?
There are a few, but I’d like to mention one. Bahman Ghobadi, a Kurdish Iranian director who grew up in a small town with no special advantages or opportunities and ended up being one of the greatest directors of our time in my opinion. He’s created A Time For Drunken Horses and Turtles Can Fly, both extremely emotional films about Kurdish struggles, diaspora and survival; starring non-actors and shot on location. His films, his style and his portrayal of Kurdish lives is groundbreaking. Seeing Iranian filmmakers struggle with government censorships and limitations, and yet finding creative ways to tell a story is very inspiring. As an Iranian director and a half Kurdish gal myself, I’m very proud and inspired by Mr. Ghobadi’s work.
Q: What keeps you motivated and inspired as an artist?
The most cliche answer and my forever source of inspiration, people’s life stories.
Q: What other projects would you like to tell us about?
I’m teaming up with my brother Orod, who is an exceptional writer with a ton of great ideas. We are in the early stages of writing a psychological thriller together , and that’s all I’m aloud to say about that. I’m also slowly editing two short films that I directed last year. One is an Iranian short film about a little Afghan girl and the other is an experimental, fashion, artsy, sexy film that I can’t wait to edit. It’s beautifully shot by my favorite cinematographer, Daniel Rink, who also happens to be the love of my life.
Q: What is one instance of knowing you are living in your vision?
Nothing grand, everyday activities. Waking up in a household of filmmakers, sitting at my desk writing or editing while someone else is working on a shot list or watching a movie or is on their way to set.
Q: If there were no barriers to entry, what is one thing you would be doing?
Mmm, I’d still be making films. I don’t mind the barriers though, I feel like conflicts and barriers have only made me stronger. It’s good to have them and fail 50 times and finally succeed when you do.
Q: What has been big your biggest obstacle in achieving your vision?
Needing food and sleep. Sometimes I wish I didn’t have to leave my desk to make food or to go to bed.
Q: What do you do to stay connected to your creative self?
I watch films, docs, interviews, read biographies etc … I’m also very nosy. I love learning about everybody’s drama and business. I like people watching and imagining life stories for strangers. I’m very observant of people’s behaviors and reactions and create entire character spines off of why he/she blinked. My mind is always creating stories. I’ve been like this for as long as can I remember. So I don’t really have to do much to “stay connected” with my creativity, I’m stuck with it.
Q: If you could let go of something that has held you back, what would it be?
Honestly nothing. I tend to say and do whatever I want without holding myself back. But holding yourself back isn’t necessarily bad. It’s human nature and an internal instinct. Sometimes I look back at the things I’ve done and I’m like, wow that was a little too “brave.” Finding a balance is good.
Q: What is your favorite piece of art?
A copy of an original painting from my great-uncle. My Dad’s dad and his uncles were artists and silversmiths. My Dad loved one of his uncle’s paintings so much that he had another Iranian painter, recreate it. It’s a pointillist style painting which is when you use small dots to paint an image. It’s of 5 men dressed in traditional Persian clothes and hats, sitting around a rug making kabobs and eating it. There’s a small dog close to the barbecue watching them.
Q: What person do you most admire, living or dead?
My mom and Oprah Winfrey.
Q: If you could be known and celebrated for one thing, what would it be?
I don’t want to be known or celebrated for it, but ending juvenile executions has been one of my lifelong goals and a legacy I’d like to leave behind. I mean death penalty is a barbaric enough act, but executing juveniles for WHATEVER crime they’ve committed, is just unacceptable. Unfortunately there are governments that still allow it! When I first heard about this I was so shocked and angry that I had to make a film about it. The short film is called For The Birds it is my portrayal of the last 15 minutes of Atefeh Sahaleh’s life; she was a 16 year-old Iranian girl who was publicly hanged. The film screened at film festivals around the word and won several awards. But ultimately I’d like to post it online and have a campaign against juvenile executions to go with it. I’d like to do what Participant Media does, screen the film, inspire audiences and invite them to partake in positive change.
Q: If you could describe yourself in one word what would it be?
Q: What is your guilty pleasure?
A Harry Potter movie marathon. I’ve only done it twice and dream about doing it again and again. The first time was after I wrapped a short film that I had worked on for a year nonstop all day everyday, so I rewarded myself. The second time was the day after my 31st birthday, which was a 1920s themed party. Whomever was drunk enough to pass out on the couch, stayed there for another day. We ate leftover food and cake, and binged watched all the HP movies.
Q: If you could sit down with yourself 15 years ago, what would you say?
I’d say YES to saying NO – 15 years ago I was trying to convince my Mom to let me go to America by myself to become a filmmaker. I said “no” to staying in Cyprus (the country) to study Graphic Design which was the “closest” major to film … umm nooo! Of course as you could imagine, my mother had reservations about letting her 17 year-old, rebel, daydreamer of a daughter fly to Hollywood. But being the amazing person she was, she trusted me, believed in me and eventually shipped me off.
Q: Where would you most like to live?
Santa Barbara. Funny story, so after I found my film school in California, I flew from Tehran to LA to SB. I stayed at a motel that night, woke up the next morning and was just blown away by how beautiful SB is. I was so excited to be living there and I called my Admissions Rep “Hi I’m here in Santa Barbara, which campus do I meet you at?” She said “oh, the six campuses in Santa Barbara are for our Photography students. Our only Film campus, is actually in Ventura” … So then I moved away from SB and have been wanting to return there ever since.
Q: What is your idea of success?
Getting to a point where you could raise your glass to your mistakes and failures and recognize that they led you to your achievements. Also being able to laugh at your embarrassing career moments. Those are my ideas of success and I hope it happens to me because I can’t wait to make fun of myself for a few awkward moments. Cheers.
Q: What is your idea of happiness?
Becoming an established writer and director. Bridging cultural gaps and impacting the lives of my audiences with my films. Moving into a house similar to my childhood home; big pool and a BBQ. Eventually creating a family with my cinematographer boyfriend (Honey, you’re stuck with me) and raising smart kids who will care about our planet and the people in it. Continue filmmaking even as a mom. Always writing, always directing and pushing myself to make better and better projects.
Q: Final Thoughts?
Yes, it’s something that I’ve been thinking about lately. Don’t compare yourself with another filmmaker and copy them just because they’ve had success with something. Everyone has a different route to success. Just because this person got into Sundance with a VR short or that person made a feature for a thousand bucks in their mom’s backyard, doesn’t mean that you have to switch to VR or make a low budget film at your mom’s; or both… a low budget VR feature at your mom’s. Just stay focused on YOUR work. What’s the goal? Picture it and then make your way back to today. What steps do you need to take in order to achieve that goal is what I think we should do. Don’t let yourself get distracted. Don’t waste your time thinking about other people unless they inspire you.