The Persian Version is the epitome of how "write what you know" can pay off.
The movie, written and directed by Maryam Keshavarz, is an epic story of family spanning generations and continents. A young Iranian American (Layla Mohammadi) is caught between cultures, recently learned she was pregnant, and has a rocky relationship with her mother (Niousha Noor). But when she learns about a family secret that's been buried for decades, the context helps her see her loved ones in a new light.
The plot draws heavily from Keshavarz's real life and her family's experiences in the U.S. and Iran. It's a fresh perspective, complete with pop music and gorgeous night sequences shot in New York.
But how did Keshavarz pull all this off, practically? There are different time periods, shifts in point of view, location shoots, and more. This all required deft storytelling and smart cinematography and direction, which paid off. After all, the film won the U.S. Dramatic Competition Audience Award at Sundance 2023, as well as the Waldo Salt Screenwriting Award.
We spoke with Keshavarz via phone ahead of the film's wide release. Dive in!
THE PERSIAN VERSION | Official Trailer (2023)www.youtube.com
Editor's note: The following interview includes mention of self-harm. This conversation has been edited for length and clarity.
No Film School: I loved your movie. I was bawling by the end.
Maryam Keshavarz: I'm sorry if I ruined your mascara. I tell people at the screening, "I'm sorry. I should have told you to wear waterproof mascara."
NFS: I know. It was definitely very emotionally effective for me. I think the mother-daughter dynamic was also just something that really affected me too.
Keshavarz: Oh, my God. So we all have difficult mothers. I think that's the takeaway from making my film.
NFS: So to go off that bit about the mothers and daughters and how fraught those relationships can be, can you talk about your development process on this story?
Keshavarz: I actually entered film because of 9/11. I had left behind academia when I saw all of the really horrible portrayals of Middle Easterners and Muslims in the media. I decided it was time for me to go into making images myself to try to change that. And that was the first reason I ever entered film.
I ended up making a short film with my friends when I was doing a program at Berkeley, and when 9/11 happened everything closed down. We made a film together. That film won me a full scholarship to go to NYU for my masters'. That's how I started into film.
Then, I made films and did TV shows. I think when Trump took power, there was all this anti-immigrant sentiment, particularly against Iranians and the Muslim ban. I felt like I really remembered why I wanted to film in the first place. I thought I wanted to make something that showed what it was like to be an immigrant in this country, particularly Iranian American immigrants, and show my experience here and experience back home in Iran. But I knew I wanted it to be a comedy.
So in writing it, I wrote basically write what you know. So I wrote from my own perspective about a family secret that was based on a true story. So it's more than semi autobiographical. About how this family secret revealing affected my family. But as I started to write it more and more I was like, I knew I wanted to write about my family. I come from a huge family, seven siblings, my parents and stuff. But as I was writing, I realized it's really my mother and I's story.
I continued to write. I realized that the two true narrators of the story are the mother and daughter because the mother is in this essence, the co-writer of the film. She came to America to rewrite her story. So I knew that these two characters would be the only ones who could break the fourth wall and be the true narrators of the story. That the grandmother who was in between these two is the one who reveals the secret. And so her story also gets folded in. So it ended up, I realized as I was developing it, it was really the story of these three women. All of the men and everything else had to become background or became the chorus to their story.
A lot of the writing process, a lot was discovered in the writing process.
'THE PERSIAN VERSION' Creidt: Yiget Eken/Courtesy of Sony Pictures Classics
NFS: It's amazing how complex the story is, with those point-of-view changes and the different timelines. So how did you arrive at ordering it in the way that you did?
Keshavarz: Well, I knew the secret would be the main big plot point in the story. And then the daughter trying to find out what the secret was. I knew that would be the main spine of the film. And I knew that the grandmother's story would be related to that. And then as I said, then the third story was the mother. So that, essentially, you have the spine of someone trying to find out the truth, and in finding out the truth, she has to interact with someone else's truth, which is the grandmother's. And then it becomes a story within a story. And when the mother decides that she wants to tell her own story. So it is a very complex structure. I actually teach screenwriting at NYU.
It's all the things I tell the master's level. I teach advanced screenwriting. Or I teach feature screenwriting often. And I joke to my students, these are all the things I tell you not to do. It's like children, animals, different timelines, different languages. It's so complex. But it's also not my first script. Besides making four features, I also write a lot for others, I do a lot of adaptation. So I write for a living.
So this structure just seemed right. I know it's very complex, but really at the heart of it, it's the story of three different women revolving around this secret. That's in essence what the structure is. But it is complicated. And of course, some of it was rewritten in the post process. We realized that the voiceover of Layla had to be changed somewhat more in the post process. And so voiceover and how it was used shifted a little bit more as we found the true story of the film, as we narrowed down the story even more.
'THE PERSIAN VERSION' Credit: Yiget Eken/Courtesy of Sony Pictures Classics
NFS: It feels like a really nice surprise and also just deepens the world so the impact of the ending is felt so much more. What was the most challenging sequence to direct?
Keshavarz: Honestly, it was all challenging. What was the most challenging? In general, it's very challenging to have a very epic story and still make it feel very intimate. So to really remember that you have to create the epic qualities, all the drone shots, all the wide shots, the aerials, all those elements. But at the same time, you have to feel very close to people. Do you know what I mean? So that was a challenge.
Then I felt a lot of responsibility in my mother's story because she entrusted me to make this film after for so many years saying she was like, we can't talk about this stuff. We have all the shame issues and stuff. Then, she finally was like, no, it's time for us to tell our story. So that was very hard. But I think probably emotionally the most difficult scene for me—it's a spoiler, but the mother goes on top of the well and decides that she might end her life.
She's such a young character, she's a teenager at that point. I asked my mom when I was writing a story, "What's the one thing you're ashamed of?" She said, "I'm ashamed of that moment in my life because I was weak. And for a moment I wanted to end it all." And then when I did it, I knew I had to change my story. I had to write a new story. I had to take the bull by the horn. I had to rewrite my life and decide to be a different type of person and take things into my own hands. It was really a seminal moment for my mother and her understanding of herself.
So in the film, I felt like that was a lot of pressure for me to show someone who felt so desperate. To show that she felt regret, and then to show that she makes a big decision and changes for life after that. That's a lot to show in one scene. A scene that has no dialogue. A scene with an actress who actually is 14 years old, who actually is from Iran, who has never acted before. An actress who has never acted before.
So it was a lot. I was very stressed that that wouldn't work. And then technically, another scene that was very difficult in the same section is when the mother stops time and everything freezes. That's also a very technically challenging scene. It's all done in one take with no cuts. It's a non-actor. People have to freeze and not move. Then we have to add in different elements like the red ball. All the things that are frozen in the air are added later. So that was a very challenging scene too.
Not to mention, the lunch where Layla tells everyone she's pregnant, that has 14 people talking.
NFS: The coverage!
Keshavarz: Around the table. It's very challenging to shoot 14 people talking around the table.
NFS: I also wanted to bring up that finale sequence where you have the slow-motion running and the hospital room intercutting.
Keshavarz: Oh, how fun is that?
NFS: That was part of where I was super emotional.
Keshavarz: I think part of the emotion also is how great that music fits. That's Mahsa Vahdat. She lives in San Francisco, Iranian from San Francisco. That song is so perfect because it's called "My friend, my dear friend, where are you" in Persian.
But you have a feeling that it's really about finding someone. The song is about finding someone, and you feel that even though you don't know the language.
So part of that is music. Part of it is, yeah, it's like a technically challenging scene because it's nighttime and there's not a lot of lights. We use just the existing lights of the streets and it's in slow mo. And as you know with slow motion you need, we did it at 96 frames. I think we did at 96 frames. So at one third speed you need three times more light, essentially. Right?
So it's really hard to do slow-mo at night without lights. We didn't have lights for that scene. So although we shot airy for everything else, we use the VENICE because the VENICE camera is able to shoot in extreme low lights. So we tested it. And so we used a different camera for those sequences and everyone was like, you can't use a different camera. People will be able to tell. I'm like, no one will tell, trust me. And it worked because we were able to capture that low light. And then of course I had to direct the actors of Hedwig is in the front and everyone's drunk and all of the direction aspect of it is there, too.
Director Maryam Keshavarz Credit: Courtesy of Sony Pictures Classics
NFS: What advice do you have for aspiring directors?
Keshavarz: What won me a full scholarship to school was a film I made with nobody who was in the film business. Like the film I made, Sanctuary, which not only won me a full scholarship to NYU, it was bought by the MoMA. I made it with my friends.
I signed up at the community college. I didn't know anything about film before. I just signed up at the community college, and I took some film classes. That's how I learned how to use the camera. My ex at the time had studied [cinematography], so she knew how to use it, but I didn't know anything. I cast my friends to me in it, and they were the crew. It was really just homemade, but it had a good idea. And so that shined through
Then, as you make your work, I would say make work with your friends. That's a great thing. And try to create that environment on your set. At some point in my career I thought, oh no, you have to be so professional. You can't have a feeling of family on set. And what I did with this film is to go back to the philosophy of my first film, that I should really feel like everyone on set's family, and then I trust everybody. They trust me.
That's an important feeling. And then the last thing I say is my film was delayed for two years because we got financing right before COVID-19 hit. Then by the time we got the budget together, COVID-19 hit and then they kept saying, oh, we'll be delayed for three months and six months and nine months and a year. We ended up delayed for two years. And at some point, you just have to make it. That's one thing. Sometimes you just have to do it even if you have very few resources.
The second thing is, you can always be preparing. In those two years, I prepared so much, I rewrote the script. I created books for every department so they can understand ... because there's different styles of the different narrators, right? The mother is like eighties and nineties pop music. The grandmother is spaghetti western and the mother is more neorealism Persian type of film. So it's very stylistically different.
I made books about styles. I made costume books. I made production design books. I had references of films. I made a beautiful pitch deck and lookbook so people could understand what I was doing.
I was making playlists. I knew I wanted Wet Leg before I shot one frame of film because I had heard that song and I was obsessed with it. And I wrote letters to them. We had no money. Please, the song means so much to me. I wrote all those... To Cyndi Lauper begging her. There's always work you can do is what I have to say. Don't wait till the day you're on set. That's not when filmmaking begins. Filmmaking begins years before as you prepare. Not just the script, but every element of it.
NFS: Is there anything you want to add?
Keshavarz: I also encourage people to also write—to know their own story. Look at their own life and their own communities as places to find inspiration and to find stories. Particularly people from underrepresented communities. There is an interest in what those worlds are like, and we have such a privilege as people who are from bicultural communities to put that forth for the mainstream society. So don't be afraid to mine that, too.