Maryam Keshavarz’s ‘Viper Club’ vividly captures mother’s nightmare

Maryam Keshavarz has been making waves as an independent filmmaker for more than 15 years. After directing her first short film, Sanctuary, she moved onto her award-winning documentary The Color of Love, about the changing political landscape in Iran and short film The Day I Died (the first short to win two awards at the Berlinale Film Festival). Circumstance, her first feature, premiered in 2011 at Sundance to critical and audience praise once again focused on modern life for a young Iranian woman (beginning a lesbian relationship as her brother becomes an Islamic fundamentalist). The release saw Keshavarz win several festival awards and receive an Independent Spirit Nomination. Her latest film, Viper Club, takes on yet another nuanced and challenging subject, the question of how the United States deals with international kidnapping of journalists. Susan Sarandon stars as Helen, the mother of an adult son (Julian Morris) and journalist whose been kidnapped by a terrorist group. Forced by government to remain silent in the face of ransom demands, she turns to her son’s internet community of journalists for support.

Lesley Coffin: How long was this film in development?

Maryam Keshavarz: It turned out to be a relatively quick process actually. I was doing pre-production on another film, I was in the midst of cast, and a good friend from Northwestern, Jonathan Mastro, came out to LA. We’d be talking about writing a script together for a while and I think we started writing at the end of 2015. So that’s pretty fast for an indie to get off the ground.

Lesley Coffin: Had you co-written a script before?

Maryam Keshavarz: I had, but not one that had been produced. I actually have two films that are in the revision stages, one about the political-judicial system based on the story HBO made a documentary about called Hot Coffee. And a film called The Last Harem, about a king who falls in love with a cross-dresser. Both those films are fictional stories based on real-life events. As you can tell, I’m kind of obsessed with that.

Lesley Coffin: Compared to working on your last film that you wrote alone, did you find it to be a big adjustment to collaborate on a film with a co-writer?

Maryam Keshavarz: The two projects were so different they really required me to take a different approach. Circumstance was such a personal film, I can’t imagine having a collaborator. But this was a research-heavy film, as are the two I mentioned. And knowing before we start writing that I’ll be directing the film means I know the approach I want to take and all my collaborators are going to help me clarify that vision.

Lesley Coffin: Why choose to tell stories which are inspired by actual events, stories we heard about in the news, but not make films based on a true story?

Maryam Keshavarz: For me, that difference is key. I love the documentary form and I expect documentary to take that approach, although that’s changed recently. But the narrative films I make, although based on real events, they are also very personal stories and focus on themes I want explore. It wasn’t long after Sandy Hook that I started working on this film, there was violence in Syria we saw on the news every day. So we were interested in exploring the themes of violence, and how we react to violence here verses violence over there. And this was also around the time of the election, when so many people felt disillusioned by their government, that they’d essentially be abandoned by their government. It’s what Bernie and Trump spoke to, the forgotten Americans. And telling this story, we wanted to focus on one woman’s journey who feels she lacks the economic mean or connections to change her nightmarish circumstances. So going into the fictional realm allows me to filter all these themes into a story I wanted to tell. I grew up with a dad who was a doctor in a low-income clinic and brother who’s an ER doctor, so I saw a lot of violence coming through those doors. Jonathan was raised by a single mother, so he really wanted to focus on that aspect of the story. We’re narcissist who like to explore our own preoccupations, and the fictional world allows us to do that.

Lesley Coffin: Because of the research you did, what kind of promises can you make to the people whose story’s are being reflected?

Maryam Keshavarz: Doing all this research you realize how many people, from around the world and from many different professions, have had members of their family kidnapped. Our obligation is to be truthful in the emotional impact this experience can have on someone. Artists are very drawn to the real, difficult decisions people have to face. I was never in contact with actual families, but I was dedicated to always taking a nuanced approach and being truthful to the emotion and pain they went through, showing that this was a Kafkaesque nightmare to go through. I try to be sympathetic to all the characters, show that they’re in this Catch 22. Even the government officials, they are stuck in a system themselves. I can see why the government won’t negotiate with terrorists, the Washington Post came out with that article a few months ago writing that negotiating and paying ransoms will encourage terrorists to kidnap more journalists. But if this were your child, you’d want them to be rescued. The thing that gets to me is, if a soldier was kidnapped, they’d be rescued. But a journalist is considered someone putting themselves in harm’s way. And that felt very emblematic of how journalists are treated in the United States. They’re literally under attack by the administration, but journalists seem to be treated and valued very differently in Europe than they are in America.

Lesley Coffin: And now most journalists are freelancers without an outlet which will put their name and money behind their writers.

Maryam Keshavarz: Exactly. The character in the film is a freelance journalist and I’m a freelance filmmaker, and I’ve gone to countries and I put myself at risk to tell stories I believe in, but what would my parents have done if I’d been kidnapped. The journalists in this film are passionate and put themselves at risk, and do so without these big outlets to protect them?

Lesley Coffin: You have this concept of the Viper Club, which suggests many journalists have created a web of support. But we only get to really know the characters played by Matt Bomer and Sheila Vand. What aspects of journalism did you want their characters to shed light on for the audience?

Maryam Keshavarz: It’ so tricky, because you never want characters to feel like a mouthpiece. But I also wanted them to filter the concerns journalists have at this time. Regarding the character of Sam, Matt’s character, I wanted to show someone who’s gone through a lot and is still dealing with a lot of trauma. He’s a sort of reflection of her son. There’s also a French journalist in the film who was kidnapped and speaks of being kidnapped. And he tells of hearing the Arab journalists being tortured, to serve as a reminder that the journalist in the most danger are often the citizen journalist from that region. Sheila was a really important because she’s an Iranian-America. She’s something of surrogate for me, but she also has an awareness of the region and culture she’s covering Sam and Andy might not. She can literally serve as a translator. We literally see her speaking in Arabic in the film.

Lesley Coffin: Did you ever consider focusing on the kidnapping of an Arab journalist?

Maryam Keshavarz: We choose someone like Helen because we felt it was really important that the audience never leave America. Early on people asked me if we could go to Syria and I felt that would be wrong, this is a film about America. This is about American journalists and the American experience of feeling left behind. So to hit those notes, we need to focus on the image of a quintessential working-class, American woman. And this is about a white woman, but it was also very important to be nuanced and realistic in the world we created around her. It blows me away when films or TV shows have scenes set in hospitals and they’re entirely white. Have they ever been to a hospital? Hospitals are like the UN. They’re a parallel Viper Club, people coming together, there for each other as they face trauma.

Lesley Coffin: Why set the film over Christmas and New Year’s?

Maryam Keshavarz: Because my father died on New Year’s Eve and went into a coma during the holidays. My uncle was killed in the Iran-Iraq war during Thanksgiving. That time of year always makes me very emotional. When my father died, I got to the hospital after he died at about 3 a.m. on New Year’s Day. And it was so surreal to be mourning when everyone else is celebrating. I wanted to put in that juxtaposition of joy with extreme sorrow. It’s interesting, that whole period, because Thanksgiving to New Year Year’s is this time all about family. So it kind of speaks to the irony of Americans feeling forgotten, someone who finds themselves completely alone when we’re told it is a time all about family togetherness.

Lesley Coffin: Susan Sarandon is a great actress but also a very politically active person. Did you talk about the politics of the film or her character?

Maryam Keshavarz: She clearly responded to the script and we sat down and spoke and she knew my dedication. She knows I’m interesting in telling stories that shine a light on political-social issues by telling very personal stories. We primarily spoke about the character, she really connected to Helen. Maybe because she grew up Catholic, she understood that world and seemed to know more about Helen than I did at times. We talked about the toll keeping a secret would have on her. We talked about politics, but found ourselves often on the same side. I mean, she’s someone who goes to refugee camps, she stands up for what she believes.

Lesley Coffin: The visual look of the flashbacks feel very unique. The color palette has this rust tone, I thought there might be a filter but it isn’t trying to make things look ethereal or just nostalgic. What visual choices did you make for those scenes with Helen and Andy?

Maryam Keshavarz: I knew that the film would always feel like a place full of memories, she walks into her kitchen and just wants to see her son there. So we tried to shoot it like conversations are happening in the same space. There are times when the child’s in her bed or her son covers her with a blanket. The sense that someone has been there and is still there in her memory. I used the exact same lens for those scenes, but added this idea of a fleeting image. We used a similar lens but used a little effect in camera. Regarding the overall color, we wanted it to feel like she’s someone who didn’t updated her house, make it look like something decorated in the ’90s and really lived in.

Lesley Coffin: In terms of making a film that would resonate with Middle America, this film has a unique distribution model because of the partnership with Youtube. Do you think that will help it find that larger audience within that demographic?

Maryam Keshavarz: I love the fact that we’ll have a theatrical release with Roadside, which will have a different market, and then on Youtube, a company which has changed the fabric of journalism. They’ve changed where and who we get information from, created this idea of citizen journalism. Yes, you can see a lot about cats on there but it’s also been instrumental in Arab Spring and Green Wave, as well as capturing as things devolve in those areas. It can be this global, democratic platform. I’m sure there are a lot of people who would never see a film like this in the theaters but might catch it on Youtube, or vice versa.

(C) Lesley Coffin (10/18/18) FF2 Media

Photos: Viber Club (IMDb)

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