It’s not everyday that a debut filmmaker crafts a story so well that they are able to pull it off a second time. When it comes to writer and director Babak Anvari, the escape of a sophomore slump is the result of comprehending cinematic learning curves and steadily delving into variety. His first film, the Iranian horror Under The Shadow, took the community by surprise with its strong family drama and subtle, creeping terror that exudes quality storytelling. His latest film, Wounds, maintains that same level of calm intensity driven by emotional connection and otherworldly frights, before it leaves viewers to interpret a deeper meaning behind human relationships and body horror twisted together in such a dark tale.
Anvari was kind enough to share more details about making his second film, what it was like to work with a powerhouse cast, and what world he would like to dig into next.
“I wanted to twist something like [a relationship drama] and turn it into a Cronenbergian-Lovecraftian story”
Jessica Rose for Nightmare on Film Street: I loved Under The Shadow and I really loved how Wounds was completely different, but also had that same eerie feel to it. I understand it was based on a short story?
Babak Anvari: ‘The Visible Filth’ by Nathan Ballingrud, yes.
NOFS: What made you want to turn that story into a movie? What set Wounds in motion for you?
BA: Basically, after Under The Shadow, I was looking for my next project. I was pretty open. I wasn’t necessarily thinking that it was going to be another horror film or not. Then Christopher Kopp, the producer, came to me and my producing partner, Lucan Toh, and said, “I’ve got this novella called ‘The Visible Filth’ by Nathan Ballingrud and I really think Babak is going to like it.” I just read it blindly, not knowing anything about it, and by the time I finished, I was so in love with it. It just spoke to me in some ways that I can’t even describe. I fully understood it and where it was coming from. I knew exactly how to make it immediately. So, I said yes and went on the journey to turn it into Wounds.
NOFS: You did such a good job. It has gotten a lot of good reception too.
BA: Thank you. It’s pretty faithful to the original novella as well, which Nathan is pretty happy about. Obviously it’s a different medium, so I had to make some changes and add to it, but the core of it is pretty faithful.
NOFS: I’m a huge bookworm myself, so I think that’s great that you kept it faithful especially for author’s purposes. You have some pretty big names in Wounds like Armie Hammer, Dakota Johnson, and Zazie Beetz. What was it like working with a cast like that?
BA: Zazie a wonderful human being. All of them are wonderful human beings. It was incredible. After doing Under The Shadow, which was a very small film, I thought it was going to be a daunting experience to work with such a big cast at first. Once you get to know them and work with them, you realize that they are like anyone else. They were so supportive as part of the team.
Armie Hammer was the first actor I met on this. It was around the same time that Call Me By Your Name came out. I met up with him and said, “Look, I have this project, but I’m not sure if you’re going to go for it because you just finished this very sweet, sensitive, beautiful film and this is like a very crazy Cronenbergian film.” He said, “Send the script to me.” I sent it and 48 hours later, he emailed me and said, “Dude, you’re messed in the head. I’m in.” I was like, “Yes!” What I love about Armie is that he just loves a challenge. He always wants to push himself and he always wants to explore new characters and that’s what he did with Wounds.
I remember when we were on the set, the point I made to him was “I don’t think I’ve ever seen you playing this dark” and he said, “I don’t think I’ve ever done this dark before.” It was the same with Dakota. She obviously also loved the challenge. When I met her she had just come off of the 50 Shades franchise, so she was looking for different roles and different challenges. I was very honored that both of them came on board. Funny enough, with Zazie, as I was writing the script for Alicia’s part, literally as I was writing the script, I was watching Atlanta. I’m a huge fan of Atlanta. For her character, I even told my producer, I pictured Zazie Beetz as Alicia. So when I went to her and she said, “Yes, I’m on board” I felt so lucky and honored as well. I was imagining Zazie as I was writing her, so it was great to have her.
“I was very honored that both [Armie Hammer & Dakota Johnson] came on board.”
NOFS: They all worked really well together. Casting is so important for so many kinds of films nowadays.
BA: They’re all great. I can say that even though I had this amazing cast, it wasn’t a massive budget film. They were all so supportive, especially Armie. He’s in every single scene throughout the entire film. It’s all him and in his point of view, so I was so blessed that he had my back throughout and just worked so hard. I can’t praise him enough.
NOFS: It is pretty amazing that he is in every shot, but you don’t get that restricted feeling. That speaks volumes to your direction. It did have that Cronenberg body horror theme to it. Was there any other kind of artistic inspiration that you channeled in the direction of Wounds?
BA: Like everyone else making a film, I had a long list of inspirations, but my initial pitch was always that it’s a relationship drama that turns into a nightmare. It’s almost like a 90’s or early 2000’s relationship drama, like Reality Bites or Garden State. I wanted to twist something like that and turn it into a Cronenbergian-Lovecraftian story. Cronenberg was a massive influence. I grew up watching his films and remember being really fascinated and disturbed by his work. I think he’s a genius. I also like Clive Barker’s Hellraiser, so I wanted to give nods towards those films as well as David Lynch, who I, again, love like many filmmakers. I wanted to incorporate his use of imagery and weirdness. Nicolas Roeg was another big source of inspiration with his jarring, crazy cuts that shake you up and keep you alert and Lovecraft, obviously with the whole idea of cosmic horror. For me, this is a very weird Lovecraftian tale. It’s an average person who comes across something so beyond his understanding that it starts affecting him and turns his world upside down.
On the other side, relationship dramas like Garden State, Reality Bites, even Ingmar Bergman’s Scenes From A Marriage, were all influences because Wounds is about that dynamic between the characters. I love mixing genres as I did with Under The Shadow and with Wounds. I just love to take inspiration from everything that I enjoy and try to put them together until it tells a different story.
NOFS: I love that because sometimes inspiration is so in-your-face, but with Wounds it’s more subtle. That’s brilliant because those are all in there now that I’m able to reflect on it more, but on the first watch I was too busy enjoying it to make comparisons. I think that’s the perfect way to make a film.
BA: Thank you! I remember I used to say that I wanted to do the reverse of Garden State. If Garden State was about this lost man who finds himself by the end of the film, I want to do the reverse of it. It was like an ongoing joke.
NOFS: Fantastic. Did you find there were any challenges or particular struggles you had to overcome to make Wounds?
BA: Well, filmmaking is challenging, as everyone would say. Each day you come across some form of an obstacle, whether you’re running out of time or there’s a technical problem, but that’s a given. When you decide to make a film, you need to have a thick skin for these things and try to be a problem-solver as much as you can. I was so lucky to have a great team around me. That’s the key: when you have a great team, cast, and crew, you know that they’re there to help you if something goes wrong.
It was a huge learning curve. Every time I make a film, whether it was a short film when I was younger, or my first feature film and even with this one, every single one of them was a big learning curve. You learn on every film. The day you think you’ve got it all, that you’re so skilled, that’s the day you should quit because that’s not filmmaking. It’s all about learning and experimenting.
NOFS: That’s really endearing. Now that you’ve got two really good, solid films under your belt, is there anything that you want to tackle next or do you have anything in the works that you can share any information about?
BA: I have a few projects in the pipeline. It depends on which one is going to go. My third film may not be in the same genre space, but you never know. After Under The Shadow I thought I’d do a variety and do something different, but I came back to horror. I love horror films as a genre, but I also love all other genres. Like some of my idols, I’d like to show a bit of variety and experiment with different genres. At the moment, I have a war drama in the pipeline, which I’m really excited about. I’ve got a thriller. I’d love to do a sci-fi movie. It really depends on which one goes. Like I said, I love horror. Hopefully, I will come back to it again at some point soon. It just depends on if I find the right story to tell.
“The day you think you’ve got it all, that you’re so skilled, that’s the day you should quit because that’s not filmmaking. It’s all about learning and experimenting.”
Wounds is currently available to stream on Hulu. Are you a fan of Babak Anvari’s work? Have you seen Wounds? Let us know your thoughts over on Twitter, Reddit, or in the Horror Movie Fiend Club on Facebook