For a film about letting go of rigid beliefs, it was only appropriate that Sara Zandieh wanted to let loose in her first feature “Simple Wedding” after naturally gravitating towards a more avant grade trajectory while attending Columbia School of the Arts.
“I was having a moment where I think my early shorts were a little higher art and I really wanted to make something as broad and accessible as I could be,” says Zandieh, whose lovely debut recently premiered at the Los Angeles Film Festival.
Of course, there’s an art to making a crowdpleasing comedy as well and on that score, Zandieh already appears to be something of a virtuoso, finding both big laughs and clever cultural observations in this raucous family comedy centered on Nousha (Tara Grammy), an Iranian-American attorney whose parents have become increasingly frustrated that she hasn’t found the right person to marry.
With her thirties just around the corner, Nousha’s mother (Shohreh Aghdashloo) scrambles to set up dates with little hope of panning our, but a protest against the patriarchy at City Hall with her married friends (Aleque Reid and Rebecca Henderson) proves to serve as the setting for an unexpected meet-cute with a conceptual artist/DJ named Alex (Christopher O’ Shea), who charms her by being so radically different than anyone she’s met before. Soon, she and Alex are trying out the faloodeh together at Saffron and Rose Ice Cream on Westwood Boulevard, but while he’s eager to learn more about her heritage, Nousha’s hedges on having him meet her parents, unsure of what they will think. Nousha’s right to worry, but not for the reasons you’d suspect as both Alex and her parents lobby for an immediate wedding when the latter discovers she’s living in sin and as exchanging vows gets closer, the less sure Nousha becomes of making a commitment after just a five-month relationship.
To capture the whirlwind romance, Zandieh brings a zippy energy and great cast to “Simple Wedding,” making a real discovery with its dazzling star Grammy and surrounding her with a strong ensemble that grows to include Maz Jobrani as Nousha’s uncle, Rita Wilson as Alex’s mom, Peter Mackenzie as Alex’s father and James Eckhouse as his new husband, and besides balancing out all of their individual stories in satisfying fashion, the director, who also co-wrote the film with Stephanie Wu, shows a disarming wit when considering sensitive issues of age, gender and ethnicity in provocative ways. Shortly after the film won over audiences in Los Angeles, Zandieh spoke about how her own personal story blossomed into something more universal when developing “Simple Wedding,” earning the support of Wilson and Aghdashloo both onscreen and off and how meaningful it was to bring together an audience of all different demographics for the premiere.
I just wanted to do my take on the romcom. The first draft of this screenplay I did six years ago in my parents’ basement, and the story is [somewhat] based on a relationship I had with my partner for six years. I’m Iranian and he was a progressive white guy from Vancouver and we wanted to represent ourselves because we felt it was fresh and new and something that we hadn’t seen before [onscreen], so I started writing it from a really personal space. Then over the years, it moved farther from me. I started hearing stories of multicultural relationships and I talked to a lot of Persian cousins and friends who came from much more traditional families where if you’re 30 and not married, it was like the families are freaking out, so I started to enlist their stories because it was more dramatic. In the movie, the Iranian family is really conservative, and my family is much more secular, so it just evolved over the years into this.
While Nousha’s family is conservative, one of the refreshing qualities about the film is that their objections isn’t to the guy she brings home, but that she isn’t necessarily looking to marry him and they don’t flinch when he introduces his two dads. Were those types of adversarial relationships that have been in so many other films easy to resist?
Yeah, it’s what makes this movie nuanced because I couldn’t honestly demonize the Iranian family because that’s just not what I see. In this movie, [the parents] want Nousha to be with a Persian guy – and that’s not going to happen. So [they say] if you are going to be with a white guy, do it our way – and get married before you live together and they’re compromising on some things, and a lot of the Iranians, [and more generally] conservative immigrants, are really adaptable and just trying to hold on to some semblance of tradition.
I found Tara through a friend of mine. I was directing this TV show and my producer at the time [asked], “What are you doing next?” And I [told her], I want to make this romcom/family comedy and I’m looking for an Iranian girl who’s a comedian. I was thinking about Nasim Pedrad because she’s the most visible from “SNL” and she said, “Nasim Pedrad is really great, but have you heard of Tara Grammy? She’s a theater actress, but she really wants to break into TV and film.” So I met up with [Tara] when I came to L.A. and she wanted the role and she loved the script and loved the project and loved me and I loved her, so I cast her in a reading of the screenplay.
After that reading, I felt good about it, but I wasn’t 100 percent sold that she was Nousha, and she could feel that, so she had this one-woman show called “Mahmoud” which is a comedy and she plays all these different characters and she wanted me to go see it at the Santa Monica Playhouse. Right before she went on, she texted me, like “Are you here?” And I said, “Yes,” and when I saw the show, I thought “This is Nousha Husseini” because she’s brave and funny and what I saw in that show is she cared about the same things that I cared about and the message of the movie, which was that love is greater than all of us and it goes beyond any cultural, religious, socioeconomic difference, was aligned with her work.
So there was just a connection there and then she started playing me essentially. [laughs] She became my alter ego and again, this character is different from me, but she started wearing these hair ties that I wear and talking a little bit more like me. [One day] I told her, “I like your hair tie.” And she’s like, “I know. It’s what you wear.” [laughs]
Did you know she could do a great Celine Dion impersonation, which comes to play a major role in the film, or was that already in the script?
The last part of the script process was tailoring the script for Tara, so before she came into the picture, the character was a little bit different. She was more of an ugly duckling character and [typically] once I start casting, I start to tailor the character and a bit of the dialogue to them so it feels absolutely natural. When I started adapting the role of Nousha more for Tara, she had this character reel with a bunch of impersonations on it and she had a Celine Dion impersonation on it, so I was like, “That’s going in the movie!” So I wrote it in, based on something she did already.
She came to me through Rita Wilson, who was my casting director’s idea [because she told me] Rita loves multicultural love stories – it’s her own personal family story, so [my casting director] was like, “She might totally dig this” and the role is for a middle-aged woman who finds love unexpectedly later in life after a divorce and she meets a younger man, so it’s a good role for a woman her age. We sent her the script through her agent and she loved it and she set up a call [where] she got a sense of who I am and I think our conversation really assured her that she’d be in good hands and she was basically like “I’ll do it if Shohreh does it.”
[Rita] called Shohreh and told her about me. They’re such good friends and they also wanted an opportunity to work together, so they were both excited to be the respective moms in the movie and when Shohreh and I met at a hotel, she was [immediately] like, “I’ll do it.” She liked what I was trying to do, showing an Iranian family that is funny and adaptable. They’re traditional, but they’re not extremely religious and I think she found a more lighthearted depiction of an Iranian-American family necessary because all we see are these demonized versions of us in the news.
It isn’t just well-written, but you’ll also often make the camera part of the comedy – there are some great moments where there’s a choice zoom or the camera will move with a character, like when Nousha’s is trying to scramble away from her friends in her apartment after an embarrassing moment. What was it like figuring those moments out?
I had a really interesting shotlist when I started, but I was shooting eight to ten pages a day and when you have to move that fast because of the budget, I felt I was cutting a lot of the interesting shots I had planned out. Luckily with comedy, you can do that because comedy can play in wide easily, but I love playing with an active camera and when I had time, I tried to play with foreground/background a lot. I really liked these two shots where people are stacked through the frame and I think it can be so theatrical and interesting and really add to the comedy and the drama. My [cinematographer] Ziv Berkovich, who was fantastic, tried to execute our shortlist as much as we could – like the shot you’re talking about or the theatrical wide where [the family is] getting ready for the wedding rehearsal and Shohreh is pulling everybody into frame from out of frame – those were things that we talked about a lot, [as well as] also getting in close and moving with the character in the more emotional, darker [scenes] and change the language a little bit.
Because of the schedule — and there’s not one but two weddings in the film, did you have to shoot multiple weddings on a single day?
We did two weddings in two days, I think. [laughs] But it was crazy.
We did get a little bit of grief because of the paper mache penis structure. [laughs] [The people at the location] were worried about that, so that ended up getting cut [slightly], but ultimately we got the greenlight. Describing what we were bringing was pretty awkward, like, “We’re bringing a penis apron and a paper mache penis structure that’s going to be toppled.” [laughs]
Alex’s art is pretty wild as well – who was responsible for that?
Actually, my production designer and my art director designed all of the art and we had a lot of meetings about what kind of art he was going to make. It had to have this anti-patriarchy, feminist progressive outlook, but we also wanted the art to be a little bit bad because if it’s really good fine art, it’s just not funny. That’s also what made him a little slippery to Nousha – his art is a little bit slippery, and just [being] really out there and experimental, it made him even more different from Nousha, who’s a lawyer who’s [always] done what her parents wanted her to do, so it was really to play off of her [as well].
It was quite something to see people line up for the premiere at L.A. Film Fest since it looked like you were about to throw a traditional Iranian wedding inside the Arclight with everyone so well-dressed. What was the night like for you?
The premiere was wild and there was a big Persian audience, so when they show up, they show up glam. They were dressed to the nines and it did feel like a wedding. It was so funny, but so electric and and Rita and Tom [Hanks] came, and he was just really there to support Rita, but it was just surreal. And having my grandmother and my aunts there with my cast, it was just so fun and so special. Honestly, this whole collaboration was so loving – my cast and my crew, and it was just pure joy. It was very friendly and it had a good energy to it on set and the best part of sharing this movie [now] is that I had my cool kids crowd from film school who were in their twenties and thirties who can enjoy the movie alongside middle-aged and older people because I think everybody can find their own emotional association with the film and I love that [this film] can have such a multigenerational audience that appreciates it in their own way.