Caveh Zahedi’s films are cerebrally feral, audacious, and dizzying in their moral complications. Maybe our most autofictional filmmaker, he’s achieved renown and notoriety for In the Bathtub of the World, I Am A Sex Addict, The Sheik and I, and most recently The Show About the Show. If you haven’t seen the latter, I couldn’t recommend anything more compulsively watchable and endlessly implicating. On paper, it’s a show whose every episode chronicles the making of the previous episode; in practice, it’s the thing that has permanently broken the blood-brain barrier between Caveh’s private and public life, spelled the end of his marriage, and imperiled him in a dozen other ways. And, it’s very funny. His admirers include Josh Safdie, Alison Bechdel, Lena Dunham, and Richard Linklater, who likens him to Walt Whitman.
He’s been accused of the same thing all auteurs are accused of: self-indulgence and immorality. Specifically, he’s been accused of neglecting his responsibilities to the people in his “real life,” of weaponizing a sort of solipsism masquerading as introspection. Caveh’s work of course centers on himself and while this may look like self-indulgence it’s actually the opposite: self-investigation. And this self-investigation leads simultaneously deeper inward and further outward.
Caveh is philosophical; Jacques Derrida wrote that he was “destined to a brilliant future.” His movies reflect this philosophical orientation and in fact the problem of other minds is a sort of through-line in his filmography. Look at how he shares the stage nearly equally with other people’s writing in Digging My Own Grave (a box set of all his films prior to The Show About the Show alongside a memoiristic essay from Caveh and tributes to him from those he’s inspired), the interviews with his father and brother in I Don’t Hate Las Vegas Anymore, his ex-wife’s appearances throughout several works, his exchanges with the curators in Sheik and I who commissioned the film within that film. It all points toward the uncomfortable idea that while we inescapably complicate each other’s lives, no one person is liable for the feelings of another – in the face of this fact, traditional notions of blame and responsibility seem to dissolve.
Perhaps his lasting achievement will be the way his long look at himself illuminates the borderlands between people, tracing the outlines of other selves which are as unknowable maybe as one’s own self is unreliable.
This interview was conducted over email and has been condensed and edited for clarity.
Caveh Zahedi: One of the things I think my films are doing is attacking normative notions of objectivity and espousing a radically subjective epistemology instead.
Michael Mungiello: What do you mean by radically subjective epistemology?
I was thinking of the first person (and therefore potentially unreliable) narration that starts with I Don’t Hate Las Vegas Anymore and continues in increasingly subjective and unreliable form through Bathtub, Sex Addict, The Sheik and I, and The Show About the Show in which the narrator’s subjectivity becomes increasingly questionable and the question of other people’s points of view becomes increasingly felt. Season 3 of The Show About the Show concludes with the (conflicting) points of views of other characters.
Has Season 3 concluded filming?
No. I’m still in production and will most likely be working on it for at least another year.
You were quoted as saying that the series would end like this: “There will be a lawsuit, I’ll lose, I’ll lose custody of my children, I’ll kill myself.” That’s a rather powerful statement and it led me to think of The Show in the context of being your ultimate project. So I wanted to ask if you saw it that way too: your ultimate project, not just in the sense of being (potentially) your last but also in the sense of being your masterpiece?
The Show is my ultimate project in the sense of being the culmination of my previous works. The Show could, in theory, go on until I die, and that may well happen. Or it may morph into some other form, albeit almost certainly a related one. Either way, it has always been part of my project to meld my life and work into one thing that would outlast me. And The Show does seem, to date, to be my most concise and eloquent expression of that melding.
Who are your guiding stars or twin peaks?
When you say twin peaks, I’m not sure that would be accurate, but – if Godard is a high mountain and there’s another high mountain in the general vicinity, it would be Tarkovsky.
Is there a difference for you between someone who’s an influence and someone who’s a high mountain?
I guess an influence has to do with where you’re coming from and a high mountain has more to do with where you’re trying to go. But where you’re trying to go is also an influence on where you’re trying to go.
I would add that if I were to think of my work in terms of other directors, it would probably be a cross between Woody Allen, Cassavetes, Godard, and Tarkovsky. But the director I feel personally closest to is Lars von Trier.
Those names make sense – particularly Cassavetes – in terms of how integral your actors are to the whole project. It calls to mind, though, that quote from Lars von Trier, from his conversation with Paul Thomas Anderson: “[Actors] are the only thing that stands between you and a good film.” Do you agree with that?
I do agree with Lars von Trier on that. At least, I know what he means. But the Cassavetes influence has more to do with the moral ambivalence of his characters, the lo-fi aesthetics of his work, and the embrace of Reality as it is. Lars von Trier is very similar to Cassavetes in all those ways, except that he has a more Brechtian conception of Art, which I would think he inherits from Godard.
Are there any young filmmakers that you feel could carry the torch of radically subjective filmmaking?
There are a lot of younger filmmakers whose work I admire but no one is leaping to mind on the radical subjectivity front per se.
Why do you think people might be wary about producing work from a place of radical subjectivity (or being incorporated into that work)?
I think most people believe in objectivity because it’s more comforting. It’s scary to live in a radically subjective world. Scary and also maybe more lonely.
I think people being wary about being incorporated into other people’s radically honest work is just their ego needing to think of themselves (and be thought of by others) a certain way in order not to fall into self-hatred. I don’t think it’s a viable solution to the problem of self-hatred, but it’s all most people have.
It also seems that people tend to oscillate between self-love and self-hatred when maybe the aim should be self-knowledge. Have you gotten self-knowledge through the movies? And, for you, is self-knowledge the more viable solution to self-hatred?
I do think I’ve come to know myself better through making the films. I think I started making films (when I was 18) as an antidote to self-hatred and the act of making them has led to a certain amount of self-love but, more importantly, to self-knowledge, which I suppose requires self-love as a sine qua non. So yes, I would agree with you that self-knowledge is the more viable solution to self-hatred, which is to say zero judgment.
For all the self-knowledge, the movies seem to reveal a lot about others too. I’m thinking especially of Sex Addict – making that movie, did you come to better understand the women you’d previously been with? Or sort of fall back in love with them?
I think making Sex Addict did help me to be more compassionate towards the women I’d previously been with but more at the scriptwriting stage than at the actual shooting stage. Although maybe again when watching it with an audience.
Don’t think I fell back in love with anyone though.
Was Sex Addict, emotionally, the hardest work to film?
The Show is much harder emotionally than Sex Addict ever was. Sex Addict was about the fairly distant past whereas The Show is essentially about the present. The emotions still run very high.
Sex Addict was triggering to make though, for sure.
What did it trigger?
It triggered lust!
I think part of what comes through in that movie is how much you loved Anna and how deeply you believed she was your soulmate. Do you know if she ever saw the movie?
Anna did see the movie. I sent it to her to make sure she was okay with what was in it and she called me on the phone, extremely upset. She said that her husband, who was a lawyer, would sue me if I didn’t take out her image and her name. There was all this Super-8 footage I had shot of her in college that he wanted me to remove. This was very upsetting to me because so much of the film is about authenticity and they were demanding that I reduce the film’s authenticity or else. So I reshot all of that Super-8 footage with an actress.
Does a reaction like that affect how you work on the next project?
Reactions like that don’t really affect how I work on the next project, other than to remind me to get release forms whenever possible.
In that case, I think it was mostly the husband’s discomfort with his wife’s name or image being in any way associated with a film entitled I Am A Sex Addict. There’s a certain idea of respectability in that gesture that I, personally, have trouble relating to. I, certainly, would not have reacted that way if an ex-girlfriend had made a film about her sex life – especially given how relentlessly idealizing that portrait was. But people are very different and most people value privacy much more than they value honesty or self-expression.
Speaking of privacy, have you ever felt your privacy invaded by fans of your work? In other words, have people ever presumed an overfamiliarity with you in person because they’ve seen your films?
I like overfamiliarity. It’s one of the best things about making the kinds of films I make. People feel they know me and, except when it translates into hatred, that’s usually a great thing.
Is there a misconception about you or your work that’s consistently come up in discussions about you that you wish you could correct?
I think the main misconception is that I’m amoral, whereas I just have different philosophical assumptions about what is and is not moral. Also, maybe, that I’m extroverted, which I’m not.
My personal perception of you is that because you’re able to capture your subjectivity in the movies, you’re able to move on with life or have a “roll with the punches” attitude. You don’t seem governed by regret or melancholy or a focus on loss. Is that true?
I’m definitely governed by regret. It’s true that the filmmaking makes me less regretful than I would be otherwise, but regret is very natural to me. So is melancholy. It’s so hard to talk about these things truthfully though because one is constantly changing and so always in transition. I used to be more regretful and melancholy and focused on loss than I am now, but I still experience all of those things to a greater degree than I consider optimal.
Any loss or regret in particular? I ask because the movies make use of the past in such a way that even mistakes are redeemed through the act of transforming them into art which helps people.
Yes, that’s arguably why I make the films I make – to redeem the past. But no loss or regret in particular, and the older I get, the more I see everything as perfect and necessary just as it is, not in the sense of pleasant but in the sense of leading one inexorably to the place of growth that is right now.
Has the year of quarantine affected The Show?
The main way it has affected the Show is that BRIC was supposed to give me money for Season 3 right when the pandemic hit, and by the time they were ready to allocate their funds for the coming year, Aziz (the show’s executive producer) had quit working there and so they will no longer be funding the Show.
How were you able to fund it? Will BRIC still be airing it?
No idea. I’m looking for funding now. BRIC will no longer be airing it.
Has it interfered with your ability to shoot scenes/work with your actors?
I haven’t been able to shoot any scenes with actors so have just been writing and editing during the pandemic. Fortunately, there are many months of work to do that don’t require actors so it hasn’t slowed me down all that much.
Has the isolation been easy or hard for you personally? Have you felt alone?
It has definitely forced me to slow down and focus on the essentials. It has been growthful in many ways, but also lonely, so yes, I have felt even more alone than usual.
Regardless of how the Show ends, one day like everyone you will die. So much of your work seems to revel in the ecstasies of time, myth, passion, pleasure, and presence – when I think of your work, I think of vitality – and I wonder where you think that vitality and energy will go when you do die. You seem just as spiritual as philosophical – do you believe in an afterlife? If so, what’s that like? You’ve talked at times about seeing life as a sort of dream and I guess I wonder what you think happens when we “wake up”? And finally, as a man who’s loved and lost, do you believe there is a reconciliation of sorts after life – will those who you once loved forgive or understand you again?
I do believe in an afterlife but I also believe that death (like the body) is an illusion and I wonder (and I know this sounds crazy) whether death is in fact inevitable, i.e. isn’t it possible that “waking up” might involve transcending the body entirely (in this lifetime) without having to “die” first? As for my vision of the afterlife, I imagine it being not that different from one’s experience of life except non-physical. My guess would be that our consciousness continues and that it continues more or less where it left off. In other words if our life is a projection of our thoughts, our afterlife will also be a projection of our thoughts – i.e. assuming one manages to attain a significant degree of peace and joy in this lifetime, it will resemble an astonishingly happy dream. And yes, I believe that eventually everyone, whether in this lifetime or a subsequent one, will love and forgive everyone they have ever known. So you might as well get it over with and love and forgive everyone right now.
Michael Mungiello is from New Jersey. His Twitter is @______Michael_.