I AM A SEX ADDICT WRITER-DIRECTOR-STAR CAVEH ZAHEDI.
Caveh Zahedi is easily accused of navel-gazing solipsism — the subject matter of his four feature films and several additional shorts is, first and foremost, Caveh Zahedi — but his inventive artistry and rigorous work ethic belie any notion that this method is too finite a canvas for a long career. Just as Hitchcock found dozens of diverse expressive forms within the thriller genre, Zahedi uses autobiography as a lens through which any topic may be considered. His latest and most wildly ambitious feature, I Am a Sex Addict, details, through reenactments and genre-deconstructing demolitions of the fourth wall, Zahedi’s own true struggle with, yes, sex addiction. A talented group of actresses take on the roles of his exes, while Zahedi plays himself from age 23 (with a sly wink at the absurdity of this convention) to the present. The film’s title, which Zahedi readily admits was in place before he’d really begun shaping the content, has an irresistibly exploitative bent that would do Roger Corman proud and alone is sure to expand the film’s audience beyond the hardcore fan base that has stuck by Zahedi through his previous features (A Little Stiff, I Don’t Hate Las Vegas Anymore, In the Bathtub of the World). Whether or not those drawn in for prurient titillation will be ready for the painfully frank, unapologetically peculiar and often disarmingly hilarious micro-epic that Zahedi delivers remains to be seen. All that is certain is that, whether he scrapes up $10 or $10 million for his next project, he’ll find a way to plow on. A true “independent’s independent,” Zahedi has proved a master of adapting to circumstances; any filmmaker might take inspiration and instruction from his example.
The last few days I’ve been rewatching all your films. When you put them all next to each other, they start to seem like fragments of one greater work, but then I thought it was a credit to you that I hadn’t previously thought of them as such. They all stand up so well on their own, and though you always deal with similar material, you invent a new perspective every time. To what extent are you making a conscious effort to never repeat yourself formally?
I’m definitely trying not to repeat myself. It’s partly organic in that I get really bored doing the same thing twice. For example, with the video diary [In the Bathtub of the World], I tried to do it again a second time one year later, and just couldn’t get excited about it, even though the format really lends itself to being revisited. I really liked what I had done, and actually thought it was better than the last one, but I just got sidetracked and was more excited by doing something totally new.
PORN STAR REBECCCA LORD AND ZAHEDI IN SEX ADDICT.
Your oeuvre is unique to the point that it seems to defy conventional description altogether. Though technically the bulk of your work might be documentary, I’d be reluctant to call it that.
I don’t really call it documentary either. I call it hybridization, I guess, when people ask me to describe my work. And I call it autobiographical, because that seems to encompass it all.
But I have this feeling when I watch your films that you’re not only the documentarian and the documentee but also in fact a performer. I think of you sometimes almost as a physical comic.
I do think of what I do as performative, but I see any performance as having a conscious and an unconscious element, so I feel both of those are operative, and I feel they’re both necessary for the film to work. I’m interested in the performance of everyday life. I think that everyone is always performing. Adding a camera definitely complicates the performance, but it’s a question of degree rather than an ontological difference.
Of course other people perform for your camera as well as you do, but there’s necessarily a different nature to those performances because you are the one in control of the camera and the editing.
Well, I tend to put people on the spot to elicit certain kinds of cinema-friendly reactions. And that’s one of the things that gets me in trouble with some viewers who find it morally questionable. But I guess I’m trying to get past people’s façades as much as possible, to get at something deeper and truer.
One of my favorite scenes in I Am a Sex Addict is when you step out of the narrative and show footage of yourself trying unsuccessfully to convince the actress playing Christa to perform a blowjob scene. The theme of coercion seems to come up time and again in your work.
I think life is really about negotiations, and that every act of will is a kind of violence. It’s very rare that another person wants to do exactly what you want to do, so you’re constantly trying to negotiate conflicting desires. Part of what I’m trying to dramatize and embody is that very complicated, constant process of negotiations that goes on, often in a very hidden way. Because people are either unwilling to express their desire in the face of another person’s desire, or unconscious of their actual desire. It’s almost a constant battlefield at every moment, of “I want this but you want that, so how about we do this other thing?” — “No, I don’t want to do that other thing.” — “Okay, how about just this one part?” — “Okay, just this one part I’m okay with, but that other part I’m not.” And I think filmmaking is like that, too. Every day we don’t get what we want, and we constantly have to process and deal with that grief. And try to get to a place of acceptance. I think that’s actually the main theme of my work. I have a film project called A Portrait of Caveh Zahedi as a Complete Failure that sort of addresses this directly through the form of an A&E Biography parody. I started it and shot some stuff, but it’s kind of on hold now. It’s not a project that I’ve been able to get any money for, so it’s something I just do when I can. A lot of the work I do now is really dictated by economics.
ZAHEDI AND HIS CAST AND CREW ON THE SET OF SEX ADDICT.
It does seem extraordinary for any American filmmaker to have completed four features, not to mention all the shorts, without a reliance on the traditional bankable elements. How do you approach funding?
You know, with great wailing and gnashing of teeth. I don’t know, my first film was student loans, the second film was grants, the third film was really cheap, and the last film was one investor who for some reason really believed in me and the project, for reasons beyond just the commercial.
You’re very good at adapting your aesthetics to whichever particular constraints, financial or otherwise.
I think when I was younger I was more Napoleonic about it, and I had a lot of Waterloos before I figured this out. So now I do think a lot in terms of budget and time constraints and what’s realistic. For me the joy of filmmaking is really the joy of solving problems. How do you make something good with this, this and this, and without using that or that? It’s like a puzzle. I think the economic constraint is a good one because it’s actually a social constraint as well. It’s a constraint on the [filmmaking] language you’re using as well, and it keeps you from going off the deep end into what would be nonsense for most. I saw Me and You and Everyone We Know recently, and I really liked it a lot. I thought here was a fresh and unique voice that didn’t follow the mold and yet was completely entertaining and fun. I thought it was a really great example of what the future can be. I mean, it’s like a Trojan horse; she got a lot of good stuff through the gates of Troy on that one.
My worry about the Trojan horse argument is always, who is subverting who? Have smart insights been snuck through to the unsuspecting public, or have smart insights been deadened by the vehicle?
Yeah, but I don’t think it’s a question of who’s subverting who. Both sides are being subverted mutually. And there’s a third thing created which is a non-authorial synthesis that happens at the level of language or culture, which is in a way more interesting than either the authorial intention or the social recuperation mechanism. It’s like when two ant colonies have a war, and each has their own architectural aesthetic, and when one of the ant colonies wins the war, the architectural aesthetic of the new ant colony becomes a melding of the two different aesthetics. So both sides lose in a sense, or both sides win, depending on how you look at it.
You give a monologue at the end of I Don’t Hate Las Vegas Anymore wherein you offhandedly mention that your next project is going to be about your sex addiction. That was in 1992. What’s it like to live with something so long, and how intimidating is it to finally have this long-incubated film come to fruition?
“Intimidating” is a good word. So many years went by and there was so much pain and frustration and repeatedly-dashed hopes, that by the time the money actually arrived, it was really terrifying. The stakes were a lot higher than if I had just gotten the money when I wrote the damn thing. [laughs] There was a real struggle with fear of not being up to the challenge of what I had hoped the film would be... There were four different sets of producers at different points who all had options on it but failed to raise the money. And there was one producer who would only do it if I could get a name actor, so I think a year or two was spent just trying to get a name actor to read the script. That was its own complete nightmare. We sent it to Robert Downey, Jr., Vincent Gallo and Harmony Korine. And I was also trying to get Chloë Sevigny, because I thought she and Harmony would be convincing as a couple for the middle part of the film. I tried to get Steve Buscemi to be in it. Chris Eigeman I tried to get. But it was all very frustrating because I didn’t even want someone else. I just wanted to play it myself. It seemed like it was a bolder and more artistically profound statement to actually act in it myself.
It’s hard for me to picture someone else playing you.
I talked to most of them and most were very nice, but they all passed. And some said, “You know, you should do it yourself.” And I said, “I know I should, but these producers won’t go for it.” And finally it all fell through and the producers dropped out and I had no choice but to do it myself. So I actually tried to do it in 16mm about eight years ago, and I scraped a few thousand dollars together to shoot just a few scenes. It’s a long story, but everything went wrong and I ended up having to give up my apartment in L.A. where I had shot the scenes, so all the footage I shot became useless. I basically just gave up at that point. And then several years later I got some money to do it, but the budget restraints were such that I had to rethink the style of the film. And then it took three and a half years to get it right. It’s a tricky film.
Were you editing as you shot over those years?
Yeah, I would shoot a few scenes and then edit those scenes. And then I would reshoot whatever I wasn’t entirely happy with (which was usually almost everything I’d shot), and then reedit once again, etc. I thought that would be the optimal way to make the movie work, but it had a lot of downsides which I didn’t realize until later. Actors age, get deported, gain weight, leave town, lose interest, cut their hair. It was very hard to get continuity to work. And you can get really obsessive about fixing every flaw for a scene that you might not even end up using. We’d shoot a scene over and over and over and then finally just throw it away because it didn’t even fit.
There are some phenomenal orgasm performances from you in the film. What was your approach going into those?
Well, I’m just trying to [laughs] have an orgasm on film. And I was trying to have it be funny, and maybe I overdid it a little. I guess I think an orgasm is one of those kind of hidden truths. When I was younger I used to look at people on the street or subway and try to imagine them having an orgasm, and it was always very humanizing. It’s a very vulnerable thing, it’s a very ecstatic thing, it’s a very extreme thing. It’s a very uncontrolled thing where one’s facade is really let down. Also I think the orgasm is an objective correlative for what the whole film is. I guess I feel like what’s beautiful in art is excess, something irreducible that can’t be contained by the frame or by the story, and an orgasm is the perfect metaphor for that.
With sex scenes, an audience’s natural inclination can often be to react only with either titillation or discomfort, depending on how the scene is done. Neither of which necessarily serves your dramatic purposes. Was that a worry?
No, I was really looking forward to those scenes. It was important for me to represent sex in a non-titillating, non-pornographic and non-Hollywood kind of way. To show it in its awkwardness, its bumblingness, its humor and true strangeness. Because the film is so stylized, that came across in very odd ways rather than naturalistic ways. And yet that was definitely what I was going for — the truth about sex, I guess.
Do you feel your films invite hostility from the mainstream?
I think I’m confronting people. There’s a certain series of norms in our culture that tell us what it is to be a good human being, and my films embody a refutation of a lot of those ideas, or at least a dramatization of a possible refutation. I think a lot of people respond on a real visceral level when they feel threatened in their deeply held assumptions of what is good and true.
Although Sex Addict contains frank and difficult subject matter, it feels like you’re attempting to woo a mainstream audience. There are a lot of very friendly flourishes, such as the music and the animation sequences.
Accessibility becomes more and more of a concern for me. For Sex Addict, because the subject matter was so harsh, and what I was asking people to accept was morally dubious and borderline unacceptable, I felt I really needed to palliate that with a friendly style. It’s like that line by George Bernard Shaw: “If you’re going to tell people the truth, you’d better make them laugh or they’ll kill you.”
Is Sex Addict more truthful than your other work?
One axis of it is more truthful, and one axis of it is less truthful. In order to pull off something, you have to give up something else. It took years for me to find the balance that was acceptable to me, where I wasn’t selling out completely but also making a film that people could stand. It’s not the film that I would make just for myself, because I have a very high tolerance for what others would consider morally excruciating.
I like what you said about the different axes of truth and lies. Movies seem to be inherently a confluence of truth and lies at every moment, and to suggest that there’s a calculus to it, that by opening up one end you have to dilute it on the other, has a certain straightforward logic to it that I think sounds right. Personally, I’m interested in shifting the axes each time. Finding another way to be truthful and another way to be dishonest.
If you did have your absolute druthers, what kinds of films do you imagine you would make for the next 10 or 20 years?
If it were up to me, I would make films that push the language of film as radically as possible, but also as playfully as possible. I mean, I’m really interested in films that are entertaining. But I love extremity as well.
Sex Addict deals with therapy explicitly, but all your films involve your character seeking one kind of catharsis or another. Do you feel like filmmaking is an effective form of therapy?
Film is such an intentional act and requires such manipulation and self-consciousness that its therapeutic function, for me, is never at the level of the issues that the film is ostensibly about — in this case, my sex addiction. For me, the therapeutic function is always at the level of the eternal combat that one is engaged in between one’s desire and one’s actuality. The struggle with the demon or the angel of the self and of art is always what it’s about. This film was incredibly healing for me not because of the sexual issues it raises, but just because of the incredible challenge of trying to make anything. And somehow making it and putting it out in the world with all of its limitations and being able to say, “I did this, and this is my self-expression.” Being proud of that and able to embrace it — the catharsis is at that level.