EoM senior interviewer Thomas Manning recently spoke with filmmaker Zia Mohajerjasbi about his feature film directorial debut, Know Your Place. In this discussion, Mohajerjasbi talks about his personal connection to the city of Seattle, Washington and describes why “no story is too small.”
The interview can be found below in audio form, as well as transcribed into written form, edited for clarity.
Thomas Manning: I definitely want to talk about the cast that you worked with here, because most of the central actors are young talent, and I think some of them have never worked on a feature film before. So why was this such an important element for you in telling a story that’s obviously very personal to your background?
Zia Mohajerjasbi: So yeah, pretty much everybody in the film had no experience acting, and anyone with prior experience worked on a short film with me as well. So that was kind of like, if you’ve acted twice, it’s because you were in that short film. I feel like given the sort of naturalistic style of the film, and the way the performances feel very grounded in a place and in a moment, and the dialogue feeling a bit off the cuff and things like that… it was important to me that we basically were working with folks that had less of a traditional background and more a relationship to the actual story we were telling, and the city that we’re shooting in. Because I think really to us, the bleeding heart of the story is something that just feels… we wanted it to feel authentic to the moment that Seattle is going through, and also kind of co-create a storytelling space where folks were able to represent themselves accurately, and hold everything together and tell that story together. So, part of it was also a matter of necessity… we didn’t have all the resources in the world to find who we wanted to cast, and frankly too the other thing is that there isn’t a lot of cinema starring Eritrean-American folks. And so, it was really kind of a venture into something new and telling a story with a new aspect of representation of American life and all of that.
Thomas Manning: With that brotherly relationship that’s at the center of the story, I love the way that the film depicts all of the ebbs and flows of that friendship at a time in their lives as teenagers, which is of course so tumultuous to begin with. So, was there any specific inspiration from people in your life or friends that you grew up with when you were crafting those characters?
Zia Mohajerjasbi: I think the boys themselves… so I’ve known them since they were about 10 years old – that’s when we made the short film – and when I was writing the film, I just had them in mind to play the leads. And so the relationship that they explored with each other through making the short, and then also just spending a lot of time with them and their group of friends outside of the context of filmmaking, just playing basketball together, grabbing some food together, hanging out with each other’s family and that kind of thing… I think the film really is a reflection of relationships that sort of are living outside of the frame. And so, we were able to kind of bring a lot of that dimension and nuance and layer and all of those things into the frame once the script was finished. In terms of my own experience, I feel like one of the things that the film does try to lean into is… like at the beginning, they’re a bit more aggressive with each other, the way they play and then… like the main character Robel is sort of not letting folks in emotionally. And so, it was important for me to show the dynamics of buoyant, or flexible, or sort of porous masculinity, like an identity that’s sort of still becoming something, and that isn’t calloused or moulded into a form of expectation. And so, I feel like because they’re at that point in their own lives, it was important to me to show that there is a very palpable emotionality and desire to express oneself. And in their friendship, Fahmi in particular I feel like holds space for that even though he’s talking all the time and he’s starting shit a lot of the time. But I feel like at the same time, he has this sort of emotional intelligence and saying like, “I’m always here for you.” And that journey very subtly opens towards the end of the film.
Thomas Manning: And so, in making a film about these small communities and neighborhoods within the city of Seattle, were some of these places that had never really been captured in filmmaking before?
Zia Mohajerjasbi: I’d say that’s fair, yeah. Just having grown up in Seattle myself, the idea was… Seattle’s gone through significant transformation over the last decade or so – there’s a lot of redevelopment, astronomical housing prices, so gentrification has kind of occurred all over the city en masse, and a lot of community spaces and just places that I used to meet people at, or got connected with people, started to just kind of disappear. And so the whole thing was kind of just like… Seattle, has been shot a certain way time and again, but that’s not really what it feels like when you’re just walking around the streets of the place, right? There isn’t always a view of the Space Needle wherever you are, that kind of thing. Because of the story we told and where we shot, I don’t think that’s been on screen in Seattle before. But at the same time too, the film does try to… I think we show that it is very neighborhood specific, but it’s also as they go along this journey, you sort of see it throughout the city and wherever they go. And then I think just in general too… Seattle, the way the built environment sort of interacts with the natural environment, it’s kind of interesting to me and it’s one of the beautiful things about photographing that place. I’m in Los Angeles now and I think about this stuff a lot, where it’s like you bring water to a place where you bring people, and then you plant the trees around where the people are, and that’s how you make it beautiful and livable. Whereas Seattle… it’s such a dense forested area, you sort of clean, clear cut everything, and then you put the city on top of that, and then the city starts to be encroached on again, so you have to keep cutting it back so it doesn’t become taken again by the forest. It was those kinds of little things… like the way the sidewalks get all messed up, the way… life finds a way everywhere there because of the water, the way the light feels a bit sharper and harsher because the air is actually quite a bit cleaner than a lot of cities that I’ve been in. So that was kind of the way I was looking at Seattle and trying to shoot this film.
Thomas Manning: So did you discover any new areas that you had never really explored before, or were most of these places that you were pretty familiar with?
Zia Mohajerjasbi: It was mostly places I was familiar with because I think it was actually the relationship with… I feel so closely tied to many parts of the city, and so the story was kind of born out of that as opposed to writing the story and then discovering the place later. I think that was one of the things too… it was important for me that the place actually held weight in this film, and it’s sort of part and parcel to the story. And, I think that’s just organically how the script kind of came to be. I was always imagining a physical location that would kind of hold the emotion of a scene and I would work with that.
Thomas Manning: As far as the cinematography, I know that you have a pretty extensive background in that arena yourself. So how did you work to combine your visual ideas for this film with the approach from your Director of Photography?
Zia Mohajerjasbi: Right, so [DP Nicholas Wiesnet] shot my short film, and that was the first project where I fully scripted something and then I stepped away from the camera. It was very freeing to know that because I had that visual background… we had a common language that we could start from and we didn’t have to talk around ideas so much. And then I think that allowed us to just make the leap into, “How do we tell the story the best way?” And then I just trusted all of the technical elements to him and focused on the performances and things. But basically, our approach to the cinematography was even though we were working with actors of relative inexperience, we did a lot of rehearsal leading up to production. So, the dialogue and the blocking was very second nature. And then when we got to our physical shooting locations, we were actually able to set marks. And then, because people were so dialed with the script and the cadence of the scenes or whatever, it took rehearsals to then nail the marks for the camera, but that we still had enough time to shoot with an intentionality for the frame. We didn’t have to keep the camerawork as loose as the performance to chase the performance all the time, if that makes sense. So it was very important to us that we had… [a] sort of beautiful, painterly aesthetic, and putting these two things together in a way that kind of elevated the emotional connection to the space through the photography, but that also was constructed in a way that allowed the performances to feel as loose as they needed to be, so that it felt very close and intimate to the characters.
Thomas Manning: I have visited Seattle before, but it was during the summertime. I haven’t had the chance yet to go at the time of year when the foliage is changing colors. But it looks like you shot a lot of this at that turn of autumn. So, what are some of the challenges of capturing that specific season and conveying the relative emotions?
Zia Mohajerjasbi: We got very lucky. I guess there’s two parts to the answer. Originally, I was planning like, “Hey let’s shoot in the summer,” but because of just production logistics and this and that, we kept getting pushed back and pushed back. And then autumn actually just started to make sense because it feels like the the close of something, right? And so, the light is softer on things, the angles are a bit sharper, the way the trees start to change. It’s beautiful for all the reasons I feel like so many people love autumn, and that felt like it actually augmented some of the sense of grief, or transition, or loss, or that sense of being unmoored that’s in the story. And I think in that way, the stars aligned for us that kind of helped us capture a bit more of that beauty aesthetically that augmented that theme. In terms of the logistics of that, we got so lucky because it was the driest autumn that I can remember ever experiencing in Seattle for my whole life. So, we shot… we started on October 6th, we wrapped I think the day before Thanksgiving… we shot over like six or seven weeks or something and there was never a day we actually got rained out. We would shoot for four or five days, and then the days that we took off were the days that it rained, and then we would come back and everything would be all dry for us… So, weirdly that year there was fog, almost like bay area levels of fog on a few days, and we got fogged out. But other than that, we got very lucky with the weather.
Thomas Manning: The musical score from Richard Skelton also really stood out in a lot of those moments with the beautiful scenery. So how did you coordinate together to get the sound that you were looking for in those moments?
Zia Mohajerjasbi: So, I think generally our editor Marty Martin was a big part of this conversation too, just having spent so much time with the footage and also cutting to placeholder music and this and that. One of the main things, we decided early was that because it’s this sort of… I guess you’d call it like a neorealist kind of bend to the style of the film – we were never really of the mindset that we would lose score to augment performance or put it heavily behind dialogue or things like that. The score is almost used as the voice of when we just cut more to environmental spaces and we sort of transition between things. And so that was just of lot of Zoom calls, he’s based in the UK. And what we really liked with his work was that there is a richness to it, but it also felt like the right pace for what we wanted to go for it… it wasn’t overcomposed. The themes were very subtle and sort of layered within sound bed and the chord structures and things, and then there’s these little flourishes that kind of rise above that. But we didn’t want the music to feel like it was telling you something additional. We wanted it to sort of layer into what we were already giving you with the story of the image, if that makes sense. So, I think working with Richard in that way was super helpful because he had also written a number of his own EPs and things that were inspired by the countryside in Ireland and things like that. The landscape of the UK is kind of similar to Seattle with the green and the trees and the rain and the gray clouds and all that. So, it just felt like a very easy way of getting acquainted with the space and all that. That’s kind of how that came to be.
Thomas Manning: And did your background in music videos inform any of your mindset in blending the sights and sounds, or is that kind of just a completely separate part of your brain that you’re working with there?
Zia Mohajerjasbi: Interestingly, I feel like the music videos that I shot… they informed some of the cinematography and color and external things that I like that I brought into longer form storytelling. So, in that way, I think there’s definitely a relationship. And also, just the way that I would let it go about things just in terms of, “What is the mood I like to keep on a set?” Those were all the things that I feel like I learned with short form music video that came over. It’s sort of like those experiences were foundational. It doesn’t feel like it’s a different part of my brain at all. It feels like it’s just kind of part of the lineage of the whole thing.
Thomas Manning: Going back to the general idea of this movie being so intimate, I know you’ve said before that “no story is too small.” So, I’d love to have you share a little bit more about what that means to you internally as a person, but also externally as a filmmaker.
Zia Mohajerjasbi: That’s a good question – I feel like that continues to evolve for me. I feel like this idea of “no story is too small” – I think that however many people there are is how many stories exist, sort of how I see it. Concerning ideas of representation in cinema and concepts that inform that, I think in a broad way, we still are lacking a sense of nuance and dimensionality in that conversation. So I think when I subscribe to that belief of “no story is too small,” I think we can continue to go further and further and further with how specific we can get with stories, how we tell stories, how collaboratively we can tell stories, where we look for stories, what we choose to listen to, how we interact with stories, and how that over time accrues and changes our perception of what is a good story or how stories should be told. So, I feel like, “no story is too small” is also about, sometimes in an interesting way, is like painting things with a broad brush. Sometimes it becomes harder to see yourself in it, even if there’s people that look like you, or maybe some familiar elements of something. I think sometimes the more specific we can get, the more I think it actually gets to the heart of what it feels like to be alive, whether or not the experience of the person whose story you’re witnessing lines up with yours or not. There’s just something about that, of getting smaller and smaller and smaller sometimes can feel like it’s more immediately relatable. And the stakes of stories are never bigger than life itself, and it’s not always about the world about to explode. That’s kind of the general idea.
In this debut feature by writer-director Zia Mohajerjasbi; Robel Haile, an Eritrean-American boy of 15, embarks on an errand to deliver a huge and heavy suitcase across town destined for a sick family member in his parents’ homeland. He enlists the help of his best friend Fahmi Tadesse, when an unexpected turn transmutes his simple task into an odyssey across the rapidly gentrifying city of Seattle; navigating directions to make his delivery on time, along with the challenges of familial responsibility, self identification, and dislocation amid the ongoing redevelopment and economic displacement of the only community he’s ever known as home.
Screening during Santa Barbara International Film Festival 2023.
For more information, head to the official Know Your Place website.
Thomas Manning is a member of the NCFCA and SEFCA, and also the co-host of the television show and radio program Meet Me at the Movies. He has served as a production assistant and voting member on the Film Selection Committee for the Real to Reel Film Festival. Additionally, he manages his own film review and interview site, The Run-Down on Movies. Recently, Manning graduated from Gardner-Webb University with a double-major in Communications and English. His passion for cinema and storytelling is rivaled only by his love for the music of Taylor Swift.
Categories: Filmmaker Interviews