To characters in Babak Jalali’s Fremont, memories both serve an artistic purpose and function as nuisance to be dealt with. Unresolved experiences while serving as a translator to the U.S. Army in Afghanistan prevent refugee Donya (Anaita Wali Zada) from sleeping soundly in her new home of Fremont, California. She seeks sleeping pills from oddball psychiatrist Dr. Anthony (Gregg Turkington) who spends their sessions largely promoting the virtues of his favorite immigrant story: Jack London’s White Fang.
Later when fortune cookie factory owner Ricky (Eddie Tang) offers Donya a promotion from packaging the cookies to writing the messages that go inside, he leans on his instinct that her past pain will lend her a rich worldview from which to draw from as a writer. These plot machinations are rarely front and center in Fremont, and Donya’s seemingly-troubled past isn’t something she freely discusses with those around her. In one humorous moment, Donya drolly tells Dr. Anthony that she doesn’t spend much time thinking because she’s “too busy with her social life”––two things we, the audience, know to be wholly untrue.
Along with memories, borders are also important. At one point, Ricky presents a spinning globe to Donya and asks if she’s aware that Afghanistan and China share a border. (She is aware.) “I think people who share borders share many similarities. Us, we share a border, so we have similarities,” he tells her in dialogue that chooses a stilted cadence over naturalism. Iran-born and London-based, Jalali echoes his character’s sentiment to me over Zoom: “Iranians and the Afghans share a lot of similarities.” Like China this includes a border, but goes further. “We share a language with a large portion of the population there, and a lot of cultural traits and historical shared experiences,” he adds. Jalali co-wrote Fremont with Italian filmmaker Carolina Cavalli, after he edited Cavalli’s debut Amanda. Jalali credits Cavalli with coming up with many of Fremont’s more peculiar elements including Dr. Anthony’s White Fang fixation.
Jalali is open about how earlier arthouse pretensions, largely around his film school time, have lessened considerably over the years. His insistence on a locked-down camera has given way to more experiments with handheld photography. While Fremont is largely locked-down, the intermittent handheld scenes serve as critical breaks from the controlled stasis. He’s also mostly learned to listen to editorial notes with more of an open mind, although that part will never come easy (nor should it). So when Fremont bowed at Sundance earlier this year, after Jalali’s prior three features premiered at Locarno, Rotterdam and Berlin respectively, to an outsider this might’ve played as unexpected. But once you learn, as I did in our Zoom chat, that Jalali holds a deep reference for Chevy Chase movies along with Todd Philips’ Hangover trilogy, choosing Sundance reads as a natural progression.
Fremont is lensed beautifully in digital black-and-white in a boxy 1:3:1 aspect ratio, by Laura Valladao. I avoided discussing the standout cinematography in the following interview since that was the primary focus of another interview I did with Jalali and Valladao out of Sundance. But there was plenty else to discuss.
The Film Stage: There are many poetic lines in the film, like when the factory owner says, “She was also getting too old to write about the future.” How is it writing those lines when you know non-professional actors will be delivering them?
Babak Jalali: I’m okay with the idea of having non-professionals saying the lines because my previous three films prior to Fremont were almost exclusively made with non-professional actors and actresses. I’m actually more confident in non-professionals saying those lines than professionals. But Fremont was a mixture of professional and non-professional, which is a first for me. A film is about a general atmosphere as well as plot points––with Fremont, to build this atmospheric world required such lines of dialogue. My co-writer Carolina is impressively talented at dialogue. She also has a special way of coming up with things that, on first instinct, you’re like, “What? That doesn’t make any sense.” But then it does when you step out of yourself and think about it.
Over the course of your career working with non-professionals, are there mistakes you’ve made early on? How has your process with them evolved?
For sure I’ve learned things along the way. I always feel like starting someone very, very low in delivery, as un-dramatic as someone can be, is to your advantage. Bringing someone up and up a notch is much easier than bringing them down. If they start out full theatrics, to tone it down is much more difficult than if you just have them begin very flat, very opaque. And then you say “Okay, let’s give it a bit more soul. Let’s give it a bit more heart,” and just build it up and up. That is the primary thing I’ve learned.
I’ve also appreciated more and more how difficult it is for those non-professionals. In my first film I thought, “How difficult could it be for these guys? C’mon.” But for some reason, more and more, I’ve thought about the fact of: What if I was in front of a camera? I would be absolutely terrified. I have generally appreciated the fear much, much more.
Babak Jalali at KVIFF
As your own editor, how do you keep that process separate from your role as a director? Or do you?
It’s not easy. I’ve edited for other people, but it’s an entirely different experience. This is the second movie of my own that I’ve edited. I’d be lying if I said “Oh, it’s easy to separate the director from the editor.” Because of course there’s a tendency to be indulgent. You don’t want to get rid of anything you’ve shot. A lot of times you can’t see past certain, not mistakes, but things that just don’t work. You have to be brutal but it doesn’t come immediately.
Editing someone else’s work, you can be brutal immediately. On your own, it takes quite a while. My producers were good at watching cuts and giving me feedback; Carolina did that along with friends whom I trust. But that doesn’t mean when they tell you something you’re immediately like, “Oh yes, you’re right.” No, you foolishly defend yourself, often when you’re a director editing your film. Honestly, if a distributor had come to me and said, “We’ll release Fremont as a three-and-a-half-hour film,” I probably would’ve had a three-and-a-half-hour cut.
In those moments when you’re foolishly defending yourself, in the back of your head do you kind of know they might be right, but you’re defending yourself anyways? Or are you fully blind to their notes at first?
Definitely in my first film––which I edited when I was much younger––I was steadfast and stubborn. I downright refused to believe they were right. “No, no, no, I’m right.” In this instance on Fremont, I was much more accepting and understanding and it took far less convincing for me to realize those moments were not working, or they were too much, or they slowed the film down, or they were unnecessary or overindulgent.
A lot of this movie is composed of static shots, the humor coming from the timing and editing rhythms between shots. When you’re editing, are you able to figure out that timing by yourself, or do you need to bounce it off of someone?
You’re absolutely right––the humor was very reliant on the pacing of the edit of certain scenes in particular. First, I just try it out myself going back and forth, becoming obsessive over it: 12 frames here, 12 frames there––that kind of stuff. Rearranging something so that instead of being on her I’m on him in that moment when this line is delivered. It was a lot of becoming seriously obsessive about particular scenes. And then yes: it was shown to see if it was actually funny or not. But humor is so subjective. People have different senses of humor. I showed it to people who just didn’t find scenes funny that I found funny––they didn’t get the humor at all. Then I showed it to others who found it a bit too funny, which I didn’t want either. Some found it carried just the right amount of levity and humor.
The film carries a real affection for family-owned businesses and how they operate. Donya makes this mistake that, in a corporate environment, she would for sure be fired for. But because it’s a small business she’s shown sympathy. Where do you think this affinity comes from?
Yes, absolutely. And by extension it’s small cities, small towns. Fremont is not a small town, but compared to San Francisco, it’s a small place. To many people it only functions as a commuter town and not much else. I’m from a provincial town from northern Iran, a frontier town, and I’ve always had a strong affinity for small towns, rural places, and by extension small enterprises––and the familiarity and the humanity in them––that is sadly missing the bigger things get.
Don’t get me wrong: I don’t want a situation where I’m walking around in London and I have to say hello to everyone. That could be quite tedious as well. But what I’m saying is that, in a big corporation, there is no time or opportunity to explain yourself. Decisions are made on a whim and often very coldly. But the reality is: in life human beings are layered. There are different reasons for different actions, and hearing someone out or putting yourself in someone else’s shoes can go a long way.
From your perspective, is Donya a writer? She tells Jeremy Allen White’s character she’s a writer and then later admits to him she’s not actually one. But the factory owner treats her like she’s a writer and sees writing fortune cookie messages as an artistic practice. I’m curious where you stand?
No, I don’t see her as a writer. The boss has glorified her. He says things such as, “People with memories write beautifully.” He sees her as this young woman who has had a lot of hardcore experiences in life, and if she was to use those experiences she could write really well. He offers her the gig and it’s a bit unrealistic, but he goes with his gut instincts. In his mind a writer is someone who’s got soul, who’s got a past, and who’s got a way of saying something, versus someone who’s published things in a magazine or whatever.
There’s a moment where Donya breaks a bit and yells up at the balcony at Suleyman. She’s not a passive character up until that point, but she is more quiet. What was the process like writing that scene and directing her in that moment?
Writing it was easy. We felt there was a need for her at some point to say something to that guy, because he had been frankly downright rude to her every time he saw her. Directing it was another story. That was actually the most difficult scene for the actor to do. When we started rolling, her screaming tone, the volume on her voice was so low. We were like “No, you’re angry. You’re supposed to scream.” She tried again and it just wasn’t happening. We did a few takes and she came up to me: “I’ve never screamed at anyone before in my life, ever.” So she had literally never shouted at anyone in her life. So it wasn’t just a matter of acting––it was literally something that was alien to her. She had never been that angry to shout at someone. She eventually did, and I think that will be the only moment in her life that she has shouted at someone.
Or alternately, now she can’t stop shouting at people.
Exactly. Something flips in her and there’s no going back.
In a recent-ish interview you espoused your love for Todd Phillips’ Hangover trilogy.
It’s true. For example, you know how you’re asked to do these surveys of your favorite films for different publications? I just did the IndieWire one for the ’80s, for example, last week. In 2009 I was asked by Sight & Sound in the U.K. to do my Top 10 favorite films of all-time. My list had Tarkovsky, Béla Tarr, which was not far from the truth––I actually love those films. The Hangover hadn’t come out when I wrote that list. Something like The Hangover is almost always on a transatlantic flight, and I always watch it on a long flight. I know them by heart: all three of them. I usually find that sequels get progressively worse, but with The Hangover trilogy they really did a fine job with all three of them. I just find them very, very funny. Making your film like that must be a complete hoot.
They look good too. They’re shot well.
They look good too. And it’s not just The Hangover. I like, for example, Chevy Chase films from the ’80s: Caddyshack, National Lampoon’s European Vacation, Fletch––those kinds of films. A good comedy I’m always appreciative of.
That’s like the famous story that Terrence Malick loves Zoolander.
I really like Zoolander. [Laughs]
With Todd Phillips’ films, I appreciate that ’70s energy where there’s not this need for a joke every 30 seconds. You can spend time with the characters, and if they’re funny actors that can be enough without it needing to be hilarious every second.
Exactly: it’s not a gag-galore situation. Most comedies are awful, I have to say. Adam Sandler films are just not funny. I don’t care what anyone says. But you’re right: that ’70s vibe to it helps for sure.
Phillips’ Starsky & Hutch is one of my personal favorites, if you haven’t seen it.
I have seen it.
So, take me into your journey to becoming a director. You got a political degree before you got a film degree. Why that order?
I was not one of those kids who was running around with a camera at the age of eight. But around 15, 16 I became obsessed with films and going to the cinemas. I started discovering films from around the world around that age, and I thought I could potentially do this. But most specialized film schools in Europe are grad schools. So you have to be in your 20s and have had another degree or life experience. And I was also incredibly interested in politics and history from a very young age.
I became a teenager when the Yugoslav Wars were happening. That’s when I would buy the newspapers for the first time to read on the train to school––it was about the Yugoslav Wars. I became completely fixated on that, and studied Balkan Studies / Eastern European studies. I ended up spending time in the former Yugoslavia. I was going to go do my Ph.D. on the topic, but I thought if I don’t do the film thing I’ll forever regret it, and I didn’t know if a life of academia was for me. So I applied for film school in London and, thankfully, I got accepted based on a terrible short film that I had done myself in my late teens.
I don’t think people need to go to film school to be a director––not at all. I needed it though. I needed a structure. My film school was very practical; it wasn’t theory-based. From the first moment you had a camera so you could make your mistakes––make crappy short films and get it out of the way.
Fremont opens in NYC and LA theaters this Friday.