In I Don’t Hate Las Vegas Anymore, he tried and failed to convince his father and half-brother to do ecstasy with him in a hotel room. In I Am A Sex Addict, he recounted his addiction to prostitutes and the destruction that wrought on his romantic life. In The Sheik and I, he made an enemy of the Sheik of Sharjah and the film was subsequently banned in the United Arab Emirates. But Caveh Zahedi, the prolific cult filmmaker known for deeply personal documentaries that have been championed by everyone from Lena Dunham to Richard Linklater, reached unknown levels of depravity and self-destruction with The Show About the Show.
Its first season, which aired in 2015, started as a mind-boggling self-reflexive exercise wherein each episode chronicled the making of the previous episode using documentary footage and reenactments but eventually—particularly in its second season—devolved into a perversely entertaining documentation of his marriage’s dissolution. It was the biggest success of his career, brought a new generation of fans and the kind of press coverage he had long dreamed of, but also wreaked havoc on his life and those around him.
After its second season, BRIC TV, the nonprofit community television network that produced The Show, parted ways with Caveh; now, in hopes of crowdfunding the next two seasons, he’s launched a Kickstarter campaign. I recently spoke with Caveh and we touched on a range of topics—from Lars von Trier to Shiva, the Hindu God of Destruction, and how he used to dream of winning the Palme d’Or.
The Film Stage: I wanted to start by asking you how it feels to have a whole new crop of fans discover your work over the last few years through The Show About The Show. I might just run in a particularly Caveh-sympathetic crowd, but it seems like these are boom times for you.
Yeah, it’s true. I’ve been waiting my whole life for this. It’s strange to see it in action. I wish I was able to enjoy it more by being younger.
What keeps you from enjoying it?
You know, if you want something for a long time and then you get to a point where you’re over it but then you actually get it, you could argue that you maybe enjoy it less than if you had gotten it when you really wanted it a lot and it was important to you.
That makes total sense. So how’s the Kickstarter going? In the Kickstarter video you made, which is also the first episode of The Show About The Show’s fourth season, you seem really uncomfortable and self-conscious about soliciting money from your fans and supporters. Where does that apprehension come from?
I’m very ambivalent about Kickstarter. I’m very ambivalent about capitalism. I don’t want to charge people money for things because, I don’t know, it just feels wrong to me to charge someone money for anything, really. I mean, capitalism isn’t working for anybody. I don’t know what the alternative is but I think it’s got something to do with community—some economy where love and well-being are maximized. I barely survive. I barely made a living my whole life. I’ve always been on the edge of poverty, but my girlfriend said something to me the other day like “you’re so rich,” and I think she just meant metaphorically and I was thinking… I am kind of rich. The universe has been kind to me. People are giving me not just money but time and affection. But yeah: I think my work has value, but I don’t know how to put a price on it. You know?
It just has whatever value it has for whoever it has value for.
Is a piece of art that, by its very existence, prevents more of it from being made and wreaks havoc on the person who has made it and the people around them inherently self-destructive? Would you describe yourself as self-destructive?
I wouldn’t because my eye is on a different prize. My goal in life is not to have a show on HBO. For a while my dream was to win the Palme d’Or and then one day I realized I would never win the Palme d’Or and who gives a shit about the Palme d’Or. I don’t even like a lot of the stuff that wins the Palme d’Or. I’m completely off their map. They’d never show my work. But that doesn’t mean it’s less valuable; it’s just outside their purview. You know, John Cage said that any work of art that has more than twenty percent originality in it will be rejected by the public—like people can only take a little bit of originality and if you got more of that, you know, you’re not gonna do well.
When I was in film school I was friends with Alexander Payne and he was a talented guy and I liked his films quite a bit, but you know, when he graduated everyone was like “that guys gonna be big.” And they were all trying to woo him and I thought, “Really, how do they know?” But what was uncanny is that they were right: he was the right amount of novelty, the right amount of edgy. My thing is I’ve always been too edgy.
Did you ever have a moment where… [Can sense Caveh’s distracted]
[Off phone] Arnold! Arnold!
Yeah… I’m seeing a friend of mine on the street and his mother just died and I have to talk to him. Can I call you back in a few minutes?
Oh, yeah. Of course.
Five minutes later Caveh calls me back.
I wanted to ask if you’ve always been comfortable outside the mainstream and not holding yourself to the same standards of success as your peers. Or was there a period of time when you wanted to make more traditional and commercial films?
Oh, yeah. When I was younger I wanted to make Hollywood films; I wanted to be part of the cultural conversation. I didn’t want to be insignificant or obscure, not because of ego—though that was part of it—but mostly I wanted to have an effect. And when I was making experimental films it became very clear to me that no one gave a shit about experimental film and it wasn’t going to change anything and that I needed to go to where the people lived and speak in their language.
So I do try to move towards the mainstream. And in a way I have. The Show About The Show is very audience-friendly, I think. Morally it’s not, but aesthetically and pacing-wise I think it is. But yeah, I wanted everything that everyone else wants: to be famous and rich and admired and popular. But I think over time, from failing to do that, you start to see through it and realize you don’t need it to be happy and it’s not very important.
Did you have a period, early on, where you were more hesitant about revealing so much about your personal life—a period when there was some pushback from family and friends, enough so that it kept you from following through?
No. I always believed in what I was doing. But, you know, I came from a high-art background. Like, a lot of filmmakers, they come from liking Tarantino or Scorsese. The things they aspire to and their role models, they’re not ambitious. They’re ambitious financially, I guess. But I’ve always been interested in competing with the masters. Like the people I’m in conversation with, at least in my own head, are people like James Joyce, Marcel Proust, John Cage—people who are really thinking at a higher level and in a long-term type of way. My favorite painter is Van Gogh and my favorite poet is Rimbaud and they were both people who were completely marginal in their time, completely rejected. But after their death they were celebrated. And if I can have that I’d be pretty fucking happy.
You went through a really difficult time, personally, in the wake of The Show About the Show. How are you with all of that now?
I am in a pretty good place right now. The main thing was: I was just lonely. Which isn’t nothing. It’s painful to be lonely in this world. So that problem seemed to resolve itself, at least for now, and I’m pretty happy.
Was The Show About the Show a way to accelerate the process of ending this marriage that you weren’t happy in?
Yeah. I think that’s true. I certainly wasn’t conscious of it, but the fact that I was willing to let it go there was indicative of how unattached I was to it and how unsatisfying it had become. That I would prioritize the show over my relationship had a lot to do with how shitty my relationship was. So when people say I ruined my life, I’m like, “No I didn’t. I’m in a much better place now than when I was in a loveless marriage.”
Are you tired of the ethical questions surrounding The Show or do you just accept that it’s part of it?
I accept it. You know, it’s kind of what the films are about: it’s about posing ethical questions so it’s normal. It’s what’s interesting about the work.
If artists are defined by their limitations, how much of what you do is borne of necessity? You’ve said before that you’re not a good filmmaker but that you’re honest and that this is your strongest virtue. Did you lean in that direction because it’s all you really can do? In The Sheik and I you briefly entertain the idea of making a comedic spy-action movie but ultimately decide to do this self-reflexive work about the process of making a film in a society that puts so many restraints on you.
Sorry. I’m at the clothing store. I’m about to try on some shirts for my trip tomorrow. My phone may die. It’s pretty low. But if it does, I’m sorry. I’ll just call you once I’m back home.
Ok, sure. Do you want to just do that or do you want to keep going?
No, no. Let’s talk till it dies. It’s more fun than just shopping alone.
So I’m like your shopping buddy?
Exactly. How do I look in this shirt? [Laughs]
So in the Sheik and I, instead of making this ambitious action-comedy you make a film about what it’s like to make a film in this society that puts so many constraints on you. It’s back to this self-reflexive thing. What I’m asking is how much of what you do comes from it being the only thing you can do?
I think it’s true. I mean there was a period where I was trying to get people to give me money to make more commercial films and I kind of still am trying to. But there was a time where I didn’t understand why they weren’t or why it was a problem. I remember a producer telling me that he didn’t think I was capable of making a commercial film because I was gonna want to sabotage it… [Phone dies]
About an hour later Caveh calls me back.
Are you there? I’m trying to recall where we left off…
Yeah, you were asking me something.
I think what I was asking you about before was…
What, about how I’ve ruined my life or something?
No, no. I think we were talking about how artists are defined by their limitations. You were saying that you always tried getting funding for more commercial film projects. What are some of those ideas?
I’m trying to make a film about the artist Joseph Cornell but that is still weird and experimental. I want to make a musical about Brecht. I want to make a film about Rumi. But you know there’s a scene in In The Bathtub of the World where I’m tripping on mushrooms on Valentines Day and Mandy asks me “how do you decide to make what image you make?” and I say “you make the only image that you can make” and I think it’s not just in terms your talent or your proclivity; I think it’s also what the world allows you to make and what it randomly puts in front of you. So I think you make what you’re supposed to make and it’s got as much to do with God or the universe or fate as it does with your aesthetics.
Your work, particularly The Show About the Show, seems simultaneously perfect for this time—in that it feels like it’s in conversation with reality TV and social media and even the autofiction movement in literature—but also really subversive and against-the-grain. In a time when people are really paranoid and afraid of being depicted the wrong way, of saying the wrong thing online or in real life and being admonished for it, you seem to not give a shit about how you’re perceived. I think this is a big part of The Show About the Show’s appeal.
I don’t deliberately try to be in conversation with anything. I try to be in conversation with myself. I don’t feel like I have a good sense of the zeitgeist; I don’t have a sense of where the times are going or moving away from. I just know that I’m not usually in sync with it. But I’ve noticed that I’m often ahead of the curve, and I think that’s because I’m just honest, I guess. I think a lot of people have an idea of things that they work with and they don’t question the idea very much and they go through the paces of yesteryear. There’s a lag.
But yeah—it’s not planned. My eyes are just open and most people just seem to have their ears closed. In terms of the other stuff: I’m violently against political correctness and cancel culture. I’m old-fashioned in that sense. To me, freedom of expression is sacred and tolerance is the better way to go than censorship. It’s not that I’m not afraid—I’m afraid. But maybe I’m like a canary in the mineshaft. I just can’t breathe under those conditions.
In some ways, and I say this as a fan, I see your work and feel like there’s something wrong with you. At times it seems so narcissistic that I almost wonder if it is indicative of some mental illness. At the same time your work also makes me question my own worldview and my own morality and wonder if you’ve actually got it all figured out. Part of me wants to take you to task for something but I’m just not sure what for because I don’t really know how I feel about the work. It’s incredibly beautiful at times and very, very funny, but it also feels selfish and destructive. I do appreciate this about what you do, though—it gets me in this state of questioning all of these things.
Yeah, I think that’s why it’s great. And that’s why it’s better than everything else. People value different things in art and cinema. I value something very different than what most people who make films seem to value, and because of that my films seem like weird aberrations or obtrusions. What I value is honesty, moral complexity, and a full-frontal attack on morality. And if you judge based on those standards, my films are the best.
I know you’re a big fan of Lars von Trier, I think in this way, in that they’re endlessly debatable and provocative and make people think about fairly big ideas, your films are similar to his.
That’s why he’s my favorite filmmaker. He isn’t afraid to ruffle feathers and explore things that are morally mind-blowing.
After some of the fallout from the first two seasons of The Show are you taking a different approach this time around/ Do you feel like you needed to course-correct?
I do think I am trying to course-correct a little on the relationship front. Like my girlfriend: there’s things she doesn’t want me to talk about for several reasons and I’m trying to honor that more than I was trying to honor my wife’s concerns. And I think the reason for that is: I wasn’t that invested in that relationship anymore. And was more willing to sacrifice it on the altar of art. But yeah, I’m constantly adjusting and changing; I’m not a monolith. But you know, you used the word destruction in a way that I don’t agree with. You know, in Hinduism, Shiva is a destructive force but an important force. It’s the destructive force that takes you to the next place. It’s destruction that precedes the rebirth.
Everything is a process. And my problem with moralism is it assumes it knows what the end of the process is, which it doesn’t, and it thinks that the goal is some kind of comfort or safety or being confirmed in your prejudices. A lot of moralism is like some weird frightened child trying to be safe, and all of capitalism is this too. Give me my little house and my little roof so I can be safe… but your house will get blown down by the winds of change. The solution is not to build a brick house. The solution is in having a sense of flexibility and freedom so when the wind blows you don’t get knocked over by it. The goal is to be above the fray—to transcend these things around you and be able to handle the adversity. That’s a good thing about making films that people hate: you get to practice that a lot, practice just being okay with that. It’s like that Pixar movie… on the spaceship. Wall-E.
You know, all the people are flabby and they can’t walk because they’re so comfortable and they sit in lounge chairs all day long. Our culture makes people flabby, spiritually.
Yeah, I often feel spiritually flabby.
I know, me too! [Laughs] We get very little practice because of this air-conditioned nightmare we exist in. And we don’t grow. Even though life is constantly challenging us and trying to get us to grow. And we resist change. And my films don’t do that and so they seem anathema to what people are looking for.
To wrap up, can you tell me a little about season 3 and 4 of The Show About the Show, which you’ve launched this Kickstarter for? Being familiar with your work I thought I was ready for anything you had to throw at me but I was really taken aback by the prospect of season 4 coming out before season 3.
Well, so season 3 is the making of season 2 and I felt like season 2 sort of departed from the premise of season 1—which was every episode is about the making of the previous episode—and I switched from an episodic making-of to a seasonal making-of. I just found that I was overwhelmed by the material because it was like three-and-a-half years of material. And hard to do reenactments and stuff because people change, they look different, they move, and I can’t remember what happened, and I realized it was gonna be very hard and I was kind of floundering. And so when I was trying to get money for season 3 it occurred to me that I should do a Kickstarter, and if I made an episode about the Kickstarter that would be a way to get back to the original premise. And that would be great because I really missed that and it was manageable. So it was just a way to solve this complicated logistical problem for me.
How far into shooting are you? Or are you not starting until the Kickstarter has concluded?
It’s dependent on the Kickstarter. I haven’t shot anything, really. I’ve shot some camera addresses. All the documentary footage is done. And I’ve edited together like four episodes. But there’s a lot of editing to be done and a lot of shooting to be done so I don’t know if this is even a good idea because it’s actually a big job to do season 3 and 4 at the same time. So maybe this is gonna kill me and it was stupid. But we’ll see.
Well, personally I can’t wait. Good luck with the Kickstarter and thanks so much for talking with me.
Of course, it was a pleasure. I enjoyed talking to you.
Learn more about Caveh Zahedi’s Kickstarter here.