Richard Raymond is set to make his feature film directorial debut as he makes the leap from shorts with Desert Dancer.
Written by Jon Croker, Desert Dancer tells the incredible true story of Afshin Ghaffarian, who risked everything to train as a dancer in Iran.
We caught up with the filmmaker to chat about the new movie, what drew him to Afshin's story, and bringing together such a wonderful cast.
- Desert Dancer is the film, so can you tell me a bit about it?
Desert Dancer is the true story of a young man and his friends who wanted to become dancers in a country where it is forbidden to dance; which is in Iran. It is the story of how they learnt how to dance by watching YouTube - which is also banned. So they hacked into YouTube. They watched the greatest dancers that were available to them; Baryshnikov, Nureyev and Michael Jackson.
They would learn how to become dancers in an underground centre after school. They ended up putting on a performance in the desert, where there would be no police to arrest them for dancing. It is a story about how important freedom of artistic expression is to young people and that nothing can really hold it back.
- The movie sees you in the director's chair, so what was it about Afshin Ghaffarian story and Jon Croker's script that was the big appeal for you?
I read the story in a newspaper and I connected to it as someone who had been struggling for many years to try and become a filmmaking. I connected with Afshin's story of someone who had been struggling for many years to become a dancer and realising that all the obstacles in his path were a lot more dangerous and real that they were in my path. I just resonated with that very strongly. You can't really help what you fall in love with, I fell in love with this story and I wanted to share it.
- I was not familiar with Afshin's story before I watched the film. What sort of research did you do into his life and his struggles as you were preparing to make this film?
I went to Paris with Jon Croker, before the script was written, and we met with Afshin. we sat down with him, talked to him, and listening to him as he told us word for word what had happened to him. Jon wrote all of that down and, together, we looked at his life and really came to a decision about what portions of his life that we wanted to present and share as a story. Jon went off and wrote the screenplay based on Afshin's interviews.
- Which part of Afshin's story was the main appeal - his dedication and his determination is something that really comes over in the movie?
I think it was the passion. I think that you are absolutely right in what you are saying, it was his passion. At the time when I met him, that passion was still very very vibrant and you could tell. That is what I connected with and that is really what drew me in. He was a young man who had a passion in a place that... I feel that the country of Iran is one of the most beautiful and Iran had the first ever charter of human rights and it is the birthplace of great poetry. I just feel that a story about artistic oppression to be contrasted against that country was something that was very attractive to me.
- The movie sees Reece Ritchie takes on the role of Afshin. So what were you looking for when you cast this role and what did you see in Reece?
To be honest, Reece is Afshin's doppelganger; he looks like his twin brother. When Reece and I went to see Afshin perform in Paris, a lot of the people who were in the audience actually thought that Reece was Afshin. Reece is an incredible actor and very professional. He is trained in martial arts, so he was able to use his body that this character demanded. He embodied Afshin and really connected to him. He was the only person for the part.
- Freida Pinto, Tom Cullen, and Nazanin Boniadi are also on board. Can you talk a bit about bringing this great cast together?
It was very important to me to not just cast Iranians. It was a story for the world. There are plenty of Iranian films out there and I am a big fan of Iranian cinema but this is a film that I wanted to make very accessible to people who normally would never go and see a film that's set in Iran or an Iranian story. I wanted to tell the story of the heroes of Iran, who are the youth of Iran, and I wanted to show the youth all over the world that we are all the same.
For that reason, I cast actors from all over the world that represent people from all over the world - that was a very conscious decision. Tom Cullen is from Wales, Nazanin Boniadi is from Iran, Freida Pinto is from India, Marama Corlett is from Malta, and Reece Ritchie is from England; you have a real collective group of actors who are very international and that is how I wanted to tell the story.
Freida trained for twelve months in dance before we started shooting the film. She was incredibly dedicated. Her character was completely true. A lot of people might watch the film and think that it might be a cliché because her character was a heroin addict, but it is all true. In fact, before we started shooting the film, Freida Pinto's character died in real life. It was incredibly shocking and it really motivated Freida to make sure that she was on and in the character with her performance. I think that she did do an incredible job.
- You also worked with acclaimed choreographer Akram Khan for the film, so how was that experience? It must have been invaluable to have someone so experienced on board?
Absolutely. The dance would not be there if it had not been for Akram as he created all of the dance sequences. It was Akram, myself and the cast in London for five months creating out of nothing. It was the most incredible experience and I learnt a lot from Akram, as did all of the cast. Dancers just do and actors always ask 'why' and so it was an incredibly challenging experience for everybody to just do without questioning. And Akram really just instilled all of that in the cast.
Also, just to sit at the Opening Ceremony at the London Olympics in 2012 and watch Akram's performance right at the end was wonderful. We all just sat there and were like 'oh my god, this is amazing.' He is the greatest. He is just so renowned in the dance community. We felt that Afshin's story deserved to be a major cinematic event and we wanted to bring two together.
- How did you find working on the dance element of the film as you are not from that background?
It is visual storytelling. We live in an era of very superficial and one-dimensional dance that is on television. It is always about very superficial things, such as boy meets girl, girls leaves boy, boy chases after girl - it is not very substantial. What I loved about Akram's work - and there are many other choreographers that are fantastic - was it was so visceral and visual. It was incredibly three-dimensional visual storytelling and that is what I wanted for the film. And the truth of the film is to be found in the dance.
- The movie was shot in Morocco - was there an element of disappointment that you couldn't shot the film in Iran?
We tried. We did try. I had a ticket to go there but you have to lie and I had to say that I was a tourist visiting religious sites and I worked in real estate. The insurance won't cover you, you are going to be arrested, and it is best not to lie. We weren't permitted to film there. I spoke to many Iranian filmmakers and the ones that wanted to tell stories that the government wouldn't allow, filmed in Casablanca in Morocco. I just listened to their advice and went to the city where other Iranians had made their films.
It does double for Iran in a relatively good way; obviously, it does need some production design to pass. But that is why we shot there. It has a great desert and James Bond have just shot down there and Laurence of Arabia was shot there. The people of Morocco are 'can do' people and they just make it happen - we need to shoot scenes with thousands of extras and we had thousands of extras. You can't really get that in England on the budget that we had. It was a brilliant country to film in and make a movie in.
- The movie marks you feature film directorial debut. How have you found the experience of making the transition from shorts?
It is a dream. You want to be making films and you are only happy when you are making a film. It was just incredible and it was a long-time coming. It was the most wonderful experience because of the team. Being the director can be a very lonely job but on a film like Desert Dancer, whether you were in the wardrobe, the make-up, or the acting, everyone was very very passionate and we all came together as a family to support one another and make the film.
As the director, I couldn't be prouder of everyone's work. It is a film that so many women love. I have been in hundreds of screenings around the world and to see the way women connect to this film has been extremely gratifying and one of the most memorable experiences of my life. It has been wonderful. I cannot wait for British women to see the film.
- How important do you think your experience with short film was as you made your first feature?
My short films are awful (laughs). You have to get all of that out of the way. I also produced a film to learn more about directing. I would watch the director of the film that I produced work with actors and got to understand that by producing. When I make the leap into directing, I had been a long long road but all of the mistakes and all of the things that you learn by making short films come to a great place and you are able to put it down into a real film.
I think that every young director goes through that rite of passage; you have to make your shorts and you have to learn the hard way, in a sense. I am proud of all of the work that I have done and they were great to cut my teeth on but I am just glad to be able to make a feature film.
- You have touched on this slightly already. The movie is released in the UK next week, so how have you been finding the early response to the film so far?
It has been amazing. To see lines around the block and packed out after packed out screenings all around the world has been the most incredible thing. You contrast that against the male critical response, and it is quite a contrast. One of the most important things is seeing how positively the audience respond to the film. This is an audience film and I made this film for audiences. People - especially women - get really caught up in it emotionally and feel elated and full of hope by the end.
Nowadays, there're not that many films that you can say that about; to leave the cinema feeling better than you did when you went into it. That is all down to the truth of Afshin's real story and the dance and the performance that the actors gave. It is definitely and experience and I would to people that are looking for an experience and being taken on a journey, this is definitely a film for you.
- Finally, what's next for you?
I will let you know soon (laughs). I can't really tell you because it hasn't happened yet and I am very superstitious. Fingers crossed there will be an announcement very soon. But it is just fantastic that I'm getting to show Desert Dancer in the UK as it is my home country and it is a British film. I am very proud of that.
Desert Dancer is released 22nd April.