Amir Naderi left Iran in 1985, after having made a number of films that are now considered classics of the New Iranian Cinema — particularly 1985’s The Runner. Against the advice of many who felt he could never succeed in the West, Naderi came to New York and tried to revive his film career in America. Amazingly, he did — helming such acclaimed indie films as 1993’s Manhattan by Numbers and 2002’s Marathon, even scoring a Walter Reade retrospective along the way. Now, Naderi has come to the Tribeca Film Festival with his most distinctively American film yet — the powerful, fablelike drama Vegas: Based on a True Story, about one working-class family’s dangerous obsession with trying to find an alleged stash of money that might be under their house. Naderi talked to us about shooting in Vegas and his own dangerous obsessions.
People who see your film come away thinking about how timely it is, given the current state of the U.S. economy and the American Dream, but it’s interesting to note that you made it two years ago.
I finished it exactly two years ago. This idea actually came to me about nine years ago, and it took years to develop with my producer Abou Farman. When we were working, we never thought about these things. We were just making a film, and we never thought that this was saying something about the economy or mortgage problems or anything like that. But I think that it is a film about money, and about ambition, and that is a very American subject.
The film has a very fablelike quality and yet it says right there in the title that it’s “based on a true story.” How factual is it?
I went to Las Vegas to photograph it for a book. I eventually became tired of the Vegas that we always hear about. I spent time going around the places on the outskirts — and I found that the true Vegas is there. Small casinos, small towns, people who were born and raised there. That was where I first heard about this story, about this family. I researched it a bit, and I found myself in a Rashomon situation. Everybody said something different. I never found out what really happened to this family. But I found my subject.
I decided to make a film about Vegas that is not in "Vegas." I found myself face-to-face for the first time with a truly American story. Not a New York story — because, as you know, New York is its own country. I thought, "I'm an Iranian filmmaker who came to New York, spent eighteen years making four films about New York, and now I’m a New York filmmaker in Vegas." So I lived in trailers, I went to casinos, listened to people. I gambled away the production funds.
You gambled away the production funds?
I had $25,000. I’d never gambled before. I gambled with my life when I left Iran and first came to New York, but that was about it. I started gambling a little bit. I thought, “Oh, I can raise the rest of the money by gambling!” I became obsessed, and within a month it was all gone. Then I said, “Oh my God, I can’t come back to New York now. I’ve lost all the money.” So I started to think and I realized that I could find the money to make this movie in Vegas. I talked to gamblers and all sorts of other people. If you look at the movie, we don’t have any executive producers. That’s because they don’t want their names there. I can’t wait until we go to Cinevegas to show the film. I can’t wait to see the reaction of my friends the gamblers to this film.
How did you find the style for Vegas?
I looked at the great American masters to find a style. People like John Ford, George Stevens, Howard Hawks, Raoul Walsh. I tried to avoid close-ups, to not make it a cliché[d] melodrama. Also, I’ve lived in this country for 23 years. I’ve never gone to my home country. As a result, I think sometimes I look at things from a distance. That became a part of the style, as well.
You didn’t have a lot of money to make the film. That must have made it very hard to make such a location-specific film.
Very hard. Especially on this film, because I wanted to shoot from 2 p.m. to 5 p.m. every day. So we’d rehearse all day, and then we’d get a few shots at that time. When I’m filming, I’m just focused on what I want to do. I shut out everything else in the world and just focus on that. And I made the people working with me do that as well. No cell phones, no life, no nothing.