In an exclusive interview with Villain Media, writer/director Naghmeh Shirkhan discusses her latest film, Maki, starring Naomi Sundberg and Julian Cihi. Shirkhan opens up about exploring gender dynamics and power play in her coming-of-age love story with a dark twist.
Set in the heart of New York City, Maki (Naomi Sundberg) and Tommy (Julian Cihi) can no longer conceal their hidden affair once they learn she’s pregnant with his child. Their charismatic and persuasive boss, Mika (Mieko Harada) steps in and takes control. The story unsettles as it unfolds, revealing each character’s true intent.
Before her upcoming second screening from the Chelsea Film Festival on Saturday October 28, 2018, Shirkhan reveals how her project came about, casting actress Naomi Sundberg in the title role, and the themes behind her cinematic narrative.
Villain Media: How did the concept for Maki come about?
Naghmeh Shirkhan: From the very beginning, it was very important to tell a story about a young woman, who was figuring things out for herself. I thought about, “What am I trying to say?” A story I love came about from Les Liaisons Dangereuses, from a French writer I credit from high school. They made a movie, Dangerous Liaisons, based on it. I had the basis of it but when I wen to speak with my producer, he had just finished making a film in Japan. I was very interested in Japanese culture and cinema. It piqued my interest and I had exposure to the Japanese subculture. It was an opportunity travel back and forth to Tokyo. I can do this within this world and doing something that I hadn’t done before.
VM: Tell me about the hostess club, which is an important setting in the story. Was the layout written the script or was it worked out with the crew?
NS: It was written. I had the idea in mind what I wanted it to look like. My production designer really understood and we were going for that look. She was instrumental in creating the colors within the nightclub. It looked different how we shot it, making it as cinematic as possible.
VM: Tell me about working with Naomi Sundberg, who plays Maki.
NS: She’s a model. She was modelling in Tokyo and had never acted before. I was intrigued by that. Japanese actors have a particular way of acting, which is hard to break out of. I wanted someone who could play that character. And when I met Naomi, what struck me about her was her innocence. I think it’s something true to her nature and her character. She’s not beguiling. She’s very innocent, fresh; there’s a purity about her. I loved that! She understood the camera and didn’t feel shy. She wasn’t going to act. She was going to embody the character. I meant a lot of actresses in the casting process. You have to have an innocence for this role and she captured that.
VM: Tell me about the confrontational relationship between Maki (Sundberg) and Mika (Mieko Harada), who represents female empowerment at a corrupted angle.
NS: [Laughs] You can almost look at it as part as one continuum. If you’re not careful as a young woman, you may end up as Mika as an older woman. In this particular moment, to this story, I like that. I love how their names are very similar. Depending on what decision we make, it changes the trajectory. I wanted this young woman to be in this situation that she was ill-prepared for it. And the people she most trusted were betraying her. It’s okay to say that anybody at a certain level of experience, you can come across men and women, anyone who has a corrupted influence. You have to settle in and understand who you are in order to get beyond that.
VM: What was more challenging? Directing scenes with dialogue or those quiet, silent moments?
NS: They both have challenges for different reasons. I felt a little bit freer. All the dialogue was in Japanese. I don’t speak Japanese. I had a translator on set with me. I could focus on the emotions and the visuals, the body language. That was very liberating! If I was fixated on the dialogue, it would have been harder. I love minimal dialogue! Towards the end, when it gets more sparse, I really enjoyed that. The thing with Japanese, it takes two or three times as long if you say it in English. It was challenging in that respect as well. There’s a beauty in language in the way it’s being delivered. For me, I love listening to the language. I love listening to that dialogue.
VM: How did this project change you as a filmmaker?
NS: It made me very happy that I continued. That I didn’t give up on making this film. I have more confidence in what my abilities are. I can have an idea, and as strange as that idea may be, with the right resources, with the right team, we can make it into a concrete thing. That’s an amazing feeling!
VM: Where can readers find out about your movie?
NS: Starting November 17th, Maki will be screening at the Euro Space in Tokyo.
VN: What are you working on now?
NS: I’ve been writing a lot. I’m not sure what my next project is going to be. Maybe I’ll explore a little bit what it’s like to be Iranian. Having an Iranian background, I explored hat in my first film, The Neighbor. I’m always going to try to figure out how do I fit in. With all the issues surrounding immigration — Who is really American? Why do we come there? — those are topical and important for people to think about.
Maki will screen at the Chelsea Film Festival on Saturday October 28, 2018. Naghmeh Shirkhan was awarded Best Director by the 2018 jury members.
[Writer’s Note: This interview has been edited for length and clarity. Links are highlighted in bold.]