Filmmaker Massy Tadjedin Breaks Through With Keira Knightley Drama Last Night
After chipping away at the mainstream with the screenplay for the 2005 psychological thriller The Jacket, screenwriter Massy Tadjedin finally makes her directorial debut this week with the subtle, sleek relationship drama Last Night. And by "finally," I mean Hollywood almost swallowed Tadjedin's film -- with a power cast including Keira Knightley, Sam Worthington amd Eva Mendes -- in one bite before it could make its way to screens.
Tadjedin told that story among others to Movieline in advance of the May 6 limited release (and current VOD offering) of Last Night, her engrossing tale of a married couple -- Joanna and Michael (Knightley and Worthington) -- facing temptation on two fronts when Michael takes an overnight business trip with a co-worker (Mendes) and Joanna runs into an old flame (Guillaume Canet) the same evening on the town in New York. Their respective scenarios explore issues of fidelity and trust with a compelling will-they-or-won't-they undercurrent, deconstructing the aura and romance of Manhattan with an uncanny blend of mystery and chamber drama.
Tadjedin explained both Last Night's origins and her own -- from California to Harvard and back, with detours to George Clooney and Steven Soderbergh's old studio digs -- in a wide-ranging conversation:
What is your background?
I was born in Iran, and I came to America when I was 2. I grew up in a small town outside Los Angeles in Orange County called Yorba Linda. It's actually only known for being Richard Nixon's birthplace.
I grew up there. I knew I kind of wanted to make films early on because I watched a lot as a kid -- probably because I had immigrant parents, and I was home a lot. And my dad loved -- and still loves -- film. I went to Harvard for college; I majored in English literature. Modernism was my focus -- modernist poetry. And then after college, for my first job I worked for a literary agent for a year. And while I was doing that I wrote my first script in the evenings. That was the film, Leo, that went straight to video. I wrote that, but I didn't direct it. Then, as we were setting up Leo, there was a company that George Clooney and Steven Soderbergh had at the time called Section Eight. They had read Leo as a sample and they had this project The Jacket that they were trying to get going for several years. They made me a Writers Guild member, and I was able to rewrite it for them, which was a great break for me -- even more so, probably, than Leo. So I steadily wrote for a few years, which was good because it hopefully gave me some credibility to get people to finance a feature. I've wanted to direct from the beginning, and the writing thing was a great way to get there.
Were your parents supportive of you pursuing this career?
You know, they were supportive. It was very foreign for them -- for two Iranian parents. We didn't know anyone in film. We've never known a filmmaker. They were supportive because I always studied; they knew I wasn't going to flake out after college. I hadn't given them a reason, I don't think, to panic about it more than they would have if I wasn't studious. But I'm not going to lie to you: They just didn't understand for a second what filmmaking meant, because we didn't know anyone who did it. "What does that mean, you want to make movies? How does that even work?" I think the foreignness of it made them definitely take pause, but they were very supportive in the sense that they encouraged me when I needed it -- which was a lot of the time. There's so much rejection before you're able to get anything done. There are so many "No"s that precede every "Yes." I appreciate my family's support so much more in retrospect, even, because they got it early on and were nurturing.
So back to Section Eight. How did that connection arise?
The best thing about writing is that if you don't know anyone in Hollywood and you don't know anyone who makes movies, you're just judged by what's on the page. At the time I don't think anyone knew if I was a girl or a boy; Massy isn't a familiar name. A friend who was an assistant at another production company, I guess he had been passing the script around to a couple other assistants, and there was an assistant at Section Eight who's a really good friend of mine now -- Erika Armin -- and she read it and passed it on to her boss, Ben Cosgrove, who worked for Steven and George at the time. Off of that, I got sort of a general meeting with them, and they got The Jacket. And that's sort of how I got an agent. It was just sort of the assistants passing it around among themselves, and it landed with a really generous assistant who passed it up to her boss.
That's amazing. What was your first impression upon getting that meeting, and once you got there, how did it go?
So exciting! Especially if you don't know anyone in film, and you've sort of been not exposed to any of it, the first firsts of the process are so exciting. I remember the first time I drove on to the Warner Bros. lot, and Section Eight was next to Malpaso Productions -- Clint Eastwood's company. I remember parking in the visitor's lot and walking up and looking at the names on the curb. And there was one for Clint Eastwood. And it was such a moment where I was just... you know. Of course, as someone who had watched so many of his films growing up, it was a great moment. And I remember meeting with Ben Cosgrove, who was running Section Eight at the time. His office used to be one of Jack Warner's many offices. I just thought, "Oh, wow." I was very aware that it was a break at the time. Does that make sense?
When you just know it's a moment of change in your life? It felt like that. And probably also because it was my first time driving on to a movie lot. It was great. And it was a great first experience, too, because Section Eight, while it existed, gave a lot of new artists a break. They gave a lot of new writers and a lot of new directors a break. I think that's really valuable. I don't know how many companies still do that, especially as the landscape is changing for independent film. I felt very fortunate and also very grateful. At the time, I just knew this was a great opportunity they were giving me.
The Jacket received a mixed response critically and commercially when it was released. What did you think of the film and how you script was handled?
I'm very proud of The Jacket. It wasn't an original idea -- it was one I was given -- and I really, really enjoyed working with [director] John Maybury and the cast on the film. And you know, it's not a film for everyone. I think it appropriately found its way into a cult category. It's a really odd film: It's about a man in a morgue drawer who thinks he's traveling through time. It's not a "relatable" film. I think certainly, as with Leo, the script as someone else envisions it when they're directing is different than how you envisioned it. But that'sthe nature of passing on the art to someone else and having them bring their art to the table. But I really, really look back at The Jacket fondly. I'm very proud of the film.
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