screenwriter to watch
Sara Zandieh is an award-winning Iranian-American filmmaker whose first short film, The Pool Party, won a Jury prize at the Tribeca Film Festival and screened at festivals worldwide. Her next short, Reza Hassani Goes to the Mall, starring Maz Jobrani, premiered at the Telluride Film Festival and won the Focus Features Best Film Award at the Columbia University Film Festival. Sara then directed an episode of MTV’s critically acclaimed documentary series, Rebel Music. She holds an MFA in film directing from Columbia University’s School of Arts, is a recipient of the Fulbright Grant for filmmaking, the La Fémis director’s workshop, and a MacDowell Colony fellowship. Her feature film, Simple Wedding, a romantic comedy starring Rita Wilson, Shohreh Aghdashloo, Tara Grammy, and Christopher O’Shea, recently premiered at Film Independent’s LA Film Festival and will be released theatrically in 2019 by Blue Fox Entertainment.
How did you break in or get your start in screenwriting?
I went the academic route and studied film at Columbia University’s School of Arts. The curriculum in Columbia’s film school is very writing centric so that even though my concentration was in directing, I took a lot of screenwriting classes and was mentored by amazing screenwriters. The philosophy at Columbia is that everything starts with a good story so you spend a lot of time parsing out the story before you begin writing pages. With my first feature screenplay, I got accepted into the Cine Qua Non Screenwriting Lab in Mexico where I got to workshop my screenplay with seven other screenwriters and develop my story under the mentorship of the amazing screenwriter, Sabrina Dhawan (Monsoon Wedding). That was a big turning point for that project. Columbia, workshops, and my community of screenwriter friends from school and elsewhere have been essential in developing my work.
Writer/Director – Simple Wedding
Writer/Director – Reza Hassani Goes to the Mall
Writer/Director – The Pool Party
Writer/Director – Deadline
Writer/Director – Foreigner
What are some of the biggest lessons you’ve learned?
I think my biggest lesson as a writer is that if you aren’t clear on your story and its message, it’ll be really hard to see it through. Ultimately, every movie can be distilled down to a core — the story, characters, and message that you are trying to communicate. Another lesson was that the projects I was able to deliver were the ones that were truly near and dear to my heart and not just an idea or concept that I was trying to power through.
What’s the hardest scene or project you’ve ever had to write? How did you navigate the challenge?
My first feature film has been the hardest so far. I think I wrote nearly 30 drafts over the course of 5 years! It was challenging because it was a story that was personal and I didn’t have a lot of distance from it. I finally started breaking through when I started writing it for my lead actress and the character evolved into someone very different from me. I think writing from the personal is very effective because it’s sincere and authentic but it can also be confusing, so ultimately I think it’s important to have distance from the experience that you’re writing about.
What was a major turning point in your career?
Making my first short film, The Pool Party, was a big step. I grew so much on that film and having it recognized at Tribeca was both heartening and surprising. My first feature film, Simple Wedding, has also been a major turning point. I learned so much. I’ve become more responsible, mature, and professional in the process—I think! I shed some of that adolescent happy go lucky filmmaking student attitude; the feature made me much more meticulous and aware about time and money.
What are you working on right now?
I’m writing several TV pilots right now as I would like to pivot into TV for a while until I figure out what my next movie is. I love writing characters and relational stories. TV is appealing because you get to continue to develop the same characters for a long time and go deep with them.
What are some of your favorite movies?
My taste is so broad. I love art house cinema but I also love commercial comedies. Some of my favorite art house movies are Robert Bresson’s “Au Hasard Balthazar” and Abbas Kiarostami’s “The Taste of Cherry.” I also love comedies — “Annie Hall”, “The Bird Cage”, and even more contemporary commercial work like “Bridesmaids.”
Who are some of your favorite screenwriters?
Charlie Kaufman, Alexander Payne, and Asghar Farhadi are a few that I’ve been reading lately. I love their characters and satirical wit. They also have my favorite components — comedy, tragedy, and poetry.
Share a memorable experience at Austin Film Festival.
I showed my short film “Reza Hassani Goes to the Mall” in 2012 and got to meet one of my favorite actors and activists Susan Sarandon. I’ll never forget it, she was so gracious. Later, she actually read my script and considered a part. Returning to the festival with my first feature “Simple Wedding” felt like coming full circle. I love how supportive and enthusiastic the festival is for writers.