Filmmaker On The Rise: A Q&A With Asad Farooqui
The best screenplays come from lived experience. All it takes is that one snippet of a conversation that you remember from third grade or overhearing a passing comment in a cafe to ground any scene in a tangible reality. Pakistani-American filmmaker Asad Farooqui renders these moments from his life to weave dark satirical comedies that shed light on the immigrant experience. Born in Pakistan his family migrated to Atlanta, Georgia when he was just eight years old. “We moved here for my mother’s cancer treatment. She didn’t make it. She passed away three years later when I was 11,” Farooqui told Oz Magazine.
Farooqui had a tough time assimilating to American culture, but he learned English through the ESOL program, and after attending Lake Shore High School he went on to Emory University for his undergraduate degree. “I studied comparative religion and business management. I had no film background whatsoever,” Farooqui noted. In his senior year he decided to take Emory’s Theatre 101 course to fulfill a general education requirement. That led him to audition for his one and only role while attending the university. “It was the very first audition of my life and I ended up getting the lead role. I just loved the collaborative process of theatre and teamwork. How we were all working towards one goal,” he reminisced.
After graduating, Farooqui took a two year position in Washington D.C. for a governmental tax division. After his appointment wasn’t extended he moved back to Atlanta to work for an industrial supply company in their tax division.
It was around this time that he started thinking back to his experience at Emory and how much he enjoyed acting. He didn’t have any contacts in the Atlanta film or theatre world so he decided to start forging his own path. “I started looking up how to write short scripts … and made four or five short films in a period of four or five months.” These short films played around town at Emory, nothing major, but they showed Farooqui the ins and outs of how to create on a budget.
Farqooui’s passion for filmmaking finally culminated in his application to Columbia University. “I didn’t think I would get in, because I didn’t have a background in film. They interviewed me and it went well. So I ended up going there. I was there for the past four years.” He got formal training in screenwriting, pilot writing, and feature writing at the Ivy League. Since his time at Columbia he has received praise for his feature script BIN as a finalist at Sundance’s Writer’s Lab, won first place at the Atlanta Film Festival Screenplay Contest for The Immigration Game, and his short film Broke was an official selection for the 2018 Atlanta Film Festival. Oz recently caught up with Farquooi to discuss his past and current projects.
Oz Magazine: Can you tell me about the writing and process for your short film Broke?
Asad Farooqui: Broke is the film that played at the Atlanta Film Fest. I made it very cheaply, something like 200 bucks or less and it ended up getting into the Atlanta Film Festival. I did that just because I was a Georgia filmmaker so it cost 20 bucks to enter it ... I thought it would be an interesting thing because you rarely get to see a Pakistani Muslim couple at a therapist office.
OM: Broke has an unconventional style, can you talk about that?
So, I just kind of experimented … there is a nine minute long take and the camera doesn’t move, and then you get cuts from the girl and the guy’s perspective, and what they have to say. You never see the therapist, you just hear her. Basically the two characters are just talking to the audience.
How did you approach Mabrook differently than Broke?
Mabrook, which is my most recent film, I shot in early February, I barely made the cut off before things shut down. So we just wrapped up with the edit. It’s pretty finalized. It’s my thesis film for Columbia. It’s much more like a feature film. Broke was much more of a character study for a pilot script ... Mabrook is about an Eid party, which is a religious holiday for us. It happens right after Ramadan ends. It’s about two families and the issues of politics that come up … It’s an ensemble piece that is told from one character's perspective … [Eid parties] were always centered around South Asian and Pakistani politics. The idea that these elder men never realize that you are not really living in that. It’s not impacting you, but yet you for some reason can’t let go of that. You are enjoying the life that America gives you, but yet you claim to be very Pakistani and nationalistic. So, that was a bit of a hypocritical way of doing things. I just noticed that I was very observant.
As a director what do you feel is your number one role to play?
My number one role to play is to make sure the actors are there on time and are ready to go. I feel like nothing destroys a film like bad acting. So I work with my DP Abijeet [Achar], who is phenomenal; he shot Pageant Material. I think it sold out the Plaza Theatre twice. He’s just great to work with; he’s easy. I create my shot list and we go over it. It becomes extensive. For example, in Mabrook, shots were very specific. There was that really long take in the beginning of the film where the characters are introduced with the mom, my character was there, my father is introduced and we go to the front door to let the guests in, and that was all one take. Some of those shots are very very intricate. So they have to be discussed quite heavily. We did all that prep well before the shoot. I knew that on the day of I would have to spend so much time with the actors that if the shots start messing up then we are in a lot of trouble. Thankfully most of the actors were quite good ㅡ they did their job and they understood. We had a couple issues here and there, but overall it was a good experience. One thing I’ll tell you about a set is that, man, if there’s one bad apple, it’s over. It is so awful that the atmosphere becomes toxic if you have one person who doesn’t really believe in the collaboration or is just disengaged; that can kill a set. So you have to be very specific with the people that you work with. Abijeet is that kind of a DP, he’s very easy to work with. I have worked with DPs that are complete divas ㅡ they can ruin it. One piece of advice: pick your DP very carefully.
“Just because you saw a ten minute movie doesn’t mean it took ten minutes to make.”
How much prep work do you do with your actors before you get on set?
A lot, because my actors are non actors, so they don’t really have the understanding of the basics … If you are required in the shot, you can’t leave. It actually has a lot to do with what Mabrook is about: the arts, filmmaking, theatre aren’t taken seriously. You see that on set, because those people come from those backgrounds and they don’t realize that it’s work. Just because you saw a ten minute movie doesn’t mean it took ten minutes to make. A lot of them don’t know that. They don’t know that you have to keep doing it over and over and over again. So that’s work … That’s partially why I act. I know that there might be someone more talented, but they wouldn’t be willing to do it for free … I’ll do everything in my control to fulfill the role that I’m playing, despite the limited talent … I try to basically cast for the character in a way that this person is already similar to this character, so they just kind of have to be themselves, because if you have to try to get them to start acting ㅡ acting then obviously you start realizing they don’t have those chops. They can’t become chameleons. They don’t know what that process is like. Acting seems very easy but it’s not.
So as far as your projects, what do you feel like your biggest hurdle in getting them from page to screen?
Money. Immigration Game is the one that is in the pipeline right now. It’s being produced by Melodie Sisk. She did the Death of Dick Long, which is an A24 movie, it played at Sundance in 2019. That was her last production. So yeah, just finding enough money to get it done. The other ㅡ issue is: you want to hire the right actors. The lead is a Pakistani character, so you don’t want to hire somebody who’s Indian or Bengali or South Asian. You want the actor to be [Pakistani] because they deserve that role. You want to be specific, and now this is becoming a much bigger issue; it’s a PR issue. Crazy Rich Asians faced it when an actor was half something else and it came out in the media and it became an issue ... I think, in a way, it’s a good thing that filmmakers, and films are being forced to hire the people that they have written ㅡ instead of making others become those characters. Ten years ago, if you had a transgender person in a movie, you’d get a straight actor to play them. Now you can’t get away with that. That’s a good thing.
As far as Immigration Game, where are you at in pre-production?
Initially, before COVID, we were planning on shooting February and March. We had the money in place, but then COVID happened. [The funding] is private equity so the investor exits and you don't know what the environment is going to be like. So now we are in a bit of limbo trying to figure out where we can find the financing. We’re hoping Mabrook can get into some big festivals. That would help Immigration Game a lot. This was a short that I really, really pressed for, because I don’t know how many more short films I have left in me. That’s the other thing, you see a lot of shorts and they’re not very good, and of course they are not because you don’t have a lot of time to tell the story. It’s hard to make a short. It really is … I’m hoping that with Mabrook we can get a couple more investors. I think Immigration Game is the passion project that should be made.
Within the Immigration Game script all of the more pious characters seem performative. How much of what you are doing is trying to critique this religious culture?
It’s a satire and I feel like it’s always more fun to do a story where every character, or at least most of the characters, are very grey. In the Immigration Game in particular, I don’t think there is even one character that is good. I think they are all extremely grey, from the main character to the Imam to the lead female character, to Amir who is the first cousin, to the dad that is always laying down in bed and is constantly critiquing all the things. No one is really good; everyone is flawed and that was what was interesting to me. I’ve gotten the note where it is such a wicked script. I’ll be honest, it’s been hard to find investors and producers because they say it’s too wicked of a film. To me, that’s a compliment. That means that they understood it; that’s important. I feel like with immigrant stories, especially, what ends up happening is that an American audience is very used to watching these sob dramas about immigrants and you feel bad for them, but growing up, immigrants are some of the smartest slickest people you will meet. You’ll hear their accent, you’ll feel bad and then they’ll take your clothes and you won’t even realize it. You know they are that slick; I’ve seen that. Presented the way it is, why make anyone look like a victim here.
I don’t think the main character, Majeed, in Immigration Game, is a victim ㅡ he’s a creator of his own issues. However, I do feel like it’s going to be interesting to know which side the audience falls on when he’s arrested. I feel like he’s dehumanized … and that’s a real story. That part happened to me; that’s one reason I made the shift from finance to film. My first cousin who had overstayed his visa became undocumented. He was arrested by ICE. They came in our house, I was getting ready for work early in the morning and the doorbell rang. I heard, “We would like to speak to your son.” My father opened the door and I was like, “Oh my God. What's this about?” I locked my door and didn’t come down for about five minutes. No one came upstairs so I gathered my courage and came down. Then there was this hefty white lady who was guarding my front door. And she said, “There’s another one up there,” looking right at me. It was a very interesting, very real experience. And, as sad as it was, I found it to be tragically comedic. What a joke life can be, what a joke the legal system can be, what a joke we’ve made of ourselves where we want to be in a country where there aren’t as many opportunities you’d like to think there are, but we’ve told ourselves that there are; just the idea of the story we tell ourselves.
The other interesting thing about Immigration Game is how it inverts the idea of the ‘Meet Cute’ (the not so subtle situations where romance is ignited in film and television). Where do most of the characters come from?
So much of them are derived from real life … It’s always about a Pakistani-American Muslim character usually, and it’s about the difficulty realizing what your identity is; because the bi-cultural identity is confusing. You know you’re never really Pakistani enough and you are never really American enough. We have found this out in a way, because it’s so hard financing for certain movies. South Asian-American is something that is still relatively small. It isn’t really a community that really developed in the terms of filmmaking. Kind of like the latino community and obviously like the Black community. This is a community of people of color that still are not as existent as they should be. I’m hoping that something will come of it. I think it’s interesting being Muslim in America as well post 9/11, and things like that.
“Make a short film that is easy to make, that doesn’t require money and focus on character.”
What has been your experience with teaching Atlanta Film Society’s Diverse Stories and Screenwriting 101?
It’s great because I feel like so much of what is taught, even what I was taught at Columbia, is a very conventional type of structure. But every story is as different as the person that writes it. The three act structure ㅡ beginning, middle, and end ㅡ is very important to understand, but that’s not the only way of telling a story. I feel like a lot of women, people of color, Muslims, LGBTQ distressed communities in a way, their stories should be based on their experiences and what they want to say. There should be a class that helps them figure out their own voice instead of what the structure should be. It’s very voice driven … We’ve had great students. They always write back, and they thank me. So I hope they learned something. Overall, just make the short film. Make a short film that is easy to make, that doesn’t require money and focus on character. Don’t focus on issues of budget, don’t try to do plane crashes and things of that nature. Just do two people in a room if you have to, and make drama from those two characters. That’s really my advice.
What are some things that you have learned from teaching that course?
I learned that there are a lot of individuals that didn’t feel like they should write because someone told them that. They heard or they felt like they weren’t good enough. I don’t think anyone is good enough until they do it and then eventually you get better just like anything else. It’s more about motivation than the X and Os of screenwriting. Screenwriting 101 and learning the basics is learning like what an inciting incident is, which puts the story into gear and then what’s the decision that takes the character on their journey. And then you know there’s the midpoint and where there’s a failure. You know there’s a set up; it’s like a procedure in a way. But I just felt like, with this class, it shouldn’t be procedural. It should just be them saying something because they feel like they have something to say.