How did this project begin? Do you recall how you first got the idea for telling this story?
I wrote the script in 2003. A year later I took it to Berlin and showed it to a successful short film producer, who read it and said it was the worst script he had ever read! You can imagine what a blow that was! So I went back to Slovakia, where I was living at the time, and forgot about it until a year later, when by chance I read it again. This time I thought the opinion of that German film producer was quite unfair. So, I showed it to a screenwriter friend of mine, Biba Buhinska, who read it and thought it was great, but needed some editing. She beautifully edited the script and then showed it to her boyfriend, who happened to be a high profile film producer in Slovakia. He loved it and decided to finance it with his partner. Six months later I was on the set shooting it.
How did I get the idea? Well, when I was going to college in the 90s I was into Nietzsche. Once I was discussing his famous quote "God is Dead" with a friend and we came up with this funny idea for an actual t-shirt with two slogans on it. On front "God is Dead. Nietzsche" and on the back "No, Nietzsche is Dead. God." I had a lot of fun with the idea then, but I didn't know that one day I would base one of my films on it!
Can you tell me anything about your choice of Marián Mitas and Andrej Kovác for the two main roles?
I loved Marian because of his acting skills and his innocent yet proud face. And I loved Andrej because he looked like a combination of Middle Eastern and Caucasian.
I would not want to reduce this film to a political statement - it is far more than that, and the characters are not mere cardboard cutouts. But it is a politically meaningful film and I was wondering how you would personally describe the politics of T-Shirt - including the film's various evocations of American culture.
Well, I care about politics, particularly in this polarized world. I was in London when the bombings happened. I have friends who lost relatives in that terrible event. I was born in Iran and I have lost friends and relatives to the firing squads of the Islamic Republic too. So, politics is something I have lived with and thought about most of my adult life.
You're right that T-Shirt is a politically meaningful film. Actually when I finished the work I wanted to put a sentence at the end of the film and it would be: "This film is a contribution to the war against terror"! But then I decided not to. I thought it would be too much. Anyway, there is a political layer in T-Shirt, but I think it's a secondary layer. It is there and it shows itself first, but it's not really what the film's about. I think the film is, first and foremost, about the absurdity of human conflict.
I have seen references to humor in this film but don't know exactly what aspects of T-Shirt might be thought of as humorous. Do you personally see humor in the film?
Yes, I do. I think the whole story is somewhat funny. If you think about it, the film is actually absurd. Not tragically, but comically. There is also some humor in the dialogues and the situation with the second customer in the end is funny too.
Here we have a film set in Slovakia, produced in the Czech Republic, made by Persian-born director who is living in Canada. Any comments on this particular mixture of nationalities in relation to the story you have told?
I think the mixture has helped me to stay away from the stereotypical. It's easy to fall into the trap of anti-Americanism when you make a film like T-Shirt. I didn't have to make an effort not to fall into that trap. It was rather easy to avoid, and I think part of the reason was due to the fact that I'd lived and worked in many different cultures. The experience modifies the hard-core and the extreme in you!
When I was writing the script I knew that I loved America, but MY America. The America of Benjamin Franklin and Martin Luther King and Jerry Lewis! That I cherished. What I disliked was the arrogance and ignorance of America. I tried to put these mixed feelings into the film by creating Tomas' character. He's a guy who loves baseball and has an American flag on the wall, but at the same time doesn't let an American intimidate him.T-Shirt has done exceptionally well at many festivals. What do you personally feel are the film's greatest strengths? And is there anything at all that you now wish you had done any differently?
The strongest point of the film, I think, is the script. When I was going to film school my professors used to tell us "with a good script you can make a bad film, but with a bad script you cannot make a good film." That's true! But I'd like to take this one step further: I think the script is the foundation of the film. With a good script even an average director can make a pretty good film. But with a bad script not even a John Ford or Akira Kurosawa can do much.
And yes, there is something I wish I had done differently. I wish I had done a better job as a director!
You make public service spots as well as short films. Do you see those two very different types of narratives as having anything in common with regard to storytelling strategies?
The thing that connects these two types of narratives for me is the length, or the shortness of the length. You know, the shorter it gets, the harder it gets to make. I find this time limitation fascinating. In a PSA you've got to put across an idea in 30 seconds. In a short you tell a story in 10 or 15 minutes. That's a real challenge. You've got to think economically, and avoid mental masturbation because there's no time for it! Now, that I find very healthy and educational. I'm allergic to films that are not made economically!
The short is a specific animal with specific needs and characteristics. I think the mistake a lot of short filmmakers make is to approach their short with a feature mentality. You can't do that. It's like looking for a novel in a poem! A short is a short, a feature is a feature. Not that I have anything against feature films. As a matter of fact I'm writing my second feature right now. But I think we have to treat the short format with the respect and recognition it deserves, and not think of it as just a calling card.
Where do you go from here? Anything you can tell about present or future projects?
Three months ago I was short-listed to participate in Live Earth, an event put together by Al Gore on the environmental crisis. They only wanted 60 directors from all over the world. So, it was heart-warming that I was approached too, particularly because I care a lot about the environment. Two weeks ago I was also picked by Sundance Institute in the US to take part in their 2008 Sundance Filmmakers Award, which is basically a high-profile feature script competition, with winners getting up to 3 million bucks to make their first or second features. This all is happening, I think, because of the success of T-Shirt. Here I have to say that my producer, Forward International, and my distributor, Future Shorts, have done a fantastic job in promoting me and the film.
My plan for the next few months is to finish my feature script, write a couple of shorts and finally get on the plane and go to some of the festivals that are inviting me! You won't believe it, but I have not yet been to any of the 51 festivals that have invited me! Quite a shame!
Is there any advice you would give to student filmmakers about to make their own first short films?
If I want to be blunt I would say: write a great script, make sure you love it, and then make your film using the KISS formula: Keep It Simple Stupid!
6 August 2007
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