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INTERVIEW: Director Lena Khan on Diversity, Financing, Disney and More

Sabina Giado interviews Lena Khan, director of The Tiger Hunter on Netflix. Disney recently announced she will also direct a well-loved adaptation called Flora and Ulysses.

Sabina Giado interviews Lena Khan, director of The Tiger Hunter on Netflix. Disney recently announced she will also direct a well-loved adaptation called Flora and Ulysses.

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A good half-decade ago, I had the good fortune of interviewing Lena Khan while she was crowdfunding for a family comedy called The Tiger Hunter. She was South-Asian, she was female, but most striking to me, she was hijabi.

At the time, I was an expert at ignoring my own passion for filmmaking, instead choosing to convince myself I was a writer and only a writer. I told myself over and over that I didn’t have the temperament (read: I wasn’t a mediocre white man) to be a director. Fast forward five years; I’ve finally claimed my identity as a director. I got over having to explain my Muslim identity – honestly people who want to work with me really don’t care. Lena’s film is amazing. It’s on Netflix. It was distributed by Regal Entertainment and Shout! Factory. Disney has just announced that she will direct a well-loved adaptation called Flora and Ulysses.

I had the privilege of interviewing her once more.

SABINA: Was filmmaking always your passion?

LENA: I actually started out in law school. I transferred out to pursue poli-sci/history and was going to go into teaching of some sort.

SABINA: What made you switch to filmmaking?

LENA: I had grown up seeing the influence of film and media. I remember when The Siege (1998 film about martial law being declared in New York after a terrorist attack) came out, my mum took me and a bunch of Muslims to go talk to the head of the studio because they were upset about the portrayal. There’s the power of Hollywood. I had already been doing a lot of film-type work. Any school project I had when I was younger, it was always film. In college, I became a little bit more of an activist and I started acting in a lot of different things. My brother and several older people said, “You’re at UCLA. Why don’t you apply for film school?” All those things came together, and then when I tried for film school, I got in and I was like, “Okay, let’s give this a shot.”

SABINA: In a prior interview with me, you mentioned being amazed at how easy it was for Don Cheadle to bring awareness to the refugee crisis in Sudan after your activist groups had been struggling for so long. Do you do that in your work? And how do you do that?

LENA: I like to. Of course, you can’t be as quite on the nose as someone who comes to university to give a lecture on the subject, which is what Don Cheadle did. Most of the stuff I do is based on either real people or issues. In The Tiger Hunter, it was pulled from dozens and dozens of interviews with immigrants. Those are stories I liked best – real immigrant stories. A TV show I just sold is all based off real people. It’s a very, very diverse show and it just happens to be that because I know a very diverse set of people. The movie I’m working on right now has to do with depression, even though it’s a comedy. I like the stuff I do to be a little deeper than just popcorn entertainment.

SABINA: So in terms of writing, how do you do that without trying to be preachy?

LENA: You kind of have to know what entertainment is. Predominantly the film has to be entertaining and everything else is just secondary to that. A story won’t be entertaining if you’re telling it just to convey a message. I think a lot of ‘message films’ already have human stories attached to them that are fascinating or funny and that’s why they work. We need to find a concept that has that happy mix of the two. That’s why there’s a lot of issues that are very important issues but you don’t get to cover that in a movie because you don’t get that entertainment factor.

SABINA: That’s interesting, because I write dark comedy and I find myself writing a lot about issues. My husband and I loved The Tiger Hunter. My husband never loves what I recommend but he loved this and recommended it to everyone in his family as well. So, thank you for writing that, thank you for making something so warm and funny and un-cynical. So how did you know that this was a viable movie and one that you wanted to direct yourself?

LENA: I don’t think I knew it was going to be as big as it was going to be until it came out. Obviously I thought the hook was really engaging. I had been getting a lot of encouragement from people that I used to work with over at Participant who knew What they were doing. They were like “This is the one.” This is the one they thought that had the most to it. At the time I never thought anybody would be interested in a story with brown people (laughs). In addition to that, this was the one I could tell best at the time as a first feature. With those things put together, I went into it with that hope.

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SABINA: So you were considering other ideas for your first feature?

LENA: There were definitely other projects I was pursuing. They weren’t all ready to just go yet.

SABINA: So how important was that early encouragement? I just want to find out who bolstered the project at every point. You’ve talked in other interviews about Regal Cinemas taking a chance with distribution.

LENA: At the very beginning, nobody was bolstering it. We started working on the script with pretty much nobody backing it. It was just me and my producer, Nazia. Nazia’s basically an old friend of mine who’s one of the only two people I knew who had already done something in the industry. Nobody thought that a movie that had a South Asian lead was going to get anywhere. Nobody thought people who weren’t South Asian would be interested in a story that had so many South Asians. Financing and all that sort of stuff was like pulling teeth. I was at the tail-end of the process looking for distributors or anybody who really wanted to take a chance on it and that was when I started having a very successful festival run. Later on, companies were really excited about the movie in terms of picking it up for distribution or even hiring me, based off how much they liked this movie.

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SABINA: It’s sad, that everybody jumped on the bandwagon after that. I guess that’s the way Hollywood runs.

LENA: Yeah, pretty much, it’s a very risk-averse industry.

SABINA: And the funny thing is the Muslim community is like that as well. I’d like to pivot now to how the Muslim community views media practitioners. I remember hearing you mention ‘Muslim good’ in a talk somewhere on YouTube. So, for some of our non-Muslim Script Magazine readers, what is ‘Muslim good’?

LENA: I’ll give you an example of ‘Muslim good’ from another industry. There’s a lot of shops which have halal meat (the Muslim version of kosher). Muslims will get very excited if you have decent burgers. They’ll be like, “Wow, that’s good,” but really, is it just Muslim good? Can it compete with the other burger shops out there or just with the three other Muslim burger shops you’ve ever eaten at? So that’s where we’re at with Muslim people and Muslim media. People would get really excited by some sketch on YouTube but is it good because all your Muslim buddies like it or is it actually good i.e. can compete with other content out there.

SABINA: What do you think separates Muslim good with actual good?

LENA: Being able to compete outside of just the tiny little Muslim bubble.

SABINA: What are the factors? Production value? Writing value…?

LENA: All those things together, all those things that make a good end product. It’s never just one of those things. You can have something that’s really funny but has no production value. Or you could have something that has a ton of production value but no content. I think you know this answer just as much as I do: what makes a good project? Depends on its job and what it’s going for. Something that hits the goal it’s going for. If it’s a comedy, it has to be funny and so on. It’s not really much deeper than that.

SABINA: I’m writing a micro-budget feature myself and I just got off the phone with a producer that’s very interested in it. She’s encouraging me to reach for the stars in terms of financing, while I’m thinking that I would be happy with 10,000 dollars. So, the question I’m wrestling with is: Where do you find the balance between asking for permission and working within your means? Like going after things that may or may not show up as opposed to simply making the movie?

LENA: Along the way, you have to have an idea of where your skill levels are at coupled with getting very critical feedback from people who know. So if someone gives you 5 million dollars to make that feature, it doesn’t mean you should make that feature for 5 million dollars. You should both have your own meter and have a lot of other respected people, preferably in the industry, to tell you how good your project is. Some of it is your own gut feeling and some of it is humility in taking some of the feedback from some of the people in the industry who know whether this movie is really going to net 1 million or 3 million dollars. I guess this is also why networking is important too. For every person who liked Tiger Hunter, I’m sure there’s people who didn’t. You have to know enough people so that you know who to go to with your project. They have to know enough about the industry but not that it’s confined to stuff that they personally like. People should reach for the stars if their project merits that. If it does, that’s great and you’ll have to be the one who puts the risk first before the industry validates you. But you can’t be too intrepid about it, otherwise you get burnt.

SABINA: When you say ‘If a project merits that,’ do you mean a mainstream concept? So not something like Primer?

LENA: No, anything. There’s a big difference if the money for your feature is raised off donations and nobody’s going to get it back versus a feature that actually has companies and investors putting in 8 trillion dollars and they want to get that 8 trillion dollars back. So, you should have a project that either the investors know there is a very small chance of them getting their money back or a project that can actually earn money. You should get comparatives of films that are like the film you are making and see if they did make that money back. Could you instead write in a genre that’s more commercial? Action does very well at the box office usually, then you need to have the skills and the budget and the know-how to pull that off. So, let’s say you’re making a satirical comedy, where the market share is a lot smaller. Then your satirical comedy better be pretty good. All the coverage you’re getting, all the readers you’re sending your story to, should be like, “Wow, this is really good.” If you have just that much faith in your concept and there are no comparatives, you just need to tell your investors, “Hey. This project is an incredibly risky project but I believe in it. Do you believe in me?” It’s just that those things need to be very transparent. Financing is a lot like American Idol. That’s what I tell a lot of other filmmakers. Simon is not wrong, Simon is usually right when he is being disparaging about certain things. But that doesn’t mean that you don’t do it. But you should know that this guy knows what he’s doing. You need to believe enough that your project is going to be in that statistic that’s going to prove everybody wrong. And you might be, but you need to know that you are in a genre that’s very competitive.

SABINA: Right, okay so it’s basically about getting information about your particular project.

LENA: Yeah, you believe in yourself but you’re not naïve. You’ve got to remember it is a business too, you know.

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SABINA: I heard you were expecting during Tiger Hunter and I’m guessing you have a kid now?

LENA: Yeah

SABINA: So what advice would you give to mum filmmakers?

LENA: My sister always tells people who are having kids, “You’ll figure the whole ‘work, life kids’ thing – because you have to.” I agree with that advice. If it’s something you really want to do, you’ll be able to figure a way out to make it doable.

SABINA: I found that too, speaking to my other mum filmmaker friends. You just kind of figure out how to move forward with the resources that you have.

LENA: Yeah, it’s all you can do, really.

SABINA: In another interview, the advice you gave Muslim filmmakers is to ‘be comfortable in your Muslim skin.’ What does that mean to you?

LENA: I think this applies to both Muslims and non-Muslims. There’s a lack of sincerity, I think at least in America. People seem to be less in tune with their core values or their integrity, whether that is religious or not. It happens a lot in the industry, especially so with Muslims. I think that adhering to those values will only help you. So, having that integrity, having that sincerity, people like that. People like sincerity in your work. It’s the same thing with your values. It doesn’t come off well when you’re hiding everything. Like Jewish filmmakers are always mentioning their culture, even if we are just sitting around talking about work. There’s no reason we can’t do that, too. When you can’t drink, just say that you can’t drink. People don’t actually mind; it just comes off a bit more awkward when you’re hiding it.

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SABINA: Drinking is one thing, but there’s also fasting, praying, hijab. How do you manage all that stuff? You talked about praying on set and everybody had to stop because you were the director.

LENA: Well, that didn’t happen very often. It only happened once or twice, and it’s not like I made a thing out of it. It’s just when I literally couldn’t avoid it. When I say ‘be comfortable with who you are,’ I don’t mean to make a big deal out of it or flaunt it. I don’t really talk about these things all that much. But I also don’t need to take such pains to hide it. I don’t need to tell somebody, ‘Hey, I need to go sneak outside to pray.’ I just go. But literally when you’re on set and everybody’s around you and there are only a couple of places to pray, you just got to say, ‘Hey, I need to pray right now,’ you know?

SABINA: What would you tell the Muslim community about supporting filmmakers?

LENA: Yeah, I’ve said this before and certainly feel so strongly about it now. The reason I was able to make The Tiger Hunter and have the jobs I have now is because of the people who have helped me make my smaller projects early on, back when it was very not cool to support young filmmakers. It’s a necessity. You need more than one film/media guru out there – we need many, many, many of them. Which means that the people who look like they have potential, these young filmmakers – they need the support now. People are coming up to me now and asking me if they can finance a film. I tell them I’ve got studio financing and I don’t need it. But I needed it then. There’s young filmmakers out there that need that financing now. And it’s so important that we have personal support as well as institutional support. We [the Muslim community] only have one grant [the Islamic Scholarship Fund]. Other groups already have many initiatives with major studios or networks, they have grants, all kinds of things. We need to get to that level to have some sort of difference.

SABINA: I want to talk about the filming of The Tiger Hunter specifically. So, I read that you went to India to film the Indian scenes and I heard that you were 7 months pregnant at the time. Did you need any special considerations? What was that like – filming pregnant?

LENA: I was there for a week and it was terrible. I wore loose clothes and my senses were really heightened. It smelled terrible and I was nauseated a lot but I didn’t tell anybody I was pregnant. I didn’t want to affect things on set for other people. So, when I was there, it affected things on my end but it didn’t affect the timings and organisation for the production.

SABINA: So you essentially did what you always do. It’s a lot of running around and stuff, right?

LENA: Yeah, didn’t have too much of a choice. It was the only time we could film and so that’s what we did.

SABINA: Wow. Did you use an actual tiger for the tiger scenes?

LENA: We purchased footage for the tiger scenes. We’re not allowed to film tigers in India. You’d have to go to Thailand.

SABINA: So with postproduction, did you deliver your baby by the time you were in post-production? So, you were editing… with a newborn?

LENA: Yeah. It was a little bit of madness. I would try to schedule color sessions late at night when the baby was asleep. There was a lot of editing from home. I asked my editor to upload to my hard drive. He would send me the files, I would do some tweaks on my own and show them to him, rather than sit in the room with him, quite as much as I wanted to. There was a lot of sneaking the pump into the posthouse. I was avoiding going as much as I humanly could. When I had to come in, there would be awkward pumping things basically. I’d have to find discrete bags to put things in the posthouse refrigerator. You know, mum stuff.

SABINA: Very interesting. Very relatable for a mom but not something a lot of people think about.

LENA: Yeah, everyone else would be weirded out. I didn’t mention it to people.

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SABINA: How was the festival run?

LENA: It was a good 8 months. We opened in L.A. and we went around the country. My other producer, Megha Kadakia, she’s fantastic. She positioned the film really well because, after the first few film festivals, it was doing really well and it won a lot of awards. She told the other festivals that we would only do opening night or closing night. It was very cool in terms of getting press out there. My son did come with me to a few of the festivals. After about seven or eight months, Shout! Factory had heard about it and Regal Entertainment had heard the buzz about it, so they both came on board.

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SABINA: So post The Tiger Hunter, what has your career been like?

LENA: As soon as we came out of the festival run, I got signed by my reps and right after that, I got my agents. Things went a lot quicker and easier after that. Recently a story of mine – a family drama about a magician with chronic depression – got investment funding. They got a very prominent screenwriter to do it and he should be finishing up his first draft soon. I also just got contracted to direct this Disney movie, a very cool family comedy called Flora and Ulysses. And we had just closed a deal for another comedy TV show. I’m trying to pursue episodic TV directing, too, but not as much as these other things.

SABINA: So when you said you sold a TV show, you’re going to be showrunning that right?

LENA: I think I’m going to be co-showrunning.

SABINA: So doesn’t that entail directing some of those episodes yourself?

LENA: Those are separate deals actually. I would like to shoot some of the episodes but that’s not part of the show sale. I might or I might not direct.

SABINA: So how did Disney happen?

LENA: That’s a really cool story because when you get signed, your reps get you to attend general meetings around town. A lot of the meetings went very well. I met someone called Kristin Hahn who set up Plan B – she’s a very prominent producer. She had a movie and she wanted me to come on board. We had a meeting with her. Six months later, when Catherine Hardwicke stepped off that project, she then had an opening. She told Disney she wanted me to come in and pitch. I was the second choice for that one; there was another female director up for that same job. The other director got it. But I had that meeting and that pitch had gone really well and they did like me. Around that time, I met Gil Netter (who’s done things like Life of Pi and The Blind Side) and he sent me a script called Flora and Ulysses, which I loved. So, I pitched to him, he brought me onboard for that project and we pitched it to Disney – to the same people I pitched to before (who were kind of looking for something to do with me anyway). So basically the stars aligned.

SABINA: So are you the first Muslim director ever at Disney?

LENA: Oh, I have no idea. I don’t know the history of hires. I don’t know too many Muslim directors out there doing much studio work. There are some out there and there are also some that aren’t practicing or not as connected to the community, so you can’t tell.

SABINA: You’ve had an incredible journey so far. It’s been really interesting to talk to you and I’m looking forward to seeing what you do next.

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