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Interview: Caveh Zahedi Talks I Am a Sex Addict

Slant spoke with Zahedi about the dual challenges of serving his subject and his audience.

Interview: Caveh Zahedi Talks I Am a Sex Addict

Caveh Zahedi’s new film I Am a Sex Addict is a cinematically inventive, starkly candid and strangely charismatic journey through the actor-director’s battle to overcome his sex addiction. Narrated by Zahedi on the day of his third wedding, the film revisits his compulsive encounters with prostitutes and the damage they inflicted on his relationships with women, using a beguiling mix of direct-to-camera confessionals, authentic home-movie footage, dramatic reenactments, and even flash animations to explore Zahedi’s past. The man has long toiled on the experimental vanguard of cinematic autobiography, and the film is his most conscious effort to appeal to a mainstream audience—ironically through the most painfully private subject matter he has explored to date. I spoke with Zahedi about the dual challenges of serving his subject and his audience, insights that arose while making the film, and reactions to the film’s subject matter from his actresses and the public.

What films about addiction inspired you? The direct address to the audience reminded me of Trainspotting.

I think I’ve seen them all. I watched Lost Weekend a lot and loved the structure of that. When a Man Loves a Woman, Clean and Sober, Days of Wine and Roses. But none of them were very helpful for my purposes because they were all very classical in structure. I really wanted to be true to the reality of my experience. The problem with my film is that people think the film is redundant and repetitive.

But with addiction isn’t that the point?

But with a lot of viewers, the way they are trained to watch movies, they need a constantly escalating narrative arc. The film doesn’t have that structure, so some people find it a little long. It was a real trick to make it 90 minutes and stick to the facts.

Prior to this film I think most people may know you from your monologue in Waking Life about the “Holy Moment” and how every moment in life has sacredness to it. How do you relate that theory with these moments you’ve had with your sex addiction, compulsively seeking the company of prostitutes?

A lot of people say that addicts are people who have a strong spiritual yearning and they’re actually looking for spiritual feeling, but they’re not finding it. There is spiritual yearning behind the sexual drive, and the alcoholic and drug and gambling drives too. I do think there is a metaphysical quality to sexual encounters with strangers. Something about intimacy and strangeness at the same time that is a little bit like the religious experience. At the same time it is an escape from the true spiritual experience of intimacy that one is wanting, and I guess the film is an attempt to show addiction in those terms. [Pause] In terms of the holy moment—the idea is that every moment is holy. It’s just a matter of whether you see it or not. There’s a guy who went to see a guru. He was an alcoholic. The guru said, “I’m not going to tell you not to drink, just think it is God drinking God.” I remember thinking, why don’t I try that? So I had sex with a prostitute and I thought this is God giving a blowjob to God. And I thought if I could keep the God consciousness in my mind that might heal it. Well, it was an interesting experience but it didn’t really heal it.

Over the course of the narrative you put out a lot of theories about how to deal with your conflicted feelings about sex. There’s an early moment when you’re talking about your problems with monogamy and how at the time you link it to problems with capitalism and the Vietnam War.

Obviously they’re absurd to a great degree, though I don’t completely reject them. The film attempts to be dialectical. It posits something, then it refutes it to move toward a deeper understanding through negation. There’s the idea in Hinduism of a negative path to God. You do everything that’s opposite to what they say you should do. Instead of doing good, you do really bad. In a way the film is an attempt to show the negative path to God, sin as the path, not virtue. And arguably sin is a better path because you learn more deeply what it is you’re dealing with. They say the worst sinners make the greatest saints.

That makes me think of Pickpocket. I feel there was a Bressonian way in how you treated the actors.

I thought about Pickpocket a lot and I studied it very carefully before I made my movie. I wasn’t trying to do a Bressonian acting job so much. I was going for naturalism as much as possible with a stylization that was appropriate to the style of the movie. I knew I could get away with a lot of flatness because the film isn’t naturalistic and because it’s so self-conscious.

I wonder if it’s a strategy to appeal to the audience. If there’s a certain level of artifice and distance, it makes the subject matter more acceptable.

This film was made with an audience in mind of, say, my intelligent friends who weren’t film people. My earlier films were aimed at film people. I went broader than I usually go. I did dozens of test screenings and tried to figure out what people did and did not respond to. Things that I loved I would cut out because people didn’t respond to, and things I disliked I kept because the audience loved it.

Why did you feel the need to do that?

I really wanted the film to get seen. I’d made four features and they didn’t get distributed very widely. Because of the subject matter I thought it was an important film for people to see and I thought it would do well in the marketplace.

I think for a lot of people it’s very uncomfortable to watch someone put their self on screen as explicitly as you have. It’s very easy to accuse an artist of being indulgent by the very nature of the subject matter. When you make a film like this, are you conscious about being too narcissistic or indulgent?

I always find that accusation really thoughtless. Narcissism is self-love to an excessive degree. I don’t think that my films exhibit excessive self-love. On the contrary, they’re incredibly harsh on . If anything I can see someone coming up to me and saying, “You poor thing, you shouldn’t be so harsh on yourself.”

Isn’t that kind of a perverse way of appealing to an audience? The self-flagellation becomes the seduction. Woody Allen does it all the time.

With this film, I had to appeal to the audience for them to be interested in the movie. In my other films, I don’t try very hard for the audience to like me, and as a result a lot more of them don’t, and it prevents them from watching the movie. There’s a certain amount of audience identification that’s necessary for a film to be successful, and I needed that minimum amount. I went as far as I could to stay on the line of not being accessible. I tried to find a balance that seemed comfortable for me and had integrity while serving the marketplace. In terms of self-indulgence, it’s really just pleasing yourself. But this film was conceived in terms of what pleases another. This film was made in terms of understanding what a viewer would need to engage. In that sense it’s anything but self-indulgent.

It sounds like there may be a parallel between your evolving relationship with both your audience and with the women in your life.

One definition of love is being aware that there is someone else in the room. My films, if you watch them from first to last, they are increasingly aware that there is someone else in the room. It’s a greater level of communicativeness. There are two schools of thought about art. One is like Harold Bloom says in The Western Canon, that the defining characteristic of a canonical work is its strangeness. And strangeness is inassimilable. It is canonical over time but it is rejected in its time. I think most of my works have been very strange and that’s what I was aiming for. In a way those are my favorite films because you can’t reduce them. They tend to get rejected or seen through the wrong lens, but they stand out over time. The more communicative you get, the more you have to predigest what you do, and the more you have to reduce the strangeness quotient of your work. While this film demonstrates increasing communicative power, I’m not sure it’s more artistically accomplished.

But you do incorporate a lot of disparate elements: home-movie footage, flash animation, dramatic reenactments and self-reflexive narration. Do you have that much texture in your other films?

The other films are more one thread followed to an extreme degree. This film juggles a lot of things, which is pleasurable for the viewer. There’s also a zeitgeist issue. I think that the cinematic zeitgeist is not neo-realism anymore. My first films were coming out of neo-realism and an exploration of how far into the real you could go. But I thought I got as far as I could go in embracing reality, in a photographic way, with the last film, In the Bathtub of the World. There was no future there for me. I think that the zeitgeist now is the different levels of reality and the way that fiction and reality are radically intertwined. I think that hybrid films are the wave of the future. What’s happening in the present at a very deep level is a very self-conscious awareness of the history of cinema, the dishonesty of mass culture, and how do you speak sincerely and intelligently within the constraints of the current culture. I think the answer to that is new and emerging. [Pause] There are two things happening. There’s the personal documentary coming out of the tradition of Sherman’s March, and which I think is starting to get a little tired. And there’s this other strand, a playful, self-conscious strand, which you see in Charlie Kaufman movies, Run Lola Run, or Moulin Rouge. These films are very self-conscious, non-linear and intricate aesthetically. Tarnation is a good example because it blends the intricacy with the personal. Without the intricacy the personal documentary is starting to feel tired. Without the personal the intricate feels empty.

I was very conscious of a version of you on screen, a persona being presented. How consciously were you crafting your on-screen persona?

The interesting thing about cinema is it captures things you are not aware of. The problem with Hollywood cinema is that the whole way those things are made is calculated to minimize the seepage of the real into the frame. In my films I try to let reality seep through as much as possible. I shape it but I try to let the real enter. I don’t try to control my persona very much. I couldn’t tell you what it is.

Do you shoot and look at the footage immediately after? What’s your technique in working with actors?

Yes, I look immediately after shooting. And we do a lot of takes. In this film I was trying to reenact things that actually happened, so I was trying to get the essence of the scene I was writing, and recapture the metaphysical je ne sais quoi that made it an interesting scene for me to capture.

And yet there’s the other layer of footage about the footage being shot, which I guess is part of trying to explore that same essence of the original moment.

I always had this dream of making a film and shooting the making of the film, and making a film that would incorporate both of those elements simultaneously. We had 100 hours of making-of footage and 100 hours of actual fictional footage. We were trying to combine them but it was overwhelming as an editing challenge.

And I guess it risks being too self-reflexive for the audience you had in mind.

We decided just to edit the fictional stuff and then see what we could layer in with the other stuff. We had a version that was much more full of making-of stuff, and we test-screened it and the audience couldn’t get into the characters.

So when you include a moment like Emily Morse, the actress who plays your girlfriend Christa, balking at being asked to give an on-screen blowjob, what are you trying to achieve?

A lot of things. It brings back the fact that you’re watching the film, instead of it being just one level, especially the sexual politics involved behind the film. Because what you want in a film is a dream, and a film is good when it has a lot of dream quotient. In this film the dream quotient was in the space where the viewer is imagining what’s going on behind the images. And there was something, to me, very funny about having the viewer imagine the scene. It gave it one extra dimension.

And you’re putting trust in your filmmaking because by that point you’ve established the sex acts so explicitly. I’m thinking of the look on your face in the many scenes that you’re getting a blowjob. There’s been at least one review that felt you were playing for comic effect with exaggerated facial expressions, but perhaps we’re too unfamiliar with having to look at those moments to know what is natural. How did you approach those scenes?

It’s a combination of naturalism and comedy. I’ve always felt that a person’s face at the moment of orgasm is a fascinating thing. Sometimes when I walk down the street I try to imagine people’s faces at that moment. It really humanizes them because it’s vulnerable and ecstatic and primal. I think it would be an amazing film to see shot after shot of people’s faces during orgasm.

Sounds like one of Rebecca Lord’s films. What was her take on your story?

She was enthusiastic about the subject matter. She was very positive about sex in general. She understands the dark side of it all but she’s non-judgmental.

How much of a part did your ex-lovers take in making the film? You at least had to get them to consent to the archival footage you used.

Two of them consented to the archival footage I used of them. The husband of the third one threatened to sue me. I actually had to replace that footage—it was acted.

What’s the response of feminists and women in general to the film?

I’ve gotten very little feminist backlash. Perhaps one thing we all like is when we see something that we’ve felt and apprehended but no one has admitted to or described. There’s a feeling of elation when we see something confirmed that we’ve intuited. Men like it because they recognize their own behaviors and because they hadn’t had them spoken they remain slightly shameful and nebulous. Women like it because they’ve intuited these things about men that men won’t admit. To see someone put it out there confirms their longstanding suspicious and it’s validating.

I know you’ve tried to get on Howard Stern and haven’t been successful, even though Rebecca Lord has been a frequent guest on that show and this is her feature film debut. And refused to post ads for the film.

I think the film is a provocation against the sexual hypocrisy of our culture, and that hypocrisy has manifested itself left and right in the promotion of the film. If you go to myspace, the first thing you see is an ad of a sexy girl. My film is a refutation of that entire culture. It’s okay to sell sex in the most vulgar, tawdry way imaginable. But to grapple with it in a thoughtful way is taboo.

“Tell the truth but tell it slant”
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