By Iman Sadri
July 12, 2022
Sara Zandieh is a prolific film director who has just wrapped The Other Zoey starring Andie MacDowell and Heather Graham. She is a Columbia University graduate who also worked in news prior to film-making. Sara is paving the way for Iranian American filmmakers as she is making waves with her prowess behind the camera. Zandieh wrote and directed A Simple Wedding starring Shohreh Aghdashloo, Maz Jobrani and Tara Grammy. She also directed episodes of Good Girls on NBC. Sara has made many short films and documentaries and is just warming up. To get caught up with this film auteur we met up for an interview in Santa Monica at 1212.
Iman Sadri : Thanks for meeting with The Persian Observer. Please describe your early life, education, and upbringing?
Sara Zandieh : I was born in Iran, but my family immigrated to the DC suburbs when I was four years old. My large Persian family is very funny, and as we settled in Maryland, I think humor was part of our art of survival. Humor allowed us to make light of our sometimes difficult circumstances in our new home. After I graduated high school, I moved to NY for college and grad school because I knew I wanted to work in the arts. I studied film at Columbia University where I learned narrative filmmaking and made several short films during my time there. After I graduated, I got my first job directing television.
IS : What were the earliest inspirations (films, TV shows, ) for you to cultivate an interest in film?
Sara Zandieh : Growing up in a family of storytellers, I was always interested in learning about people and their stories. We also watched a lot of Iranian cinema: Kiarostami, Ghobadi, Panahi, Farhadi. There is a poetic elegance in Iranian cinema which shaped my understanding of film, and the stories are often about childlike innocence and moral values. But I was also a quintessential American teenager growing up in the suburbs, so I loved watching commercial American comedies with my friends. Being exposed to both cultures of filmmaking helped me develop a wide range of interest in cinema. I appreciate artistic, independent films, but also enjoy commercial movies that are accessible to a broad audience. Regardless of the genre, I love films that are character driven, have a sense of humor, and are heart centered.
IS : What were some of the earliest films / movies / inspirations for you to gain an interest in film directing?
Sara Zandieh : When I was a film student, I watched a lot of European art house films as my training at Columbia was very focused on auteur filmmaking. Of those we studied, my favorite films were “Au Ausard, Balthazar” by Robert Bresson and “Fanny and Alexander” by Ingmar Bergman. I also grew up on John Hughes movies, and from those I cultivated a love of coming-of-age stories.
IS : Who were some of your favorite / most inspirational film directors growing up / in film school that you admired?
Sara Zandieh : I love directors who make honest, “slice of life” dramedies. Particularly, I admire the work of the quirky American directors like Alexander Payne, Noah Baumbach, and David O’Russell because of the memorable characters and sense of humor. I also love Asghar Farhadi for his humane, family driven dramas. I also appreciate the work of Steven Soderberg and David Fincher because of the way active cameras play an integral role in their storytelling.
IS : What were some of the directing / writing / producing projects in college and/or film school – if any? Highlights?
Sara Zandieh : I went back to Tehran to make my thesis film called “The Pool Party”, and it was really rewarding to go back to Iran and explore my roots. It was also interesting to see what it’s like to work there…not an easy task! I have so much respect for filmmakers who make films and art in Iran and are able to come up with creative ways to get around the content restrictions. The film went on to premiere and win an award at the Tribeca Film Festival, capping off a truly fulfilling experience. Throughout film school, I also did a French exchange at the French National Film School, La Fémis. It’s one of the oldest film schools in Europe, almost as old as cinema itself. I was so impressed by the history and curriculum at that school, and it pushed me to explore filmmaking in ways that were new to me. For example, I had to make a short film using only one roll of 16 mm film and 20 shots to tell a story economically. I made an estranged mother/daughter comedy called DEADLINE. It was a fun and fulfilling experience to study and train at the Fémis.
IS : Describe how the project for Simple Wedding came about?
Sara Zandieh : I was interested in making a culture clash romantic comedy—a story that explored the theme of love but also depicted and normalized an Iranian-American family. I think most Americans see such a politicized version of Iran in the news and we never get to see a humanized version of us. Also, a lot of Iranians immigrated to the US in the last 30-50 years, and I never see the Iranian-American experience represented in mainstream culture. So, I set out to tell a common story from the viewpoint of people we don’t normally include in such a popular genre.
I searched for my lead actress for about a year and finally found Tara Grammy through a producer friend. She read for the part, and it immediately felt like the right fit! Then, I found a talent and production company that focuses on comedy—especially from POC voices—called Mainstay Entertainment. Once we began the process, I met Rita Wilson who took to the script and accepted the part of the mother of the groom, which was just thrilling! She’s very enthusiastic about cross cultural love stories, and she added so much to the project. After Rita signed on, we started to build out the rest of the cast. She introduced me to Shohreh Aghdashloo and Houshang Touzie who signed on to play the Persian parents. It started to come together like a puzzle and ended up being a fun process.
IS : Describe the directing highlights / process / recollections of ‘Simple Wedding’ ? How was it directing A-list stars including Rita Wilson and seasoned actors like Maz Jobrani?
Sara Zandieh : I’ve been blessed to be able to work with some great actors so far in my career from Rita Wilson, Shohreh Aghdashloo to Christina Hendricks to Andie MacDowell and Heather Graham. Directing veteran actors is great because they have so much experience, which requires less heavy lifting from me. They know their craft, they understand their process, and they usually show up really prepared. It’s more challenging to work with non-professional, newer, or child actors who are still finding their process and need a bit more direction and support. So much of directing is about getting to know the actor and figuring out their needs. Every actor is different, and I find it really rewarding to find the unique process and collaboration with each one.
IS : How was directing Good Girls on NBC? How did that project come about? Highlights from this project?
Sara Zandieh : I landed my first episode of television through the NBC Female Forward diversity program. It’s a training program that trains women directors to direct television with the hopes of getting more women on directing rosters. I shadowed the director of several episodes of the series and trained under the best TV directors like Andrew McCarthy and Mike Weaver. After I shadowed, I directed an episode of Good Girls on Season 3 and was asked back the following season to direct more. It was a great experience from top to bottom. I was very aligned with that show and got along with everyone from the show-runners to the creative department heads to the actors. I loved working with the three leads—they were great actresses and such an interesting combo of dramatic and comedic acting. I loved the GOOD GIRLS!
IS : How did ‘The Other Zoey’ come about? How was it directing such as an A-list cast with Andie MacDowell and seasoned actors like Heather Graham?
Sara Zandieh : The producers found me through my agents. Working with Andie and Heather was a dream. They are both so pro, and it was a joy to watch them bring their characters to life. They had great ideas and were very collaborative. It was one of the best casts I’ve ever worked with.
IS : What more can be done to get Iranian Americans involved in the Film + TV business?
Sara Zandieh : Film and theater schools are a great place to train and start. I rarely met other Iranians in film school—they were pursuing more stable professions! But I really do think it’s important to train. I’m also always looking for young Iranian-American actors, and it’s hard to find them, but I always start my search at schools.
IS : Would you direct a biopic? If so, which biopic of which historical figure would you direct?
Sara Zandieh : I would absolutely love to direct a biopic. I’m always looking for stories about female pioneers, like Jane Goodall. I would love to tell a conservationist story or a story about an environmental activist, so she’s the first one who comes to mind because she’s so inspiring.
IS : What projects TV series / or films would you like to direct / what projects are you working on?
Sara Zandieh : I’m working on several new feature film projects all in various stages (from development, to financing, to packaging). In TV, I would love to work on dramedy shows that center complicated female characters like Julia, Loot, The Dropout, etc…
Follow Sara Zandieh on social media @SaraZandieh