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Misadventures of Kai Kaous
Tales from the Zirzameen

By Brian Appleton
October 10, 2002
The Iranian

In the old house on Kuche Goharshad, the Zirzameen was where we had all our private parties, sometimes it was the short cut to "San Francisco", sometimes we took siesta there.

It was padded with Kashans and Nayeens and silk bolsters on the floor to lean against, low coffee tables where there were bowls of fruit and cucumbers. The walls were covered with galeems. The lighting was subdueable. Sometimes it was almost like the ancient Greek symposiums down there. Days could go by down there without ever coming back up to the surface. There was a world in the zirzameen.

It was down there that a person could go to read and escape the heat of the day and the crowd. As I write down my recollections and stories about things past, I will visualize myself seated in a pile of pillows down in the zirzameen writing to you these love notes all my darlings.

At Chehel Setun of Isfahan: The misadventures of Kai Kaous

It was summer of 1975 and we were filming a scene for Parvin's film: "The Travels of Pietro Della Valle". We had arrived in Isfahan a few days before by train and there had been a lot of political intrigue within the cast and film crew over who was going to get to stay at the Shah Abbas Hotel -- and who didn't? Me and all the rest of the salt of the earth didn't care so we stayed in the less famous hotel which was perfectly fine while the male lead actor from Yugoslavia, whom I shall nickname Mr. Woos, shifted quarters over to the famous hotel. Well, la dee daaaa!

Meanwhile I had been introduced to one of my fellow actors whom the director was trying to resuscitate, who went by the name of: "Manuccio" from his "days at Cine Citta". Manuch was hysterical just by the absurdity of the persona he had created for himself. He adored John Wayne and had learned to walk like him and talk like him which in farsi is pretty funny. He kept talking about what he was going to do "after all the shotting starts!" It finally dawned on me that he meant "film shooting".

As the day for his part grew nearer and nearer he seemed to become more and more agitated. He kept asking me and Kai Kaous how many lines he had to memorize for his part. It started to become quite apparent to us that he had been away from acting so long that he was experiencing stage fright.

Atash and Sir Robert Shirley (me)

Meanwhile I was having a few problems of my own. I was to play the part of the Englishman Sir Robert Shirley who had historically helped modernize and equip the army of Shah Abbas and even married his daughter. My part was to take place in and around one of the ancient Armenian Christian Churches where we would meet Pietro Della Valle and his wife, the popular TV actress "Atash". I was to ask them to take care of our toddler while my wife and I were going to be away from Iran for a year since I had been made the Shah's Ambassador to England. I had a magnificent costume which along with the rest had been made by the seamstress for Roudaki Hall. >>> See snapshots from this film

However, my problem was that the crew had become so jealous to learn how close a friend I was to the director that they were out to get me setting up little speed bumps in my progress. On the day of my" shotting," the make up artist started acting like a stick in the mud. He kept looking at one of my eyebrows which has one edge nearest to the bridge of my nose where the hair grows the wrong way. I mean it is a very small part of my eyebrow hardly noticeable which is a pattern which actually has run in my mom's side of the family for many generations... but the make up artist kept shaking his head and looking at it in disgust and muttering:" what ever am I supposed to do with this...."

You would have thought I had grown two heads. Then he kept avoiding putting make up on my face because he insisted I didn't need any. My new contact lenses were starting to sting my eyes but I was managing to keep calm anyway. The filming began finally. We all started out kneeling in a pew in the Armenian church, then slowly and majestically we rose and walked out into the courtyard where we came to a stop as a group at a certain angle and I delivered my lines which I had been handed only minutes before and my role was done or so I thought... piece of cake... I loved this film acting as opposed to stage acting.... no memorizing long lines, no extensive rehearsals... great!

Director Parvin Ansary and associate director Torabnia on site at Soltanieh

Later, as it turned out, although my role as Sir Robert Shirley was over, my role as stunt double had only just begun. Half way through the "shotting" of our film, Mr. Woos, our lead actor decided that he had had enough with sleeping in tents, the desert heat and the dust or whatever else he felt was an unbearable hardship and he went back to Yugoslavia... before he left, it was discovered that he couldn't ride a horse properly at full gallop in several scenes using Shah Reza Pahlavi's horses on loan to us nor could he row a boat on the Caspian Sea with his beloved so yours truly, that is me Rasool had to do all that, pretending to be him and also filling in all the long distance shots for him after he left.

This would have been fine but there was a scene where "Atash" and I walk through a beautiful forest in Shomal which is said to have famous orange birds in it although I never did see them. There is also a lake there with a mysterious castle under its surface which only emerges into the air to be seen during the dry season each year before returning under the water with the spring rains. What a fairy tale we could write about this place.

Anyway, the "Shotting" went fine as I strolled regally with her up and down the gentle knolls deep in the forest with its play of sunlight and shadows. It was later, on the cutting floor back at the studio that I got upset because two of the editors who did not realize that I had been doubling for Mr. Woos, were talking to each other in big loud voices remarking on how big Pietro's ass had suddenly gotten and how he must have been eating a lot of Chelo Kebab during his stay in Iran since it was so much bigger than in the earlier scenes... I was totally pissed off but I couldn't say anything of course which would have only made it become a public humiliation rather than a private one...

Well so much for me. Back to Manuch. We were supposed to shoot a scene inside the Chehel Setun itself on the second floor that night in the music room where the niches in the ceramic walls look like musical instruments. We could not find Manuch. For over an hour we looked for him, searching high and low.

Finally we noticed the light peeking out from under his bathroom door in his hotel room but we heard no sound inside it and no response to our knocks after trying the door which was locked. Noticing a dripping sound we began to get worried and called the hotel house keeping staff for a skeleton key. When we opened the door, there he was sleeping like a baby in the bathtub with the water just about up to his nose.

When we finally woke him up and got him dressed, he started fabricating a long and complicated story about how the chef at the hotel had given him food poisoning with his chicken and he just wasn't sure if he was going to be able to act at his best for Parvin. Maybe he wasn't going to be able to act tonight because he felt so sick. Well he got the "chicken" part of his story right anyway and as far as that goes he was putting on quite an act as it was.

Kai Kaous and I each grabbed one side of him under each arm pit and started walking him around like those scenes you see in those documentaries about shark tanks in aquariums when the scientists have to wade around in the kiddie pool with some newly captured shark to get his circulation and breathing going again.

Shohreh Aghdashloo and Parviz on site at Soltanieh

Finally the moment arrived, which we had all been waiting for. Manuch looked majestic and tall in his light blue bejeweled costume complete with turban and feathers. He was the prime minister of Shah Abbas's court and the Shah had finally been given the green light by his astrologers that it would be O.K. to meet with the Pope's nephew Pietro Della Valle ( a hareji).

It turns out that Manuch had only one line after walking with Pietro into the thrown room and bowing before the King and presenting Pietro to him: "Your imperial majesty! If it pleases you, may I present Prince Pietro Della Valle who seeks your audience?" Or words to that effect.

Kai Kaous and I began snickering and finally had to run out onto the balcony of Chehel Setun where we roared with laughter unable to further control our mirth. When we finally wiped all the tears of laughter from our eyes, we sneaked back in to find that Parvin was not satisfied with his performance and made him do it again and again and again and again... and again... I can still remember hearing her screaming at Manuch to hold his damn feet still.

Every time Parvin yelled "Cut!", Kai Kaous and I would run out onto the balcony and burst out laughing again. Finally in between gasping for his breath, Kai Kaous confessed in my ear that he had switched Manuch's slippers for a pair that were several sizes too small. We were dying.

The "shotting" went on for 7 hours up until just about sunrise and we lost count of how many takes Manuch had to make. Also the power for all the cameras and camera lights which had been brought in by long portable electric cords from some generator in the parking lot kept failing and we were pitched into complete blackness inside Chehel Setun over and over.

What a night to remember. As the joke goes, "The only difference between this place and the Titanic, is that they had an orchestra..." >>> See snapshots from this film

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Send an email to Brian Appleton

By: Brian Appleton

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