It took 6 years for Iranian American director Kayvan Mashayekh to make his film: “The Keeper : The Legend of Omar Khayyam”. The project was daunting and stimulating with the challenge of recreating the life and Times of the Great poet, astronomer and mathematician. Mashayekh scenario required filming in three different locations, the United States, Great Britain and Samarkand in the former Soviet State of Uzbekistan. The latter being the exact location of where the Great Omar Khayyam lived and studied in a war ridden Persia divided by religious fundamentalism whose major instigator was Hassan Sabbah leader of the infamous sect the Assassins and political intrigues at the court of the Seljuk prince Malikshah.
Filmed with an international cast including British Star Vanessa Redgrave, and actor Bruno Lastra as Khayyam, and Christopher Simpson as Hassan Sabbah, the “Keeper” is an Epic as well as a contemporary quest of Khayyam's universal legacy through the ages. The film was shot in Persian and English and has been present at the Cannes film Market this year. Below is an interview with director Kayvan Mashayekh:
Darius KADIVAR: What led you to choose Khayyam rather than another Persian Poet as the hero of your film ?
Kayvan Mashayekh: I chose Khayyam because he personifies all that is Persian to me. Growing up in America since the age of 11, my father quoted poetry as a tool to teach me lessons in life. I didn't care much about it all at the time, because I wanted to be American and forget my past. As a young boy from a country which seized American Hostages it was quite sad. Now, at age 36 and 10 years after the death of my father, I recognize the wisdom of his words to me. Don't ever forget who you are and where you came from.
Khayyam placed the concept of reason above faith and to me no matter who you are and what your faith is, it's important to remember that balance in life.
DK: Khayyam and Sabbah are close friends before destiny opposes them. Beyond their common love interest for a girl called Darya what really separates them is Khayyam's humanistic and spiritual approach of God to Sabbah's zealous hatred for anything that opposes his ideological control of religion. Were you aware when you started working on your film that this duality between reason and fanaticism would somehow resonate in a post 9/11 world ?
KM: I wanted to make a timeless film that seamlessly blended past and present together. 9/11 almost destroyed me. I was in Morocco scouting locations for the film when it happened and when I returned to America, all financial backers withdrew support and no one in the film business would even talk to me about it for one year.
I tried to stay true to one message throughout my whole film which is about the journey of a young boy in search of his own past. I believe that all of us are “Keepers” of stories in our past that make our lives more meaningful in the future.
DK: Your film is an independent film, what were the difficulties in gathering an international cast and mobilizing the resources for such an ambitious project particularly the fact that you shot in Uzbekistan where there is no film industry so to speak.?
KM: Ambitious and difficult are two words which I heard quite often…along with impossible. But my father's dying words to me carried me through the deepest moments of negativity throughout my project. “Be strong and never give up in what you believe.” I'll never forget that moment for the rest of my life as I saw him fade away from brain cancer ten years ago.
The cast came together because they shared my belief and vision for the story and I was grateful and very privileged for their support.
DK: Your film was presented at the Cannes film market what was the reaction of the professionals to your film and did you find a distributor ?
KM: We are in the middle of the market at this moment with more screenings. So far, the reaction has been positive. We have been very low key in finding the right partners to represent us as sales agents and distributors because we want to make sure the film is at it's best before presenting it to audiences. We have held test screenings and focus groups and discovered that the film has been more favorably received by women more than men due to its delicate message. This helps us with our distribution strategy so that we can get this film in front of audiences who are underserved and are hungry for a film such as ours. Positioning a film is as daunting a task as actually making one.
DK: Were you tempted to shoot your film in Iran and do you hope to show this film in your homeland one day?
KM: I was discouraged to shoot this film in Iran by very prominent people within the Iranian Film Community. Ironically, those same people are now thrilled that I listened to their words of advice because the film has been actually completed without unnecessary governmental red tape and interference. I would love to show this film in Iran someday. It would be a great privilege for me.
DK: Vanessa Redgrave gives a small but charismatic performance in your film what was it like to work with her and did she like your script?
KM: Vanessa's performance elevates my film to another level. Her gracious support and beautiful performance is the essence of why this film was so special to me. As a first time director, it was a dream come true to work with a living legend. The only reason she accepted the role was that she believed in the message of the story so strongly.
DK: What advice would you give to other aspiring directors who would want to launch themselves in a cinematic adventure?
KM: Stay true to your beliefs, ask for help and LISTEN to the people who care about you.