Filmmaker Babak Anvari breaks down how he developed core characters and story elements for his award-winning film, Under the Shadow.

Key Insights

  • It's important to establish the world early in your film by clearly defining the time and place so your audience understands the context for the story and characters. 
  • Babak’s intent was to create a world in which you didn’t know if the Shideh & Dorsa were being tormented by the djinn, or if all of the circumstances were of Shideh’s making. He developed her character fully at the top of the film (aspiring doctor who has her dreams taken away, discontent homemaker, obsessive need to create order in her home, looming outside threats, power struggle with husband), then introduced questions (maybe djinn are real, what happened to Kimia), and then had it all fall apart with Shideh at the center.  
  • Additionally, Babak's approach to developing his main character was through building layers of tension and conflict that would tear down her carefully constructed environment.
  • As a filmmaker, you create the opportunities for your characters to grow or not grow, to succeed or fail, to survive or not survive.   
  • In a “traditional” script structure, act two typically begins 30-minutes into a film. This marks a turning point in the story for your characters where everything changes. In the case of Under the Shadow, this is the moment it turned from a straightforward social drama into a psychological thriller. 
  • In his film Under the Shadow, Babak used elements of the real world to create genre visual and story elements. For example:
  • The missile hitting the building became the entry point for evil (real & psychological)
  • Putting tape on the windows became “totems”
  • The war became the reason Shideh & Dorsa were isolated
  • The existence of djinn became the looming question for Shideh (who previously didn't believe)
  • Shideh’s fears became compounded by her real arrest for not wearing her scarf while fleeing possible djinn in the home 
  • Using totems can be a powerful way to drive conflict in your story, while also supporting the development of your characters. For example, Dorsa's doll, Kimia, represents protection. Once this totem disappears (and is then destroyed), we see the effects of the struggle that arise for each character who moves the plot forward. 
  • Unexpected moments happen on set that differ from what's in the script or what you had in mind - be open during the process of making your film because these surprises may be the moments you end up using. For Babak, a simple yawn from one of his actors turned into the right image needed to set-up his nightmare scene. 

Writer, Director, Producer
Babak is a London-based writer, director and producer. His first feature film, UNDER THE SHADOW, was the UK selection for the Foreign Language Academy Award and won him the BAFTA for Outstanding Debut in 2017. Babak is also a partner at Two & Two Pictures, where he oversees the development and production of feature and television projects. more...

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