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Unhappy with limited roles being offered, Amir Motlagh started making his own movies - THREE WORLDS and MAN interview

Amir Motlagh, from his film CANYON

Filmmaker, actor, musician Amir Motlagh has directed over 15 films to date. Motlagh's films are often fiction and documentary hybrids that examine modern life as lived by creative characters - often Iranian-American artists, played by Motlagh. Individual identity, family, assimilation, the past, creative struggles are some of the themes that Motlagh tackles in his work. We spoke with him as he prepares to finish and release two new features - THREE WORLDS and MAN. The two new features and a visual album called CANYON (featuring music by Amir's band MIRS) make up a project called THREE MARKS, TOO MANY SIGNALS.

knock. knock. (2007) from Amir Motlagh on Vimeo.
Plain Us (2008) from Amir Motlagh on Vimeo.
Khoobi (are you ok) - 2011 from Amir Motlagh on Vimeo.
Still Lover (2003) from Amir Motlagh on Vimeo.

DIY Filmmaker blog's Sujewa - Hello Amir.  Thanks for talking to DIY Filmmaker blog about your filmmaking career and new projects.  For people who are new to your work, what made you want to become a filmmaker and what are your earliest films? 

Amir Motlagh - Thanks for having me. I can’t really recall if it was something specific that drove me towards filmmaking. I think it was a combination of things, one of which was that I had just finished an intense couple years of acting training, and during the auditioning process, I felt a sort of dissatisfaction with the work I was called to read for.  At the same time, I was introduced to the work of John Cassavetes which totally blew my mind. Sitting and watching HUSBANDS on the big screen was nothing short of revelatory. Now, I had been interested in film strictly because my mother was a cinephile, and I had grown up watching foreign film, or heavy adult drama from a pretty early age. Those things, coupled with the DV revolution, provided an opportunity to experiment.

That’s how it started. I wrote a concept, and within a short time, my friend TN had access to camera equipment from his internship. We "borrowed" the equipment late one night, and went off to film my first film over a weekend. After we finished, we returned the equipment late one night, and thus everyone was satisfied. I had no way to edit the film when it was done at the time. 6 months went by and I acted in a Japanese production and made a friend who had a tape to tape editing machine. We cut the film late nights, after my classes (I was enrolled at UCLA at the time) in the old Charlie Chaplin building in Hollywood. Leaving at around 2 AM when the bars/clubs were getting out was always interesting.

Sujewa - What was your experience with your first feature film WHALE?

Amir - I really have fond memories of making that film. It will stay as one of the more purer experiences I’ve ever had. It mostly taught me how to stay with something even when it seemed like the end was an impossibility. This was the first time I tested, or better yet reverted to a sort of autodidactic method for feature length work. WHALE is also elliptical in storytelling, which is something I often come back to. This was a design feature but also practical. While filming WHALE, I was in grad school. It was impossible to do a straight production because of time, so with the rules set from life circumstance, I created a feature based around these natural barriers. The opposite of hierarchy and efficiency. This process was very much in line with the DIY ethos that was burgeoning in cinema at the time, borrowing heavily from the music world. 

DVD cover art for WHALE

Sujewa - Thus far, not counting the 3 new films in the works as a series, what are your favorite films from your catalog of films?  Or what titles might certain people want to check out first if they are just starting to watch your movies?

Amir - I don’t know. I like the new ones. I think they’re interesting and I had a good time making them, for the most part.  The way that these three works overlapped with my limited time available, however, might not be recommended for the future. Things sort of compound when working this way. I never engaged in multi-tasking however. The method always insisted on a recovery time, between projects to get into the state of mind, or a sort of flow. This is why this method is not sustainable, because the time it takes  to go between projects keeps widening. It’s not a flip of a switch. You are not dreaming in the project, nor relying on a confident intuition until that switch happens. And when it does, it takes an equally long time to get out of that trance, and into another one. Roughly, a week of pondering, coffee, and scribbling in notebooks. 

Sujewa - What's it like being an indie filmmaker artist in LA while pursuing commercial work?

Amir - Not sure if that word “indie” makes any sense in the context we are in now. There really is no separation anymore, so filmmaking is just another word for content. Wedding videos are labeled “short films”. This becomes a Pirsig (author of the philosophical novel Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance) type of commentary on quality, so, I’ll pass on a more elaborate answer other than we somehow still can identify the differences. I like to work in two distinct platforms. One is the pure creative drive, and the other is the commercial enterprise. For example, one of the my favorite recent films is the John Wick franchise. So, I have projects that encompass both spaces, although I’ve not yet had the opportunity to take those larger, commercial projects on in the narrative feature film space. If the opportunity arises, great. Aside from that, I do direct commercial work as well, and I enjoy the turnarounds, scheduling, etc, but there is always something missing. So, having had the opportunity to work on THREE WORLDS, MAN and CANYON in the last several years was a sort of cleanse. A going back to the basics for me.

35 Year Old Man from Amir Motlagh on Vimeo.

Sujewa - What's the new series Three Marks, Too Many Signals about?  What made you want to tackle such an ambitious project?

Amir - THREE MARKS, TOO MANY SIGNALS is the banner for three works. The two feature films I’m currently raising money for - THREE WORLDS, and MAN (crowdfunding campaign here), and a visual album released in late 2016 called CANYON. I like to think in sets - that's how my mind works best.

CANYON from Amir Motlagh on Vimeo.

The circumstances of my living situation, having moved out to Laurel Canyon put me into a different space of thought, since, it increased the distances this area (Los Angeles) is famous for. Driving a long time from point A to B to see human faces. Also, since THREE WORLDS was from the beginning an on-going, morphing type of film, everything that came into existence was another reflection of that reality.  So, CANYON and MAN became an extension of one singular process. They shared similar concerns, locations, themes, easter eggs, but also, they can completely stand alone. They are grouped together because I feel together they come the closest to representing that LA reality. But they all have their individual stories. I did approach each one from a bottom up filmmaking approach. 

Nothing about the productions was typical. Living in the canyon though had a major impact on my life. For me, it was the equivalent of moving into the woods to work on a novel. That old trope that might have lived longer as marketing then reality. But, it did change my perspective because it was quieter, more secluded than I was used too. It was a retreat. I read more than I had in the past several years. I practiced zazen (seated meditation from Zen Buddhism). I enjoyed doing the dishes. I enjoyed Roscoe and Buckley - my two pit bull house guests. And it helped me find the distance between the subjective reality of living and the subjective reality of creating. Obviously that kind of thing is kind of hard to explain in an interview - but, from that process, we got the three works.

An image from film THREE WORLDS

An image from film MAN

Sujewa - I've seen a rough cut of Three Worlds and I thought it was an excellent doc-fiction hybrid movie with drama and suspense and with some sci-fi elements.  what made you want to make that kind of a movie?     

Amir - THREE WORLDS was my alternative, and really, a reaction to the frustration I felt as a commercial project I was in pre-production for fell apart. The process forced me to reexamine the creative instinct and how to overcome the barriers to creativity that we all face. I took the leap after that other project crumbled (for the time being, we will get that up and running again).      

Sujewa - What was the process of making THREE WORLDS like? Was it a difficult film to shoot?  What kind of technology did you use in making the film.  The cinematography is amazing - gorgeous, beautiful - how did you and your team achieve that look?      

Amir - I shot the films using a varied toolkit. Practically every type of capture medium was used. Some of the primary gear were the Red Epic Dragon, the Arri Alexa, varied BlackMagic type cameras, a host of prosumer/consumer grade gear like DSLRs and even down to low-grade tech, including analog tape.   

The filmmaking process was always in reaction to real life. Regarding whether it was difficult, I can say that, it was, in the simplest sense, not ordinary. Like life and its unraveling, the process of THREE WORLDS itself mimics the flow of impermanence, flow of time, and I'll explain further. You might be able to say something like that about every film, but, not as a design feature.  The movie was shot piecemeal and over an extending period of time (three years), and in some sense, it was a make your own adventure, but with a constructed core. The magic here, for me of course, occurred during the editing process with my co-editor Bryan Tuck. Tuck's favorite movies, as far as I understand, are within Spielberg’s body of work. We differ, not completely, but we do, and this is why I opted for a co-editor as an opposite force.  To take this unfolding material and create a coherent whole while managing to strike a through line.
Sujewa - What was the motivation for making MAN?  to me, it seemed like an interesting day-in-the-life-of movie.  Also, it is shot in a unique, rarely seen in movies way (without giving too much away).     

 Amir - MAN is somewhat the inverse of THREE WORLDS in how it deals with time, space and process.  Since we went that route with THREE WORLDS, we created a set of rules for MAN to constrict it as it related to the story. In that way, MAN and CANYON are siblings. THREE WORLDS, a distant relative. My fascination with Mono no aware ("...a Japanese term for the awareness of impermanence, or transience of things, and both a transient gentle sadness (or wistfulness) at their passing as well as a longer, deeper gentle sadness about this state being the reality of life." - Wikipedia) and Wabi-sabi ("Wabi-sabi is a concept in traditional Japanese aesthetics constituting a world view centered on the acceptance of transience and imperfection. The aesthetic is sometimes described as one of beauty that is "imperfect, impermanent, and incomplete."[2] It is a concept derived from the Buddhist teaching of the three marks of existence, specifically impermanence, suffering and emptiness or absence of self-nature." - Wikipedia) became a starting point.       

Sujewa - How did the visual album CANYON come together? What are you doing with your music these days?   

Amir - I started collaborating with Nima Rezai, an LA-based musician who plays this incredible instrument called the Chapman Stick. He’s one of the best at it, but he uses it as a compositional instrument as well. So, we started to make sounds and experimenting with a combination of sounds to see if making songs together was actually possible. At that time, I was thinking of putting together a solo MIRS record, and out of some sessions with Nima, it seemed like a new record was possible between us. So, I started the writing process, and came with the idea that the universe of the record should be tied into a moving image. Nima is a visual artist as well, so, it just made sense. And when this happened, or better yet, when it was decided upon as a thing that would exist if we put in the work, all the other influences of the other work I had been putting together started working off one another. The songs in CANYON relate both to the visual representation, but also, to the larger context of THREE MARKS TOO MANY SIGNALS. It's not a one to one tradeoff. That would be silly. It’s a consciousness sharing itself through mediums. We shot CANYON a week before production on MAN started. They share a lineage. As far as future music, I have one visual album left. I like to think in this conceptual way between the sound and the image as the entry point, it’s a more interesting approach for me.       

Sujewa -  What are the distribution plans for the 3 news films, the series, and when and where can people watch them?   

Amir - They’ll all have a separate journey for discovery, but at some point, I’d like to present them together.  Film festivals, then other screenings, distribution over web most likely will be the path for them.  I'll post updates on my website ( as screenings and other distribution related things happen.  People who are interested in these works can sign up for my mailing list and I'll send them info when the movies come out.  I look forward to getting these works out to the public as soon as possible. Thanks for the interview questions.      

Sujewa - Thanks Amir.  Good luck with the THREE MARKS series completion and release.


Amir Motlagh's website -

CANYON visual album -

Amir Motlagh's films & videos on Vimeo -


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