TLG talks to Kayvan Mashayekh, Co-Chairman, International Committee of the Producers Guild of America
Co-Chair of the International Committee of the PGA since April of this year, Mashayekh talks to TLG about his journey from law to the very heart of the film industry and working with industry legends Vanessa Redgrave and Branko Lustig.
How did you become involved in the film business and what was your career path that took you from being an attorney to an international consultant for independent filmmakers?
It was simply a desire to challenge myself and work outside my comfort zone. My story is similar to many other Iranian immigrant children who land in the States. My parents were highly educated but lost everything in their home country. They were quite strict and believed you only had three career choices if you wanted to be a success - doctor, lawyer or engineer. It was ingrained in me that a strong education and career could not be taken away from you no matter what.
Three years after my father passed away from brain cancer, and much to the dismay of my physician mother, I decided to jump head first into film. I have always been an animated person and love telling stories to entertain my friends. This, coupled with my tenacious attitude developed during my time as an attorney, gave me the self belief to go for it.
I went through hell for seven years with a tsunami of negativity while trying to get my first feature film, The Keeper: The Legend of Omar Khayyam (below), onto the screen. Thankfully my dedication paid off and I have now reached a point where I can guide others into pursuing their own goals and ambitions in the creative industry.
As you say, you began your career by writing, producing and directing The Keeper: The Legend of Omar Khayyam. The film was shot in five cities and three continents in a remarkable 37 days of actual filming. Tell us more.
The logistics of the production were daunting, teetering on crazy, but my youth and ignorance pushed me on. I was determined to prove that I was capable. The film was shot in my adopted hometown of Houston, Imperial Valley and Santa Clarita in The Golden State, London, and finally Samarkand and Bukhara in Uzbekistan. We were the first production to shoot so extensively in Uzbekistan - 80% of the film was shot there. My Italian line producer, Andrea Borella, convinced me that it was the right location for the epic story we were telling. After Sep Riahi, former Sony Executive and a childhood friend, saw what we were trying to do he agreed to back our decision to film there as my producing partner on the film.
What would you say was your most extraordinary ‘on location’ experience?
The magic of Uzbekistan will always stay with me. Being on location in Samarkand and Bukhara where the actual historical figure we were portraying (Omar Khayyam) lived, worked, and studied in the 11th century brought true authenticity to the film. We couldn’t have replicated this without incurring significant costs for our small production. The locals were keenly aware of the heritage and provenance of the story so they worked incredibly hard to help us portray their ancient Persian culture. It was a thrill for me to be in Bukhara and speak Farsi (language of their elders) with the local crew whenever I needed them to realise that I wasn’t just an American oblivious to our collective history.
Another moment which will always stay with me was filming scenes for The Keeper in Wrotham Park (north of London) with Vanessa Redgrave (above). The grand dame of cinema was so unbelievably kind and displayed an uncanny level of respect for me as a first time director. I remember arriving in London (she had script approval rights for her lines in the film) where I was quickly summoned to Vanessa's home for a discussion before we began shooting her scenes. I was extremely nervous because of her reputation as a perfectionist. I had made some changes to the script and was expecting a decapitation. She made me a cup of tea and simply said: “thank you for untying my hands, darling… how can I help you?” I sincerely wanted to cry.
Please tell us about your years of working with the two-time Oscar winning, and Ridley Scott producer, Branko Lustig?
Branko has always been a father figure for me. I first met him 10 years ago in Abu Dhabi but the story of how I got there and ended up being his mentee is worth mentioning.
I was feeling down one rainy morning in Los Angeles (yes, it does rain in LA) on my to a cafe down the street from me. I was lost in my thoughts, staring at the sidewalk, when I saw a soggy copy of Variety. It was folded open to a one page ad for The Middle East International Film Festival. The ad was a call for scripts with the finalists having a chance to pitch their projects to top Hollywood producers and financiers with the chance of financing.
I went home and fired off my latest script, Batting for Palestine, inspired by the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. A week later I got a call telling me that my project had been selected for the Pitch Competition in Abu Dhabi.
Branko was one of the judges. He loved the script as did famed entertainment attorney, Craig Emanuel, Relativity Media's Ryan Kavanaugh and super WME agent Graham Taylor. I won the USD25,000 Relativity Pitch Prize but the project was never made despite all the support I had (the project eventually became the graphic novel Round Rock).
Branko (right) brought me under his wing, thanks to his wife, and I began my education as an apprentice to one of the greatest producers of all time - the Oscar winning producer of Gladiator and Schindler’s List. He taught me the finer points of the craft of producing and people management. His most valuable lesson to me was that no matter how your story is written there will always end up being three scripts; the initial written script, the shooting script and the final one which is sometimes also re-written in the editing room. Despite of this, your story must have a soul for the audience to connect to. Without that, you have nothing.
As a Holocaust survivor who endured the most awful atrocities, he was a beacon of support for me and my project. I was blessed to receive his kindness and guidance throughout my career. His life experiences taught him about the power of tolerance and eradicating hate through thought provoking stories that bring people together. That was the strong common denominator we shared.
Tell us about the Producers Guild of America (PGA). What does it do exactly?
The PGA is the world’s largest trade organisation of producers in film, television and multimedia with a membership nearing 9000. It includes a global powerhouse of working producers in all aspects of the entertainment industry and focuses primarily on promoting the craft of producing and helping educate our industry on the often misused credit proliferation of the producing title. The PGA acronym after a producer’s credit on a production, the Producers Mark, certifies that the producer has truly done what they are supposed to do.
What does your role as Co-Chair of the International committee involve?
Along with my colleague, Elizabeth Dell, we are responsible for branding the organisation internationally with our 17 different affiliate organisations around the world. We are actively creating co-production opportunities for our membership by providing an internal bridge for our producers to connect with other global partners. Furthermore, I am keen on creating networking opportunities, workshops, panels and educational platforms that promote the craft of producing by bringing in talented members of our guild to places where their technical teaching skills will be welcomed and needed.
How can an international producer reading this join the PGA?
Anyone wishing to apply for membership should go to our website and click on the Join the Guild button. That will take you to our online application for membership. Before you fill in the application I highly recommend that you check out our membership requirements page first. It contains important information that you should be aware of prior to your submission such as qualification criteria, dues and fees, the membership structure, and the application and vetting process.
We currently have 102 active members in our committee. We plan to substantially increase that number during my tenure.
Benefits include numerous free members-only seminars tailored for producers, staffing resources and employment opportunities in the USA and abroad, DVD/online screeners for awards consideration during the Oscars season, a subscription to Produced By magazine, discounted registration for both Produced By conferences in Los Angeles and New York, discounted tickets to the prestigious Producers Guild Awards in January, discounts for car rentals, hotels, industry events, year-round screening programmes for new films in LA, San Francisco, New York and other participating locations and finally, our internal members only job board where producers are encouraged to hire from with the guild.
Please tell us about the PGA Produced By Conference.
Anyone can attend the conference. It is a two day veritable bonanza of producing workshops, round table discussions, and talks with industry titans. It takes place each year in early June at one of the major film studios in Los Angeles: Paramount, Sony, Disney/Fox, or Universal. It is also a tremendous networking opportunity for the over 1000 attendees who are looking to collaborate with one another on future projects. The conference just finished its 10th incarnation and has also expanded to an annual event with a one day New York version in late October each year.
Who is your favourite director that you would like to work with and why?
Christopher Nolan (below) because of the sheer scope of his layered and complex storytelling. His technique inspires me in the same way Stanley Kubrick did. Of course, there are others that I hope to work with such as Steven Spielberg, Ridley Scott, Giuseppe Tornatore and Paolo Sorrentino because of how they craft their stories with characters that always grab me.
What projects are you currently working on?
I have several projects in development that I can’t discuss until they come to fruition. They include an epic TV series for a SVOD platform, a true life crime drama, a personal comedy/reality TV series, and a small love story.
Tell us about your work as an international consultant to indie producers. What services do you offer?
My career to date as well as my current role as the Co-Chair of the International Committee has given me access to some hugely talented creative individuals in film, television and multimedia. As an international consultant, my services are based on an initial meeting to assess what, if anything, I can do to assist them. This could be through introductions or a more active creative involvement in a project forward. I’ll always do my best to see what the best fit for my involvement would be. I do not provide legal advice, even though I am a licensed attorney, and my fees depend on how involved I become with a project.
What was the last movie you saw and loved?
Mission Impossible: Fallout (above)…. I mean c’mon… Tom Cruise leaves you speechless. He continues to get better with age. I’ve always been a fan of his work since Risky Business.
Where do you like to travel and where did you last take a vacation?
Greece – I love the people, the country, the culture. I’m currently working with two producers there to try and bring more projects to the country because of the new tax incentives on offer.
What book(s) are currently on your bedside table?
A stack of scripts I need to read and a biography of the late, great, four-times Super Bowl winning coach, Chuck Noll. I’m a huge fan of the Pittsburgh Steelers but the story behind that is best left for another interview.
Click here to contact Kayvan.
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