Pirooz M. Kalayeh is an energetic and loquacious multi-hyphenate who directed and wrote the film adaptation of Tao Lin's novella, Shoplifting from American Apparel, which has its world premiere tonight at the Los Feliz 3 theater. Combining absurdist documentary and cinematic realism, the dramedy blends Lin's autobiographical narrative as a young writer in New York City, his brush with the clothing company's loss prevention procedures, and the crew's misadventures in depicting all this on film.
A first generation immigrant from Iran, Kalayeh's background includes being a home and garden reality TV show producer, an English professor in South Korea, a graphic novelist, a writer and an actor. He also has a blog, Shikow, where he interviews filmmakers and writers. The up-and-comer's first project, The Human War (a movie based on Noah Cicero's book of the same title), is being submitted to festivals, so Shoplifting From American Apparel is Kalayeh's first feature release, as part of a unique distribution model.
Here's our interview with Kalayeh:
When did your family move to the United States?
I was eight months old when I first came from Iran. My dad was going to Purdue University to become a doctor in engineering, then the Revolution happened. I couldn't go back home because my father wasn't Muslim, so I started living with my father and mother. We ended up staying in America and at around five years old, they were like, "Okay, time to learn English."
When did you become interested in film?
I was always making films as a youngster. In the eighth grade, my history teacher asked us to make a film about U.S. history. So I made one about the Civil War where the South had won instead. We got one of my best friends who was African-American to play the slave. Believe it or not, Tom Welling from Smallville was actually in the movie.
At the end of the film, I guess it was controversial for a twelve-year old to do, but we end up killing the slave. And then I had all the boys in the neighborhood standing around the slave, looking down at him. I was holding the camera looking up at all the people, and the boy with the deepest voice says, "Kill that nigga." And that's where the film ended.
My history teacher said to me, "You don't need to come to study period anymore. I want you to make as many movies as you can." They gave me reign of free time in middle school to make videos. I started making hip-hop videos! So I had all the lights going until finally, the vice principal shut me down because we were making such a racket.
Do you still have these movies? You should release them!
I do still have them. [Laughs] I was actually thinking about putting some of these up. One of my brothers will probably do it as a gag on me. It's kind of embarrassing too, but they're cute in their own way.
When did you move to Los Angeles?
So basically, when I finished at the Jack Kerouac School [of Disembodied Poetics in Naropa University in Boulder, Colo.], I got a job in reality television. I started off as a dub logger, you know, one of those people who transcribe tapes. And the next thing I do is be a producer. I just went up and said, "I can do that job." They looked at me like I was crazy and then I went ahead and interviewed for it. Every question they asked me, I could answer. So I got the job as an associate producer, moved up and kept being promoted. I stuck with that for a bit, but I didn't really feel like being an executive or anything like that.
So you ended up teaching English in Korea.
One of my friends who was a poet from Korea would tell me to come over and teach some English. I said, "You're crazy, what would I do out there?" He was like, "Well it would be a change, you can work on novels." So I basically applied and I was gone in two weeks. I was working here non-stop, you know the L.A. hustle and bustle. There, I was only working twelve hours a week. I didn't know what to do with myself, I had so much time. I started interviewing my favorite artists and one of them is Tao Lin.
How did you first come across Tao Lin's work?
It was in the poet Jim Groar's webzine called "Past Simple." Tao Lin had a poem in there and I was like, "Who is this? This is remarkable." He was so strange, innovative. And right as the book [Lin's You're a Little Bit Happier Than I Am] came out, I contacted him asking for an interview. He wanted to do it on Gmail chat, and I didn't know what he meant. So as I'm doing the interview he said, "This is taking too long, can we do this another time?" [Laughs] And I felt really bad, so I asked if we can can do it through email. So we had that relationship through email first. I think we did it for a week and half.
When did you decide to make Shoplifting from American Apparel a movie?
[In Korea] I came across Noah Cicero's book The Human War and for about a month I couldn't stop thinking about this book as a movie. So I called Noah and asked him if I could make the book into a film and he said, "Sure." The last day of production of The Human War, I think that's when Shoplifting came out. I started looking at the book and I thought, "This is my next movie."
The film goes back and forth between the actual novella and the behind-the-scenes of making an independent movie. Would it have been different if you had a bigger budget or is it what it is because it didn't have one?
I think that you're right. The film is based on what was happening to it. There was a certain element that was already written out so I knew there would be this faux element with me acting in it, but there were real things happening in making this film. I liked that because it makes me think of how a painting is affected by your environment and your condition. We dove into the script and we let it bend a little bit. If we had more money, I feel like it would have ruined itself. It would have been something completely different and it might have been too polished. Something about it now with its rough edges that makes it the way it is.
Has Tao seen it?
Yes! He saw the earliest version. He thought it was a straight rendition of the film. The jail and beach scenes were probably his favorite. I thought it was interesting because I thought those would have been his least favorite because we kind of put Tao underneath the microscope there with his two best friends.
In the beach scene you ask Noah Cicero, "What makes a good writer?" What would your answer be to that question?
I think that being a good writer is being comfortable with finding out who you really are without being influenced by other things that are around you. Brad Warner [who stars in the film] talks about this when's he's doing meditation. One of the big things he does is meditation every morning, like you're brushing your teeth. I asked him, "Why do you do that?" He said, "It makes me a better me, the truest me." I think that's what makes a good writer or artist is that they are willing to be vulnerable and open themselves up. [Pauses] Actually the the answer to that would change daily.
Tell me about the release of the film.
Ryan Keller contacted me and told me he wanted Shoplifting to be one of his beta films [for Local Screen, a website that allows independent filmmakers to distribute their films theatrically] where people can buy tickets and if enough people buy them, they actually screen the film. That starts in January. I thought it was a cool idea but I also asked him, "What about a six-city tour?" December 7th in L.A. is the first day of that journey. We'll have Steven Roggenbuck and Mira Gonzalez both reading and we'll have tap dancers performing. I just want every one of these screenings unique.
[In an email, Kalayeh follows up on the earlier question, "What makes a good writer?"]
I don't really know. Maybe letting go of the good and bad and just doing things.
Typing as fast as you can.
I remember being a college student in a bookstore and I saw this teen bopper magazine with Brad Pitt. In it, he said that whatever he was afraid of he did. That sounds like it might be fun.
All of the above.
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None of the above.
Not sure if I can give multiple choice answers, but I don't really know. I'm still trying to figure out how to just be myself.