Rising Star Naghmeh Shirkhan: “Film sets create a whole lot of trash; let’s try to be as green as possible while filmmaking”

I’m very concerned about the environment and creating less trash (creatively and literally). I’ve noticed that on film sets that’s not always possible. It seems like a small thing, but if you consider all the films that are made every year, that’s a whole lot of trash. So, I guess if there’s one thing I’d […]

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I’m very concerned about the environment and creating less trash (creatively and literally). I’ve noticed that on film sets that’s not always possible. It seems like a small thing, but if you consider all the films that are made every year, that’s a whole lot of trash. So, I guess if there’s one thing I’d focus on, where I could actually make some headway, it would be to try and be as green as possible while making my next film. I want my children to inherit a viable, healthy, still beautiful planet.

As a part of my series about pop culture’s rising stars, I had the distinct pleasure of interviewing Naghmeh Shirkhan. Born in Iran, Naghmeh moved to America with her family a year before the Islamic Revolution. Her father returned to Tehran while the rapidly ensuing Iran-Iraq war prompted her mother to remain in America indefinitely. The experience of separation, displacement, and the struggles of starting anew are major themes in Naghmeh’s work. In 2010 her first arthouse feature, The Neighbor (Hamsayeh), hit the festival circuit to wide critical acclaim. Soon after, she began working on her second feature, Maki. The film won Best Director at The Chelsea Film Festival in 2018, and is now streaming on Amazon.

Thank you so much for doing this with us Naghmeh! Can you tell us the story of how you grew up?

I grew up in Boston, raised by a single mom. My father went back to Iran hoping we would follow, but the Revolution and war with Iraq happened so fast that our plans changed, and my mother decided it would be safer for us to stay in America. This one decision forever changed the arc of my own story. After studying filmmaking at Boston University, I decided I should explore more of the world, but my ambitions brought me right back to the States. I attribute so much of what I’ve been able to achieve to the opportunities I’ve had in New York City. Even if at times I felt like I was on the outside looking in, I eventually found the courage to follow my own path.

Can you share a story with us about what brought you to this specific career path?

I devoured books and stories as a child. I remember walking out of a bookstore with a book we hadn’t paid for. I was six, but that didn’t stop my mother from making me march back inside and apologize to the cashier for what I had done. I was oblivious because all I wanted was to take my new book into a quiet room and lose myself in its folds. As a teenager, I started working in a friend’s video store, one of the first in Brookline. My love of literature led me to this new found passion for cinema, especially foreign films. Words and stories merged with images and sounds. I was totally hooked.

Can you tell us the most interesting story that happened to you since you began your career?

There have been many! One story in particular that comes to mind has to do with my long search for the two lead actors in Maki. I had already signed on Mieko Harada for the role of the mama-san. She’s a superstar in Japan and having her name attached to the project quickly opened doors. But I wanted a couple that had chemistry on, and off-screen. It took me years and several set-backs until I was lucky enough to find Julian Cihi, for whom I felt an instant affinity. And Julian led me to Naomi Sundberg. The character of Maki needed to have a certain innocence and purity. It was a perfect role for Naomi who had never acted but felt very comfortable in front of the camera. She was open to ideas and not set in how she wanted to portray the character. Naomi and Julian started the shoot as friends, but their relationship evolved quickly. Their burgeoning romance really helped me capture the fragile emotions between the two young lovers. I wanted to take a risk and make something original, and the path finally revealed itself. The pieces finally started to fall into place. But I had to be patient. Patience is truly a virtue in this line of work.

Can you share a story about the funniest mistake you made when you were first starting? Can you tell us what lesson you learned from that?

The funniest mistake for me actually has to do with laughter. I have a tendency to laugh uncontrollably when most others would be screaming their heads off or breaking things. The more nervous or angry I get, the stronger the urge to laugh. I’ve found it can really unnerve people. I used to try to control it, but the fit of laughter would only get worse, so I learned to accept and take it as my cue to pause and gather my thoughts. I’ve also gotten better at dealing with all the emotions that directing brings up. But I still like to have a good laugh on set…it’s very therapeutic.

What are some of the most interesting or exciting projects you are working on now?

I’m writing a lot these days and some wonderful stories are coming through. Writing is usually the longest part of the creative process for me. I spend a tremendous amount of time developing characters and editing the prose. I believe a good script should read like a good novel. Nothing should trip you up or take you out of the moment, despite the more spartan nature of screenplays. I’m excited to continue working on stories centered on love, motherhood, and the special place children inhabit in our daily lives. The process is as important to me as the end result.

We are very interested in diversity in the entertainment industry. Can you share three reasons with our readers about why you think it’s important to have diversity represented in film and television? How can that potentially affect our culture?

We turn to stories as a way of better understanding our own lives. If we have any difficulty relating to the characters, how they look, their particular habits, or their speech and mannerisms, then it’s harder to fully connect with them. Film is not expository in the same way literature can be, so we rely on the images to give us so much information, and for this reason, diversity becomes essential. Modern cinema is all about getting closer to reality. It’s not some hyper-augmented reality, it’s no longer just about depicting lives we aspire to have. So it’s important, especially in American cinema, which is so tightly linked to Hollywood, to try and show a broader range of characters. This country is made up of a huge tapestry of ethnicities, religions, languages, cultures. To show just one kind of protagonist over and over again is not thrilling. We need to see the whole range of stories depicted by true-to-life characters who come from the many distinct communities that exist here. This is especially true in today’s polarized world. The visual arts is one of best ways to bring us closer to the experiences of the other. We need our films to reflect this diversity if we are to continue to lead in the realms of art and cinema.

What are your “5 things I wish someone told me when I first started” and why. Please share a story or example for each.

1: You can and should do many different things before devoting yourself completely to one thing. Broaden your experiences because you’ll have that much more to talk about when you finally do settle down to tell a story. I worked many different jobs, sometimes three at a time. And in the early years, few of them had anything to do with film. But I think these experiences have informed so much of what I’m doing now.

2: Take the work seriously, don’t take yourself seriously. I have a very hard time with pretense and pretentious people. Let’s be very honest, we do this work because we love it. And if we are lucky enough to do it, we should exhibit some trace of humility. It’s what separates the pros from the dilettantes.

3: There’s no such thing as failure. All of our experiences, even the not so wonderful, have the potential to teach us something valuable. So I don’t like to talk about failure. I prefer to talk about my path, the windier and less direct, the better!

4: Don’t compromise your creative vision. If you have taken the time to write a script and find the financing for a project, stick to your guns. Don’t let anyone try to change your vision. I do this work because I’m compelled to do it. If something doesn’t feel right, I’ve had to learn to say no and move on.

5: You have to learn to work with a broad range of personalities…so don’t be difficult! Directing is akin to mothering. You cannot be a good parent if you’re nagging, confrontational, unbending or cruel. Understand the creative team you’ve worked hard to assemble, and learn how best to work with them. It sounds like I’m saying the opposite of item 4, but they’re two very different things and I think that’s where a lot of young creatives trip up.

Which tips would you recommend to your colleagues in your industry to help them to thrive and not “burn out”?

Take time to find a compatible and understanding partner. This work is all consuming. It’s a calling. You need supportive people around you and you need to be able to lean on them…and often.

You are a person of enormous influence. If you could inspire a movement that would bring the most amount of good to the most amount of people, what would that be? You never know what your idea can trigger. 🙂

I’m very concerned about the environment and creating less trash (creatively and literally). I’ve noticed that on film sets that’s not always possible. It seems like a small thing, but if you consider all the films that are made every year, that’s a whole lot of trash. So, I guess if there’s one thing I’d focus on, where I could actually make some headway, it would be to try and be as green as possible while making my next film. I want my children to inherit a viable, healthy, still beautiful planet.

None of us are able to achieve success without some help along the way. Is there a particular person who you are grateful towards who helped get you to where you are? Can you share a story about that?

I’m grateful to my children and my husband. They know how important my work is to me and they have always been supportive, even when things have felt impossible. I made my first film, The Neighbor, when my children were three and five. I was away for nearly four months in Vancouver, BC. I can’t begin to describe how difficult this kind of separation is for a young mother. If not for my husband’s tremendous support I wouldn’t have made it to the finish line.

Making Maki was a little easier since we shot closer to home, and due to budget, I only had one month to shoot it. But I traveled to Japan over a dozen times during the research and casting process. Those trips took me far from home for weeks on-end throughout the entire four year pre-production period. Having the unconditional support of my family got me through many seemingly impossible days. I’m eternally grateful to them.

Can you please give us your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Can you share how that was relevant to you in your life?

It’s the last line from an Octavio Paz poem, which reads, “Deserve your dream.” These three words have had so much meaning for me over the years. It’s wonderful to have a dream for how you want your life to be, it’s essential to put in the energy, dedication and many, many long years of hard work. Nothing worthwhile ever just happens. Deserve your dream.

Is there a person in the world, or in the US whom you would love to have a private breakfast or lunch with, and why? He or she might just see this, especially if we tag them. 🙂

I would love to meet Malala Yousafzai or Greta Thunberg. Young activists are helping open peoples’ eyes to the many injustices that exist from women and children’s rights to the effects of climate change, to gun violence and even democracy and human rights as demonstrated by the recent student protests in Hong Kong. I’m struck by the courage and self-lessness of these young people. Their inspiring stories must not be forgotten.

How can our readers follow you on social media?

Instagram: makifilm

Facebook: Naghmeh Shirkhan 
Twitter: @FilmMaki

Also, there’s more info on each film’s website:



This was very meaningful, thank you so much!

Thank you for the thought-provoking questions! It was a fun interview.

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