Interview with writer/director Lena Khan

Bismillah ir Rahman ir Raheem.

Assalam alaikum and greetings, fellow film-makers!

I had the great pleasure of interviewing Lena Khan (@lena_khan) writer of The Tiger Hunter, which she is also set to direct God willing next April.

THE TIGER HUNTER is the story of Sami Malik, a young South Asian who travels to 1970s America to become an engineer in order to impress his childhood crush and live up to the legacy of his father–a legendary tiger hunter back home. When Sami’s job unexpectedly falls through and he ends up living in a tiny co-op with two oddball roommates, he must resort to constructing an elaborate charade with the misfit accomplices in hopes of convincing his sweetheart that he’s far more successful than he truly is…or perhaps ever could be.

She has a fairly big actor who is ready to jump on board who is in a fairly big movie out now (I can guess who it is), but she needs a little bit more moolah to make him an offer.

So…what are you waiting for? Let’s get this show on the road! Donate here!

If you have any follow up questions, leave us a comment.

What has your career been like thus far?

It’s been…uncertain. And I think that’s the nature of film-making. It’s different from being a lawyer or doctor or the like, where you know that if you study hard and do the right things, you’ll have some stability and get what you want. With film-making, I’ve been fortunate enough to be doing okay, since I have been able to make a living off of my work, which isn’t that common in this field. But there’s always a sense that perhaps I’m rushing off foolhardy into a nearly impossible career and endeavor. But, I’m doing what I love, and I believe in what I’m doing. So the only way I can see how it turns out is to actually give it a chance.

Why did you choose film-making as a career?

I have always loved the idea of weaving stories, of manipulating artistic or movie magic to get people to feel instead of just hear or see a story. But I’ve always also wanted to have a career that tried to make a difference in the world.

I went into college thinking I was going to go in to academia and become a professor. But when I would walk around my university, it was apparent that people learn more from entertainment and the media than from school.

I remember being involved in student groups in college, and trying to get people to come to programs to learn about what was going on in Sudan. Not many people came. But lo and behold, when Don Cheadle came to town to talk about the issue, it seemed as if the entire campus turned out. Why? Because he was in entertainment. And such is the power of movies. I figured — that’s where I want to be. There’s a way for me to merge my creative passions with a way to work toward some good. And that’s what I’m attempting now.

Tell us about The Tiger Hunter. Where did the idea come from? How long did it take to make? What stage are you at with producing it?

The initial spark for the film came from an email from a friend of my brother’s, telling me about how his father came to America decades ago, and the random stories he had–like only having one good pair of suit pants between his roommates and how they would all schedule their interviews around that one pair of pants. Some were small, but it made me think there was more to the topic. After that, I remembered all the stories my dad used to tell me about his life growing up in India and coming here. My dad’s father was a tiger hunter in India, and the stories he had about that, as well as the crazy ploys he used to come here were something I always heard growing up…but never thought of as stories. At the time, I was working at Participant Media (Syriana, The Kite Runner), and one day I was casually telling some of those stories of my dad. My co-workers all agreed — this, they said, should be the topic for my first film. And so I started writing it.

After that, I interviewed my dad. I interviewed dozens of immigrants, people who lived in the 70s, etc. And from their stories, and a lot of creative manipulation over a year and a half, I wrote the script.

In terms of the film, we are just starting pre-production and based on schedules of the actors (many are TV actors, so we have to wait till their hiatus from filming), we will be filming around April of next year.

As a Muslim I got to ask you this: What are the challenges you face, if at all, being in a Muslim in film-making?

There’s a few – -those that come from being a faithful Muslim, and those that come from being part of the Muslim culture. For the latter, Muslims are generally a bit more traditionally minded. This reflects in a lot of ideas about how girls should be, from how they live their life to when they should get married. For example, they don’t expect girls in the community to be coming home at 2 am from a networking mixer or a film shoot, but that’s what I need to do to get anywhere. As for being a faithful Muslim, that comes into play as well. There are some environments that are just too crazy for me to network at, where I don’t feel comfortable hanging out at. I remember in film school, there were a few films that were so lewd that I couldn’t in good faith help on those film sets…which doesn’t really engender much love for you from your film colleagues. And in my own films, there is, of course, always questions about what I feel okay putting in my films and what I don’t. It’s not about following a black-and-white set of rules, but it is a concern and it becomes an internal conversation. And finally, of course, I do encounter people who take one look at me and assume I am foreign and don’t know how to make a movie or how to think creatively…but I think that happens in all professions to some extent so I don’t want to harp on it. People get over it, anyway.

And since I’m starting out myself as a screenwriter, there’s another question I am personally interested in – how do you deal with the uncertainty of this industry?

I guess I don’t really deal with it…I just accept it. The reality is that this is one of the most competitive fields there is, and there is only so much you can do to mitigate the uncertainty of it. That said, I do everything I can to do so. We’ve literally spent the entire year figuring out ways to decrease risk for our investors, whether it is through film incentives or acquiring soft money. I’ve done tons of research and gotten advice from dozens of professionals on how to survive in a difficult film economy and am implementing that advice. And yes, I do think that means being smart about what you write, what audiences are ready for (I believe in slowly challenging those ideas), and paying attention to the business side as well as the creative side of the film. But aside from that, I’m doing all you or I can–try to make a good movie. Try not to let difficult odds defeat us. I don’t think anyone will tell you there’s much more you or I can do.

What advice would you give aspiring filmmakers and screenwriters?

Two things – and these are things I try to implement as well: make sure you are very good at what you do, and don’t be naive.

For the former, that means constantly refining your craft, and getting input from objective people who know what they are doing and will tell you how your work is. This means getting coverage done, going to story editors, etc. I think with the advent of cheaper ways to make films, there are a lot of people making very mediocre work. This is a problem because at some point, you will not survive, nor find an audience to hear your stories, doing mediocre work. You need to constantly challenge yourself to improve your craft and get criticism, otherwise you will suffer, and your stories and intent will too. I used to watch American Idol with my family, and I noticed how much people hated Simon Cowell. I hate to say it, but sometimes Simon was doing people a great service. People would come in and they would be terrible. I mean, they were excruciatingly bad. And so Simon was trying to do them a favor by telling them they would not survive in this industry. And people think it’s unfair, but I think the same advice should be given to people who are doing terrible work in filmmaking or screenwriting. Why? Because people who really want to “make it” will know if they have no chances and know how difficult it will be for them out there. But also because if somebody really, really wants to do well in this field despite how bad the criticism is–they will do it anyway.

Secondly, it’s important not to be naive. When people become lawyers, they prepare and they know what’s needed. They have to get good internships in a certain year or law school, do well on their LSAT, etc. In film-making, I feel like people have this idea that if they just put their heart into their work, they will do great. That’s not true. It’s a real world out there, and even if somebody has an excellent script, if they don’t know how to get that script into the right hands, they won’t get anywhere. It’s the same for film-making and I don’t endorse it, but it’s a reality. I’ve seen amazing filmmakers that just don’t know how the business works, so they can’t get money for their films. A few people get discovered, but that’s not the norm. Alternatively, we all see terrible films being made because the teams behind those films know how to play the game. So I think people need to learn things aren’t as idealistic as they make it out to be, and adapt accordingly if they want to live their dreams.

Anything else you’d like to add?

I’m, of course, obliged to add that we are nearly completely funded, but do have a little bit left to raise. We are actually in a strange position that we have a pretty big actor (in a fairly large movie out right now) who read the script and wants on board, but we can’t make him an offer yet because our budget is not complete. So, if anybody wants to help support our film, in any way possible, please visit our website at http://www.thetigerhunter.com . I do my best to try to help all the younger filmmakers who email me each week and I publish a blog for this purpose, so if anybody wants to help me as well, it would mean a lot to me as well as the success of the project!

 Lena’s bio:

A writer and director, Lena gained experience at companies like Participant Media (Syriana, The Kite Runner) before focusing on directing her own work. Lena has directed commercials, films and music videos for international artists such as Maher Zain and her videos have been broadcast on TV across the world and received over 20 million hits on YouTube.  

Lena graduated from the prestigious UCLA School of Theater, Film and Television, after which she spent years gaining experience at renowned film companies. Lena has gained extensive knowledge of what qualities a film needs to be successful, and brings those aspects into co-writing and soon directing The Tiger Hunter

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