One of the best horror films I’ve seen in some time is Babak Anvari’s Under the Shadow, which follows a mother (Narges Rashidi) and daughter (Avin Manshadi) who must fight against forces of evil who have invaded their home, all during the Iran/Iraq war of the 1980s.

Daily Dead had the opportunity to speak with Anvari during the 2016 Sundance Film Festival about his feature film debut and heard more about how his own personal fears inspired the story of Under the Shadow, finding his incredible cast, shooting the project in Jordan, and what he’d like to do next.

Fantastic job on the movie, Babak. I'd love to hear a little bit about where this story originated from, in terms of placing it within the timeframe that you did. I thought that the context of the Iran/Iraq conflict completely elevated this story in terms of fear and tension.

Babak Anvari: I'm glad you think that, amazing. Well, basically the whole thing sparked in a conversation outside with my mom. Literally, my brother and I as children—and still now—we always used to have trouble sleeping. My mom was saying that she feels responsible for it because my dad is a doctor, and during that time in history, he was a young doctor. He, like the husband in the film, was forced to serve one month per year at the wars, on the front line, because that was mandatory. They would have not given him permit to practice, so you had to do it as a young doctor.

My mom said that during those times when my dad was away and she was left alone with me and my brother, even though she didn't want to show it—she wanted to be a protective mom—she was always very anxious and scared and stressed out. She felt like she sort of passed on those fears to me and my brother. That was the spark to me, and I thought, “This sounds like a great idea for a film,” where you have a mother and a child during wartime and the mother tries to protect the child but at the same time she's afraid and the child is afraid. They sort of enable each other.

What was your approach to the mythology of Jinn?

Babak Anvari: With Jinn, across the Middle East, in every country, even every section of each country, all [people] have their own take on it. It's one of those stories that passes along and gets a little bit added to it. There's this belief that they travel in the wind and I just thought, "War, missiles, bombs." Missiles go through the wind, go through the air, and Jinn come through the air, so it makes sense that a cursed missile could start this. A missile is a force of evil, basically. You shoot it at your enemy to destroy them.

And if there's a subtle hint on the missile, and in Arabic it's written "curse the enemy", which I think if only you're an Arabic speaker can you get that. It's subtle, maybe that missile is cursed. It's just the idea that if they maybe travel in the wind, maybe the missile brings them into this apartment.

But the whole thing in Iran is that you have the outside world and then the inside world. The outside world you have to be different from what you are in the inside world. Inside is your home, it's your private space. I was just thinking it would be fascinating to see this woman's only safe place left in the world start getting contaminated, just because it gets invaded by this alien object. How would she react?

Did you shoot in Iran then, or did you shoot somewhere else for Iran?  

Babak Anvari: Basically, it would have been difficult to shoot in Iran because of the censorship and certain restrictions in the country. I mean, don't get me wrong, there are amazing filmmakers in Iran and they make great films, but you always have to find a way to go around censorship and find a way to tell the stories. Being in Britain, I just wanted to tell my story the way I wanted, so we chose to shoot in Jordan and not Iran. The great thing about Jordan, and I'm honest, certain aspects of the city reminded me of Iran, especially 1980s Iran. I felt very nostalgic about it, so it was a great location to recreate that time.

Going into this project, how big of a genre fan were you? I felt like there were two moments that felt like nods to movies I love. One felt like Suspiria and one felt like New Nightmare. I don't know if that was just me reading into it, but I was just curious to hear more about your perspective as a filmmaker.

Babak Anvari: Basically, I love very good, smart horror films. I'm not one of those horror fanatics that watches every horror film that comes out, but I do enjoy a smart horror film like Orphanage or Rosemary's Baby. One of my major influences were early Polanski films, like Rosemary's Baby or Repulsion.

The cast in Under the Shadow are all phenomenal. How did you find them?

Babak Anvari: We found Avin [Manshadi], who plays Dorsa, basically by contacting the Iranian community in London and certain organizations. They recommended some children, some young girls who came and auditioned, then out of all of them she was the one that stood out. As soon as she entered the room, she was so smart, clever and creative; I was like, "This is her." That's how I found her. And the amazing thing about her is that she's super smart, to the point where she was picking up things every day on the set.

The first few days, because it was all new to her—the set, camera, crew—Avin was a bit giggly and nervous. But bit by bit, by the end of the first week she was a professional. She would say, "Put my mark down!" She was always focused on Narges, who plays her mom in the film. As a child you soak up all this information, and for this, Narges was her idol, so she was trying to copy her, which was great.

The rest of them just came from us looking around the world, as we had to find all these Farsi-speaking actors. It was very important for me to find actors that can speak Farsi without acting American or British. You have second generation Persians who grew up in L.A.—they speak Farsi, but with an American accent. That sounds weird, because nobody else but a Farsi speaker can tell that. It was really important for me to find actors that were fluent in Farsi. We looked around and literally found our cast from around the world: UK, US, France, Italy, Germany, all these Iranian actors who emigrated and are now working and living in Europe or the US.

You mentioned how this plays into your own childhood. Do you feel, as a filmmaker or even a storyteller, that sometimes the best stories more often than not come from those personal experiences?  

Babak Anvari: For sure. I'm a believer of that phrase, "Write what you know." It always will be a lot more authentic and emotionally honest. When I say, "Write what you know", I don't mean literally. Ultimately, you're telling a story, it's a work of fiction but you at least need to have a certain level of knowledge about why certain aspects happen. For instance, if you're writing about a bank robber, you don't need to be a bank robber yourself to do it, but you need to know a little bit about the background of the character, what would lead them to that point. Yeah, I think all good stories stem from that personal knowledge and I do think it can make a huge difference.

XYZ Films was involved with this and they're a part of so many incredible projects. How did that come together? Any time I see their name on something, I say to myself, "Okay, I'm probably going to love this."

Babak Anvari: Yeah, we were very lucky. My producers got in touch with them in the very early stages and they loved the script. It was even an early draft of the script and they loved it as is. I feel so lucky and honored to have them on board. It's been fantastic.

What's coming up for you after this? Are you still going to stay within genre stuff, or are you going to branch out a little bit?  

Babak Anvari: I would love to show a bit of variety. I might not necessarily do another supernatural horror. I might go into a thriller, or an intense drama, but something that feels like a logical step from Under the Shadow. I probably won’t be going to do romantic comedies anytime soon. So I'm working on a few ideas of my own and reading other materials, just to see what's out there.


It was announced during Sundance that Vertical Entertainment, in partnership with XYZ Films, will be releasing Under the Shadow as part of a day-and-date availability on VOD in conjunction with a limited theatrical run. It was also revealed that Netflix will make the movie available worldwide on their streaming service after the theatrical and VOD debut, so be sure to keep your eyes peeled for release date announcements, as genre fans will not want to miss this film.

  • Heather Wixson
    About the Author - Heather Wixson

    Heather A. Wixson was born and raised in the Chicago suburbs, until she followed her dreams and moved to Los Angeles in 2009. A 14-year veteran in the world of horror entertainment journalism, Wixson fell in love with genre films at a very early age, and has spent more than a decade as a writer and supporter of preserving the history of horror and science fiction cinema. Throughout her career, Wixson has contributed to several notable websites, including Fangoria, Dread Central, Terror Tube, and FEARnet, and she currently serves as the Managing Editor for Daily Dead, which has been her home since 2013. She's also written for both Fangoria Magazine & ReMind Magazine, and her latest book project, Monsters, Makeup & Effects: Volume One will be released on October 20, 2021.