10 Questions with Director Lena Khan

by Abraham Ferrer

The September 22 theatrical release of Lena Khan’s 1970s-themed romantic comedy THE TIGER HUNTER comes on the heels of a parade of high profile works that have foregrounded South Asian leading characters and themes, from last season’s THE MAN WHO KNEW INFINITY and LION starring Dev Patel; THE BIG SICK produced, co-written and starring Kumail Nanjiani; and MASTER OF NONE, from multi-hyphenate creator Aziz Ansari. Yet director Khan’s THE TIGER HUNTER, a certified crowd-pleaser that screened at the 2016 Los Angeles Asian Pacific Film Festival as the Opening Night film, is distinguished as that rare feature written, produced, and directed by a woman filmmaker. That distinction has become more pronounced over this past summer, as male-created films as THE BIG SICK experienced backlash for what some perceived as “centering” brown man/white women relationships at the expense of South Asian women.


While the following conversation with Visual Communications staff member Abraham Ferrer delves only obliquely with the lingering controversies over THE BIG SICK and MASTER OF NONE, et. al., the significance of Khan — an Indian Canadian filmmaker and alumnus of the UCLA School of Film, Television, and Digital Media — as a South Asian woman director/screenwriter NOT named Mira Nair took center stage, as did her motivations for setting her story in 1970s Chicago.

Abraham Ferrer: First off Lena, congratulations on the impending theatrical release on Sept. 22. How extensive an opening will this be, and how important will it be to reconnect with all the new friends you and your producers made during THE TIGER HUNTER’s festival run last year to ensure its success?
Lena Khan: It’s a huge opening, and we are excited but nervous! We are opening in over 50 cities, and we are set to play in over 70 after a bit and maybe more. We owe a lot of this success to the festivals that supported us and gave us the light of day during our festival run, and it’s been crucial — both from a matter of integrity and strategy — to work closely with these festivals and their supporting organizations in promoting the film. They have played such a generous hand in helping us promote and spread the word, and I don’t know where we’d be without them.

AF: Let’s step back a bit and talk a bit about the making of THE TIGER HUNTER. Did your background as a director of short films and music videos give you the sufficient preparation for undertaking such a huge step up in your filmmaking career? And how did you work up the nerve to tackle such an ambitious project?
LK: Doing shorts and music videos was helpful in building skills and being comfortable shooting…but there were still many things I had to learn. For example, you don’t work as intensively with actors in music videos, so to prepare for the film I did a very, very intensive six week directing fellowship with amazing producer and directing mentor Joan Scheckel, who has worked with everyone from Jonathon Dayton and Valerie Faris (LITTLE MISS SUNSHNE) to Jill Soloway (TRANSPARENT). And as for the nerve, it came from either being a little foolhardy, or ambitious — but not sure which! I guess when you don’t know what the obstacles are, and how hard things are (or you don’t listen to people who tell you that)…you figure in your mind that it is something achievable.

AF: The city of Chicago is as much a “star” of THE TIGER HUNTER as was your cast, yet it seems that not a single shot was made in The Windy City. Why Chicago? Why the late 1970s? And more importantly, HOW were you able to sustain the belief that your film was shot and based in Chicago?
LK: I chose Chicago because it was one of the main center points of the Indian diaspora in the 1960s and ‘70s, and it didn’t distract in the way a place like California would, where I’d have to show the mandatory “main character looking at glitzy palm trees” shot. What was more important was the ‘70s. I chose [that era] because it seemed to be a time of community, and a closer connection between even strangers — and it seemed we could use a little of that. And, just as importantly, I thought it would be lame if the main character Sami comes to America, has a hard time, and immediately whips out his iPhone to WhatsApp somebody back home for help!


AF: I hadn’t actually seen your past film works, but THE TIGER HUNTER is certainly a warm-hearted movie, and plays well to a multi-generational audience. Is “comfort cinema” (and for the purposes of this chat, “Asian American comfort cinema”) such as THE TIGER HUNTER something that filmgoers either need or appreciate (or both) in this day and age?
LK: It’s been amazing to see how excited people are to see a heartfelt movie. It has a lot of humor and it’s a comedy, but we hear a lot about how it’s a genuine movie, and charming and heartfelt. And I guess people don’t get to use those adjectives as often in movies and they have been really, really excited by it. People come out with big smiles and it seems like people — with all the troubles in the world nowadays — have needed that.

AF: Tell us how you assembled that remarkable cast and crew. This is as close to an indie cinema “all-star cast” as I can recall in recent memory.
LK: I have to give nearly all credit to our amazing and super well-respected casting director Emily Schweber. Her reputation precedes her so even when she’s doing an indie film, agents pick up her calls. Danny’s agent paid attention to her email, and he got excited. Once he showed up (on his Vespa, of course — and then I knew it was a match), we talked and he was on board shortly after. When Danny came on board, everyone else mostly did too.

There were a few people we auditioned though. Karen David for example, came through auditions (probably because this was in her days before her amazing GALAVANT and ONCE UPON A TIME roles) and I just could not find anybody else that came close to her. We actually ended up changing the entire production schedule, and delaying it sixth months just to keep her.

AF: It seemed that you and your production had a blast making THE TIGER HUNTER — I mean, I could really see on screen that people were really invested in something special. Any filmmaker “war stories” you’d like to share?
LK: EVERYTHING was a war story! In India, we had crime bosses (they control the film labor unions there) come to our set and shut it down until they charged us. We had to shoot group scenes in America while we were block shooting — meaning only half the actors were there, because the others were coming back from Canada the same day (they were shooting TV). The General Lee car literally was a piece of junk, and the smoke in the movie is real — I saw the smoke and yelled, “SHOOT THE REHEARSAL!!!” After that the car never ran and 13 G&E guys had to push it into shots.

AF: I have to mention: Danny Pudi comes off as a real “leading man” in your film, and really carries it. And of course, THE TIGER HUNTER has been on the film festival circuit a full seven months before THE BIG SICK, produced, co-written and starring SILICON VALLEY’s Kumail Nanjiani, made its debut at the Sundance Film Festival back in January. How should we distinguish these two contrasting portrayals of Desi leading men, seeing as how one of them was largely imagined through a resolutely male perspective while the character of Sami Malik was obviously your creation? 
LK: I don’t know if it’s because it came from me…but unlike Kumail’s character, Sami’s drive and story has to do with a lot more than just getting the girl! And maybe that just shows what girls prefer in a guy!

AF: Just to follow up on that last point: a LOT of Asian Pacific American images in film and television over the past decade has been informed by a parade of Asian Indians — mostly males, though, and of course Kumail Nanjiani and Emmy Award-winning Aziz Ansari are but two current high-profile exemplars. While I’m not glossing over the impact of multi-hyphenate entertainer Mindy Kaling and others, I wonder how mission-critical it is to have female voices such as yours be a part of this larger movement towards the “next level” of cultural pluralism in this society?
LK: I’m a big believer in just having a lot of voices. And, you’re right — there are a lot of male South Asian voices. And they all have their own identity and stories to tell. But, just like one white person can’t represent all white people, we can’t expect a few brown dudes to represent all South Asians properly. I see Aziz and Kumail and all those guys and applaud what they’re doing, but there’s so much left to represent. There are female voices, yes. But, there is also the perspective of the guys who want to keep a little more of their culture and are perfectly okay marrying an Indian girl and not necessarily going after the white girl.

Sami in THE TIGER HUNTER represents that type of guy, who is missing right now in the industry and we need that — because there are plenty of people like that. The guy who is Muslim and actually wants to practice his religion (like Sami in the movie) is missing too. And so there’s just a need for more voices in general and if I can add in some of those representations and characters that I know are out there and maybe have a closer relationship to — I’d love to do that and more.

AF: THE TIGER HUNTER hints at a broad spectrum of cinematic influences that, while I’m not going to say that the film is trope-laden, makes the film easy to find identification with. I saw glimpses of Mike Nichols’ THE GRADUATE as well as select works from the late Paul Mazursky and Sidney Pollack. And hello! That last shot of the film in which Sami and gang ride The General Lee off to California is seemingly an exact copy of the final shot of Richard Linklater’s classic DAZED AND CONFUSED. Clearly, THE TIGER HUNTER takes no cues whatsoever from Bollywood movies. Was that intentional? Or for you, did the style merely serve the purpose of creating a period film?
LK: The style was definitely drawn from films I loved from the period — so I’m so excited you picked up on some! And, the entire visual style was based off of BOOGIE NIGHTS. As for it not being super Indian, I think one of our reviews said it best: it’s not entirely Indian, and it’s not entirely America…but that’s intentional. That’s sort of what being an immigrant for them was like. And, I wrote what I knew — and I’m not all Indian OR all American (well actually I was born in Canada, but I’m not counting that part)!

AF: Oh and I have to ask: while the film was set in the late 1970s and was blessed with production values and designs from that period, you curiously used no music that grounded the film in that time period (ie: disco or new wave). Were you inspired by any music or stars of the period during the making of THE TIGER HUNTER? C’mon Lena, you can tell us…
LK: The music was actually appropriate to the time — most of the songs were feel alikes (and very close) to ‘70s tracks. Ruby’s theme is modeled after a Fleetwood Mac tune, there are several modeled after Elton John songs, etc. We had an entire temp track that was ‘70s songs and then the composers (who worked for THAT ‘70s SHOW) put their own spin. And, the end song is from Cat Stevens’ “Wild World”, which is super ‘70s. BUT, we didn’t go for really obvious because the music was just making things authentic — it wasn’t meant to distract.

THE TIGER HUNTER is out in theatres now! Visit the website to find out where you can see it in your city.

Abraham Ferrer is a Senior Film Festival Programmer at Visual Communications and helps produce the annual LA Asian Pacific Film Festival. He has been with the organization since 1985.