Maz Jobrani, Jonathan Kesselman, and Amir Ohebsion have never worked together before. They may want to consider doing so more often, as their latest project, Jimmy Vestvood: Amerikan Hero, has won both Inaugural Comedy Vanguard awards from both the jury and the audience at the 2014 Austin Film Festival. Here is a snippet of the conversation we had right before their film had its world premiere at the Bob Bulllock IMAX Theatre as part of the 2014 Austin Film Festival. Also, Jimmy Vestvood can be followed on both Facebook and Instagram.
How did the idea come about?
MJ: The idea first came about in – was it ’94?
AO: Yeah, ’94 or 5.
MJ: Yeah, sometime in ’94 or ’95, Amir had written a play, and I played the lead character in it. And the lead character in it was named Jamshid, and he calls himself Jimmy. We did the play for a little bit, and then we stopped doing the play. And then one night, I think I was at a dinner at his [Amir’s] house, and I go, “Y’know, it would be fun to create a movie out of this character.” This is now like ’95 or something. We just kinda threw that idea around a little bit, and then we let it go. A year or so later, he and I just sat down and started writing, and we wrote and wrote and wrote. This script has gone through like 20 different versions. We got to points where, like in 2006 or 2007, some guy in Dubai was like, “I’d love to fund it. Let’s do it.” And we’re like, “Great!” Then we had our lawyers call them, and he said, “Oh the stock market crashed! I can’t do it.” Then another guy got in touch with me, and he says, “I am the biggest roofer on the East Coast, and I want to do it.” And we’re like, “Alright.” Then I meet with him, and he’s like, “Oh, I’ve invested in some movies and they are not working out. I don’t want to do it.” So we just kept running into that. It wasn’t until 2012, the Fall of 2012, when me, Amir, and Ray Moheet, who is the other producer, finally started an Indiegogo fundraising campaign and raised a little over a hundred grand. And then Amir and I were like, “Well, we’ve got the money, so we’ve either got to go to Brazil or make a movie. Let’s make movie.” We looked for the right director, then we found Jonny, and here we are.
Kesselman, what drew you into the project?
JK: Initially, it was Maz. I started checking it out online, when they first started talking about it, and he’s very, very funny. Their project spoke to me because The Hebrew Hammer had something very similar in the sense that it was sort of trying to do the same thing. It was a comedy for their community, but they wanted to be a mainstream kind of thing, and I thought, “Yeah, I know how to do that.” And I thought it would be fun too.
MJ: And all the big bucks we were paying him…That’s a joke.
How did the idea of the story?
AO: That has evolved. As Maz mentioned, we had a film noir-type of plot before, and we wanted to make it a little bit more current and topical. We got into the politics of it, satirizing that. This version we feel is a little bigger than what it would of otherwise have been, stuff like that y’know.
MJ: And the timing was perfect because he and I had been getting notes from some people that were telling us, “If you are going to do it, do it with your voice.” And in my stand-up, I try to talk about some political stuff. And so we were getting these notes, and we were like, “This is going to be a major undertaking.” Then Jon came on board, and he was of the same mind. So we were like, “You know what, we gotta do it, but if we are going to do it, do it right. Let’s not be lazy when we are on the 10-yard-line and go ‘Eh-forget-it’.” Literally, in the last six months, we have added and changed so much. It’s amazing. I tell people it’s such a long process, and you are never done. I was telling them, “We’re not done until we have filmed it.” So even up until the day of the shoot, we have something that’s funnier or better, let’s put it in there.
A lot of your guys’ work deals with subverting stereotypes and trying to instead use that as a source of empowerment for people. Do you think comedy has that ability to do that?
JK: Absolutely. Any minority, whether you’re Persian or Jewish or black or whatever, you’re going to feel the world is an unfair place. People are shitting on you, or you’re being put upon. And I think comedy is a very powerful thing in terms of essentially showing the world or showing people what’s real, or basically calling bullshit on others. And it is empowering for people to see people making jokes.
MJ: Yeah, I think there are a couple of things. First of all, until you tell your story from your point of view, then other people are going to tell your story and shit on you. It’s our chance to tell our story and kind of shit back. And the best way to do it is through comedy because people don’t know that you are fighting back. They think, “Oh, this is funny”, but in reality, there’s a little message under it, which is great. One of my favorite films was Hollywood Shuffle, by Robert Townsend, which really played with stereotypes of black in Hollywood.
JK: And I think your point, too, is that with a joke you can squeeze in a message or an idea and get someone to laugh at that joke. There sort of admitting that there is something inherently funny to whatever you are sort of poking at, that you’re satirizing.
AO: And we’re sort of making fun of ourselves, too. We’re not preaching or putting other people down. We’re making fun of ourselves and at the same time trying to get a message across and change the image of Middle Easterners in American movies.
MJ: I think that we try to be as fair in terms of making fun of both sides. In this East versus West, there’s a lot of people who are responsible for the conflict, and I think we all come from places like…I’m Persian, Jon’s Jewish, and Amir’s a Persian Jew, and none of it played into any of it. We just wanted to be funny, and we all get along and love each other. I mean, there are so many people to make fun of that create the conflicts in the world. We make fun of the Iranian leadership. We make fun of conservatives in America who might want war. We just try to go after everybody in that way.
JK: That’s a really good answer.
MJ: Thank you. [
Jumping off of that, do you think this project, and comedy in general, can help sort reach out and, in a way, unite people?
JK: I think it’s funny. Even with my first film, you don’t want it to be for one community. You want it to be for everybody. If it’s funny across the board, which this movie is, that’s sort of it. You can’t deny funny. I think this movie is very funny, and I think when people see it, they’ll acknowledge it.
MJ: Absolutely. And I think that, with uniting people, it’s almost a self-conscious uniting. As long as you have people, like Amir and I have set out to create a hero in an American film that is of Middle Eastern decent, but you don’t want people thinking about that consciously. The idea was for people to leave and go, “I love that Jimmy Vestvood! That was fun!”, and not think about his background or ethnicity. I think that’s how you bring people together. It’s that the people are rooting for a guy, and it doesn’t matter what his background is. And then after the fact, if they want to consciously address it, they go, “Oh, and he’s Iranian. Oh wow, so not all Iranians are hostage takers. Oh they’re not all bad. Oh wow!” So that’s the steps that self-consciously play into it.
What was your favorite part about making this project?
AO: I think the collaboration and things that came out spontaneously. That was the most exciting part. For things to play out in real life, and then evolve into something you didn’t expect and even better than you imagined, that was the most satisfying thing about it, for me personally.
JK: For me, it was working with him [Maz Jobrani]. Working with everybody is great, and everyone is very funny. But he’s so open and so in the moment and just a good person to be around. You work with a lot of people who are not necessarily sometimes the nicest people. But Maz, not only is he a very funny guy, but he is a very nice guy. I said it once during the shoot, and I’ll say it again: he’s movie-star funny. I think he’s a brilliant guy.
MJ: I love this guy! [Laughter]For me, all along, this is the first film I’ve made, my first feature film, and I have so much respect for filmmakers because filmmakers toil for ten years. And they get the money. They write the script. They do the scouting, and they get the cast. And then things fall through and then movie comes out. And then some critic goes and writes a negative review. And if I were just a filmmaker, I’d have a bat, and I’d be chasing people down going, “You know how much work I put into this!” There’s so much hard work. And then along the way this stuff happens, and you just gotta enjoy it. There were moments where me and Amir were writing, and some idea would come to us. And we’re just sitting in a coffee shop in LA, and we start cracking up. Or it’s on the set where Jon and I are trying different stuff out. Or he’s come up with an idea, and he wants an actor to try it. You’ll see there’s an older lady in the movie who plays my mother and who is really conservative, sweet lady. And Jon wanted her to say the f-word, and she was like, “Nooooo, not going to say it.” And again the thing is a collaboration. And it was so much fun trying to get her to say that. And then when she finally did it, I think it’s one of the biggest laughs in the whole movie. And so that stuff was all fun. It’s been fun all the way. Any filmmaker that’s out there, the first thing I’ll say is, “It will be the hardest work you’ll ever do. You’ll put all your blood and sweat into it, but enjoy every moment you can find along the way. Don’t bask in the negativity of it. Enjoy it, enjoy it, enjoy it.” It’s been fun every step of the way.
Why did you choose Austin Film Festival for the world premiere?
AO: They respect writers here. The honor writers a lot. We applied to a number of festival, and the timing worked out such that this one worked out for us. And we have yet to hear from other festivals, and we didn’t want to hold out until something like April 2015. We have a great movie, and we want it out there.
JK: I was talking about this before, but the first festival I ever attended when I was literally in film school was the Austin Film Festival fourteen years ago. And I told these guys that this festival is amazing. It’s one of the best festivals I have ever been to, and I’ve been to a lot festivals.
AO: And everybody here really loves the movie and what we’re trying to do, and we appreciate that. We want someone to get what we’re doing and recognize that. And when they called and said, “We love the movie”, it was a done deal for us. And so we’re going to have our [world] premiere here. And we’re happy that we did. And by the way, we just found out yesterday that we won the Vanguard Comedy Award for the film. And this is the first year that they are doing this.
MJ: It’s worked out very well.
Congratulations! Is there going to be a Jimmy Vestvood 2?
MJ: Oh yes! We’re talking about it.
AO: From the very beginning, we pictured this as having sequels. Not necessarily like a Jimmy Vestvood franchise.
MJ: I want to call the sequel Jimmy Brentwood, ‘cause there’s an area in Hollywood called Brentwood that’s really chic and really nice. So in Jimmy Brentwood, all of Jimmy’s success from the first movie has gone to his head, and now he’s in Brentwood. And now they need him to come help and save the day, but he’s like, “Oh I don’t have time. I have to do some yoga, get a double espresso macchiato at Starbucks, and then I have to go see my life coach. Who has time to save the world?” So that’s going to be number two. And then, I want number three to be Jimmy Newyorkwood. The third one will be him going into New York.