Other Worlds Austin Has The Answer

Writer/director Iqbal Ahmed talks identity before Texas debut

Sometimes The Answer to your problems is right under your nose. After years of struggling to get movies made, writer/director Iqbal Ahmed quit trying to pitch projects and just made his sci-fi thriller in his own. As an indie filmmaker, he said, "It’s not the right move to ask for permission anymore."

Looking for clues: Austin Hébert and Alexis Carra on the run in sci-fi thriller The Answer, which receives its Texas premiere this week.

The film, which screens Thursday as part of Other Worlds Austin's year-round programming, finds orphan Bridd Cole (Austin Hébert) on the run from mysterious helmet-wearing thugs after he gets a delivery for his dead mother, and finds out a lot more about his mysterious heritage than he could have hoped or wanted. "I’ve always been really interested in issues of identity," said Ahmed. "There is something interesting about who we are, where we come from, how much of the orthodoxies we take on from our parents, and how much we invent of ourselves."

Ahmed's career as a filmmaker started in 2007, when he directed his debut short "Stem," and served as a producer on horror-thriller Splinter. Then, crickets. He was attached to plenty of projects, but then, he explained, "I’d be chatting with the financiers or producers, and inevitably it would come down to, ‘Look, we love you, we love the script, we love your ideas for it, but you’re a first-time director, so we just don’t feel comfortable allowing you to helm this.'"

While it was frustrating at the time, he understood their reasoning. He said, "Movies cost a lot of money; they’re quite high-risk. You want somebody who has a vision, a voice, you want somebody whose work you can see beforehand. You want some kind of background or have a track record."

So he took the smart path: He contacted his movie-making friends, and his friends from his days as an investment banker, and put the pieces for The Answer together himself. "It just came down to the fact that, if I did it smartly, I could make a very ambitious movie without much money."

Austin Chronicle: Where did the basic idea for this come from, apart from you going, "I shall write a movie where the accountant is the hero"?

Iqbal Ahmed: Some of my favorite movies are the ones that surprise me. Films that start in a world that I recognize, and that start in a very banal, relatable world. My life is not particularly interesting on a day-to-day basis, and so I thought, what if a normal guy like me had something crazy happen to him? That lead me down this strange treasure hunt, to then ultimately discover something shocking and frankly displeasing about myself.

So it really began from that Hitchcockian model of taking a normal guy who’s going about his normal life, and we’re going to make one single thing happen that’s going to change the course of the rest of his life – or in this case, the rest of the movie.

AC: Sci-fi has this grand history of characters who discover a dark secret about themselves, so what were the examples that were over your shoulder, and what pitfalls of the trope were you trying to avoid?

IA: Ironically for a movie that is a contained sci-fi movie, the sci-fi is minimized, or is at the very least couched in secrecy until pretty late. Because for me the interesting part was the human reaction. For me, the difference between B-movies and gigantic hits is frequently one of reaction and tone. I knew that I wanted to try something a little different from the standard sci-fi movie.

I didn’t have the benefit of large money, I didn’t have the benefit of big stars, so what I really wanted to do was purposefully not be reliant on that. I wanted to make a movie that feels human. What if I took a normal person and put them through the ringer in this incredibly disturbing but relatable way? I wanted everyone to see a little of themselves in this character.

AC: Bridd is the definitive Everyman schlub. Normally when you’ve got a character in a story like this that discovers something about themselves, they either have the love interest who can see beyond that new fact, or the best friend who thinks it’s the coolest thing ever. Charlotte (Alexis Carra) is both, because she’s the love interest who embraces it.

IA: I wanted to try a different kind of sidekick character. I obviously wanted to go for something fun and contrasting, but I thought it would be very interesting to have a very strong female, and one that was frankly unexpected, one who was perhaps even reluctant as the movie goes along to even like this guy. And to give someone with a little bit of edge and backstory. Too many times it feels like people become stereotypes of stereotypes, in terms of, OK, if we’re going to have a love interest, then she’s just along for the ride, and there’s not much going on, and she will make virtually no decisions, or show any agency in the direction of the story.

I thought it would be really fun to play with that, particularly because for me a large part of the performance was going to hinge on a really subtle, thoughtful, dramatic performance from Austin. So I wanted to have some kind of fun contrast, and a touchstone for us to relate to, but someone who would keep us guessing.

Other Worlds Austin presents the Texas premiere of The Answer, Thursday, May 19, 9pm, at Flix Brewhouse, 2200 I-35, Round Rock. Writer/director Iqbal Ahmed in attendance. Buy tickets here.

Other Worlds Austin runs Dec. 1-4 at Flix Brewhouse. More info at www.otherworldsaustin.com.

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