News » Film » I have been thinking about making ‘Jinn’ for more than 10 years: Ajmal Zaheer Ahmad

I have been thinking about making ‘Jinn’ for more than 10 years: Ajmal Zaheer Ahmad

Supernatural thriller opens in theaters across North America April 4th.

By Deepak Chitnis

WASHINGTON, DC: The supernatural thriller Jinn, which is written and directed by Ajmal Zaheer Ahmad, is set to release in theaters across the US and Canada tomorrow, April 4. The film is about an ancient concept of ghost-type entities that have to do with creation myths in parts of the Eastern Hemisphere, and is said to be among the first to introduce “Eastern mythological folklore [to] Western audiences.

Writer/director Ajmal Zaheer Ahmad at the red carpet premiere of Jinn, in Detroit (photo by Ryan Doyle, Video Vision 360)

The film is produced by Ahmad, Benjamin Dresser, and Alan Noel Vega. It stars Dominic Rains (Flight 93), Serinda Swan (USA’s “Graceland”), Ray Park (Star Wars: Episode 1 – The Phantom Menace), Faran Tahir (Iron Man) and William Atherton (Die Hard). The executive producers on the film, working on behalf of Exxodus Pictures, are Richard Mandell, Najam Syed and Shahid Syed.

In an interview with The American Bazaar, writer/producer/director Ahmad talks about his background, the amount of work that went into making Jinn, and his hope that the film will do well enough to yield a potential sequel.

Excerpts from the interview:

What is your background, as in where you’re from, where you went to school, and how you became involved with the film industry?

I grew up in Detroit, Michigan and attended Art Center College of Design in Pasadena. It’s always been a goal of mine to be a filmmaker. I have always been fascinated by bringing stories to life. So at a young age, I began drawing. I continued to hone that ability through college, and then began concept designing for commercials, music videos, and eventually large Hollywood films. During that time I was also learning all I could about every aspect of production. This knowledge, along with my ability to draw, was extremely valuable when I began working as a director creating my own films.

Where did the story of Jinn come from, and what was the process of creating and writing the story/screenplay like?

Jinn are supposedly a third race of beings that have lived on this planet even before mankind existed. Almost two billion people from India to China to Africa believe in the Jinn. Supposedly, they are very similar to man in that they have free will; however, they have powers that we would consider supernatural. To the rest of the world, most of the things that go “bump in the night” are attributed to the Jinn.

The writing process was very enjoyable. Our company, Exxodus Pictures, is a very collaborative group. Our team is based in Detroit, but I was in California while I was writing. I have been thinking about making this film for over 10 years. So I had 10 years’ worth of ideas, plus plenty of Jinn stories my friends and I told each other when we were growing up. The material came very easily to me. And each time I’d finish a draft I would send it to the rest of our team who provided valuable perspective that I could never have come up with. Without the collaboration of the Exxodus team and some of my mentors, the writing process would have been a lot more difficult.

Jinn is a very unconventional story for Hollywood, involving elements of mysticism and the flavor of Asia. How did you get such a film into production? Was it a struggle to find financing for a film of this kind?

Jinn centers around a concept that is well known to almost half the world…yet is completely unknown to the west. Almost 2 billion people from India to China to Africa are familiar with the concept and that of course means that we need to take a very authentic approach to the concept…one that adheres to age old beliefs and at the same time introduces the concept in a new and fresh way…that is also entertaining to western audiences.

We tried to ride that line properly by doing our research and compiling stories from numerous people from different cultural, national and religious backgrounds, and of course studying texts that might lead us to new clues pertaining to the Jinn. In addition, we chose to make the movie a supernatural thriller with an adventure component, broadening the range of people that might be interested in coming to see it.

We had to work hard to put the financing together, but every film has challenges like that. At the end of the day, if you have a great story there will be an audience for it. And if there is an audience who will come to see a film, there will be people willing to finance it. And we were very lucky to find some of the most loyal, dedicated and visionary partners to help bring Jinn to life.

Actors Walter Phelan Dominc Rains in 'Jinn'
Actors Walter Phelan Dominc Rains in ‘Jinn’

As a south Asian American filmmaker in Hollywood, what has the showbiz experience been like for you, particularly since there are so few prominent desks in Hollywood?

I don’t reflect on that very often. It’s easy to get caught up in the industry experience, which can cause you to lose focus on what really matters–great story telling. I have concentrated the majority of my time creating great stories. Stories that keep you on the edge of your seat. Stories that tug at your heart strings. I have received valuable support from a few prominent south Asians in Hollywood, but also from people of many different cultures. The one commonality I find among all those I’ve worked with closely: they all, like me, care first and foremost about storytelling.

What are your inspirations, in terms of films and filmmakers that you look toward for elements you want to emulate in your own work?

Some of the more obvious ones are Steven Spielberg and James Cameron, directors who have really pushed the boundaries of what’s possible. They’ve created magic in their films along with transporting people to new places. It’s hard enough to make a movie, let alone create new worlds. Some of the less obvious are designers like Ralph McQuarrie and Syd Mead. Between them both, they were responsible for some of the greatest designs ever made for motion pictures, including films like Star Wars and Blade Runner, respectively. I also highly admire composers like John Williams and James Horner as I firmly believe that writing, directing, and acting is 49% of a movie. Music is the other 51%.

As far as my own work, I draw much of my creativity and ideas from childhood inspiration and ideas. I remember watching many films, shows and cartoons as a child and being inspired by the heroes I saw on screen. The stuff that I watched and read as a youth is what inspires me still to this day. And if I’m lucky enough to have an ongoing career as a director, I think I’ll be executing on many of the concepts that I thought up before the age of 17.

Jinn is a relatively small-scale film, at least in terms of other kinds of movies Hollywood is currently putting out. What was the budget for it? How many theaters will it be in? And what kind of numbers does it need to put up to be gauged as a success?

It was an ambitious project that taught us all so much. When you don’t have a huge budget, you have to find new and unique ways to execute. That mentality has defined the production of Jinn from beginning to end.

We hope that this audience mobilizes in force to see this movie in theatres on opening weekend so we can show that we are a demographic that has money to spend and deserves content created for us. Projects like this can really move the needle and can encourage others to share their stories. If we’re lucky, Jinn could lay the foundation for a new dialogue in America. We would be very proud if it did.

JinnPOsterDo you know what you’re working on next? What other projects do you have in the pipeline?

Hopefully, Jinn 2!

Do you have any advice to give to other south Asian Americans who are aspiring to become writers and directors, like you?

Simply put: practice makes perfect. The more you practice the more you learn. And if you don’t make films–even small ones– you’ll never have anything to show people who might want to help you or teach you something.  Don’t wait until you have a studio behind you, don’t even wait until you have a film degree. Take whatever resources you can find and figure how you can use them to create a movie. If you have a camera and two friends, make a web series about two best friends. If you don’t have access to a camera, practice writing great stories of all kinds. The more you practice what you want to do, the better you get. You discover why certain things work creatively, and why other things don’t. You’ll develop techniques in your backyard that you will use for the rest of your career.

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