April 17, 2015 Interview – Ajmal Zaheer Ahmad director of Jinn
Following a creative impulse can be one of the biggest challenges anyone can take on in life. Young Detroit, Michigan born filmmaker, Ajmal Zaheer Ahmad, applied his visions to doing what he wanted to do, and the results have been tremendous. Bringing an ancient Islamic theology to mainstream culture, his latest film, Jinn, was released in 2014 and he aspires for even bigger projects in the future. Also, with like-minded people, Ahmad has formed his own film production company and studio, Exxodus Pictures, looking to make a massive impact on the American film industry. Recently we sat down with the talented and motivated creator for a closer look at Jinn, plans for Exxodus Pictures, his latest projects, as well as much more.
CrypticRock.com – You have been involved in writing and directing film for a while now, initially beginning as a music video director. What first inspired you to become a filmmaker?
Ajmal Zaheer Ahmad – I started out my career in Hollywood while I was in college. I was actually a concept guy. I was a designer, a story guy and a concept guy for music videos, TV shows and movies. And that was while I was in college. I did a lot of music videos when I was there. Then something happened. When I was a little kid, I always wanted to make movies. To be honest with you, there was never even a question in my mind. I didn’t know exactly what it entailed to make movies. I didn’t know what a director was. Around eleven or twelve years old, I figured it out. It was like, “Oh!” These guys who make movies that I like, such as Spielberg or Cameron or Lucas, those are the guys that put it together, whether they’re the producers or directors or writers. I’ve been drawing since I was was around. I just knew that I wanted to go into this business. There wasn’t really any other choice for me, there wasn’t any other fall back or any other desire. I just said that this was what I wanted to do at an early age and I started working towards it. I probably was just like everybody; When people watch a movie, some people watch it as entertainment and some people watch it as magic. The illusion that you’ve can create something out of nothing. Those people tend to gravitate toward the business. Whether that’s reviewing movies or making movies or designing for movies, or even working as the crew. I just happen to be one of those people. I love the idea of creating something out of nothing. That you can create an illusion. You can really create magic. Sometimes, if you’re lucky, create heroes. If you get even luckier, those things can last forever. That’s why I gravitated towards it and why I wanted to go into it.
CrypticRock.com – Yes, the ability to be able to be creative with something is really special. With your latest film released in 2014 entitled Jinn you dove into the concept of a mythology most of mainstream North America is unfamiliar with. Is this topic something that has fascinated you for a while?
Ajmal Zaheer Ahmad – Yes, actually. It’s been a topic that I’ve known about since I was a little child. My parents were originally born in Southeast Asia in India. When you hail from those parts, you hear these stories of Jinns your whole entire life from friends, family or cousins. It was very intriguing because these were ghost stories, but with a twist. They weren’t ghosts. They weren’t spirits of dead people. They weren’t demons. They weren’t monsters. They are actually a third race of beings that share this world with us. Growing up, I thought, “Why has no one made a movie about the actual mythology of the Jinn?” That’s why I thought it would be a good first movie for Exxodus Pictures to tackle, because if it’s an idea that hasn’t been done yet, then that will give it that extra boost. People will say, “Oh! That’s something new!” or “I’ve been waiting for that.” That’s one of the reasons we picked it to base our first film on. At the same time, it is a fascinating subject because they are not black and white. They are not just monsters. They can be good. They can be evil. They can have friends. They can have families. There can even be different religions of Jinns running around. Some can be Christians, some can be Atheists, some can be Jewish, it doesn’t matter. I thought that this would be an interesting world to delve into, and if we find even a little bit of success from it, maybe in the future, we can explore it even more in other movies or TV shows or comic books, things like that.
CrypticRock.com – It is extremely interesting because this is not a topic mainstream cinema has really ever touched. Going into the writing of the story, did you have reservations or did you relish in the idea of bringing an age old story to new light?
Ajmal Zaheer Ahmad – Yes, that was one of the passions of it. I think that everybody was interested in talking about and creating something about these Jinns because it hadn’t been made yet. I’ll tell you a funny story. Everyone we talked to that believes in Jinns – the people that actually know about Jinns and believe in Jinns – they all used to say, “Why are you making this movie?” and I said, “Well, what do you mean?” And they said, “You know if you make it, or even talk about them, then they’re going to come to you. They’ll be attracted to you and the set and all of the people making it.” And I said, “You know what? So far, I’ve been really lucky. Hopefully, if there are any Jinns that want to come around will be ones that can actually help us out with our film. Maybe they can help us do special effects and things like that.” (laughs) Part of the passion, part of the fun, is doing something that hasn’t yet been done, but at the same time, wrapping it up in a familiar storytelling way for everybody else. It’s basically a ghost story with a twist.
CrypticRock.com – Exactly. The film can fall under a few sub-genres, from Horror to Action to Thriller. When writing the script, was it important for you to capture a delicate balance of all those aspects?
Ajmal Zaheer Ahmad – Yes, we were trying to do that. After speaking to so many people, the idea of the Jinn… It was the one thing that everybody said to me, from India to England to Africa to America to Arabic countries, they all said, “You know, they’re not just bad.” That’s something that stuck with me for many years. For the film, we thought, “Let’s not just make it a Horror movie. Let’s see if we can introduce not just evil but good vs. evil, and show that there’s a bigger community of these things out there, these Jinns. And so the movie followed that as well. It was trying not to be just Horror or Thriller, but a little bit of hero, a little bit of Thriller, a little bit of scares, a little bit of excitement, and also some adventure. This is more of an Adventure/Thriller/Spooky film. It did cross a lot of boundaries, that was intentional, and hopefully people enjoy that.
CrypticRock.com – Yes, when you do something like that you open yourself to a broader audience. With Jinn, you had a strong cast of talented actors, including Serinda Swan and Ray Park. Since you were pretty much involved with every facet of this project, what was it like working with the cast?
Ajmal Zaheer Ahmad – It was an honor and it was a pleasure. They are all great people. At the end of the day, we’re not a big company. We are not extremely wealthy or famous. We’re just a group of guys and gals in Michigan who are trying to make some cool movies. When you’re able to work with these people who have these big resumes and are very talented, we fell lucky. I feel lucky as well that we got this opportunity to work with people like Faran Tahir and William Atherton and Ray Park, who represent a lot of big movies, from GI Joe (2013) to Star Wars (1999) to Star Trek (2009) to Iron Man (2008) to Ghostbusters (1984) to Die Hard (1988, 1990). These are all people that we’ve grown up watching. It was a lot of fun and I feel very lucky to have worked with all of them. I fell very happy that they were part of the project. Overall, it was a fantastic experience.
CrypticRock.com – It certainly seems a great deal of effort went into making this film, from the writing, to the filming to the special effects. With that said, budgets can always been an issue when it comes to making visions a reality. Did you have the opportunity to capture everything you want to with Jinn given the budget you had?
Ajmal Zaheer Ahmad – No, but I think that would be the case with anyone who was making a movie. I will tell you this, it was a triple or quadruple challenge. We, again, are the new guys and we don’t have the access or connections yet. We also don’t have all of the experience. It was equivalent to making a movie while building a team while learning how to make a movie while building a company while learning how to build a company while also learning about the ins and outs of distribution, financing, and raising money. All things that are brand new to all of us. We didn’t have a mentor or somebody from Hollywood to teach us how to do it. With that said, a budget becomes even more important. We ended up spreading it out a lot. We did a lot of strange things. We built a car for the movie. We built a special effects team for the movie. We designed everything in-house. To save money, I was doing all of the storyboards and designing things myself. It’s a lot of work. It takes a lot of luck and thought to stretch the dollar out. There are many things that we’re very proud of. Actually, we’re proud of the whole thing. Also the fact that, if I knew what I know now in the beginning, I could have done this, this, this, this and this. That’s the whole reason you do it, so you learn. We can always apply that to our next movie. There’s a lot of stuff that I would have loved to have been able to do in the movie but I couldn’t. I hope that I get the ability to do it in the future on many other projects. I can take what I learned on this one – what we all learned on this one – and apply it to bigger and better pictures to show a greater vision with more imagination, grander stories, and hopefully better everything.
CrypticRock.com – Understood completely. As you say, it is a learning process along the way. Speaking of companies, Exxodus Pictures, this is your company. You started this with a few other filmmakers?
Ajmal Zaheer Ahmad – Yes, yes. Believe it or not they are not filmmakers, they are businessmen and doctors. I started it with Richard Mandell, who is a businessman from Michigan. He’s the CEO of a company called One Reverse Mortgage. Also another gentleman named Najam Syed. He is a doctor here from Michigan. And also another gentleman named Shahid Syed, his brother-in-law. Richard and I started the company and those two came on quickly thereafter and we raised the financing for Jinn by literally going to meetings every day or two. A meeting with ten people here, one or two people there, raising everything piecemeal. That’s how we got it off the ground. Right now, basically, there’s a core team here now at Exxodus Pictures that creates everything ourselves. Justin Hynous, he is our producer as well as one of our writers and editing, and we pretty much handle all of the creative duties, myself and Justin and we have another producer named Yolanda Mendoza. She’ll be producing our next movie with us as well. It’s all pretty much Michigan talent born and raised. We are doing things by the seat of our pants. (laughs)
CrytpicRock.com – It is great that you are sticking with your home state. Michigan is a beautiful state, although some people may have reservations and misconceptions about the Detroit metro area. Is that something that you take pride in, that you want to stick with your home state?
Ajmal Zaheer Ahmad – Yes. I was born and raised here. I am one of the strange ones, because I never wanted to leave. I went out to college to learn how to do all of this stuff, but I told everybody, when I do graduate, I’m going to come back here and start a studio. That was when I was about seventeen, and everyone thought I was crazy at that point, but I love this place, everything from the weather to the people. I just know that my destiny is to live here and to give back to the community as much as possible. I really believe that from the core of my heart. I’ll never leave, no matter what the opportunities are. I’ll always have a home here. My family is here, my friends are here, my desire is here. It was kind of a challenge, because I feel like we moved a little bit of Hollywood here by creating this company. When we started the company in Michigan, about eight months later, by chance, the Michigan government started the largest film incentive in the nation. I got dozens of phone calls from all of these people, saying, “Oh, that’s why you’ve been talking about Michigan for all these years. Not because you love it, but because they passed the film incentive.” I said, “No, I had no idea that they were going to pass that. I had no idea that they were doing it.” It just so happens that the stars aligned in a very unusual way for us to start the company and for the incentive to pass. I always tell people that we were here before the incentive. We will be here after the incentive. At the end of the day, this is home.
CrypticRock.com – That is great to hear. That is very honorable. The way modern life is, you can operate a company in any part of the country. You are currently working on a new project called My Soul to Keep (2015). Do you have any updates on this new film?
Ajmal Zaheer Ahmad – We are in pre-production on that. We will cross fingers that everything goes well. We will be shooting the end of spring, beginning of summer 2015. We’re actually really excited about this one. You know, when I was a little kid I grew up with a basement. When you’re a little kid, you get scared by what’s in the basement. This is a story that comes from numerous people. They’re scared of what lives down there in the cellar, or what’s under the bed or what’s in the closet. This movie shows a little kid who’s around nine years old. His name is Eli Braverman. He is left home with his sister by his parents. When they leave, she’s like, “Alright, I’m out.” He’s like, “What do you mean? You can’t leave me home alone!” She says, “Listen. You’re going to stay home alone. You’re old enough. And if you tell mom and dad this, remember, the bogeyman is going to get you.” Imagine being, like, nine years old and being left home alone and there may be something in your basement. This movie explores whether there really is something in the basement and what happens to Eli throughout the process, especially when a kid’s worst nightmare comes to fruition. And then a couple hours later, a storm rolls in, and guess what happens? The power goes out. So we’re making a movie – a scary film – about a kid being left home alone, kind of like Home Alone (1990) meets Halloween (1978) without the funny parts. It’s definitely more suspense driven. It’s not as much adventure. It’s definitely more suspenseful and scary.
CrypticRock.com – It sounds like an interesting film. Is there a tentative release date yet?
Ajmal Zaheer Ahmad – We believe the film will be ready by the end of the year 2015, if all goes well. It might be released by the end of the year. It might be released in 2016. We should have it done going into late fall.
CrypticRock.com – That will be something to look forward to seeing. My last question for you is regarding films. Crypticrock.com is a music and horror news site so we like to focus on all genres. Are you fans of Horror films? If so, what are some of your favorites?
Ajmal Zaheer Ahmad – Oh, gosh! Let’s see, I’ll put Alien (1979) up there. I know a lot of people call it a Sci-fi movie, but it’s a great Horror movie as well. The Exorcist (1973). When I was a little kid, I thought that there was evil actually inside the celluloid (laughs). Man, that’s a scary movie! My brothers made me watch it when I was like five years old. That one stuck with me for quite a while. I’ve always loved Poltergeist (1982) because it was a little bit of adventure. It felt like an Adventure Horror movie to mas as a little kid because it had that Spielberg influence. I love the original Halloween (1978) as well, that was a great film. I would say that those four round out a lot of the stuff that I grew up with. Although I watched everything. I watched A Nightmare on Elm Street (1984). I watched Friday the 13th(1980). I watched Evil Dead (1981). I really love The Walking Dead right now. That’s one of the best Horror TV shows ever made in many ways. There’s a lot of great stuff out there. Each one is great for a different reason. I really do feel that Alien crossed so many boundaries. It was a phenomenal Horror, Sci-fi, and Thriller. It was just a phenomenal movie all around. Ridley Scott did a great job on that movie. It’s so hard to pick a favorite out of all of them.