Babak Anvari: “I always make the film that I would rush to watch”

The director of Under the Shadow on his Hitchcockian home-invasion drama I Came By.

25 August 2022

By Leila Latif

Director Babak Anvari with Hugh Bonneville on the set of I Came By
Sight and Sound

I Came By is streaming on Netflix from 31 August.

Babak Anvari had his characters pursued by djinns in Under the Shadow (2016) and lacerated by a higher power in Wounds (2019). The British-Iranian director returns with a more human threat in thriller I Came By, in which his stated aim was to always “pull the rug from under the audience”. The story is one he’s had in mind since film school and thought would be the basis of his first feature: two best friends, Toby (George Mackay) and Jay (Percelle Ascott), spend their time breaking into the flats of the wealthy and corrupt and emblazoning their walls with their graffiti tag “I Came By”. While Jay has tired of their antics, Toby cannot resist visiting the home of ‘progressive’ high court judge Sir Hector Blake (Hugh Bonneville) – but he is unprepared for what he finds there.

Director Babak Anvari with Hugh Bonneville on the set of I Came By

Q The film’s twists involve the protagonist changing multiple times. Why?

A It was always part of my initial pitch that I wanted to do double Psycho. [Co-writer] Namsi Khan really helped me to navigate through the different points of view. I wanted to do a Hitchcock thriller in London, because we’ve slightly lost touch with Hitchcockian sensibilities in Britain even though he was British.

You call this a thriller, even though it is terrifying, while Under the Shadow you called a horror. Are those distinctions important?

My motto is: always make the film that I would rush to go and watch. Part of me likes to get terrified, even though I’m a massive wimp in real life. With Under the Shadow there was a lot of snobbery around being labelled horror. It’s much better now, but then people would tell me it ‘wasn’t really a horror’ as a compliment. With this one I’m drawing from classic thrillers as inspiration but I was also inspired by 90s slasher films. I’m glad it terrified you. I love suspense and I learned from the master how you can play with the audience knowing a bit more than the character. So they’re on the edge of their seats, covering their eyes saying, ‘Please don’t go there!’

Unlike Hitchcock, your thriller is set in a world with advanced police investigation techniques and a surveillance state. You can’t do what Hitchcock did and have Marion Crane – Janet Leigh’s character in Psycho (1960) – disappear so easily…

We had this lovely police adviser on the film and when I talked to him and to a few other people from the police force I learned that it’s not so different. If the police get called to a judge’s house, as soon as they find out that it’s a judge, especially a High Court judge, they will immediately be like, ‘OK, there’s only so much we can do.’ There are limitations because there’s still a hierarchy. I found that fascinating. In many ways actually I think our story gives them a bit more freedom to do things compared to the actual police force, because in reality, things are far more limited and complicated when it comes to these types of investigations.

I Came By (2022)

Why did you add the detail of the judge sleeping in a single bed?

He’s in his childhood bedroom. It’s almost my Citizen Kane (1941) wink of when he goes back to his family home, he chooses not to sleep in the master bedroom where his father used to be and [instead, sleeps] in that tiny single bed. When we were filming it, my crew members said that it was really creepy and so I knew it was good.

So much of this film is about fathers, even in their absence.

It’s related to the overall theme of how institutions fail us. Whether that is on a macro level like the government or the police, or on the micro level, like your family or friends. Everyone in this film has daddy issues. Toby’s anger is so misguided because he’s trying to take revenge on his father. It’s one of the reasons he’s targeting these people without the sincere political motives of Jay.

Twenty years after your initial idea, what was reshaped to make the film feel so politically current?

Sadly, we’re still having the same struggles and mistrust when it comes to institutions and the people they protect. Details aside, what’s changed is me. When I was younger, I was more like these angry young men who want to change the world and they don’t know how to do it so it was a lot more earnest, the original idea. As I grew older, I realised that the world doesn’t work like that, things are far more complex.

I’m obviously Iranian and Namsi [Khan], my co-writer, she’s British-Pakistani. And with Percelle Ascott [who is Black] we’re constantly talking about things that are in the film, and similar experiences at some points in our lives, which makes it a bit scary. I think the best way is to actually go there and show it because people still think, ‘Oh that was the past,’ you know? But it still happens to this day and it’s sad. One of the things is to just basically hold mirrors up to it and say ‘Look.’ But you have to be mindful because it’s hurtful to see.

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