There’s a moment in Tilt, Kasra Farahani’s horror thriller that premiered at this year’s Tribeca Film Festival, that sends the kind of charged, to-your-bones jolt of fright that leaves leaves you laughing in its aftermath: a character opens the door and Donald Trump is standing outside.
Well, it’s a woman (Alexia Rasmussen) in a Trump mask playing a practical joke on her Donald-weary husband. Nonetheless, his—and your—recoiled response is visceral. “It’s a lot easier to get a laugh out of people at a horror screening when you show Trump,” Farahani, assessing how the film played to the audience at its Tribeca premiere, says.
Tilt is, in many ways, the Trump’s America horror feature that cinephiles assumed was inevitable—even if its filmmakers never expected it to be.
It centers on Joseph Burns (played by Joseph Cross), a documentary filmmaker filling his unemployed days working on a documentary about America’s mid-century so-called “Golden Age.”
Playing like a chorus throughout the film is cable news coverage of Trump’s campaign speeches, inspiring a series of agitated anti-Trump rants that conspire with his research into the Golden Age to foster a sort of existential paranoia. Joe begins taking to the streets of Los Angeles at night courting danger, threatening the stability of his life with his pregnant wife, and, eventually, going on a homicidal rampage.
It’s hard not to see the film as a commentary on the reach and normalization of white-male rage and entitlement. And, as Trump’s voice permeates more and more of the film as Joseph becomes increasingly violent, it’s hard not to leap to conclusions about what might cause it.
It might be no surprise then, in Tribeca shorthand conversations, the film has been referred to as the one about the guy who goes insane because of Donald Trump.
“You can’t escape the society in which art is made,” explained Farahani, who had worked in the art departments for directors including J.J. Abrams, Steven Spielberg, Tim Burton, and James Cameron before making his directorial debut in 2013 with the short film Noon.
But the stark Trump parallels—“So it’s a documentary about today?” my editor joked when I explained the plot—were hardly intended to be so strong.
Farahani actually co-wrote the film with screenwriter Jason O’Leary in the fall of 2015, in the middle of primary season when Trump was one of more than a dozen GOP candidates and the now-president still wasn’t being taken seriously as a contender.
“Then we’re editing it and he becomes the nominee and the movie becomes something else entirely,” he says. “Later, when we’re nearly done, he’s president and the movie has another fundamentally different meaning. And how could it not?”
“There’s a lot of anger that you see in Joe Burns that is out in the world right now,” Farahani says.
When he and O’Leary were working on the film, it was less a malaise over Trump’s America they were concerned with depicting (that didn’t exist yet) and more the emerging nationalist, populist message of Make America Great Again—“coded language for making America what it was in the ‘glorious American mid-century,’ which was white and male-dominated,” he says.
It’s something that infiltrates Joseph Burns, who subconsciously yearns for an era in which, by virtue of being white and male, he would have had certain privileges. Maybe he resents being unemployed and that his wife is the breadwinner.
He paints himself as the antithesis of Trump’s ideals, with an anger fueled by narcissism that spikes when others don’t recognize the intelligence of his own political arguments. Devoid of an outlet to harness that anger and expose his own brilliance in a way that could cause the kind of cultural disruption he wants, he instead turns to violence and mania.
After Joe scoffs at something Trump says on TV one night, his wife asks, “If you hate this guy so much why are we always watching him?”
“I think there’s a part of him that has gone to that message and maybe secretly hopes it goes that way,” Farahani says. “I think he’s fascinated by this whole idea, and that’s why he’s making this documentary. I think he’s enamored by those ideas, for sure.”
But if the past few months have stressed a pop culture narrative where everything we consume is now being viewed through the lens of what it means in Trump’s America—and this tense cultural climate—the same is true for Farahani, who made Tilt.
The film may have been created when no one thought Trump could be president, but now “it’s tough to see Trump in the film,” he says.
“It’s tough to see glimpses of the absurd things he’s saying in the clips we selected, for instance, and seeing that despite all those, despite this endless stream of seemingly disqualifying behavior and statements and reductive attitudes towards complicated, nuanced issues that he’s become the president.”
He admits that he’s still processing what all of that means right now, but he’s struck but how prescient the film proved to be. “What was cooking in my head and Jason O’Leary’s head when we started writing this wasn’t an accident,” he says. “There were things in the world that were suggesting this.”
Adding nuance to that conversation is the fact that Farahani was born in Iran, and his family moved to Los Angeles after they fled the Islamic revolution of 1979. He was one-and-a-half years old when he came to the U.S. “But I speak Farsi at home with my parents,” he says. “That’s the only thing we speak at home.”
The travel ban that the Trump administration proposed, which included Iran in a list of Muslim-majority countries whose citizens would not be allowed to enter the United States, “is terrible and humiliating and awful in so many ways,” he says. “But more so, very honestly, the phrase Make America Great Again—just that, to me, as somebody who is foreign-born from a Muslim country, it feels exclusionary. It feels like Make America White Again. Make America Christian Again. It feels like a not-so-coded message to get out of here.: ‘You’re not like us.’”
There is commentary related to that in his film as well, a movie in which the loving, white husband about to have his first child living in an idyllic home in Silver Lake, California, is the one who ends up being a danger to society.
“We have these really distinct boogeymen in our culture,” Farahani says. “Islamic terrorists are probably at the top of the list. But Joe Burns is actually somebody who outwardly is not the obvious boogeyman. He’s not an Islamic terrorist. He’s not the stylized horror villain with the clown mask and the machete, either. He’s somebody that is all around. We probably know many of him in our life.”
He recounts the story of the Facebook Live shooting in which the gunman killed a stranger as an act of revenge against his girlfriend, Joy Lane. In an interview after the incident, Lane said, “He was a really good guy. He’s been fabulous to me.”
Then there is the case of 28-year-old James Harris Jackson, who had lived a relatively upstanding and unassuming life before he took a bus to New York City last month and murdered a stranger, 66-year-old Timothy Caughman, with a sword, simply because he hated the fact that he was black.
A witness said she overheard Caughman’s last words to be, “Why are you doing this? What are you doing?” In an eerie coincidence, those are the exact words a character says in Tilt before succumbing to Joe’s own act of violence.
“It occurred to us very quickly that what could be scarier than when you’re in your house, you’re in your fortress in your cozy bed with the person that you designated as your partner in things, the person that no matter what happens you can rely on their support,” Farahani says. “What could be scarier than that person emerging as the most dangerous person to you?”