Nastaran Dibai

Nastaran Dibai has written for big hit TV sitcoms including “The Nanny,” “According to Jim,” and her latest project, “Hope and Faith” starring Kelly Ripa. But being a writer and moving up to being an executive producer has not been an easy feat! As a woman in
Hollywood, getting her foot in the door was crucial in getting her
career started. With her husband Jeffery Hodes as her writing partner, together they have indeed moved up the ladder. From getting their scripts rejected by agent after agent to being asked to take over the show “Hope and Faith” starting this August, the road has been a long one but well worth all the hard work!

Q. Tell us a little about your background as a writer

A: I have a BA in communication studies from Concordia University in Montreal, Canada, where I specialized in Film and Television. After that I did
a fellowship at the American Film Institute in Los Angeles, where I specialized
in Cinematography.

Q. How did you get into writing/ producing for sitcoms?

A: This is sort of a long story. After finishing my studies at Concordia University, I was living in Montreal and mostly working in documentaries for The National Film Board of Canada (NFB). I worked on many documentaries ranging in topic from Uranium mining in Canada to disabled women to the year of the shelter for the United Nations. My documentary experience at the NFB took me around the world to places like the Philippines, Japan, Kenya, and the Canadian Arctic. Although, the experience was valuable and rewarding, I always felt I wanted to be involved in more commercial things.

That’s when I decided to apply for a fellowship at the American Film Institute (AFI) in Los Angeles. At the time, I was interested in camera work and my experience in Montreal had been mostly in the field of cinematography. Therefore, I applied to the cinematography program at the AFI. It was a very competitive process where I had to submit a portfolio and go through a lengthy interview in order to be accepted. (The AFI program is very hard to get into and only a small percentage of people applying end up getting accepted. It has gotten even more competitive since I was there in 1985.) That was the experience that changed the course of my life, because that’s when I was exposed to the American way of doing things.

After I graduated from the AFI program I headed back to Montreal to see if I could find work in a more commercial venue, but that proved to be difficult. It’s always hard getting work in the entertainment industry, but when you’re a woman and you’ve trained in a technical side (cinematography), it’s even harder. I had work, but it was very sporadic. So, having already been bit by the Hollywood bug, I headed back to L.A.

While I was trying to get settled and looking for work, a friend of mine asked if I wanted to work as his assistant in order to make some money. This was a friend I went to school with in Canada and he had moved to L.A. in order to pursue a career in writing. He had a difficult time starting out, but eventually he got on a show and started to work consistently. I planned on continuing my search for work in cinematography, but in the meantime I figured I could work as my friend’s assistant in order to make some living cash. However, as I watched him work, I started to think maybe I could take a stab at writing for sitcoms. I always enjoyed writing and everyone always said I was funny. I figured, why not. And I realized writers make very good money – much better than cinematographers. Besides, I had my friend, who was already an established sitcom writer who could give me guidance. He told me in order to get an agent and get in the door I need to write a “spec” script. “Spec” is short for speculation, which meant I would have to write a sample script from an already existing show. At the time, I was working at a studio where there were many writers, like my friend, and each of those writers had assistants, like me. I soon saw that most of the assistants were also aspiring writers. We would all go out to lunch and talk about how we were all working on our “spec” scripts and trying to get agents to represent us. One of those assistants was a really smart, funny, man who I really enjoyed talking to about writing and life in general. So, we decided that we would become a writing team and write our spec script together. Long story short, sixteen years later, that man (Jeffrey Hodes) is now my husband and my writing partner. In the beginning, everytime we got together to work on our spec script it was a date.

We got married soon after we met (about 8 months later), and struggled for a few years writing spec script after spec script and getting turned down by agent after agent. But we had confidence in our work and we just kept plugging along. If I’d ever realized how hard the road ahead would be when I started, I don’t think I would’ve pursued a career in writing, but when we were in the middle of doing it, we just kept our eye on the prize. After many rejections and lots of maybe-we’re-not-good-enough-to-do-this discussions, we were finally able to land our first agent. Through him we got several free-lance assignments, but our ultimate goal was to be on the writing staff of an existing show. Eventually, we got our first job on staff and the person who gave us the job was, guess who,
my friend who hired me as his assistant. Since then we’ve worked our way up the ladder.

Q. Has comedy always come naturally to you?

A: I wouldn’t say I’m the funniest person in the world, and I’m certainly not stand-up funny, but I’ve always been able to make people laugh. I’ve always had an affinity for American sitcoms. Even when I was growing up in Iran (I moved when I was 9), I remember watching episodes of “I Love Lucy” endlessly. I couldn’t get enough of them and I’ve probably seen every episode over 20 times. When my family and I moved to the U.S. and then to Canada, I grew up watching classic American sitcoms like “All In The Family”, “Maude”, “The Mary Tyler Moore Show”, “The Bob Newhart Show”, and “The Carol Burnett Show.” Later in my teens I enjoyed, “Happy Days”, “The Love Boat”, “Taxi”, and the sitcom that made me want to do this for a living, “Cheers”. My parents worried that I watched too much TV, but I learned the English language and American culture watching those shows, and now that I’m making a living doing it, I guess they feel it wasn’t all wasted time sitting in front of the TV.

Q. What challenges have you faced in the course of your career?

A: The biggest challenge we faced was actually getting our foot in the door when we first started. Finding and agent, getting that first job, and doing well enough to get hired again. However, there are always challenges along the way. One thing I’ll never get used to is rejection. It’s always hard and heart-breaking and it happens to everyone when they’ve been doing it long enough.

Q. What is the latest project you are working on?

A: In May of this year, we were asked by ABC and Touchstone Television to take over the show “Hope and Faith” with Kelly Ripa and Faith Ford as executive producers. However, in order to do this we had to move to New York City, where the show is shot. Almost all sitcoms are shot in L.A., but “Hope and Faith” is an exception. It has to be shot in New York because of Kelly Ripa’s schedule who also does Live With Regis and Kelly every morning and lives in NYC. After being on “According to Jim” for four years, we thought taking over “Hope and Faith” would be a good challenge for us. The network wanted to make some tonal changes to the show and we were pleased to know that they were willing to put their trust in us. We have not started production yet (it starts at the beginning of August), but so far we’ve done 5 weeks of pre-production and things seem to be on track.

Q. Any favorite moments?

A: My favorite moments on a show have always been when you write something and finally see it performed as you had imagined in your head, and it works. That rarely happens, but when it does,
it’s a great feeling.

Kasra, Connecting the Persain community to Hollywood

The presence of U.S. based TV networks serving the Persian audience worldwide has been the raising ground for many young journalists who are
active in various fields of journalism. OCPC was able to get one-on-one with Kasra Ghanei, one of the leading journalists active in reporting on American cinema and entertainment. Kasra is an internationally recognized television reporter and personality, currently contributing to PBC television network and Tapesh Magazine. PBC is currently rated as one of the most watched Persian satellite network serving the global Persian speaking public.

It’s been a few years since satellite TV technology improvements and the proliferation of satellite dishes have linked Persian communities in the
Middle East to Persian communities living in the West, initiating a cultural communication channel between both peoples that had been largely sealed
for more than two decades.

Today, over twenty U.S.-based television networks serve the Persian community with American and Persian made content and programming. These outlets, who compete fervently with each other, rely on meager advertisement revenues that serve as the only source of their delicate existence. Aside from the difficulties, however, which are mostly creative, financial and resource oriented– not uncommon even among their American counterparts, few of these media outlets along with their journalists are playing a major role in connecting the Persian community to American culture and society.

Generally speaking, reporters such as Kasra agree that the Persian speaking television viewer is a Western-exposed viewer with enormous interest in American cinema and culture. “Dating back several hundred years, the
significant influence of British, French and later American cultures and arts
on contemporary Persian society and lifestyles, has instilled an anecdotal fascination for Western offerings among Persians” says Kasra . He continues
to add that “This fascination continues to exist today, in particular, when dealing with Hollywood films and celebrities.”

Kasra who himself admits to bearing a deep interest in American arts and cinema, has been active in the frontlines of Hollywood’s biggest events and gatherings. Persian T.V. viewers have become accustomed to watching him interview America’s biggest stars and celebrities from the red carpet. From
his unprecedented interviews with celebrities such as Brad Pitt, Omar Sharif, Adam Sandler, John Travolta, Brendan Fraser, John Voight, James Caan,
Terry Hatcher, Ed Harris, Salma Hayek, Joel Silver, Christian Bale and
George Clooney, to his most recent interviews with the legendary directors Steven Spielberg and James Cameron, Kasra has proven to be an effective journalist reporting from the heart of American entertainment’s biggest events.
In many instances, Kasra believes that “reporters like [himself] have been the only representatives of the Persian speaking community” at important international conventions and gatherings. Recently, when star-athlete David Beckham was in Los Angeles at the opening events of the David Beckham Soccer Academy of Los Angeles, the young journalist was there to grab a
one-on-one interview with the celebrity soccer player.

The interview was aired as part of a David Beckham program special which rated very high among the millions of viewers who tuned in worldwide. Or, in another occasion, Kasra was able to place his microphone in front of Oscar-winning film maker Michael Moore and grab the latest scoop on his upcoming project that may or may not be a sequel to Fahrenheit 911. This kind of
access to important international luminaries is notable for the Persian community, as they feel caught up to the events that are occurring all around their communities. But, more importantly, they feel a closer connection to the rest
of American community.

Persian journalists have been instrumental in the discovery of the rising trend
that proves Persian actors, writers and filmmakers are, more than ever before, connected to many of Hollywood’s best motion pictures. While most Persians are aware of Shohreh Aghdashloo’s magnificent performance in House of Sand and Fog (earning her the well-deserved Oscar nomination), there are also other great Persian artists with which the community is not as familiar. One example would be when Kasra met the talented Massy Tadjedin, the screenwriter for
the Hollywood film titled The Jacket, starring the Oscar winning actor Adrien Brody. Once Kasra interviewed Massy on the red carpet, he learned that she was indeed a 27 year old Persian writer/film maker with an English degree
from Harvard. Or at the premier of Oscar winning producer and writer Paul Haggis’ stunning film, Crash, Kasra was able to interview the two Persian
actors in the film, Shaun Toub and Bahar Soomekh, along with Paul Haggis himself. Many remember Paul Haggis from his Best Picture Oscar winning
film, Million Dollar Baby.

The news of these overachievers’ success serves as inspiration to Persian artists, no matter where they live in the world. It also serves as a reminder to the Persian community that their artists are involved in the very center of American culture and society

Reporting on arts and cinema is comparable to light US entertainment
for most Persians living in the U.S. and abroad. However, if it wasn’t for journalists such as Kasra, the Persian community would not be able to learn about the achievements of these hard working artists. Without that, it’s
unlikely that our community would be able to uphold its artists. Fortunately,
such journalism serves as an important bridge between the two cultures and
that is very rare to find in today’s geopolitical environment.

Lion and Sun

I had the pleasure of sitting down with Shahryar in early May to talk about
what has been going on with him since we last spoke almost a year ago. For
our readers who remember our first article back in August, Shahryar had just come out with his debut album appropriately titled Sweet Beginning, with hit songs including “Niaz” and “Bitab”. But that wasn’t the last we would hear from Shahryar – he has done it once again. His new album, Parseh, was officially released in March with cutting edge arrangements by Roma Kanyan and deep and intense lyrics by artists such as Jaklin and Shahyar Ghanbari. And this time, his record label (Chehreh Nama) not only produced his album but also distributed it – something that makes a huge difference in how widely the album gets distributed. After its release, feedback from his fans was amazing – the
CD has been selling at an unbelievable rate, first in Europe and now here in
the states.

“Do you know the meaning of ‘Parseh’?” Asked Shahryar as we began the interview. I actually did not know the meaning of the word when I first picked
up his CD so I had to ask! Parseh means to wander or drift. It is the name of the title track which starts off with a piano solo and continues to be a beautiful love ballad. Shahryar’s main focus this time around was to start a new concept –
poetic and intense lyrics combined with catchy beats.

“I wanted to introduce the young generation to these beautiful lyrics using good beats and rhythm,” explained Shahryar. “To turn the deep lyrics of a poet like Shahyar Ghanbari and put a 6/8 beat on it is not very common to do!”
Shahryar has also used the talent of two young poets in Iran, Mehdi Moradi and Omid Hashemi, who wrote the lyrics for the songs “Setayesh”, which is one of the hit songs of this album, and “Javuneh”, respectively. He also has a track named “Baghe Khial”, which has a vocal/euro-trance feel to it, written by a southern California poet named Bijan Saeedi. So from world famous to up and coming poets, Shahryar has created an album that will truly get you hooked.

How did this album come about? After a strenuous experience making his first album, Shahryar wasn’t sure if he wanted to go through making another album, but through the energy he got from his fans and from emails and praise from all over the world, he was inspired to make another album. After much thought and planning with arranger Roma Kanyan, in a record breaking 12 months, he
completed Parseh. If you recall from our first interview, Shahryar has his degree in Architectural Design so he explained that this CD in some ways was sketched and created like a work of art and of course lets not forget that Shahryar’s talents go beyond just singing. Having played the piano since the age of 11, he is a true musician who composes a lot of his tracks himself.

Since the release of Parseh, Shahryar has performed at a number of locations
in southern California attracting large crowds of his loyal fans everywhere he goes. In fact, turn to our “Where Was OCPC” page to see pictures from his album release party in Hollywood! Currently he is touring Europe and Canada and hopefully soon we will have the pleasure of seeing him in concert here in Orange County.

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