Like many young directors, Imran J. Khan has the internet to thank for his film career. The Pakistani-American director grew up in Silicon Valley and studied biological systems engineering at UC Davis — but on the side, he kept up a YouTube page of funny videos about the Muslim-American experience. Some even went viral.
After spending a few "glamorous" years making medical devices for a living, Khan decided to get serious about his hobby and left his job for film school. While a student at NYU's Tisch Asia program in Singapore, he directed, co-wrote, and starred in Timmy II, a comedy about "the hyphenated American experience." (And robots.) It screened locally at Cinequest in 2015.
Since finishing up his MFA earlier this year, Khan is now based in Los Angeles, where he's working on a feature script while submitting two new shorts to festivals. The Drone and the Kid, shot on location in Lahore, Pakistan, is about a young boy who forms a friendship with a stray drone, while Prom follows a South Asian-American teen who defies his strict father to pick up his date to the dance, only to be disappointed.
Khan spoke to Film School Shorts about auditioning children in Pakistan, moving between comedy and drama, and sharing different perspectives on screen.
Is The Drone and the Kid your first non-Tisch Asia production? If so, what was it like to be on your own for the first time?
I made The Drone and the Kid originally intending for it to be an NYU film, but because of complications in NYU's insurance process, it ended up becoming a personal project of mine instead.
It was really difficult because I went to Pakistan alone without any collaborators from school, so in a way it was a taste of what life after film school might be like. I also didn’t know very many people in Lahore. My parents are both from Karachi, so I didn’t have a family support system there or anything like that. It felt like walking off a plane in a foreign country and somehow getting a crew together, from scratch, and shooting a film. I didn’t even have a DP lined up before arriving in Pakistan.
I was also running a Kickstarter campaign to fund the film while I was in pre-production, so I was essentially producing it myself as well. It was a lot to handle, but I learned so much and I grew a lot during that time. I pushed myself as a filmmaker. In the end, I’m happy I took the risk and just went for it.
What was it like shooting The Drone and the Kid in Pakistan? Did you learn anything from shooting Timmy II that helped you with the process?
It was really an amazing experience, but if I’m honest, it was the hardest film I’ve ever made. It was a tough shoot, but I had a good crew, including the very talented Haider Zafar as cinematographer.
Weirdly enough, I actually shot this film a few months before Timmy II, but it took about two years to finish the post-production work, so it’s only now starting to play at festivals. So in a way, I got to make mistakes on The Drone and the Kid and learn from them before I made Timmy II.
When you’re on location in difficult places, it feels really nice to be able to shoot an entire short film on a sound stage! I think I was a bit burned out from The Drone and the Kid and just wanted to make something with no expectations to live up to. The Drone and the Kid has this really big premise and I felt the weight of it during production; it was difficult for that reason.
How did you cast Uzair, the young star of this short?
I had a great producer in Lahore who helped me cast the film. I auditioned nearly 30 local kids. Some of them were actors already but most had no experience. I found Uzair Ali through that process. He had already acted in Pakistani television shows, so he had a lot of experience for someone so young. He quickly became the front-runner during casting and it was a really great experience working with him. He added a lot to the film.
What inspired Prom? Is it based on something that really happened to you, your co-writer, or someone else you knew?
Yes, it’s actually something that happened to my friend Hasan Minhaj, who is a talented comedian and actor. He told the story as part of a segment on the Moth Radio Hour — it's actually part of a larger one-man show of Hasan’s called Homecoming King — and I approached him to adapt the story into a short film as my thesis for NYU. I connected with the story and thought it was really powerful.
As a filmmaker, it was challenging to adapt something that really happened. On the one hand, you’re trying to make a story function as a short film, and on the other hand you’re trying to stay true to the source material. I think balancing the two can sometimes be more difficult than working with an original concept. I had the pleasure of working with a very talented writer, Prashanth Venkataramanujam, to write the script. I’m really happy with how it turned out.
For me, I think it sort of functions beyond the literal and veers into something of a parable. What I mean is: To me the film is more of a metaphor. It can be interpreted to be a specific event as a stand in for the broader sentiment of being a minority in America.
Prom and, to a lesser extent, The Drone and the Kid, are both much more serious than Timmy II and your old YouTube videos. Why did you start moving into drama?
I really wanted to flex different muscles as a filmmaker and broaden my skill set. I think making dramatic films helped me understand comedy better.
My next project is a comedy and I feel really good about that because I can take what I’ve learned over the last few films and create a more complex aesthetic around the comedy. Generally, I feel more in control of my material now than before I attempted to do drama. When you do a realistic drama, like Prom, you have nothing to rely on except truthful performances. You can’t rely on stylization or anything that distracts from the subject material, so it really forces you strengthen your core skills as a director.
Diversity in filmmaking is a major issue these days, and all three of your shorts give the audience a glimpse of experiences they might not otherwise get to see. As you continue to write and direct, do you think you’ll continue to make work like this?
You know, it’s really hard to make a good film. I think I’m trying to just make good work that people want to watch. It just so happens that I’m a person from a specific background and cultural perspective, so when I attempt to make a good film, I often start with subjects that I have a connection to or experience with. As they say, “Write what you know”.
That being said, I do think it’s an important for there to be more representation of minorities in the film industry. I think it makes a really big difference to have minority writers, directors, and producers who can tell stories about their experiences for the reason you mentioned. It shows people a perspective that they wouldn’t normally see and I think that’s really important especially after the election.
Now that I think about it, I think if I were making Timmy II now, I could replace the 9/11 scene with a scene where the presidential election results are revealed and the rest of the film would kind of go on as it is.
Watch Timmy II: