• Interviews

Ramin Sohrab’s Challenging Journey to Be a Filmmaker

Ramin Sohrab made the first Iranian-Finnish action movie against all odds. Layers of Lies is a redemption, revenge, and love story. It’s also a work that involved many different layers of pain.

Ramin Sohrab is full of enthusiasm when, at a café in Beverly Hills, he talks about his first feature film, Layers of Lies. The journey, started about ten years ago, has been long and complicated.


He has faced numerous problems: cultural differences, bureaucracy, accidents, and illnesses. But the movie is, finally, coming to theatres. His work will first be seen in Finland, this month of March, at the Night Visions Festival. Later, it will be shown in Iran. The US distribution deal is expected to be announced soon.

“The idea came when I was studying at the Stella Adler Academy of Acting in Los Angeles. While I was graduating from school I realized I really wanted to direct and produce my own films. I started thinking ‘Where could I shoot a film with a small budget?’” 

His background is in martial arts and stunts. His father started to teach him shaolin wushu when he was four. He’s been practicing ever since. He still teaches martial arts and stunts for films. Developing an action movie felt natural to him.

“I think the first project you do is very important in terms of your career. I really wanted to direct and produce an action film. I looked at what would be the weirdest and coolest combination to do that type of film. Because I was born in Iran and raised in Finland, I felt that I could connect these two countries and make the very first Iranian-Finnish action film.”

It’s a miracle that the film was actually made, he feels. “It stopped and restarted many times.” Because no one had produced a film like the one he had in mind, there was no blueprint. Moreover, no film crew in Iran had ever made an action film. This gave Sohrab a great deal of freedom – namely, the opportunity to hire women in key positions. Traditionally, Iranian film crews are male-dominant.

“For example, there were no stunt professionals or action set designers in Iran. And I didn’t have a budget to bring an outside crew. I had to start everything from zero and teach action filmmaking while shooting the film. Luckily, we found a good crew.”

The challenges kept growing and growing. “It became kind of a game, like ‘What’s next?’ I just kept telling myself ‘I need to push and do it myself. Just find a way.’ Me and my producers, Jonna Enroth and Mohsen Sarafi, came up with creative solutions and ways to bypass all the challenges.”

Layers of Lies tells the story of a former fireman who returns to Teheran, his home city, after a decade-long absence. He is forced to face childhood traumas, his many wrongdoings, and the reasons why he had escaped to Finland – just to fall in love with a Finnish woman. When he returns to Iran with his wife, she is kidnapped. He now has to fight to save her. Along the way he must forgive himself for past mistakes. “It’s like a redemption, revenge, and love story.”

Sohrab explains that his movie is inspired by Taken and John Wick, although the budget was, maybe, the equivalent of 30 seconds of John Wick’s. Sohrab himself plays the ex-fireman. Finnish actress Jessica Wolff plays his wife. 

Issues that could be considered minor became a big deal. “We weren’t allowed to have Jessica hit any man in the film. In Iran, a woman cannot touch a man. Skin cannot touch skin. I wrote a scene in the film where her hands are wrapped in pieces of cloth, to kind of say ‘Let’s go, let’s fight.’ It was kind of a bypass to actually make this happen.”

Other examples of restrictions are: no guns, no corrupt cops, no mafia, no bad guys, no touching on the screen, no women fighting, no holding hands, no women singing, no hair showing, no tight clothes, no sleeping in the same bed, no hardcore action. In the end, Sohrab had over 20 different versions of the script. It took him two years to get a permit to direct the film and another two years to get a permit to film the movie.

“There are so many different permits. First, you have to get a permit for directing, then a permit for producing, a permit for your screenplay, a permit for showing the film. They didn’t approve the screenplay because it was too violent. Or they didn’t want us to show Iran as a corrupt place. So, I kept changing it. Then, we brought in Chris Larsen, who made it more international. We needed to come up with solutions if we were going to shoot an action film without showing that much action. Finally, we got it approved.”

Sohrab started to film in Finland in 2017 and the following year in Iran. At one point, production stopped because he broke his leg. Three years later, filming resumed. It stopped again because of Covid-19. Overall, there were 35 filming days – including a week in Finland.

“The first time we were shooting in Tehran (with a totally different crew and cast) I was doing a stunt where I landed on another stunt person’s leg. My leg got broken in two different spots.” He went to a couple of different hospitals, only to hear doctors say ‘Your leg is not broken.’”

“I knew it was broken. I was going around Tehran with a broken leg for four days. I came back to Finland. They immediately put it in a cast. It was after a year that I got healed. Then, Covid-19 delayed production another year. I was, like, ‘If I don’t go and do it now I will never find the time to finish the film.’”

New actors were selected. The shooting schedule had to be reconsidered. Eventually, the director went back to Iran and shot for five days. “Then, we all got Covid-19. I was again in the hospital.” He remained in the hospital for fourteen days.

“I was fighting for my life but I was also fighting for my film. We did not have the budget to finish the film as planned. I was editing and deleting scenes day and night so we could continue once I got better. I just wanted to finish the film no matter what. The doctors got so mad at me. I had three doctors who came to me just to say ‘If you don’t stop working on that screenplay you’re going to die. Do you understand?’ Nurses sneakily put sleeping medication in my IV fluids. I fell asleep many nights with the screenplay in my hand.”

He had driven an American car from Finland to Iran because he wanted to feature it in the film. I addition, he was using the car to bring filming equipment that wasn’t available locally. He learned the hard way that American cars are prohibited in Iran. “They arrested me for having that car and I got an expensive fine for that.”

He got used to government supervision while he was on set doing his work. One day a SWAT team raided the set. “I understand, they need to be very protective of whatever new thing is happening there. My point was for them to understand that this was not a political film. What I basically want to do is show Iran in a new light.”

In the end, there was a small group of people who helped him. “I thought there would be many people to help me in Iran to make this film. In reality, there were only a few who really believed in us and genuinely helped us. Without the help of Alireza Tabesh, Habib Ilbeigi, Seyed Zia Hashemi, Raed Faridzadeh, and Keijo Norvanto this film would have never been finished. I am very grateful for their support.“

Now, with Layers of Lies being shown in the international film festival circuit, Sohrab feels relieved. The work has gotten good feedback and won multiple different awards from Best Feature to Best Cinematographer and Best Director. 

“This movie should be called ‘Layers of Pain.’ Whenever there is pain, suffering, and hardship, those are all for some reason. Now that I am in Los Angeles – and the film is getting ready for the world premiere, it’s winning awards, and has a good sales agent – all the pain makes sense. Without those pains I wouldn’t be here right now.”