From grafting hard to bring her independent debut to the big screen, to directing a Disney+ hit, Lena Khan has seen the many and varied sides of the film industry. With a new passion project underway, and a stock that is rapidly rising, I spoke with Lena about her journey through filmmaking, why she hopes to see more diverse Muslim characters in the future, and how her long game is more a case of chess than checkers.
“Getting that first film off the ground was insane,” says Lena Khan as we talk about her journey from budding film student to award-winning movie-maker and celebrated Disney+ director.
“It was truly insane. You do every innovative thing you can think of to try to get the money you need, get the actors who mean something, and everything else. We were sneaking into film festivals and all sorts, just to give ourselves a chance.
“Ultimately, where there's a will there's a way. You fight as much as you can. You tell yourself, ‘I'm going to think of something because I really believe in this’.”
Listening to Lena’s stories about her early hustles and attempts to attract talent and funds to her debut feature The Tiger Hunter is fascinating; they’re a lesson in determination and perseverance, and an eye-opener into what it takes to succeed in the movie industry.
“The key”, she confides, “is to sign up to be a festival volunteer and get the magical volunteer t-shirt. When you have that t-shirt, you just have to pretend you’re supposed to be everywhere you are. Just walk with authority and you’ll get into all sorts of places and meet all sorts of people.”
Lena’s love affair with filmmaking was in full swing by the time she started at UCLA as an engineering student, making videos for the Muslim Student Association and her brother’s wedding, among others. So it may not have been a surprise when she switched to the university’s film school to pursue her passion.
It was perhaps her work in activism, however, that tipped the scales for her – having witnessed the power of the silver screen in getting people to listen.
“I was involved in so many activist things, but people just wouldn't come to our events,” Lena explained.
“If you got an actor to come, however, everybody would be there. This is the power of Hollywood. I remember doing something about Darfur, and at the same time the actor Don Cheadle came to UCLA. The whole of Los Angeles descended to listen to him. They didn't come to any of our programming, but everybody went to hear him talk. So that was it. I applied to film school, and it went from there.”
Write what you know
Getting people to listen certainly seems to have become easier for Lena as a result of her switch. Having joined Participant Media after university — the production company responsible for Syriana, The Help, Spotlight and Green Book, among others — she made her name as a director of short film, commercials and music videos for international artists such as Maher Zain..
Her breakthrough moment, however, was 2016’s The Tiger Hunter — the story of a young Indian man who travels to America in the 1970s with dreams of becoming an engineer to both impress his childhood crush, and live up to the legacy of his father — a renowned tiger hunter.
Lena wrote, directed and produced the film, and explains that it’s a story rooted in her own family history.
“When I was setting out, the people at Participant told me ‘write what you know — what’s close to you’. I had always been fascinated with the story of my grandfather, who was this larger-than-life character in India. Larger-than-life to the point that when I Googled him, I saw that people had written about him and said really weird things. Like, he used to dance on tabletops in roller-skates. That kind of thing.
“He had this twirly moustache, and hunted man-eating tigers. And what was fascinating to me was the question that if you were the son of such a character, what does it mean to try to live up to that?
“I drew on a lot of stories from my dad and random immigrants and just anybody really, and that did really well for me.”
Some time after wrapping the movie, Lena was approached by Gil Netter, who was to be her producer for the hit Disney+ movie, Flora & Ulysses.
“Gil found me and he was excited about my take on this project of his. We sold it to Disney before Disney+ existed, but they were in the process of launching it. So it migrated over to Disney+ and did really well.”
Flora & Ulysses tells the story of 10-year-old Flora who rescues a squirrel named Ulysses, who she discovers has superhero powers and is destined to change her outlook on life forever.
Moving from an independent movie to a Disney project seems like a huge shift, so I was interested to learn how she adapted to such a different environment, with its own unique pressures and demands.
“When you make a big movie for the studios — I mean like an upward of $40 million move — you have to present a vision for the project that’s really well thought out and exciting. If you want Disney to sign off on it, you have to make it so totally enticing, and show that you truly, truly want it.
“Every decision has to be driven by something, so you take all of your enthusiasm, map out an anatomy for the film, and go into these extensive pitch presentations to everybody and their mother. They have to have a reason to trust you — especially coming off the back of an independent film. They have to trust you to jump to something 40-something times bigger.
“Every decision has to be driven by something, so you take all of your enthusiasm, map out an anatomy for the film, and go into these extensive pitch presentations to everybody and their mother.”
“You will have a few people who believe in you and make the case for you, but you have to own every single one of your decisions, and be able to answer every single one of their questions.
Putting yourself on display is also part of the process, explains Lena, who says that “people are sometimes more interested in the storyteller than the story they are telling”.
“Part of it is them making sure you actually know what you’re doing in terms of your craft, but some amount is ‘do you have an interesting enough take on this project?’ Which means that some of it is stuff I certainly can’t take any credit for. It’s an amalgam of what God has put in me, what my family has put in me, and what certain circumstances have put in me. And I guess people find that interesting.”
Lena’s reflection on this success resonated with me personally. I recalled a discussion recently over coffee with a dear teacher, Imam Dawood Yasin, at Zaytuna College in Berkeley. I was seeking his advice on a spiritual matter relating to a recent experience in my business. A startup project I’d helped create had unexpectedly become a hit and earned millions of dollars more than we’d anticipated, in a very short period of time. It was a gift, but with that came incredible responsibility and expectation, and I didn’t feel prepared for a sudden shift in many aspects of this new position.
He related at length a beautiful commentary on the Quranic wisdom of "On no soul God places a burden greater than it can bear." (2:286). This had traditionally been shared to me in relation to hardship, but in this case we explored its meanings in personal and professional growth
We might judge the future by past experiences, and feel limited or intimidated, but indeed our learnings, failures and successes are the ingredients that prepare us for the next stage of our journey, and we should look forward to the chapter ahead with optimism and reliance on God if we are to embody this spiritual teaching.
Missing Muslim characters
When it comes to pouring your own experience into your work, Lena explains she’s taken on board advice about what it means to tell ‘your story’ – especially that people need to have a reason to consume it.
“If you want to make bigger projects then you have to be aware of what people want to watch,” she says. “If you want to make bigger projects then you have to be aware of what people want to watch,” she says.
“We were listening to [Nomadland director] Chloe Zhao at a panel recently, and she said you’ve got to get over yourself for a moment. She said we need to step back from the ‘we all want to tell our stories’ thing and think ‘why would anybody be interested in consuming the story you want to tell?’
“So you have to think about what need your movie is fulfilling. If you want to reach people, how do they want to be reached? What do they need right now?” Why is your story something they need?
“You have to think about what need your movie is fulfilling. If you want to reach people, how do they want to be reached? What do they need right now?”
It’s an idea that led us to explore more spiritual questions about the direction of the film industry and its output. I ask Lena what she hopes the film industry will look like from a faith-based perspective, and she is clear about her desire to see more authentic Muslim representation.
“I don’t just want to see Muslim characters,” she says. “We are starting to see more of them, but I’d like to see a more diverse shape of Muslim characters. Meaning that we represent more accurately the diversity that we actually have in the Muslim population.
“Most people interpret that as representing Muslims who are not leaning into their faith at all, but that isn’t the section that’s missing. What’s missing are the characters that are leaning into their faith — which is almost like being told that it’s not okay to be this way. It makes audiences feel that a) that type of Muslim is not acceptable, and b) that they can’t be that type of Muslim.
“What’s missing are the characters that are leaning into their faith — which is almost like being told that it’s not okay to be this way.”
“I’ve read in the last year 10 or more scripts that take said Muslim and they are struggling against their desires, or whatever tests come their way. And they lose, or fail this test. I want to see somebody win. Because we know that God doesn’t give us struggles that we can’t surmount.
“If we keep telling the story that you’re not going to win, we’re saying that you can’t win. I’m not saying we need to have the ‘perfect’ Muslim, but we’ve got to see these characters win sometimes.”
A difficult barrier to this is the technical aspect of the industry, explains Lena, which she believes is eliminating genuine storytelling from the filmmaking equation.
“It's always been a business, but now it's a business controlled by tech giants. A lot of it is about you servicing an algorithm, which means you end up with projects that are missing a certain spirit. We need to learn how to tell stories again. Stories have a soul. Stories are a means of connection between the most instinctual and vulnerable parts of people, even if it's comedy. And I don't know that we know how to do that anymore. I would love to see us start bringing these real stories out more.”
“We need to learn how to tell stories again. Stories have a soul. Stories are a means of connection between the most instinctual and vulnerable parts of people.”
Gratitude and pride
Lena admits that these concerns over the industry sometimes make her feel as though she’s walking a lone path on a spiritual level; making it hard sometimes to hold onto values, which she describes as “very nerve-wracking and lonely”.
But she also explains that she has had some excellent guidance from outside of the industry, which has reassured her of her path and mission: high profile scholars who have emphasised the importance that intention plays as she navigates her way through her career.
“They helped me to see that the goal is to make things that I can eventually look back on and be proud of. To see that they’ve had a meaningful effect on our culture.”
“So for me, success is the thing that comes at the end of all those chess moves. The goal being to make things that I can look back and be proud of my work and see that it’s had a meaningful effect on our culture.”
One of the things she might feel proud of in the future is the project she’s currently working on, and hopes to bring to screens in the next couple of years – a broad-audience, big-budget, elevated comedy drama with two Muslim leads that has already secured a high-profile producer, and is being co-written with a high-ranked screenwriter.
“I’m happy alhamdulillah for smaller successes along the way, but making something that wouldn’t be there if I wasn’t on this journey — that's what I’m personally trying to do and hoping for.”
As we work our way towards the end of our conversation, we discuss the importance of gratitude in the creative process: A virtue that I have always tied to the spiritual principles of Rida (perfect contentment with God’s will) and Amanah (upholding a trust - or in a creative context, appreciating and using the gifts we’ve been given in beneficial ways).
For Lena, remembering to be grateful helps her to dispel the anxiety and doubt that can sometimes start to creep in.
“I ask myself all the time, ‘how do I know whether this is going to be worth anything?’ Is it going to end up with any value or worth? But then I remember that out of so many thousands or even millions of people, I’m the one who has been given this opportunity. So there must be something there. Allah must be facilitating something for me.
“Out of so many thousands or even millions of people, I’m the one who has been given this opportunity. So there must be something there. Allah must be facilitating something for me.”
“With this new project I mentioned, there have been times when the logical, pragmatic side of my brain has said ‘okay, you’ve been working on this for a long time now and nothing has happened. So maybe it’s time to stop’. But then an opportunity will come my way and remind me to keep going. Recently I had a huge writer coming on board to write and produce with me, for example. Things like this remind me to be grateful and see it through, even if it means just taking it as I go.”
Being grateful for each step we take is something we can all aspire to. Appreciating where we are and what we’re doing at any given moment can be difficult – especially when we can’t easily see the benefit of it, or if we’re going through difficult times.
But if Lena’s journey so far shows us anything, it’s that gratitude, twinned with passion, determination, and conviction, can be a powerful motivator, and one that I’m sure will lead her to even greater success and impact in the years to come.