Born in Iran, Matt Eskandari immigrated to the United States as a child, when his parents fled the oppressive religious regime that followed the Iranian revolution. He graduated with Honors from USC with a degree in Cinema/Television Critical Studies. At 21, his first short film, The Taking, won Best Short Film at ScreamFest, which helped him finance his first feature, the psychological thriller titled Victim (2010), which was distributed theatrically by IFC Films. Eskandari’s next feature, the action thriller Game of Assassins, starring Bai Ling and Dustin Nguyen, was shot primarily in mainland China and was distributed by Lionsgate in 2014. Following his third feature, 12 Feet Deep, starring Tobin Bell and Diane Farr, Eskandari signed a three-picture deal to direct action/thriller feature films for Lionsgate starring Bruce Willis, Trauma Center, Survive the Night and Open Source. Trauma Center was released theatrically in 2019, and Survive the Night is currently on release, via VOD.
Doctor. Lawyer. Engineer. Those are the only three options you have for a career when you come from a typical Iranian-American family. And you get that reality thoroughly indoctrinated into you from a very young age. I still have home videos from when I was in elementary school and my parents encouraged me to wear an oversized white lab-coat and articulate to the camera about being the first person who would discover a cure for cancer and make the Eskandari name proud. To someone who doesn’t come from the same sort of mentality, it might sound bizarre or overbearing, but that’s the reality of growing up in an immigrant family.
The idea that I could actually have a career and make a real living as a filmmaker, let alone work in Hollywood, would have seemed like absurd nonsense and been throughly discouraged. Even when I made the choice to attend a prestigious film school like USC, there were the awkward conversations with my parents, relatives, or close family where they would kindly ask me if I would consider taking on a second major – just in case. You never know, they hammered over and over, Computer Science to go along with Film Studies isn’t a bad idea, because you might never find a “real job” as a film director.
I even had that constant lingering self-doubt when I looked at my own Hollywood filmmaking idols like Spielberg, Ridley Scott, Chris Nolan, Spike Lee, etc. – none of them came from a similar background as I did or had the same kind of hard-to-pronounce last name. Maybe it wasn’t the right choice? I quickly crushed that destructive self-doubt and kept moving forward. There is no time for weakness when you’re doggedly pursuing your dreams.
But still, even after being able to write and direct several award-winning independent shorts and feature films, there was still this element of not feeling like I had “made it” in the eyes of my own community. Maybe I didn’t even fully feel that way myself. It wasn’t until I directed a couple recent films with Bruce Willis, a world-famous A-list movie star, that my parents finally acknowledged my decade-long career. It was like a light switch was turned on and they suddenly were sharing my work with other family members, friends and even random people they bumped into at the local grocery store. Their eldest son was a real “Hollywood director” and they were incredibly proud of my accomplishments. Dinner talks with extended family went from gently goading me into getting “a real job” to now pitching me obscure ideas for future projects. It seemed as if they, in some way, were now vicariously living their own secret artistic ambitions through me.
At the same time, I look back at this wild journey I’ve had as a filmmaker and I wouldn’t change it for anything else. I love my unique background and I’m confident it has helped shape my voice as a filmmaker and contributed to my success. I can’t blame my parents or family for not seeing my dreams the same way I did. When you immigrate to America to escape religious persecution from your home country, your whole worldview is completely different. My father was 30 years old and arrived with $500 in his pocket, a wife and three kids; once here, he worked a night job as a dishwasher, while simultaneously attempting to attend college. He went from scraping by to having a successful and accomplished career as an engineer. My parents wanted the same opportunities for their kids and they didn’t want us wasting it away on what felt like irresponsible dreams.
That same sort of ingrained hardworking immigrant mentality, the relentless drive to succeed, was a real thing that was hammered into us from childhood and became a part of us. We don’t give up. We don’t waste opportunities. There’s no other option but to be that way. It’s a lesson anyone can take away. Perseverance and a dogged pursuit of your dreams will reap you incredible rewards in life, and no one can tell me otherwise. Turn off those negative voices and focus on what you want to achieve, no matter the failures and success that come your way.
It’s that same sort of narrative that I’m drawn to as a filmmaker. The stories of the underdogs, the people dealing with the albatross around their neck, as they fight and strive for their goals. As I endeavor to continue my journey, I’ve made a promise to myself that I will do my part in being a positive role model as an Iranian American, someone who has a boundless love for this great country and the inclusive principles it stands for.
For any aspiring filmmakers or artists of any kind reading this, my advice is to never give up. Don’t play the victim game and stop blaming others for your own failures. Own up to them and keep pushing forward – no matter what. Even if you look up to idols and hear that lingering negative voice telling you that you’re not like those people, that you’re not good enough or that they don’t sound or look like you – proudly tell that voice, I will be the first. There’s always a first. Let that be you and don’t let anything get in your way.