‘The Idol’ Co-Creator Reza Fahim on Cannes Highs, Hollywood Lows and Bonding With the Weeknd

HBO’s buzzy new original series “The Idol” has been steadily building momentum on the road to its June 4 debut — including a lavish world premiere at the Cannes Film Festival, followed by one of the most talked-about afterparties on the Croisette.

The show follows an embattled young pop star named Jocelyn (Lily-Rose Depp), recovering from a psychotic break after the death of her mother and hounded relentlessly by industry vultures that need her back on top. A sketchy Svengali named Tedros (Abel “The Weeknd” Tesfaye) appears in her life, promising artistic and sexual liberation and fame beyond her wildest dreams. “Euphoria” creator Sam Levinson steers the show with co-creators Tesfaye and Reza Fahim.

An up-and-coming writer/producer, Fahim is a native to the high-flying world occupied by pop stars, celebrities and power players . He spent nearly nine years as a nightclub proprietor and party promoter, building venues in Los Angeles that attract the real Jocelyns of the world. Born in Iran and a longtime lover of film, Fahim caught up with Variety at the close of Cannes to discuss the show’s divisive premiere and building a creative partnership with Tesfaye.

You had one of the most anticipated premieres of the festival. What was the moment like?

It’s really humbling. Cannes is a mountaintop, as a filmmaker. You always sort of have an eye on it. It’s like a fever dream being here.

How did you get your start as a writer?

Giving you the 10,000 foot view, my journey started from Iran. I am such a huge fan of Iranian cinema. The first time I even noticed the Palme d’Or logo was on the Criterion box of [Abbas Kiarostami’s] “Taste of Cherry.” Iran has such a rich tapestry of stories. It felt like it was my destiny to be at Cannes.

I moved to the United States when I was five, during the Iranian Revolution. I came from a family that had a very comfortable life, and the revolution was like this earthquake. We moved to Virginia and there was nothing fun about being Middle Eastern in Virginia during the hostage crisis. Growing up, I dealt with racism and didn’t even want to go by my name, Reza. The irony is that I’m so proud of my heritage now. My sister died before she was able to leave Iran and didn’t get her chance to live an authentically open life. She inspires me every day.

What was your first exposure to American cinema?

I was very lucky I had a brother that watched over me and took care of me. We went to see films. I went to see “Scarface” at age 5, before I could speak English. When the lights came up, he got so much shit for taking a little kid to see that. But instinctively, I knew that De Palma’s world was make believe. I didn’t understand why adults were so upset about me seeing make believe. Going to the movies is how I ultimately learned English. It continued through my life, I wound up moving to California and enrolling at UC Santa Barbara. Academia wasn’t for me, I was staying up every night devouring movies by Lars Von Trier and Susanne Bier. I moved to Los Angeles and became a coffee shop rat. I knew I had to write my way out.

How did you break into nightlife?

First, I had a weird detour into live poker. I played poker and supported myself that way for about four years. I was very heavily involved in cash games in Los Angeles and on the casino circuit. I pivoted to nightlife, throwing and promoting parties between 2007 and 2010. My dad was a master of ceremonies. He was a very big party planner for the Shah of Iran. I heard so many of those stories when I was younger, so it’s somewhat in my DNA. I was good at bringing people together and building spaces. I was good at connecting with people. Around 2013, my partner and I occupied our first space. I had this sort of romantic fascination with the fast life. What no one really tells you is that you’re an alcoholic. How can you be an alcoholic when you’re the life of the party?

Addiction and excess are pretty central in “The Idol.” How did you come out on the other side?

Chasing success in that field felt really empty for me, in the end. It was all about feeling validated. I was desperate to be liked. Drugs and alcohol helped me cope with it. I went through severe moments of depression and had to find a way back to my authentic path. I didn’t really hit a huge bottom; it was more like death by a thousand cuts. I’ve realized success can be dangerous when you’re not ready for it. I’ve been sober for the better part of six years.

That’s fantastic. Are any of the events in “The Idol” taken directly from your nightlife days?

Nothing specific. Sobriety has led me to such a different place, creatively. Authenticity is a word that’s thrown around very loosely, but there’s a real kind of landscape that I reached that feels like when I was telling stories before my mind was clouded.

You and Abel are co-writers and producers on “The Idol.” How did you meet and what’s your shared vision?

We were introduced through friends. We share a deep, deep love of film. When you find a kindred bond, it can almost unlock creativity. We both had all these stories to tell. Abel has this incredible encyclopedic knowledge of film. It’s incredible I found someone that I can kind of play this sort of, like, film tennis with. He’s also someone who has gained success from another avenue. We started riffing on stories and ideas from our backgrounds, and “The Idol” came out organically. I think people will find that it’s a larger commentary on where your boundaries should be in life.

It was certainly provocative. How do you feel about the response from the premiere screening?

Look, we made a provocative show. At the end of the day, I can’t wait for people to see the entire piece. Jane Adams said something realty beautiful at our Cannes press conference, that it’s OK to be messy when making art.

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