Ramin Sohrab is an award-winning filmmaker, actor, martial artist and stunt coordinator.
He was born in Tehran, grew up in Helsinki, and found himself lost in terms of direction despite owning a successful marketing and PR company.
Here, he tells the story of finding his way again. Listen to the full interview audio or read selected excerpts below.
➤ When somebody new asks you, ‘Hey what do you do?’ how do you describe yourself?
Usually I just say I’m a martial artist and a filmmaker. Those have been the two main things.
But if we go more into more detail there’s so many things but in LA it’s not so good to say I’m a filmmaker, I’m editor I’m the director, producer, actor, writer, the list goes on so keep it short. For me, it’s martial arts and making films.
➤ Exactly, keep it short. I think that should apply everywhere not just in LA.
That’s true, that’s true.
➤ Now when you’re in LA and you say you’re a filmmaker, that’s quite common, right? There’s a lot of people who are filmmakers and actors and writers there.
Yeah, every person you meet there is somehow – not every person – but like, most of the people you meet they’re somehow involved in film. Either their cousin is somebody in the film industry or dated somebody in the film industry or they are like actors and there’s so many things so yeah, it’s overwhelming.
➤ Yeah, I lived in LA for one year in the mid 2000s and it was an exciting time, especially when you’re a filmmaker because you’re like one person away from the person that you need to get your career started.
Yeah but there’s also one thing then that has changed. Hollywood had been about who can discover you or somebody comes and says like, ‘Hey I can give you a job or I can give you this movie.’ But what has changed… it’s more about, ‘What can you do to be discovered?’ You know because the possibilities are so much more now. I can start a YouTube channel, I can go on Instagram. I can do live. There’s so many things nowadays that you could do yourself to be discovered. The old Hollywood and film industry thing where somebody comes to you on the street and says, ‘Hey, you could be in my next movie,’ I don’t think that’s happening anymore. It’s more about, ‘What can you do to be more visible to people, to help your career?’
➤ Man, that is such a good point. The last time I was there was over 10 years ago. Obviously what’s changed is social media because now we, as the creators, have direct access to the audience. So we don’t need the middle people.
There’s no middle man, absolutely.
➤ We don’t need anyone’s permission to connect with the audience.
Because of social media all of us are now producers.
Tell me about your connection with Finland and growing up.
So basically I was born in Iran, Tehran and my whole family moved to Finland. I was like four years old so I basically grew up in Finland and then I was about 20 years old when I moved to US to study filmmaking, study acting and then I went back to Finland and then I went to Iran and actually directed the first Finnish-Iranian action film.
➤ Wait, wait, I want to get to that! But first I want to hear about your first discovery with martial arts because that’s how we met. We met over 10 years ago talking about making kung fu films and when I met you you were already known as the number one kung fu guy in Finland so I want to know, how did you first discover kung fu? Or martial arts?
Yeah, I discovered martial arts when I was four years old or actually my father started teaching me martial arts when I was four. So I kind of didn’t have a normal childhood. My childhood basically was doing shows around Iran and doing training, like hardcore training when I was a kid. There wasn’t so much sandbox and muscle trucks and like you know, Transformers. It was all nunchucks and swords and all kind of animal movements, Shaolin Wushu. So basically martial art has been part of my life from a very young age and then when we came to Finland that was just part of my life. I trained every day. I worked with my father, we taught other people to do kung fu and then slowly I got interested in the movie industry and how I could use my capabilities in martial arts and put it in films.
➤ Moving a little bit forward with your career in Finland you went into marketing. Can you talk about that?
Yeah, I went into marketing with my ex and we did some big advertisements for companies because from a young age I had passion in brand marketing and coming up with unique ideas how to promote something. It could be anything, it could be ice cream, it could be candy or it could be a Tesla car you know, just thinking of unique ways to bring brands to market.
I studied it a lot – how to affect customers most efficiently and I learned that whenever you hit that emotional spot in a customer, you can sell anything. It’s just a matter of getting that emotion. Emotion can come from the smell, from the touch, from the experience. There are so many ways to simulate emotions in customers and a lot of brands, when they think of advertisement, they just want it to be cool, pop and hip but if it doesn’t go through to the emotional side of the customer and consumers then that advertisement wouldn’t do anything you know. So that was something I studied a lot and I managed to do some big marketing for some big Finnish companies and US companies back in Finland.
➤ How and why did you decide to make a feature film? Because you have a successful company and you’re doing really well, why did you want to go into the movies?
Because the thing is I started martial arts at the age of four. I’ve had shows all over the world. I had world championships, I had all the black belts. And movies was the place where I could continue my martial art, you know. Because after a while when you go to competition you start winning, then you’re like, ‘Now what?’ So then, I thought, ‘OK, so movies are my way to continue my martial art and bring it to the big screen.’ So it has been my dream for a very long time to make my vision come true and I wanted to do something very crazy which was this first Finnish-Iranian action film. It had digested inside me for a very long time and when the opportunity came, I sold everything, I invested in the film and I went to Iran and started shooting. But it was a long dream. A very very long dream.
➤ So when you say the opportunity came, what was the first sign? What was the first thing that told you, ‘OK this is it. Now is the time’?
This is a very silly one but I’m going to still tell it and I’ve never told this to anybody.
➤ Yeah, tell it!
So I was in my 30s with my ex. We had four houses in Finland and the last house we bought, it was a big, big house and we had two dogs. So basically, at the age of 30, I had two companies, I had houses, I had a good income and everything was working. Everything was perfect. I had everything in Finland.
And one day, I was, you know doing the lawns outside with those small cars – you know, like a small tractor. So I was doing that and it was a big acre, and in the middle of the grass area, I shut down the tractor and I started thinking, ‘What the hell am I doing? I practiced over 25 years of martial arts getting myself ready to do something with my film and start shooting…’ and so on. Then and there was the first sign that I had to do something, even though I had everything in Finland. Life was good but sometimes you go off track. Because everybody has dreams, everybody has ambitions you know. And then you start settling down with what you have and you start making yourself happy with things that weren’t supposed to be there in the first place, you know what I mean?
➤ Oh yeah.
My dream wasn’t to own four houses or two companies or the cars. That wasn’t my dream but it became my reality and when I noticed that, it was like, something just hit me straight in my face and said, ‘You need to change.’ And it was such a scary moment for me because I had to have a discussion with my ex, I had to do anything and everything and it meant that I had to use all of my savings and sell everything. So basically you built up a life for 10 years and everybody is like, ‘Oh I wish I had Ramin’s life,’ but they didn’t know that inside, that wasn’t my dream, I wasn’t deeply happy about it. So I started doing the changes in my life, I broke up with my ex, I gave up the dogs and I went to Iran. It was a lot of sacrifice because I was gone for such a long time – for 10 years I was going off track and when you get lost, do you know how much sacrifice you have to make to get back on the main road? It took me now three years. And guess what? I’m back!
➤ Congratulations, you’re back on track!
I’m back on track and I’m so happy, Tan. I have never been so joyful. I wake up in the morning praying and thankful because I am where I am supposed to be. A lot of things had to be sacrificed but trust me when you do that, the feeling, the euphoria, the love, the peace, it’s such a great thing that sometimes it’s overwhelming.
➤ That’s powerful. I think we can all relate to being lost and away from our path but I think most of us stay lost because that change is so painful and so difficult.
For 10 years I was lost. I don’t know if you have seen the Inception movie, there are layers of sleep and then there is one layer that’s called Limbo and in the film they say if you go to Limbo you can be there forever.
➤ Yeah, it’s hard to come back out.
Leonardo Dicaprio, I think, was in Limbo for 10 years in that film. That’s what happened to me. For 10 years I was in Limbo. I wasn’t on my track. I was doing things that I thought would make me happy. Basically it’s like you’re fooling yourself – buying things you don’t need, getting along with people you don’t need in your life, you know what I mean? You do that to make yourself feel like, ‘OK I’m wanted, people like me, people love me,’ and then you start slowly living for others. That’s the biggest mistake.
➤ Here’s what I find really interesting: a lot of us, we reach that moment when it’s through poverty or something really sad or depressing, you lose something. Something bad, right? Whereas you had money, you were comfortable so then it’s really hard to notice: ‘I’m not on my path.’
A lot of people talk about motivation and how to motivate themselves. Do you know this term, ‘On Monday, I start working out?’
➤ Yes, yes! It’s always tomorrow. I’ll do it tomorrow. Next Monday I start.
Yeah the thing is motivation is not something you can decide. I cannot go like, ‘Hey, on Monday I start working out.’
➤ You can’t say, ‘On Monday I’ll be motivated.’
Motivation is something that will happen inside you and it’s so weird because it doesn’t need a big thing. You might think, after 10 years being in that Limbo, somebody would come to me and like the clouds open and a voice would be like, ‘You are not on your path. You shall go back!’ No, it was such a small thing. I was doing my lawn. Imagine that! The spark started there and it was such a small spark that now three years later I am on my path.
So motivation is not something I can decide: When I…? Should I…? How? Motivation is something, when you get it, dude trust me, just grab it as hard as you can. People who have drinking problems, they cannot go like, ‘Hey, next month I’m gonna stop or this month.’ No! Someday you’re at home or you’re with your friend and something inside you will say, ‘Hey, I’m gonna stop drinking.’ When you catch that, that’s your winning ticket. That’s your ticket out of Limbo. That’s the kick they use in Inception to wake you up from that dream.
➤ So you’re saying that we can’t create motivation, we can’t spark it. We have to wait for it to come. Is there something that you can do in order to prepare yourself?
You can start making the environment. One thing that I learned which helped me a lot is just meditate. You know just let your body talk to you. Let your mind talk to you. We have to stop force feeding ourselves with lies.
The lawn thing happened when there was nobody at the house. I was alone and calm and the moment was right. And the motivation inside me was like, ‘Let’s hit him now!’ So that’s the thing. Don’t rush it. You cannot make it happen. What you can do is make the environment suitable for motivation to come inside of you and it’s such a powerful thing.
➤ Beautiful! Thanks man, that’s really well put. Okay, so now let’s move to Iran. So, you’ve got the motivation, you sparked. How did you end up with the movie? Did you write it? Did you get a writer? What was your next step?
Yeah, I wrote the first version then I brought in some other writers. We brought in Sami Laulajainen and then we brought an Iranian writer [Amirhossein Makouei], then we brought a US writer, Christopher Larson, so there was a lot of writers involved. And then I went to Iran and it took me a while to actually get a permit. I’m actually the only non-Iranian-resident director who got a permit to shoot an action film in Iraq and it took us a while. One person that really helped us on this journey was the Finnish ambassador in Tehran – Keijo Norvanto. He saw the spark in me. He saw the vision that I wanted to bring and he really helped us in getting the permits and everything in order.
➤ Just quickly about the pre-production. Did you say you put in your own money? Was it all your own money or did you get any investors, did you get funding?
No, it was all my money.
➤ Okay, so you’re the writer, producer, director, actor and financier.
(Laughs) Yeah there’s so many things but I think I’m just gonna take the credit of directing it.
➤ So, do you have the website, do you have clips, do you have behind the scenes?
Yeah Layersoflies.com. Actually, last year we were part of the Frontiers program at the Cannes Film Festival. YLE did a very big article about the film. Just search Layers of Lies action film and there’s tons of material out there already.
➤ Awesome, that’s exciting. So you’re planning to go back to Iran or have you finished shooting the Iran scenes?
No, I’m planning to go back to Iran, we are planning to shoot some more scenes but one thing that’s helped me a lot is that the material we already shot in Iran – the teaser we put together – has managed to get me new jobs here and new opportunities. I’m actually hoping, in a couple of months, if my visa goes through, I’ll be stunt coordinating and second unit director on a new Gerard Butler film here in the US.
Yeah, so there’s a lot and then there’s some companies we are talking about my next film – an action film to be shot in the US and hopefully somewhere else.
➤ Can you tell me about first arriving in LA? Did you ever have any doubt? Did you ever question yourself like, ‘Oh my god what have I done? I built this up in Finland for 10 years and now I left everything.’ Did you ever question yourself?
Of course. The three years that I was trying to find my path, it was always questioning, always worrying, always thinking what would be different if I didn’t leave but trust me, when you put your first step on that path everything changes. You become a new person. When you’re on the path, even having a coffee in the morning feels like such a blessing. Rather than lying to yourself and trying to force yourself to be happy, oh man, just get back to the track and everything will feel magical.
Hear the full conversation on the podcast: