ABED NADIR’S TIME AT COMMUNITY COLLEGE
By: Lily Dimatulac
I walked into a diner just off the L.A. strip. It looked familiar but I could not quite place where. In the back corner, sat a lanky Arab man. He was wearing a vintage Star Wars t-shirt with a navy blue cardigan. He had a giant plate of waffles in front of him, and he looked more than a little nervous. It was unlike any other director I had profiled before. His movie had won 4 Oscars less than a week ago, and yesterday it was announced he would be taking over the Kick-Puncher franchise.
To be fair, there are very few directors like Abed Nadir. The neurodivergent, bisexual, Polish-Palestinian, Muslim American, has one of the most unique careers in Hollywood. He never attended film school, or even university for that matter. He graduated from Greendale Community College located in Greendale, Colorado. Raised solely by his Palestinian father, after his mother left he was slated to take over the family business, a falafel stand. He majored in business until his father agreed to let him pursue his dream of having a film career.
“I was supposed to go to film school, but after I kept trying to scare people from seeing the Phantom Menace, he decided it was best for me to go to Greendale,” Nadir paused. “It was the best thing that ever happened to me.”
It was there that Nadir began his film career, making mostly documentaries and “homage films” as he describes them. It was also his first award, of many soon to follow. Intermediate Documentary Filmmaking won him The Candid Bell Best Picture award in 2011, and has recently gained popularity online. It follows an aging millionaire as he convinces his friends he is dying and gives them gifts to psychologically torture them. It was one of the funniest films I have ever seen.
“It’s strange to watch it now, and even stranger to see so many people engage with it now. 4 years after we filmed that, he actually did die. His will reading was similarly horrible, but he gave Troy [Barnes-Nadir] all his money. He also gave all 7 of us a bottle of his sperm and sent Troy to sail across the world. So yeah, he is just as crazy as he seemed in the film.” He hesitated for a moment, playing with his waffles. “He didn’t give me anything at the reading. I didn’t tell anyone but Troy this, but after we got married the lawyer came by. I guess he had it written in his will to give me a camera once we got married. He also gave me a letter apologizing, and just said ‘GAY!” on the front. We hadn’t even started dating before he died. He was a mean old man, but he had his moments.”
Troy Barnes-Nadir is Abed’s husband of 3 years. He has several cameos in several of Nadir’s work and comes up quite frequently in this interview and every other Nadir does. “I just love him so much I forget how much I talk about him.”
Nadir’s big break in directing came in 2016. After being PA on the cult classic TV show Arcade of the Imagined, Nadir’s film Police Justice was picked up by Universal Studios. Starring Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson as Jackson Jones an L.A. cop fighting against the system.
“It really was my American Graffiti. I only made it to solidify myself in Hollywood and be able to make weird stuff.” He explained. “I had the script since college, but it needed some real work. I had a real ex-cop help with the dialogue, but he was fired from Greendale after my friends found out he had handcuffed me to a file cabinet.”
His past is both an open book, and a huge mystery. Much of his work is inspired by those years in college, and if asked he will answer almost any question asked. However, his answers are so utterly baffling it seems impossible to be true.
“Yeah, that’s Greendale for you.” Close friend and Greendale Professor Jeffery Winger explained. “That’s also Abed. Troy [Barnes-Nadir] used to describe him as “magical” and we all laughed, but he had a point. He has this habit of bringing out all the childlike wonder you repressed, it’s what makes his movies fun, and made college with him so crazy. We are still crazy, and we were crazy before, but he just made us better. There’s a shrine to him in the Film Studies building, and we hold a big fake red carpet premiere and dance every time he has a new film out, and don’t get me started on tv shows. The Dean [Craig Pelton] likes to host screenings on the quad. Which is insane, because Galactic Thunder is totally making fun of us.”
When asked about the shrine, Nadir explained, “Very few people who go to Greendale get out or become successful, so when you do it’s a big deal. There’s a statue of Luis Guzman on campus. I made a documentary on that once, it was crazy.” He is referring to Documentary Filmmaking: Redux, another college documentary this time about a commercial they tried to make.
When I questioned him about the accusation that Galactic Thunder is based on Greendale, he responded. “Oh, a hundred percent! I mean, it’s not a perfect 1:1 match, it’s part Greendale, part Inspector Spacetime. It’s really just me if I could be a TV show.”
Galactic Thunder is in the middle of it’s fourth season, and has been picked up for a fifth. It is a sci-fi sitcom following a ragtag team of aliens, robots, and humans, as they try to save the Galactic University. It has one of the most dedicated fan bases, who have levied an online campaign called #SixSeasonsAndAMovie to get it just that, and things are looking up for that to be a real possibility.
Nadir’s most recent film Love Lost in the West which brought him Best Director and Best Original Screenplay at this year’s Academy Awards is also inspired by his time at Greendale. Starring Anthony Mackie as George Davids a freed slave turned cowboy, now ghost attempting to write a love letter to the love of his life Teresa Vargas Salazar (Eva Longoria) the owner of the boarding house he stayed in. George seeks to find a pen that can send a letter across space and time, and steals the pens of a study group in the library and sets them on a crazy path revealing secrets and romance. Riz Ahmed was nominated for Best Supporting Actor in a Drama for his role as Yusuf Bitar, a young neurodivergent man in love with his best friend, Jon Yates played by Marque Richardson.
“It’s not hard to see the resemblance. I mean it’s inspired by an actual event at Greendale. My friend lost her pen, and we lost our minds. We ended up not finding it, and Troy came up with the idea to blame on this ghost. He told this story, and it was one of the moments that I realized I was in love with him. It wasn’t THE moment, but it was one of many moments that I realized just how much I was in love with him.”
I asked him what happened to the pen. “A monkey took it.” I have checked with 9 people, all of whom confirm the story, down to the last detail. A monkey did take the pen.
The film, and most of Nadir’s work defies genre. When describing the latest Nadir work, it takes time and several tangents. There are twists and turns, and it seems to defy any and all conventions. He told me, “I’ve never chosen to think of it like that. I really like tropes, they help things make sense. But I like to take tropes from lots of genres and create a good story with good characters. If you have a good character, you will follow them through anything. And to test them, I like to bring in a variety of problems.”
In 2018 Abed Nadir graced the cover of Out Magazine, telling everyone, “I’m bisexual!” calling back to Ellen DeGeneres’ coming out.
“I always liked that trope. Before that, I never really talked about my sexuality, because it never seemed relevant to the plot of my life or my career. But I was getting married to Troy that summer, and I realized it was actually just something I wanted to do.”
Since then both his work and the man himself has inspired many. Galactic Thunder has won 3 GLAAD Media Awards, Love Lost in the West won one, and his superhero miniseries Eagle Eye was nominated. Almost all of his work has been praised for its diversity. Love Lost in the West featured 2 interracial relationships, one of which was two men. It has been applauded for its touching nature and subversion of old tropes. Galactic Thunder has received much acclaim for its handling of neurodiversity and several LGBT characters.
When asked if he makes an effort to write diverse stories, he told me, “I don’t. It’s never something I have to think about because I am just reflecting what the world looks like. There are neurodivergent people. There are queer people. There are people of color. Our stories matter. I work hard to make sure that I do not play into any harmful tropes, but it is not difficult for me to write an interracial same-sex relationship. I am in one. I am so happy people are relating to it, it truly is touching. I appreciate the awards, but I also think we need to reframe the conversation. It is not difficult to write diverse stories, but we need to make sure we do them justice.”
As a follow up I asked if having the only two human characters on Galactic Thunder Octavius the 42nd [Anthony Jaques] and Jordin of Earth are respectively autistic and nonbinary was a determined effort to subvert the trope that neurodivergent and nonbinary people are only ever represented as robots or aliens.
“Absolutely. At first, I didn’t really want to talk about neurodiversity, because I hate Very Special Episodes. They are the worst. But I realized I hated Very Special Episodes because they were the only time it was talked about. They were dumb, and then characters like me disappear after 22 minutes. I realized, that if I told a different story, where we got to be front and center, in every episode it wasn’t annoying or preachy. It just was. Similarly, I hated robot characters. My friend used to call me emotionless and a robot, but I wasn’t. I just have trouble expressing it, and it hurt me. Everyone thinks my favorite character on Star Trek was Data, it was Picard.” He took an angry bite of his waffles. “I knew I wanted to cast Indya Moore, I loved their work on Pose and I wanted to see what they could do in a comedy. They were unsurprisingly hilarious, they can do just about anything. I assumed that nonbinary people could relate to my hatred of robot characters. I knew that Indya was better than a robot, and I wanted to write what I think was the coolest plot lines.”
Nadir has two films set to come out this year the first is the Kick-Puncher sequel. Kick Puncher: Operation Legacy scheduled to come out in May, and Voyage of the Lost, a film about a mission control operator falling in love with a Mars Mission team in the year 2248. It hits theaters in November.
“Both are inspired by my husband and my time at Greendale. I realize that’s where all my inspiration comes from. Luckily I made enough memories to write a lifetime’s worth of scripts. And if I do run out, I can make more memories with him.”
When I asked Barnes-Nadir about this he started crying. “I remember when we made the Kick-Puncher homage in the library of our college. Abed isn’t making that movie anymore, and that’s good. It just wrinkles my brain how just yesterday we were gluing tin foil to cardboard, and now he has a studio. I always knew he’d be a success, but it feels so soon. It might be because I was gone so long, but like now he’s making Kick-Puncher and Inspector Spacetime and winning Oscars. But to me, he is still Abed Nadir, the magical man who showed me Alien. I love him more than anything in the entire world.”
Troy is referencing the last season episode of Inspector Spacetime “Spiders from Mars” that Abed directed. When I asked him about the episode, and what it was like to direct a show he was such a fan of he told me, “It was just amazing. That was the Christmas episode, but it aired December 22nd. Greendale had shut down the campus, but The Dean let us in. It was me, Troy, and all our old friends. We watched the episode in the study room. It really hit me. It was the room I fell in love with Troy, and the room I learned how to be a person. And here we were, married, and watching an episode of my favorite TV show that I directed. I love him so much, it feels like home.”
They are without a doubt, one of the cutest couples in Hollywood. When talking to a Galactic Thunder P.A. she told me, “Yeah that’s them. They can’t keep their eyes off each other. Every time Troy is on set it is such a pain, because he is so nice and polite, and he keeps distracting Abed, but he doesn’t mean to, and they are so goddamned cute you want to let it happen, but we have a show to make.”
When talking to Professor Winger again, he said “You think that’s bad? They didn’t admit their feelings for like 7 years. I think they’re making up for lost time at this point.”
When talking to his coworkers, it becomes clear how unique Abed is. Longoria told me “He is without a doubt a perfectionist. We will run a scene again and again till he thinks we got it right. But it isn’t ever an impossible ideal. He knows our limits, and he knows our potential, in equal measure. He has a vision, and we will achieve it. But it's not like he forgets we are human.”
“I worked really hard on that. I graduated Greendale with a film degree, but I still wasn’t any good with people. When everyone involved is at their best, the production will be its best. I still struggle with people, but I have surrounded myself with people I know I can trust not to get wrapped up in my own importance to let me forget that. At Greendale, I tried to make this Jesus film, and it was just terrible. But I had a friend who called me out, and luckily it never saw the light of day. Not even just terrible movies, but I don’t want to mistreat my cast or crew. We all need to be at our best if we are going to make anything good.” He explained.
Abed Nadir is unlike any director I have ever met, and the film industry is better for it.