"Should I write movies or work for a production company?" a fresh-faced Miguel Ali (formerly Miguel Ali Hasan) asked his professor, John Badham, the director of Short Circuit and Saturday Night Fever. Badham replied: "Go get some life experience. It will make you a better director." So Ali did: He founded Muslims for Bush; he ran for Colorado House District 56 and almost won; he ran for state treasurer and did not almost win; he survived three months of treatment for sex addiction. Armed with new-found knowledge about how the world works, Ali wrote and directed a feature comedy about his experience as a sex addict. The film, Confessions of a Womanizer, plays today and Sunday, March 30 at the Vail Film Festival. Westword caught up with Ali to talk about his political career, sex addiction and his new comedy.
Westword: Your name has changed over the years. What is your preferred first name?
Miguel Ali: I usually go by Ali. I changed my name to Miguel Ali. My birth certificate name is Muhammad Ali Hasan. I became an advocate for a lot of Muslim issues, and I purposely used the name Muhammad. I feel like I did a good job speaking on behalf of Muslims. I felt like we should come together more as a society and see if we could find more in common rather than look at differences.
I found out that I had Spanish heritage and that my family were Jews kicked out of Spain. The main activist who campaigned against the Spanish Inquisition was Miguel de Luna, so in solidarity with all the Jews and Muslims who were kicked out of Spain and in recognition of that heritage, I added the name Miguel to my name and started going by Miguel Ali.
Gandhi said: "When you want to create a difference, you should live it." That's my way of making a difference and showing people that we can get along.
Talk about your history doing political work and what moved you to make movies?
I'm very proud of my history. I feel like I've accomplished a lot, and more than that, I feel like I've learned a lot.
Making movies was my first passion; politics was a fun diversion. I was getting my masters degree in film directing at Chapman University. I graduated there in 2007, and my mentor was a man by the name of John Badham. He directed Saturday Night Fever and Short Circuit. A couple weeks before graduation, I asked him: "What should I do? Should I write movies or work for a production company?"
He said to me: "You need to go out and get life experience. That life experience is going to make you a better director. You can return to filmmaking understanding a bigger palette of emotion."
Based on that advice, I decided to move back to Colorado and get back in touch with my family. At the time, I was a Republican living in Eagle County. The Republicans caught wind of that. They were excited that I was young and that I was an expert snowboarder. They didn't have a candidate running for House District 56, which was a very Democratic district. They said: "We'll put all the support behind you that we can. We'd love for you to run."
I thought, that will be a fun way to get life experience. I went ahead and took that run on and almost won. I didn't win, but almost. I had a lot that I still wanted to say, and that's what motivated me to do the state treasurer run in 2010. That race wasn't as successful, but I'm still proud of it.
I'd knocked on more than 20,000 doors all over Colorado; I'd traveled so much and met so many people and realized that I had this basic understanding of so many different kinds of people and their personalities. I had a much deeper understanding of people than I had when I was in film school. At that point, I said, I'm ready to move back to Los Angeles. I think I can go find financing. I can write a good script. I can get my first feature film done. If that film does well, that's just going to spark my career.
I should probably stress that I am a Democrat now. I am a fiscal conservative. Me and Douglas Bruce were the two biggest fiscal conservatives in Colorado. We were no-compromise to the Taxpayer's Bill of Rights. I'm still like that, in terms of fiscal issues. I was always pro-gay marriage. If you look at the 2008 race, I was the only candidate in Colorado who was pro-gay marriage and pro-amnesty for undocumented immigrants. That was back in '08. Now, everyone is suddenly pro-gay marriage. I was six years ahead of the curve on that one. I really haven't changed that much. It's just that I've decided to be part of a political party that values a dialogue more than a purity test. The thing I love about the Democratic Party is that more than ideology, there is a value in having a dialogue and asking: "What can we do to help America?" I realized I can defend my political philosophies. I just need to be in a party willing to give me a chance to defend them. That's what motivated the switch.
Read on for more from Miguel Ali.
Let's talk about your movie career. Where does Confessions of a Womanizer fit in?
The first film I made that was really good was my thesis film at Chapman University. I made it in 2007. It travelled the film festival circuit in 2008. It was called Rabia. It was a narrative biopic about the first Palestinian, female suicide bomber. Her name was Wafa Idris. It was a 24-minute biopic about her life and what motivated her to do the bombing. That film did really well. It went to 85 film festivals. It won around 35 awards.
That movie was traveling the festival circuit while I was running for office in District 56. It was a fun year. I'd spend a week knocking on 200 to 300 doors a day in either Vail or Breckenridge, and then, every now and then on the weekend, I would drive to Denver and fly out to Florida, California or New York and attend a festival screening.
I thought my first feature film was going to be a biopic about the Pakistani Prime Minister Benazir Bhutto. That was the next feature script I wrote, and I honestly thought that was going to be my first feature film. I was working with a really good producer on that. At the same time I was writing that, I hit a personal rock bottom in my life, and I went to rehab for sex addiction. I have a very addictive personality. There were a number of toxic ways it could have manifested, but it manifested itself in sex.
During rehab, I was writing. Writing for me is therapeutic, and I wanted to write something to get everything I was feeling off my chest. Rehab's a really hard thing. I hit every major withdrawal symptom. I had no energy. I couldn't breathe, and a lot of people were dropping out of my life. The people who knew my former self, the people who didn't like that I was getting healthy, they were leaving my life, and they were being very insulting when they did. They were kicking dirt in my eyes. There came a point where I thought, is this really worth it? I thought, I had more friends and more energy when I was an addict.
I've read a lot of testimonials of people who went through rehab -- whether it was for drugs or for gambling, and every testimonial said: "No, you can get through it. You're going to become a better person when you do." When I read those testimonials, I was really touched because those played a big part in getting me through the completion of rehab.
The program was not a 12-step program. It was a program based on isolating the fact that you have an addictive personality and trying to channel those addictions into healthy things. I'm proud now that I'm addicted to fitness; I'm addicted to loose-leaf tea; I'm addicted to yoga. I literally start to shake if I don't do one of those things everyday.
In tribute to everyone else who gave a testimonial on their rehab experience, I wanted to write a testimonial. I wanted to write something to tell everyone that it's okay if you have a problem. You can go get help.
The worst thing we do when we are afflicted with addiction is that we get reclusive. We don't want anyone else to be near us because we want to completely invest in our addiction. The best way to get over an addiction is to connect with other people; it's to be around your friends and the people who love you most. I wanted to make a movie that said: You shouldn't get reclusive, you should reach out to people, and connecting with others is what's going to bring the best out of you.
At the same time, unlike the Benazir Bhutto story I'd been developing and unlike Rabia, I decided I'd like to make a movie that actually has a happy ending where no one dies, and the audience is going to watch it for ninety minutes, and they're going to laugh their ass off. I said, at the very least, I want them to enjoy this comedy and have a great time. That's basically how I went from Rabia to Bhutto down to Confessions of a Womanizer. Although it's a great comedy, I hope people look at it as a film that has a lot of depth and really tells a story of sex addiction too. Talk about why you are using comedy to address sex addiction?
When I decided to write about sex addiction, I thought about writing with a dramatic tone. I thought: This is an affliction. It deserves to be taken seriously, the way a drama would. Then I thought to myself, you know, I'm not telling the intellectual elite about sex addiction. I'm trying to tell people that are struggling with sex addiction or any addiction. I'm trying to tell them that it's okay to get help. Don't get reclusive. You need to connect with others.
Dealing with addiction, I know that it's a lot easier to get my attention by approaching me with a comedy than it is with a drama. I think the people that I'm trying to touch are going to be more open to listening to a comedy and understanding this message by laughing rather than by crying. That's why I try to do it through comedy.
I admit, you're taking a big risk when you do that, because it is a serious subject. If someone's insulted by it, that's fair. They're welcome to be insulted. As far as I'm concerned, I don't think artwork is good unless someone is offended by it. If people are offended, I welcome that. I'm very proud about how it came across.
Read on for more from Miguel Ali.
Can you talk about what sex addiction is?
A sex addict is somebody who has to have sex every time he or she gets stressed out. Sex becomes the outlet for alleviating any negative emotion. Similarly, an alcoholic turns to alcohol every time he is stressed; a drug addict turns to drugs every time they deal with something negative. A sex addict turns to sex. A sex addict will find sex no matter what the consequences are, whether that's with somebody who they're having a relationship with, whether that's somebody they meet at a bar, or whether it is someone that they pay. They will pay for sex in order to have it, because they have to have it. That's their alleviation for stress.
The counselor that I had, when I started the program, she said: "Okay, we're going to go cold turkey, meaning no alcohol, no drugs, no gambling, no sex, and she even said no junk food." She said you could easily transition this addictive disorder and start eating cheeseburgers all the time and that will become your alleviation for stress.
Basically, when you take someone with an addictive persona, and you say, "No sex; no drugs; no alcohol; no gambling; no junk food," that individual is sitting there alone. A stressful event hits. In my case, I was used to alleviating any stress with sex. Now suddenly, I don't have that outlet. I can't turn to drugs. I can't turn to junk food. I can't turn to alcohol. I can't turn to gambling. What happens? I feel crazy. I start shaking. My energy is completely gone.
It makes you go back to your counselor and say, I don't understand what's happening. I want to have sex. I want to do something, and that's the point where you need someone strong who is able to say: "No, just go through it. Just hang in there."
That's how I got addicted to fitness and yoga. Those two activities taught me how to breathe. I would literally stop breathing. I'd go exercise, and I'd force myself to breathe.
There is a counter-movement out there that says that sex addiction isn't real, that it's just made up. People are allowed to say that. I will submit this thought: Scientifically, the endorphin rush that you get off of a sexual orgasm -- the endorphins that rush into your head -- are three to four times that of the endorphin rush you get from a heroin hit. The endorphin hit you get off of a sexual orgasm is pretty powerful stuff. When I look at that, I say, okay, it makes sense that that could be an addiction. Maybe it's not to some people, but based on that science, it is.
Talk about the production of this film?
We made it with a very low budget. When I wrote the script, I crossed my fingers and said it would be really cool if we had one recognizable star in this film, maybe two. We ended up having Gary Busey, C. Thomas Howell, the Bella Twins, Jillian Rose Reed, who's on that show Awkward on MTV, Andrew Lawrence and, of course, our latest star Kelly Mantle, who just finished being on RuPaul's Drag Race.
The most interesting lesson I've learned as a filmmaker is that if you've got a killer script, people want to be involved.
Pre-production was very smooth. Production itself was very smooth. We shot the entire film in Orange County, mostly in the Newport Beach area. With the exception of the diner scenes, we built every single set in a film studio near Anaheim. Post-production took a long time. We had so much good footage.
Talk about these Oscar campaigns that you're doing?
At this point, we're starting it grassroots because we want to get the word out, but the motivation is that we think Gary Busey has given us a performance that should be worthy of an Oscar. We feel like he should have won the Oscar for Buddy Holly, twenty or thirty years ago. We feel like the Academy needs to give him some attention on this, because he's given us a tremendous performance.
The other one is Kelly Mantle. I think Kelly Mantle gave us a terrific performance, and she would be the first transgender actress to win an Oscar, and in fact, the first transgender actress to be nominated for an Oscar.
I feel like the transgender talent pool is the most untapped pool of talent today in Hollywood. You take Jared Leto, for example, for his work in Dallas Buyers Club. I'm glad he won the Oscar. He deserved it. But I'd really like to see more transgender roles written, and I want to see transgender actors play those roles. Part of the Oscar campaign for Kelly Mantle is to bring attention to that cause and to get Hollywood to put more transgender people in their films. At the same time, I wouldn't do the campaign if Kelly didn't give us a knockout performance.
What should audiences expect?
I think we could have the funniest movie ever made. I won't say it definitely is, but I think it's in the conversation. I hope people come to see it, because it's a good story about a deep subject, but at the very least, I think this is going to be the funniest movie you ever see.
Confessions of a Womanizer plays at the Vail Film Festival at 8:30 p.m. Friday, March 28 and at 1 p.m. Sunday, March 30. For more information, go to the Vail Film Festival website. From our archives: Ali Hasan adds sex addict to his resume
Follow me on Twitter: @kyle_a_harris
Keep Westword Free... Since we started Westword, it has been defined as the free, independent voice of Denver, and we would like to keep it that way. Offering our readers free access to incisive coverage of local news, food and culture. Producing stories on everything from political scandals to the hottest new bands, with gutsy reporting, stylish writing, and staffers who've won everything from the Society of Professional Journalists' Sigma Delta Chi feature-writing award to the Casey Medal for Meritorious Journalism. But with local journalism's existence under siege and advertising revenue setbacks having a larger impact, it is important now more than ever for us to rally support behind funding our local journalism. You can help by participating in our "I Support" membership program, allowing us to keep covering Denver with no paywalls.