Desiree Akhavan’s feature debut, Appropriate Behaviour, follows Shirin (Akhavan), a bisexual Persian American woman in Brooklyn struggling to rebuild her life after breaking up with her lesbian girlfriend, Maxine (Rebecca Henderson).
Released this week, we sat down with the writer/director/actor to talk about the festival success of her graduation film, and the beginning of her career as a filmmaker.
How is it being back in London?
It’s really nice actually, and I’m not just saying that because you guys are British. I’ve been travelling with this film for about a year on and off, and it’s weird, nothing hit me about how exciting it was to be talking about my feature until I got back here. My producer Cecelia (Frugiuele) lives here, and it just really hit me we made our dream come true, and coming back to London; it’s really coming home, cause we wrote a lot of the script here. I would come to visit her and spend blocks of time on her couch just working with her and reciting the script out loud to each other. There’s something about being back here that’s really full circle. I lived here in 2004/2005, and I studied film, and I made my first film in Mile End while I studied at Queen Mary.
What was the film about?
It was called Two Drink Minimum – it’s about a bunch of people who live in a bar on a Friday night – and these couples; there were three separate couples interacting, and there was a narration over the top. It was really stupid, but there was a TV show in America called Mixology that was on last year and it was the exact same plot.
With The Slope it was a week each episode, I would write Monday, we’d shoot Wednesday, edit Saturday and put it online on Sunday, and because we were in school at the same time, it wasn’t that many hours we’d be working on it. It was such good training for shooting a feature because you can’t over-think anything, you just keep moving forward. I find with the short films I made on Super 16; it was obsessive compulsive thought, and, like, really every frame I was like, “Oh my god, would Ang Lee approve of this frame?” and I’d get so caught up in the bullshit insecurities.
I’d never seen a webseries before, so it could be anything I wanted it to be. I’d seen so many films that I had such a clear idea of what a good film looked like, but with a webseries, it was like, make your own genre up – it was so much freedom, and you decide what’s good. If this is entertaining and funny, then it’s a good webseries. That’s how I decided my criteria, and having that mind-set when going into a film – okay this is entertaining and good by me – then it’s a good film; not “does it look a certain way?” “does it follow a certain narrative structure?” “does it have certain actors?” – I really didn’t give a shit what was proper or right. If I hadn’t made the webseries I would never have been able to make a film like this that’s kind of outside the box.
How involved were you with the soundtrack?
I had nobody telling me what to do, it was amazing. The great thing about the film was that there were no rules, but I was surrounded by very talented people – who I stole everything from. All the music I credit to my editor, Sara Shaw – she’s really talented, and she’s a musician. She was in bands for years and now she edits film. She put in all the temporary music and Electrelene was all temp music. We never thought we’d be able to afford it. It was a real process in getting the rights to that, getting the band involved, and them getting on board with the project helped us get it because, of course, their publisher didn’t want to give us the music, and we had such a tiny tiny budget. I really love J.D. Samsom and wanted to use the MEN track really badly. The score was by Josephine Wiggs, who’s the bassist with The Breeders.
She was also involved in The Slope.
Yeah, she contacted Ingrid (Jungermann) and I while we were making The Slope and asked “do you want an intro track? I’ll just do it for you. I like your show and I think you need a track”. – so we were really excited, we’re both really big fans. Then she and I became friends, and we just hung out for years, and when I made my first cut of this film I invited her to watch it, and afterwards, I asked her to do the score. I was so nervous; it’s like: “you can say no, it’s ok, we can still be friends, no big deal”. She was on tour with The Breeders at the time because they did a reunion tour, so she would send me tracks from the road. It was difficult since we were never in the same place, but it was really easy because I could just keep sending her files of the new cuts and she could compose the files – she’s really incredible.
How was it directing yourself?
It was actually really ideal for a first feature. What I found is that on my shoots, when I wasn’t acting, I had too much time to overthink and then I would obsess over every last detail, and I wouldn’t be able to move forward.
If I hadn’t have been acting I don’t think I’d have had the same feeling of comfort with my actors. I felt okay with asking anything from them that I would’ve asked of myself, because otherwise I’d always feel really guilty, like I’m crossing some kind of boundary – especially when it comes to the sex scenes. I felt really comfortable asking people to go places because I was there with them. Then, on the other hand, as an actor I felt really confident to take huge risks; I never would have been comfortable shooting the sex in the film if I hadn’t have been acting and directing.
It felt like I was at the helm of this ship; I was in power, this was the situation; that I was telling a story I believed in, and if anyone was going to be taken advantage of it, it would be me, by me. It was perfect, but moving forward, I’m really exciting to see what it feels like just to direct a feature and not act.
How much can you tell us about your next feature?
It’s an adaptation of a young adult novel that Cecilia is producing, and I’m writing/directing; it takes place in Montana in 1993, so it’s gonna be a bit of a shift in tone. It’ll have the same tone in that it’ll be comedic with tragic elements to it, but what I really like about this is that it’s about young adults – 17 years old, and I really miss films like The Breakfast Club, and this is to me like my homage to The Breakfast Club.
I feel like teen films have lost their gusto, that we’re not saying new things. We’re not revealing something honest about what it is to become disillusioned with the adults around you and figure out that nobody knows more than you do – like that moment in life where you’re like “oh shit, it’s the blind leading the blind”. I don’t think it’ll be a classic in the sense of Mean Girls, which I really love but don’t think I could’ve made.
Why move on to something so different?
It fell into my lap. I loved the book. I shared it with Cecilia and she said “this is what we’re doing”. I was really focused on writing another project so I was like “okay, if you want it, then you chase the rights – let’s see if it happens”, and it happened.
I always have three or four projects that are percolating in one stage or another, and it’s always where the financing is coming through. It’s never strategically “what do people want to see me doing in a different light”. I don’t want to pigeonhole myself – I don’t think anyone gives a shit. I mean, maybe once I have a few features under my belt I’ll be strategic. Sometimes I worry I do too much gay content; all my work at the moment deals with LGBT issues in some way or another, but that’s also where I’m interested.
Your films don’t seem particularly gay – just about gay people.
I know, and that’s what worries me – that people who don’t actually watch the films are like “oh, it’s that gay film maker – don’t watch her films”. I really want to make films that people see, and I have this fear that in the states people don’t see films about marginalised people. You’ve not sold them – it takes millions more to sell a film to an audience than to make it. The advertising budget for the films are much larger than the budgets for just production, and production houses aren’t willing to spend that kind of money on a film they don’t think they can sell. Those films, for the most part, are films with female protagonists or queer films, or films with black protagonists, unless it’s Will Smith.
How did your performance in Girls come about?
Lena (Dunham) saw my film and we met up and had a really nice meeting, and she’s a really inspirational, intelligent, cool person. Then, months later, I got an email asking me to do a table reading. I was not expecting it. It was so exciting for me because I’m a really big fan of the show, and I had just finished watching season three, and I was just so excited to read the scripts for the next season – like, this was such a gift; now I get to know what happens.
Lena is well known for finding talent.
Lena and Jenni Konner, her show runner – they’re partners in every way, and they’re known for casting. They know how to cast certain parts. They know who’s cool and who’s smart and what’s happening – that was one thing I remembered; one of the writers told me everyone just has infinite confidence in that if they say “so-and-so does this part”, no one ever doubts it; they’re always right. They keep their eye up, they’re generous, and they’re not stuck in their bubble. They have their eyes open to who else is working and making things. I think it has a lot to do with the fact that Lena started making small indie films.
How do you feel about the lazy comparisons between your work and Lena’s?
It’s generally been quite positive, but apart from the fact we’re both female, from Brooklyn, with an open look at sexuality, there’s not really a lot of stuff which is similar. I’m flattered on one hand, but on the other hand I think it’s sexist. It’s just lazy – but it’s not an insult. It’s one of those weird things, like I just got another call from another place that’ll do an interview, and they were like “we read that you were outraged by these claims that you are like Lena Dunham”. Look, I’m not outraged, there are things that people could say which would outrage me; this is not outrageous. I think that what’s outrageous is that the press is setting a precedent that there’s no room for more than one woman whose work can be monetised – that’s outrageous. I think it’s sending quite a signal – like “watch out, this is the next one”, or she’s going to fail and crumble because there’s already a Lena Dunham. That’s ridiculous, I’ve never read about my male contemporaries that they’re the next Noah Baumbach.
I’ve also read about the Israeli Lena Dunham, the Mexican Lena Dunham, the South American Lena Dunham – we should start a Benetton commercial.
How do you feel about Appropriate Behaviour now that it’s out?
That’s a good question because I go through phases. After Sundance I was as high as a kite. I had finished the film at the beginning of the week that we premiered, so at the time I was crazed, and then I watched all the screenings and I was so happy, and relieved, and proud. Then, afterwards, I didn’t watch it for many months until the Sydney Film Festival, and I sat through it, and I was like, “that is the worst piece of shit I have ever seen, and I am humiliated”. Since then I haven’t watched it because I’ve just, like – I’ve seen snippets here and there, and I only see the flaws, and like, maybe because this is my last trip on the tour of publicising this film, but I’m starting to see what I liked about it again, and, yeah, I feel good.
Appropriate Behaviour is released in cinemas on 6th March by Peccadillo Pictures.