ND/NF Interview: Ana Lily Amirpour
A chador-clad vampire on a skateboard, the heroine of Ana Lily Amirpour’s A Girl Walks Home Alone at Night is as quietly defiant as the film’s title. Preying primarily on menacing misogynists, our protagonist (Sheila Vand) silently slinks through the shadowy streets of “Bad City,” a fictional Iranian ghost town, maintaining her own code of moral justice deep into the hours of darkness. But when she meets Arash (Arash Marandi), a down-and-out hipster who never seems to have a bad hair day, she finds her thirst for blood quenched by his companionship.
For a premise that might seem to guarantee all cult and no substance, A Girl Walks Home Alone at Night is one of the most intangibly entertaining art films to come along in a while. Part graphic novel, part Western, part David Lynch, with some film noir thrown in for good measure, it brings together a plethora of visual references to create something that’s much greater than the sum of its parts—and its parts, for the record, are indelibly memorable. Shot in sumptuous black and white, the film is as sweet as it is somber, as visually stylish as it is thematically weighty. Anything but just another vampire movie, A Girl Walks Home Alone at Night, establishes Amirpour as a spellbinding storyteller.
FILM COMMENT caught up with the English-born, Iranian-American writer-director to talk about her movie, which opens New Directors/New Films tonight at MoMA, and why filmmaking is like dancing naked.
The vampire genre has been explored in film time and time again, but your movie feels entirely fresh. Can you talk about the conception of the project and your relationship with the genre?
I don’t remember a time not loving vampires. I grew up reading Anne Rice. I think they’re one of the most interesting mythical characters out there. I put on a chador one day, which was a prop from another film, and I felt like a bat. That was the first time I thought of the idea for that character. Plus, there’s nothing sexier than a vampire. If a vampire showed up, I’d be like: “Do it: I want to live forever.” That’s my feeling about vampires.
You’ve created a graphic novel in conjunction with the film, and the image of the chador-clad vampire superhero—on a skateboard, no less—works as well on paper as she does on screen. Which came first?
I didn’t write the graphic novel and then decide to make a film out of it, which is the way most people assume it goes. Whenever I write any character for any script, I like to have all of the backstory and history and everything about the character. I was doing that for all of the characters in The Girl [Walks Home Alone at Night] so I had all of these awesome stories, like how she bought the poster of Elvis Presley when she saw him in Morocco, how she became a vampire in Iran, traveled all over Europe… Really cool stuff. Her origin story, how she gets depressed and goes out into the desert to kill herself but can’t do it.
Then sometime around postproduction I was talking about some comic books and graphic novels. More cerebral stuff like Charles Burns and Crumb—I’m not really a Marvel person. So I was like, I’ve got all of these stories, I want to do a comic book, and at that point I thought I’d just do the illustrations myself. And me and one of my producing partners were talking and he was like: “Well, we want to do a comic book,” and then it was like “Well, shit, let’s do it.” We did the first run, and we have two and three coming out next. I think we’re going to do six for the first book. It’s kind of a dream to get to do that.
Aesthetically, the film references and recalls so many genres and styles but manages to feel completely unique. Did this mark a big stylistic departure from your shorts? I’m especially curious about your decision to shoot in black and white.
I had never done anything in black and white, although I did do a short film of A Girl Walks Home Alone at Night which was just a five-minute short, no dialogue. It was just the girl killing one person—this was before I had the idea for the whole film. I thought of a girl in a chador and I thought of the whole character, and it felt very much like a graphic novel, just really surreal and weird. I just saw it in black and white, and I don’t even particularly like black-and-white films. Everything else I’ve done has been color or animation, and the next film I’m doing is color. But this just felt like it had to be black and white. There was never a time when I would have it in color. I think it creates a certain kind of surreal world.
The film is clearly making a comment about gender politics in Iran, but in a way it feels more personal than political. Were you setting out to make something political?
I personally am not setting out to make any comment about anything. She’s just a lonely girl who’s a vampire, and she’s trying to give meaning to what she does, so she tries to look for a moral quotient, like Dexter. It happens to be with guys that are misbehaving in the film, but if you see all of the stories that I wrote, it’s not always men. I don’t want to shut out any idea. I suppose that when you make a film, whether you set out to or not, you’re making observations. So it is some observation that you have about a person or a world or an idea that filters through your brain, and then the person playing the part and all of these people making the film. So I’m sure there are some conscious or subconscious ideas floating in there.
But it’s not Iran, it’s like a fairy tale world, it’s universal. It’s like any town where there’s corruption and there’s secrets and there’s loneliness and people that got dealt a shit hand. They’re searching for something in this loneliness. I mean, that’s what I am and that’s why I made the film. That’s all I really know. I don’t know how everyone else feels.
To me, it felt more personal than political, but the discourse following the premiere has commented otherwise.
It’s so hard for people to resist. But the thing is, I grew up in California. I went to the mall. I’m not on the front lines in Iran. You say “Iran” and it’s like, you can’t pass gas without it being political. If I fart, it’s political. [Laughs]. But I’m so detached from that stuff, but then on the other hand, everything is political. Romeo and Juliet was political, but really it’s just a love story. When you make a film, you will never know the experience of your own film. The making was the experience for me, and now I just want to know what other people think. It’s like dancing naked, you have no idea what you look like. I’m just trying to not be too hyper-conscious of the fact that I’m totally exposed—just trying to be into the music.
Speaking of which, the soundtrack for this film is phenomenal. What was your process for incorporating sound?
I just love music, man. Music is everything. The script for my next film, I had the soundtrack done before I finished the script. Music leads the way, and it’s such a big part of a film, it’s like the wind and the sails in a way. I had the music for this film when I was writing the script. Every single song you hear was there when I wrote the script. I knew a lot of those musicians, and the ones I didn’t know, I reached out to and got them on board well before shooting.
I was playing music on set, playing it in the room. Every scene where a song is, it was played. It sets the tone and the pace for everyone involved: the production design, the actors, cinematography, editing. It’s so powerful. It’s the shit! I really trip out that it’s not more common for people to do that when making a film. It’s like building a jet engine. It’s useless if you don’t put gas in it. I love it.
It seems appropriate that Elijah Wood was your producer—I’m thinking of that vampire segment he did with Oliver Assayas in Paris je t’aime. How did you team up with him?
Yeah, that was one of my favorite bits in that. It’s funny you brought that up. The film was already in motion and we were trying to raise money. I had the script and I had the short and had the cast at that point, so it was pretty packaged when he got on board. He saw the short and loved it. He saw it through a very good friend of mine, and they had mentioned something about the film and he said: “That sounds insane, I want to read the script.” So I sent him the script and he read it and he was just about to announce his company he started which was doing art-house, kind of elevated-genre films. This was very much his MO of what he wanted to do.
It’s crazy—I was telling my Mom at that time: “You know, Mom, no matter what they say, Elijah Wood is producing my Iranian vampire Western film.” That right there is what makes America America. No one else can say that. This is a great country where anything can happen if you just shoot for the moon.
The scene where the vampire and Arash go on a date and he pierces her ears is one of my favorite in the film.
I don’t know where this stuff comes from, man. I’m just nuts. I just want someone to pierce my ears at a power plant.
Don’t we all?
[Laughs] Yeah, in one manifestation or another, it’s like: “Mark me, brand me, show me the way, make me right.” There’s something so sweet too about her wanting him to make her do this thing that’s so normal. It’s a fun date. I love it.
The cat in this film is an exceptional actor. I remember you talking about it at your Q&A at Sundance.
The cat is a gangster! The gangster star in the movie. I was so worried that this was going to be the hardest part. It was Sina’s cat, my producer. Really early on I was auditioning other cats, and he was like, why don’t you give my cat a shot? And I was like, he’s too fat, he’s not right, he’s not good-looking enough. And then I met him and he was really good, so calm, so chill—he behaves like a dog almost. And then we did some tests and I thought, OK, he’s the cat, but then he was just beyond. In some scenes he would just be like: “No, no, this is what we’re doing.” He was always awesome, always doing something special. He had great ideas. It’s so weird to say that. He’d just be like: “No coverage, no cutting, one shot, let’s just do it like this.”
Good thing you didn’t discriminate based on looks.
Yeah, looks and weight—what a shitty attitude, it’s so L.A.! [Laughs]
Were you expecting the film to be such a success? First at Sundance, and now onto New Directors?
People have been giving it mad love. I just hope a lot of people get to see it. Sundance really got it, and I feel really fortunate. I really want it to be in a movie theater for a few weeks. I shot it in CinemaScope and for people to see it. If I hadn’t, I wouldn’t be as hell-bent on that and be fine with VOD.
For more information about A Girl Walks Home Alone at Night, see the New Directors/New Films website.