Kiri Inglis: Your character, Shirin, introduces herself in one scene as an “Iranian bisexual teacher”. Did you enjoy confronting those labels through comedy?
Desiree Akhavan: That’s the funny thing about being a minority times three, times whatever: everything that I’ve watched that is supposed to represent me seems to say that you’re no longer a human being when you’re a minority. That suddenly your life takes on greater or lesser meaning, whether you’re a victim or a villain, and to me I feel just as entitled as any other a**hole. That part of the film was to depict life really honestly, but also show that you’re a human being. Last night at a Q&A at the Curzon Soho, several audience members said they weren’t expecting my character to be so normal, like ‘you seem like a normal person, even though you’re gay and Iranian.’
D.A.: Yeah, whoa, what a concept! But that’s true, it’s really alienating to anyone that’s not gay. Most of the gay films seem to say ‘go away, this can’t be funny for you’ if you’re not part of this niche group. What’s funny is that technically I’m queer, but I don’t find any of those things funny, I don’t feel like I’m in on the joke, and I’m like, ‘what the f*** is wrong with me? I’m not straight, but I’m not gay enough.’ I feel the same way about Iranian films or humour; popular films from Iran lack a sense of humour. Maybe it’s not just films. Maybe I’m just talking about the depictions of Iranians that I see – I feel that’s not me. To me, APPROPRIATE BEHAVIOUR is about being an outsider, and that’s something I identify with very much in my life. I think a lot of people feel that way. It doesn’t matter what your label is, it’s really easy to feel left out.
K.I.: A lot of press have asked you about the experience of being an Iranian bisexual filmmaker. I’m interested in what it’s like to be questioned in that way.
D.A.: Only in the UK have I been asked about that. It feels like here they want to get to the satire element of the film, but in America they take it very genuinely – they’re like, ‘why are you so whiny?’ and ‘why isn’t Shirin more likeable?’ They also asked if I wanted to copy Lena Dunham, and if watching Girls influenced me to make this. I find this fascinating, because it’s not the way I see the film, and the conversations I’ve had here are the ways that my producing partner and I conceived of it together. We were very conscious of playing with stereotypes – this is something I feel UK audiences grasp a little bit better.
K.I.: Your film traverses the line between tragedy and comedy with real depth, but you manage to avoid dwelling too much on issues.
D.A.: Yeah, It’s not just a pity party.
K.I.: In the Death, Sex and Money podcast you said you were the only out Iranian you knew. Has that changed since you’ve made the film?
D.A.: Yes, I’ve had a lot of messages, and at screenings I meet a lot of people that say ‘I’m bisexual and Iranian,’ or ‘I’m an Iranian gay guy,’ and it is shocking to me how many there are. I’ve been travelling a lot and I don’t have time to make new friends right now, but I don’t have friends that can know that experience. I’ve been interviewed by Iranian lesbians, and interacted with them, and it’s so strange to me because there’s a whole world that I was completely blind to. I had some awareness, but I hadn’t been in it at all, but there are a lot of Iranian lesbians. I knew there would be a whole gay community in Iran, and outside of Iran in every country, displaced Iranians that left after the revolution. There’s a whole generation of people now who are reaching their 30s who were raised outside of Iran, but with Iranian parents. There’s Iranian Canadians, Iranian British people, they have the same displacement that I do. I haven’t had anyone in my life that I connected with on this or knew as I was growing up. Making the film has connected me to a much wider awareness of what’s out there, and I’m so curious to see what form that takes in my life. It’s so funny how alone you feel. I remember when I came out I kept calling to find out about support groups, I really felt like I needed a mentor, I really wanted to find an Iranian. That’s what I needed, someone who had been through it and could tell me that they’d lived through it. I remember feeling that craving so badly, and that’s partly why I wanted to make this film, because I wanted a public statement to say ‘this exists, there’s one person that has no shame!’
K.I.: What is relationship between The Slope and APPROPRIATE BEHAVIOUR?
D.A.: When I was doing the second season of The Slope I started writing the script for APPROPRIATE BEHAVIOUR, and my original concept was something for Ingrid and me to do together, and it was all about this couple. All the flashback scenes, for the most part, are between the two of them from that original script and haven’t really changed that much, including the New Year’s Eve scene, or Norooz (Persian New Year), and also the break-up. So it was this entire film about a couple falling in love and breaking up in the style of SCENES FROM A MARRIAGE. It was going to be one scene from every month of their year together. I was going to shoot it on my own with a budget of $5,000 – $10,000, and do everything myself but with Ingrid Jungermann, who is the co-creator of The Slope. Throughout the second season we realised we wanted to direct solo and it just wasn’t working. That’s when I sent the draft to my now producer, but she was just my best friend at the time who happened to produce in London. She said she thought she could do it with her production company, but she thought we should do it on a larger level, and if we could raise the budget then we could widen the scope of the script and do something different. She said, ‘keep these scenes, but I think you should write about your family, and where the character works, and ask what her life is after the break-up. Let’s change the focus to you, rather than that.’ The Slope was just about this team of superficial girls who were entitled and gay. That was the concept of the movie originally, an entitled gay person who was slightly homophobic and slightly rude and racist, and she’s ethnic, and that was the running joke –which works well for a web series, but not for a feature film. I had written all those scenes, but they didn’t fit chronologically any more, so then it became a process of realising how it was all going to fit together, and I saw that ANNIE HALL was a really good model for that. One really fed into the other, and it went from this two-person story to my story. This led to my development as a director. I started out co-directing, then I was directing on my own, which was a really important step for me creatively.
K.I.: One of my favourite things about the film is how it plays with time and memory, and how when you go through a break-up you’re constantly running over the same ground and drawing comparisons with then and now. This was most evident in the sex scene where Shirin picks up a guy from an Internet dating site, and there’s no real sexual chemistry, but then the flashback shows her having great sex with her ex-girlfriend. It’s an especially poignant edit that really captures the texture of memory.
D.A.: It was important to us that even the shots matched up, so when we went back in time it was a match on action, even the movement was the same, so you didn’t just have a close-up of her face that fades into her face in the past. That’s what it feels like. You’re in a moment and you’re lost in another moment, it’s so seamless when you’re mourning the loss of something. The end of a relationship is really a death, you do mourn it. It’s like when someone dies and you see them everywhere.
K.I.: Did the tone of the film fit with your original conception?
D.A.: Yes, but it was really hard to get right. This was our intention with the film. When we were editing it was brutal. I think tone is one of those things, especially with comedy, that you have to massage a little bit. It doesn’t sing until it sings. Before that it’s like an ugly awkward teenager. You just keep having to cut and move things around. I love filmmakers and artists who play with tone. Louis C. K. does that really well with his show Louis. He’s a comedian, but his work is heartbreaking – you can cry during an episode of Louis, even though it’s very funny and sometimes slapstick. I feel the same way about Noah Baumbach’s work to a certain extent. MARGOT AT THE WEDDING is really dismal, but very funny at times. I think Jack Black is perfectly cast, his character’s so absurd, but very funny. I feel this way about so many directors. MURIEL’S WEDDING to me is a perfect film that balances this tone of ridiculous absurd humour, mixed with the horrifying truth of the ugliness of family dynamics and feeling invisible and hopeless. If there’s any character I identify with it’s Muriel from MURIEL’S WEDDING.
K.I.: It’s an amazing depiction of alienation, while Muriel’s trying to attain acceptance and gets together with the swimmer and he’s just awful.
D.A.: Oh my god, and then I’m so glad that he changes and f***s her, I just love that that happens because it’s not ‘one note’. He’s so horrible, but then he shows this real warmth and that’s what I love about that film. There’s a film, and I won’t name it, but it’s a big film right now that I feel is like ‘the good people are good and the bad people are bad,’ and that really pisses me off. Everyone has a motivation creatively, and films show that really beautifully. The amazing thing about the specificity of tone is the grey area, rather than all funny or all drama. Nothing is truly funny unless it’s laced in sadness. Why do I give a sh*t about a two-second quip? If it’s actually telling me something deeper about life and alienation then that’s incredibly funny, that joke will stick to me.
K.I.: Life’s a grey area.
D.A.: Exactly, but films are not. They’re increasingly changing. I grew up watching television and movies where nothing was ever grey and I thought that I was crazy, but the more I got to talk to other people I realised that films don’t match life.
K.I.: Shirin is asked what the scene is like in Iran, and she says, “I spend most of my time in Iran watching Disney movies while my grandmother untangles jewellery.” How much of your own life have you brought to this film, and how has your family responded?
D.A.: I’m really close to my family and they know me really well. I’ve had enough years to humiliate them publicly, so they understand what I’m about and they’re supportive, so I’m very lucky in that respect. I also think they take it or leave it, if they weren’t on board they wouldn’t have a relationship with me at all. They have to embrace it or I wouldn’t have a family. The thing about being Iranian is that everyone comes in with a conception – just like I do when I meet someone that’s been raised in Iran, you have your stereotype of what that experience must be and what they must be, and it’s so funny but I wish I lived up to that. I wish that I could say that I’d had beautiful exotic experiences of the Orient that influence my work. I haven’t spent all that much time there, my experience of being Iranian has been second-hand. It’s influenced my life very deeply, but it’s second-hand from my parents, who know an Iran that doesn’t exist anymore. My nostalgia is for a pre-1979 Iran, and my Farsi is of that time too. I’ll talk to people in Farsi who have been raised in Iran now and they’re like, ‘you talk like an old person!’
K.I.: In terms of vernacular?
D.A.: Yeah, I’ll use the formal version of speaking, which is so emblematic to me of the bubble in which I was raised, so I basically come from an imaginary place. This place does not exist, it’s a weird hodgepodge of America seen through the eyes of immigrants.
K.I.: And Brooklyn offers another filter as well.
D.A.: Exactly, that’s not a real world. I think that as a human being I feel homeless in a lot of ways, and I always have. It’s funny, after making this film I’m literally homeless because I’ve been living out of a suitcase for a while and work’s just taken me all over, so I don’t have a place at the moment. I think that’s the search in my work and in me, that this year I’ve made that connection. I was always looking for a home and an identity and I didn’t find it in the queer community, I didn’t find it in the Iranian community, I haven’t found it in Brooklyn. I’m still searching, and I think my films will reflect that.
K.I.: Is there a future for Shirin in your films?
D.A.: I don’t think so, no. Shirin was Shirin. I think Shirin was Desiree in her 20s. I’ve written a pilot for a TV series for me to act in, but my next film does not have a role for me. The new TV show has a version of me, but it’s so different from Shirin, she’s very uptight, very ‘type A’, she’s just not at all that character. I think that this next character is me in my 30s, and all these fears I have going into my 30s. It questions ‘is the life you built the life you want?’ and examines that area of my life. Each story, each character is like opening a door, and I feel like I’ve spent Shirin.
K.I.: Exorcised her?
D.A.: Yeah! But that’s over, and that was what it was to be in that position. Now I’m moving forward and if I star in something again that’s very personal it would be so unlike Shirin. There would be a completely different set of questions and circumstances, because I would never want to repeat myself. That’s a real fear I have. Even though APPROPRIATE BEHAVIOUR is inspired by The Slope, it’s another step, it’s not the same thing. The characters in The Slope and the performance style were very broad, they were caricatures. Whereas Shirin did feel a little absurd, but like a real person. I didn’t feel insecure when we were shooting, I felt all the insecurity came in the editing room. That was when I was like, ‘what the f*** have I done?’ But relatively for the course of a film it was really tight. I started writing in January 2012 and we premiered at Sundance in January 2014, so the entire process was two years exactly. There was one year of writing and rewriting, we shot for 18 days, and then I was editing for three to four months, and I was mixing sound the week we premiered – thank god, because I would’ve gone crazy if I was living with this film for any longer!
K.I.: The film’s impact is more than the sum of its parts. I want to ask you about the music, I loved the soundtrack.
D.A.: I do too! Electrelane is one of my favourite bands and it was funny, we couldn’t figure out at first how to make it work financially because we had no money for music at all, so we kept trying to replace the two Electrelane tracks. Especially during that sex-scene montage, we tried so much music over that and nothing worked. It really screwed with my confidence. I’d rather have no sound at all than a track that was not going to work. Electrelane were really flexible and kind to us and helped match our budget. Josephine Wiggs, who’s British, from The Breeders, did our score and we were really lucky, a lot of it was found by my editor, who has incredible taste.
Desiree Akhavan will be joining us for a series of Q&As following APPROPRIATE BEHAVIOUR:
Arts Picturehouse, Cambridge: Thursday 5 March, 6.30
Hackney Picturehouse: Friday 6 March, 6.30
The Ritzy, Brixton: Friday 6 March, 9.00
Presented by Cinemania – tickets are just £4 for under-24s.
Appropriate Behaviour is released in cinemas on 6th March by Peccadillo Pictures