Writer/director Ana Lily Amirpour talks David Lynch, Lars von Trier, music, and mega-badasses [INTERVIEW] [SUNDANCE]

The first thing Ana Lily Amirpour said to me after being introduced to her was, “Wanna see my head wound?” A few days earlier, she had slipped on some ice at Sundance and bashed her head on a railing, requiring 35 stitches. If you can injure yourself that easily when you first feature film is premiering at one of the most renowned film festival in the world, the best way to avoid embarrassment is to own that moment of being less than graceful and tell everyone you see about it. Although, based on her attitude at a panel I saw earlier that day about genre filmmakers, I get the impression that Amirpour would’ve shown her head wound to people no matter where she got the injury. That morning, I went to hear directors Gareth Evans (The Raid: Redemption) and Adam Wingard (You’re Next) talk about working off the beaten path with genre filmmaking. I hadn’t seen Amirpour’s film, A Girl Walks Home Alone at Night, at this point so I had no idea who she was. When she walked out wearing a t-shirt with a giant picture of David Lynch’s face plastered across it and went on to compare filmmaking to being a giant orgy, also while mention that her parents were in the audience, I couldn’t wait for the chance to talk to her.

Despite hearing some interesting things at the panel on genre filmmaking, I got really frustrated when the question was asked about making films for a specific genre. Clearly these are filmmakers who are making films they love, regardless of how other people might classify them, but by pigeonholing them into a specific genre, they are limiting not only their own creativity but also manipulating the expectations of the audience. A Girl Walks Home Alone at Night is regularly being described as an “Iranian vampire western” and Ana Lily has been called a “female genre filmmaker”. I think more accurate descriptions would be that AGWHAaN is a story that was shot in California but set in Iran about lonely people finding connections with people in the world around them and that Ana Lily is, well, a filmmaker who happens to have two X chromosomes. She’s also a dancer, a musician, an artist, likes to skateboard, and happens to have 35 stitches in her head. The following interview was supposed to be 10 minutes, but it ended up being closer to 45 minutes and took place sitting on the ground outside of a screen showing The Nut Job. Yes, there WERE children running past us throughout most of our conversation.

AnaLilyAmirpour-byJasonBedient

WolfMan: Between the panel that you were on this morning and from the film’s Q & A is that you like talking about the things that you liked. When it comes to talking about your movie, you obviously love talking about it, but since you love talking about your influences, I wondered what’s your favorite thing that David Lynch has made?

Ana Lily Armirpour: UGGGH I love David Lynch. He wrote “Lynch on Lynch”, which is interviews with him, going along with each film. There are interviews around Blue Velvet and Eraserhead, all of his films. That fucking book is the most gangster-ass, best book on filmmaking…not just on filmmaking though. On life. The dude…just who he is. You can only speak intelligently about the shit that fascinates you, really when you come down to it. I really just love him. I loooooove Lost Highway. It just fucks me up and sucks me in. Going down that hallway, when it flips…from Bill Pullman to Balthazar Getty…it’s just such a headtrip. His films are such a headtrip. I love all the weird shit, like in Wild at Heart, and Bobby Peru. I just love the creeps. This character in my film (Saeed), I just love him. People think he’s a bad guy. Variety described him as a misogynist…and I’m going to preface it by saying that they loved the movie, so it’s just interesting. What you are defines what you think these things are. To me, I love the gangsters. They’re like the juice. It’s like there’s always a bunny and a tiger in a room, that’s just the juice. You know what’s going to happen. It’s like, yeah okay, Saeed thinks he’s the tiger and she’s the bunny but really she’s the tiger and he’s the bunny. That’s like Sergio Leone and all the westerns, and I think Lynch does it to. Lars (von Trier) is cool too, I love him. His thing’s different. I loved Antichrist. I loved it. It’s probably one of my top five favorite movies. The feeling of fear and anxiety.

WM: The ideas in Antichrist and how the world is an evil place where good things sometimes happen as opposed to a good place where sometimes evil happens, that’s just superseded any sort of message in film or art, it’s how you can approach life.

ALA: And then you’re not safe. Suddenly it’s all not safe and you have to question every fucking thing.

WM: It’s funny that you mentioned Antichrist, because going along with David Lynch, I only saw Eraserhead on the big screen a few months ago. Those two films are two films that I can respect and admire but never want to see again. The theatrical experience of Eraserhead is such an onslaught to your senses. It just shatters and shakes you. So, mission accomplished for having that much of an impact on someone, but it’s not fun to watch when you can’t look away.

ALA: Yeah, I’m with you. Eraserhead is weird because all of the other Lynch films I can watch over and over again, and Eraserhead I can’t actually watch again. My top five favorite filmmakers are Lynch, von Trier, (Quentin) Tarantino, (Robert) Zemeckis and (Steven) Soderbergh. It’s a really weird mix of really hyper-commercial Hollywood shit to the weird and dark. Lynch and von Trier, I think it’s the senses. They, in a cinema experience…Gaspar Noé can do it to, where you feel all wound up and it just gets under your skin. Did you see Enter the Void?

WM: No, I didn’t.

ALA: That’s a siezure maker right there.

WM: I’m a terrible person. I’ve seen Irreversible, but not Enter the Void.

ALA: Irreversible, that scene…anything with rape in it, I’ll just watch. (laughs) I hear the word “rape” and I’m like, “Damn, I wanna see that movie.” I wanna see that Kate Bosworth rape movie. I don’t know what it’s called, but I know she gets raped in it.

WM: Wasn’t that Blue Crush?

ALA: (laughs) No, she didn’t get raped in that. It was a remake of a really good movie…

WM: Superman Returns?

ALA: (laughs) Yeah, that’s what it was.

a girl walks home alone at night shiela vand

Shiela Vand in A Girl Walks Home Alone at Night

WM: Music is another thing that you mentioned, something that you’re so crazy into. You said you had almost three hours worth of music that you wanted to incorporate into your movie. What kind of music were you cutting from the movie? My favorite scenes in your films were when The Girl was just alone in her room putting on synth-pop. Those shots could have gone on for another two or three minutes if it meant I got to hear more music. What did you cut?

ALA: There was soooo much more, it was really long. There was way more spaghetti western stuff, more Federale stuff. Their stuff is amazing. White Lies is a big, big group, but the rest of the music was just small, independent people, so I love the idea of the soundtrack being out, which we will put out eventually.

WM: When that topic came up during the panel this morning and the importance of the music in film, I love seeing this resurgence of a film’s score being something that people want to get. Not necessarily like back in the 90’s where you just got the popular musicians of the time to contribute singles, but filmmakers are putting more effort into what people are hearing and the fans connect with that. Death Waltz records is getting the scores from all these older films to release.

ALA: It’s cool to have many ways to give people something.

A-Girl-Walks-Home-Alone-At-Night-Comic-Book

The film was also turned into a comic book by Radco

WM: One of the things that piqued my interest in your film is that it’s billed as a female Iranian vampire movie and that evokes things in everybody in a slightly different way. How do YOU sell your movie? Do you sell it as a love story or just about someone trying to find connections to other people?

ALA: I’m really lonely so when I see the film…it’s weird, because you never truly experience your own film. The making part is so great because it’s not lonely, because all these people are with you to help you do what you want to do, so that’s really cool. When I watched it, when we first started trying to cut it down to what it was going to be, I realized I was kind of romantic and believe in love, despite knowing it might not be practical or going to last, but I’m romantic. Before I saw it, I was lonely. I love life and I’m really good at having a good time, because I think that’s important, and it’s about a vampire . I hate death. I’m not one of these people who is at peace with the whole cycle of life thing. I think we should figure it out, nano-technology or whatever, cut it out, and stay here. Other people say, “But yeah, there’s something else,” and I say, “How the fuck do you know there’s something else? THIS is cool. This pink neon hallway, talking to you, I like THIS. Let’s do THIS.” And aging? Decaying in your own body? Yuck. Fuck, man. It terrifies me, really. So I’m just saying, I really enjoy life, and I’m extremely lonely, and I think that’s what all the characters in the film are to me. It’s weird, nobody thinks the shit you think. That’s why movies are so great because we can all come together.

WM: And movies can all evoke so many different things. Like the guy in the audience who asked what you were trying to say with the movie. You made a movie, had to go through the journey of making it, even if you never watch it, what YOU are taking away is the experience of making it. It’s interesting that you bring that up that you feel lonely is that the film felt autobiographical. The Girl looks similar to you.

ALA: Shiela (Vand) and I were joking, because my hair’s really short and her hair has grown out and she was saying how she thought everyone would think that I wrote and directed and edited and starred in it. She was saying I should have cut my hair! (laughs)

WM: It felt like there was more emotional vampirism going on in the film, that it was just about trying to find connections.

ALA: They’re the loneliest. They’re like a serial killer and like a romantic. They are destructive and soft and gentle at the same time. Sometimes I think I’m very self destructive and nice at the same time.

WM: When I do find vampire movies that I like, they emphasize how these characters are going to be what they are and what they look like forever. These are movies that are full of characters who aren’t trying to destroy the universe or whatever, they’re just trying to sustain their life because they’re stuck with it. Whether it be finding connections with other people, or–

ALA: Finding a skateboard.

WM: Or finding a skateboard and riding around. Or sucking blood out of jerks when they’re acting like jerks. Those are the good vampires.

ALA: It’s weird too, because, somebody said something to me about how The Girl is avenging the prostitute and protecting the prostitutes, and it’s funny, because I think prostitution is cool. I’ve got no problem with it. I got invited to do a women in film panel and I said no. I’m afraid of all that stuff. People ask questions that they know what they want you to answer.

WM: Right, they want you to speak on behalf of all female directors.

ALA: I’m a female director, and I think it’s just as arbitrary as being a director from Ohio. I can’t speak to what it’s like to be a female director. I’m other things. What if you’re a director whose dad beat you? What about those directors? There should just be a panel for directors who were abused as children. You know?

WM: Because that would make just as much sense to group directors together like that. “This director was born with these chromosomes so let’s get them on a panel to talk what that’s like.”

ALA: It’s fine though. I was afraid of that panel. This morning’s panel, those dudes, it was just movies.

The conversation went back towards Lars von Trier.

ALA: Wait until you see Nymphomaniac.

WM: You’re not allowed to like him.

ALA: I love him.

WM: Well he’s a misogynist and you’re a lady so you’re not allowed to love him.

ALA: If I ever see him, I’m just going to run and jump on him like a monkey. I don’t think I’d be able to repress it. (laughs)

WM: I feel like you would be scared to say that you love von Trier, just because so many people have this set image of him and who he is and think he’s a misogynist.

ALA: Is he? I don’t think he is.

WM: Well with Antichrist, a lot of people interpreted it as him saying women are the root of all that’s evil. Then there were the comments doing press for Melancholia where the press got it twisted all around, which didn’t help his public image.

ALA: I saw that and I feel like I get the whole thing. This Larry David kind of thing.

WM: Can we get THAT on HBO? Curb Your Enthusiasm starring Lars von Trier?

ALA: I’m gonna tweet that. (laughs) It’s such a fucking carnival, opening weekend and talking to so many people.

The conversation then went towards Harmony Korine.

WM: One of my favorite movies of last year was Spring Breakers. How awesome was Spring Breakers?

ALA: I loved it. I love Alien. I finished my film right around the time that came out, and it was like, dude, Alien is like Saeed. This ultimate mega gansgter who loves his shit. Saeed loves tigers. He has a tiger tattooed on his stomach, his watch is a tiger, his heroin bags have tigers, he loves tigers. A tiger keychain. He loves his fucking shit. He comes home, he puts on music. I love a mega gangster. I was wondering that too, is it just because I’m a girl and the girl gets him? I bet nobody asked Harmony Korine if he was vilifying or glorifying gangsters, right? Alien’s not a bad guy? Would anyone ever ask Harmony that? I thought Alien was amazing. It was the first time I really loved James Franco.

WM: Everybody who I recommended the movie too, I told them that they might not like the first 40 minutes, but once James Franco shows up, I dare people to not love every scene that he’s in.

ALA: When he dies, I was so, so sad. It was like in No Country for Old Men when Llewellyn dies. Now I’m stuck with old Tommy Lee Jones. (laughs)

WM: Stupid old Tommy Lee Jones.

ALA: FUCK man.

WM: It sucks.

ALA: Chigurh was cool though.

WM: You mentioned Die Antwoord–

ALA: UGH, I LOVE Ninja. I’m obsessed with them. He was my muse for Saeed.

WM: That’s what I thought. I have only seen a picture or two of Ninja and I sat there thinking it was actually him, that there wasn’t some other guy with shitty scratched in tattoos.

ALA: We made our own tattoos, based on who Saeed was, and Dom (Dominic Rains), the actor, wanted to put into it. The one thing is that if you look that intense, the hair, the tattoos, the tooth, and all this shit, it’s easy to feel like a mega bad guy and get really gnarly and become just bad. I told Dom to watch all ten seasons of Friends and that Saeed loves Friends and that Ross is his favorite character. He was like watching Friends all during pre-production.

WM: The scenes where Saeed’s not talking, you could have easily thrown out gangster phrases but it wouldn’t have felt like a real person. It’s those moments when he’s not talking or starts dancing around when you realize he’s a real guy. So Ninja was a partial inspiration?

ALA: I want to put Die Antwoord’s music in my next movie. I almost have the soundtrack complete for my next movie.

die antwoord

WM: How often does a new song pop up that you instantly know that it’s going to be in one of your movies and that you visual the shots or the sequence?

ALA: It really does have that kind of specificity and power. Once you start knowing what the thing is that you want to do while you’re writing, I think you start listening to certain music with that in mind.

WM: When it comes to music, can you turn it off? Because music you listen to while making a movie will make you want to incorporate that song?

ALA: It’s a huge, huge, majorly important thing that guides the way. That guy in the Q & A was asking about storyboarding and I think the music is even more of a storyboard. It affects the pace. When Arash comes up behind her, I always wanted White Lies to be playing.

WM: As soon as he entered the shot, I was disappointed, because I knew he was going to make contact with her and I knew the shot was going to be that much closer to being over. I wanted you to leave it on her as long as you could.

ALA: Really?! (laughs) I’m so glad to hear you say that.

WM: That’s just me. I’ve been into Nicolas Winding Refn stuff lately, the super-slow paced–

ALA: Yeah! Did you see Only God Forgives?

EM: Yeah, I loved it.

ALA: Me too! I fucking loved it. She’s (Kristin Scott Thomas) an awesome super mega gangster. And yeah, you hate her, she’s wicked. She’s just the fucking mother.

WM: The music, who was it, Cliff Martinez did the soundtrack? That was amazing.

ALA: So sick. And when he sticks his hands…yeah, I mean it’s just the bar gets set high, and Refn seemed to handle it well. That movie just got slammed.

WM: He just seems to be a really polarizing force. Just like von Trier, just like Lynch. I’d rather have people passionately hate something or passionately love something.

ALA: What’s your favorite Lynch movie?

WM: Probably Lost Highway. I like the stuff that walks the line between surreal and a linear narrative. Lost Highway and Mulholland Drive. Blue Velvet is a little too linear and not weird enough, and then Eraserhead is too weird.

ALA: Eraserhead is amazing. And even Elephant Man is a trip. It’s such a trip.

WM: Twin Peaks is my favorite, even more than his movies.

ALA: I need to watch it again. It was years ago and someone said I should just watch the whole thing again from the beginning. Maybe next week because I’m not going to do anything. I’m just going to sit in a blanket. Would you know I watched Mulholland Drive 23 times before I got it? I love Lynch and I saw it and the movie would end and I just couldn’t tell you a single thing. I just remember some girl-on-girl thing. 23 times. To me, it’s like everything at once, all the time. Naomi Watts is everything in the movie. I thought I should teach a class on that film.

WM: I think it was the third time that I saw Only God Forgives that when I walked out with a friend, they asked me what I thought was going on, and I still didn’t have an answer for them. I didn’t think I needed to know to be able to love it and appreciate it and even if I think what had happened was different from what everyone else thought had happened.

ALA: When I was in film school, I was around all these people, and these people in film school are funny. I watched Citizen Kane for this critical studies class. I fucking hate that movie, it sucks. I’m bored. I didn’t understand why we had to study that movie. When Mulholland Drive came out, and people were talking about it, I felt ashamed because I agreed with things people were saying about it without understanding it. I wasn’t going to be the person to not understand it.

WM: Have you seen Possession? Zulawski?

ALA: No, is it new?

WM: I wanna say it’s from ’81.

ALA: Is it good?

WM: It’s…fucking NUTS. Sam Neill is in it, a young Sam Neill. Zulawski wrote and directed it while going through his divorce and it’s about a couple going through a divorce. I’ve never been through a divorce, but the shit they’re going through on-screen is so emotionally intense. And then halfway through the movie, Sam Neill goes to check out his wife, because they’re separated, and finds a squid creature in his wife’s bedroom. The first hour is completely an emotional drama, almost a melodrama, and then out of nowhere, there’s a squid monster.

ALA: Is that his wife?

WM: No, that’s his wife’s, like, “new man” is this squid monster.

ALA: What?! That sounds crazy. Is it scary?

WM: It’s scary in just how crazy it is. Like a David Lynch movie. And the actress who was in it (Isabelle Adjani) said she’d never do a movie like that ever again because of how intense it was. There’s a scene in this movie where a woman has a miscarriage in a subway tunnel, so for a full five minutes she’s just rolling around on the ground in agony, screaming, with fluids coming out of every one of his orifices. It’s nuts.

ALA: I gotta see it. That just reminded me of Polanski. You said that and I started thinking about Repulsion and Rosemary’s Baby. Do you think Lars von Trier is a misogynist? That’s absurd.

WM: No, if he’s a misogynist then Charlotte Gainsbourg is a misogynist.

ALA: And I’m a misogynist.

WM: I’ve seen the footage of the press conference at Cannes and it’s so obvious how awkward the situation was when there are so many people from so many different countries speaking all these different languages, trying to make a joke in a language that isn’t his native language, and he just keeps digging himself deeper.

ALA: And I’m obsessed with him so I watch all the interviews and all the DVD features and he’s like this sweet, cuddly, soft-spoken man. I think he just got a lot of shit that he’s got to get out.

WM: All of the emotional issues he’s gone through. Was it Antichrist when he was coping with depression? Have you seen the bumpers he’s done for the Drafthouse theaters in Texas?

ALA: No, but I want to go to Fantastic Fest.

WM: They have bumpers and one is Lars von Trier in the theater and the person next to him to quiet down because they’re on their cell phone and they don’t listen to him so he bashes their head in with a hammer. It’s this funny thing because it’s Lars von Trier being goofy and has this sense of humor.

ALA: He totally does. And when you see Nymphomaniac…at the premiere, everyone was smiling from ear to ear, it’s so funny. I mean I know the second half, shit’s going to get gnarly.

WM: Wasn’t it originally going to be a four hour movie?

ALA: It’s like his Lord of the Rings.

WM: Except a LITTLE bit sexier. A little bit.

ALA: It is sexy though, but it’s weird. It’s von Trier. It’s visually so cool. It’s so good, dude. It was so, so, so good.

a girl walks home alone at night shiela vand makeup

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