Desiree Akhavan’s Appropriate Behavior is a very funny comedy about a relationship breakdown and the need to move on, starring Akhavan, who also wrote the film. It focuses on a lesbian relationship told through flashbacks, mirroring the structure of films like Annie Hall. Our review of the film can be read here. We caught up with Desiree when she was in Sydney last week.
I just wanted to start off by saying that while I think that sucking up to a film often makes for a really boring interview, I really enjoyed your film and so did our entire staff of writers.
Oh god, thank you, that’s incredibly sweet. It’s watery sorry, (dabs her plate with a napkin) it’s a really weird thing to do right now. You know when you get poached eggs and the entire plate gets covered with water? It’s weird. But that means a lot to me. I think its very regional what people respond to. But I feel a kinship with Australians.
Do you know many Australians?
No I don’t know any, but I’m meeting a lot this week. I haven’t known any in my life, but I really loved the film Muriel’s Wedding and all my friends know it’s my favorite film. I really like P.J. Hogan and I remember reading this really great interview with him about the making of the film, and it was just so hard to make and such an underdog story and then it was a hit at Cannes and it got sold to Miramax. I was just such a rag to riches story with them and I was so inspired by that. And I kept reading that interview while I was making my film, to keep going. I thought, if that was a hard film to make and no one wanted to tell that story then maybe there’s some merit to pushing through.
Definitely, and especially with a film like yours, when it does add something new to the discussion. What was the hardest thing about making the film?
Oh god, let me think. It’d probably be the editing process. It was really easy to feel disheartened working with your dailies and feeling as if you were losing sight of your idea for the film at times.
Did you edit the film?
No but I was there with the editor working on it.
What struck me most about this film is your voice, which I think is unique but also very strong, and very clear for a debut feature. What was the process of finding that as a filmmaker? Was it something you consciously worked on or did you stumble upon it. Even in your previous work such as The Slope and in your shorts, I felt as if that voice was already so developed.
I think the thing I’m always trying to work on actively is technique. But in terms of point of view or voice, I think that’s what every person brings to the table, their view of the world. And I think I happen to have a distinct one? I dunno if that’s the case. This is just the way I talk and the way I view the world. What you’re really trying to develop when you go to film school and when you met other filmmakers is how do you communicate that? I think I always had this voice, but it was a matter of whittling it down and being able to do a good job of showing that to other people. When I started film school, I definitely had a point of view, but in my work, I kept imitating other people and trying really hard to do it the way I’d seen other people do it and it just became a matter of allowing myself to do the things I wanted to do. And speak the way I felt. But it really is going out on a limb because you could be a complete idiot. That’s the thing, when you’re imitating someone, there’s at least that –
Exactly. There’s not a lot of safety with this film. When things don’t play well to a room you feel it. It can play really badly. I’ve had other films that have played badly to rooms and you can hear people rustling and not feeling comfortable and that’s the worst feeling in the world.
On the idea of going out on a limb with a film and doing something different, what is it that helps you in that situation, in communicating what you’re trying to say?
I think it just comes down to a sense of security with your team and in the script you write. It’s all about confidence. Technique plays out in having the experience of having made things before. Especially when you’re acting and directing at the same time. That’s something I did a lot during the web series, without which I’d be way in over my head. Because self-doubt is the thing that will fuck you over.
You just touched on the idea of writing and acting, but also you directed this film. Which one comes to you first?
I started acting, I really wanted to act as a kid. But writing is where I feel most at home, its what I have the most experience doing.
I think its interesting because now you’re acting and only acting on the next season of Girls.
I’d never done that professionally for someone else. I’d never even just done acting in a student film. But when you’re acting for your own film and if you fuck it up, you can save it. It’s your fucked up thing to look at.
I also wanted to acknowledge the fact that when I was doing research, I couldn’t help but notice that most interviewers-
-ask the exact same questions?
Yes, and that every article is titled ‘The New Lena Dunham”. I cringed when I brought up Girls because I so vehemently wanted to avoid drawing that comparison and framing your work through that.
Thank you! It’s funny because for the past 6 months I’ve had the same conversation with different people, but I have been having really different conversations in Australia, which is surprising and nice.
I feel as if I have to make the title of this interview ‘The New Lena-Dunham” now. Even though people won’t really get the irony of it.
(laughs) It would just be a joke between the two of us.
You mentioned before the idea of collaboration. Is that something you encourage on set, with the writing, directing, acting? Do the actors improvise?
I don’t cast until I finish the script. But once I cast, there were a few scenes that were changed a little. I think you work with the people you have, the locations you have, the budget you have, you work within those means. And you work with the cast you have, and they end up making the character so much better because they understand it in a way that you never will. I didn’t have time to improvise, we maybe had one scene that we did a few takes and we played around but I didn’t use any of that. So I didn’t have that experience of improvising for this film. But the actors did bring a lot to the table and I did speak to them a lot and encouraged them to change lines to suit them. I think they all bring a lot to the table and to their characters, but we did stick pretty closely to the script.
With the writing process then, do you try to keep that to yourself? Do you have a go to person or people to get input?
Yep. My producer Cecilia. She’s my heart. She’s my soul sister. I have no words for it. I’ve never had that relationship with a person, I just trust her so deeply. And she has incredible taste.
Which is crucial for a producer.
That’s what’s so funny. I take credit for so many of the things that she brought to this project. And she’s the person I write for. I write to please her. I write to make her laugh. She knows me and what talents I bring to the table better than I know, and when she gives me a note, it’s the best enhancement of what I fart out. And she’s able to whittle it and say no, lets go in this and this direction so without her, I would be in a very different position and I don’t know how I’d be doing it.
It’s interesting to hear what a really close, personal relationship you have with your producer, and feeds into my question of how did you go about getting this film made and financed?
That was just all Cecilia and her company Parkville Pictures. They raised the funds through private equity. But to be honest with you, I wasn’t a part of that conversation. But I think it was about the reputation I had built with the web series and the reputation they were building in the UK with their work. So it was a happy marriage of the two. And it was a modest investment. It wasn’t until The Slope started getting some positive press in the Guardian that she was able to sell her company on the idea. That first draft was nothing – the only scene that remained was the New Year’s Eve scene. The one where Shirin and Maxine first meet.
I thought you meant the Persian New Year. But on that topic, the thing that jumped out for me personally, were the family scenes that dealt with race in such a nuanced and refreshing way. Are they reflective of your own family dynamic? I only ask because I’m aware that the film is very personal.
Yes and no. I think a lot of that shifted with the casting. The woman who plays the mother, Anh Duong, she’s an artist and she’s very intimidating. And my mother’s a beautiful woman, but she’s not as austere. It was a real challenge, I really wanted Persian actors. Anh isn’t, but Hooman (Majd) who plays the father and Arian (Moayed) who plays the brother, we wanted a little bit of Farsi in the film. So when I met them it shifted a lot of the dynamics of how I wanted to shoot them. And I think that, the brother is very similar to my brother, in terms of his comedic tone and his tough love attitude. And I really love that about him. My brother and I are very close and he’s a very warm guy, but he’s the warmest cold guy ever. But it ended up being more about the resources I had on hand, and the people that I had met, that I had rather than just making it like my family. Which its not, my family is – I don’t know. Less formal.
These great scenes, like the family meeting Ali’s girlfriend the plastic surgeon, and when the family move Shirin into her new apartment, weren’t just “farted out” like you said before. Was there any research that you had to do to refine what the story was, or was it just all based off your personal experiences?
I’ve had 29 years of research. I think it’s about finding a way to depict something but not being mean-spirited about it. There are a lot of things about my community that I find absurd, but I also really have affection and love for and I hope that communicates. I would never want my family to be the butt of a joke. But I also know that there are a lot of things to be depicted, there’s a lot of ugly truths that we don’t face. The work that I gravitate towards is more comical. And it deals with difficult subject matter, but with a really light touch. And that’s what I wanted to do. And I was always more seduced into learning about marginalised communities when they have a sense of humour about themselves.
You bring up the idea of tending toward the comedic, and that definitely shows in Appropriate Behaviour and in The Slope, but I just watched your short Nosejob which definitely leant more towards being a drama.
Yeah and I think that’s what’s wrong with that. I think that was a real difficult moment for me and a real good failure. I learned a lot from that experience of making that film, it’s funny that it’s online on the NYU website. It’s been up forever and it’s too late to take it down, but it’s not something I’d share personally. I see it as kind of a failure.
I really enjoyed it.
I’m sorry I enjoyed it!
(laughs) It’s a first film. There are positive elements to it. But it was definitely something where I was like, that’s one of the things when you’re trying to find your voice. And I think I was trying to make the kind of short film that does well; that is far more serious. I think I victimized the lead a lot.
It definitely seemed as if it was trying to make more of a statement. Do you ever think you’ll try to create something primarily dramatic in the near future?
I don’t think so. Films that I love are just always genuine and I think I’m a genuinely not serious person (laughs). And I think that’s where I went wrong with that, that it was just not my wheelhouse. When I was making it I was trying to make it funny but then it just got so heavy. It has a weight to it, that I don’t think it needs.
So I’ve touched on the representation of race in the film, but also evidently queer identity is a big part of this film but also dealt with in a slightly irreverent way, similarly to how you deal with Persian culture and family. Did you want to make any political comment in the film, on queer culture or on race?
No. Not at all. I think it inherently does. The minute you start talking about that subject matter, its inherently political. So I have strong political beliefs, but I don’t have an agenda. I never felt a part of the Persian community, I never felt a part of the gay community. And being Persian and being gay are two things that have affected my life dramatically, but they’re not homes that I’ve ever identified with personally. That said, I feel a lot of affection and love, so it’s a very strange push-pull, love-hate relationship I have. Also with women’s issues, with all these things. The people who tend to love the film, at least in the states, have been 30-45 year old men, straight men. Maybe they’re the only ones who have the bravado to come up to me and say ‘Hey I loved your film’, but those are the people who contact me and who I speak with, and on a business level the people who have supported me. I have not received that kind of love and affection from women’s organisations, or grants. I just don’t think I fit the mould of what you want for your Persian grant, or your women’s grant or your gay grant. Well that said, we got a great gay grant that I’m really proud of, from a LGBT film festival called Frameline. I think that’s the one thing that unites a lot of people is that they feel like they don’t have a home. That they’ve never walked into a room and felt that instant, ‘Oh I have a clique now, I have a group of people, these are my people, this is the aesthetic I love, this is that I love’. And I feel like most people find that in pockets of their life. So I think it’s about late bloomers who are loners, and haven’t found their footing. When you are a minority of any sort, you’re automatically thought of as ‘Oh, well you have that community and you have each other’.
Also people would assume that identifying as Iranian and as queer means that you have both these communities but-
They’re totally contradictory. There’s also an implication that you all subscribe to the same beliefs and that is never the case.
I agree with that, and obviously it’s not the case for everyone. And I think that’s where the film is successful, in placing these very political issues firmly in the personal, and also making it really comfortable and humorous but also sincere. That’s probably why all of our staff enjoyed it.
That’s really nice to hear. I think that’s rare though. I don’t think I’ll hear this again. I appreciate that you’re saying this because I don’t think that will be the case everywhere.
I’m beginning to see why you thought you’d have a kinship with Australians, because we have a really strong queer, and multicultural community. But it’s very polarised. We have a very strong political community that you’d see hosting and attending rallies, but also a community that is a bit more counterculture and irreverent. So you’ve said that you didn’t make a conscious effort to be political in the film, but do you consider your film queer cinema? Also what do you think about that label in general. And I mean personally, I by no means expect you to have a definitive answer to this question.
I think personally, for myself and every other gay person I know, from the minute I came out, the minute I fell in love with a woman seriously for the first time, I sought out films that had gay themes like never before. And I felt this crazy urge to see my story in movies. I had never felt that way before, that I felt so invisible and that what I was doing was so crazy, and I really didn’t want to feel alone in that. And every time I’d see a narrative about two women in love, I would feel so much comfort. It’s so powerful to humanise someone. And that’s what Muriel’s Wedding did for me, and it humanised a complete loser who lied obsessively. And when I see Persians in film, which never happens. I’m just trying to think of a case of Middle Easterns in film that weren’t terrorists, or complete victims and I can’t think of an example right now, but if I had seen that, it would have humanised that for me and I would’ve felt less like a monkey. But queer cinema was really important for that reason, and also on the flip side, it also humanises it for straight people, who need to have that experience of feeling real empathy for a gay couple. I think a queer film is one that humanises a gay experience. The end.
Your film is autobiographical, and because it mocks a lot of the characters in the film, did you find it difficult to put so much of yourself into it on screen? But also to have it be so personal, how did affect how you poke fun of Shirin and particular situations?
From the minute we got greenlit, I viewed it really differently. And the minute I knew I was gonna act in this and we were going to do it, something shifted for me, and it really became a character. The scenes didn’t take place in life, so its not autobiographical in the sense that I put up everything that was happening. I was facing a break-up and I had come out, and those were experiences that were incredibly personal and I wanted to create a narrative that reflected that. But when I was watching it, I watched it the other night, when you saw it, and I was thinking I’m not quite as brash or entitled or bratty as that girl. Not to say that I’m so much better. I wanted to show someone who had no reason or right to be entitled, and who was. I mean I never see gay Iranians who are just as demanding or self-indulgent as you know the lead in Frances Ha.
Which is a film that yours draws comparisons to.
And I love that film. But that’s a white girl story. A straight white girl story. And I thought, why not? Why are we not entitled to be silly. And why does every Persian girl I see in a movie have to be the victim of female circumcision? What if she was just some asshole, like any other asshole.
And I think that’s a part of humanising a character. Idealising and humanising is often mixed up, or interchanged.
Yeah, and she’s a deeply flawed character. So I really didn’t see it as playing myself at all. And the minute something becomes a professional endeavour, and you write it down, it changes intrinsically. It’s no longer, and even if I tried to make it like me, I don’t have any perspective on me or my life to do that. So I never felt that close – I feel really removed from it. Like I said before, that’s not what my mother is like, its not personal in that way. I felt a real distance.
I’m sorry I didn’t mean to imply that it was your life on film, but more so, given the similarities in the major points of the film like coming out, is it uncomfortable at all seeing that played out through a version of yourself on film?
You know what’s really interesting, my coming out story is really informed by the work that I’ve done. Because I put The Slope online while my parents were still very disapproving and we weren’t talking very much. And it really helped them to come to terms with this. It was sort of a make it or break it moment. And once I started getting positive attention for the work I was doing, which was clearly influenced by being gay, that they started to come around. And they had so much pride for my professional success that they started to see what a positive influence it had on my life. And the thing that feels like it isn’t me was I was never closeted and I’m very bad at lying. I don’t have a good poker face and I don’t feel comfortable telling half-truths. So I never had that situation with my parents where they say ‘Oh who’s this person, is this your special friend’, and I’d say ‘no this is my girlfriend and we’re together’. I was always the one who was rubbing their face in the mud and they were the ones who were trying to keep lies and appearances going.
You mentioned that idea of coming out again and again at the screening as something that was very different from the film as well. But that feels implied in the ending, especially because it isn’t this dramatic climax, but there’s definitely a shift in Shirin’s life. Speaking of climax, what’s refreshing in the film are the sex scenes. Especially with the release of films such as Nymphomaniac and Blue is the Warmest Colour – both deal with female sexuality and are made by male directors. So was it important for you to include these scenes and do them right? And also what did you want to do differently in these sex scenes, if that was something you wanted to do?
I think all people have a point of view of how sex is depicted in the media, but I really care about that stuff. And I really wanted an honest depiction of sex and that kind of interaction with another person, with someone you love and with a stranger.
I loved the scene that went from the one night stand with a stranger after an awkward date, straight to your character having really intimate and passionate sex with her partner. And particularly because I didn’t think that scene or any of the sex scenes in the film were overtly or intentionally sexualized.
I didn’t want it to be titillating. I don’t think it’s a turn off. It’s a really fine line, and we all knew we were dancing on a fine line, and it was nerve-racking but at the same time really exciting. The threesome sequence is my favourite of them.
Me too. The shot of you framed between the couple’s faces is amazing.
That’s my cinematographer. I’d say those were a collaboration. I had what I wanted, and I was very clear and choreographed to a tee what I wanted but at the same time, that was what the actors and Chris my cinematographer brought to the table. He’s the one who found us, I knew the action I wanted, and I knew I wanted hand-held coverage in profile, but I didn’t realise he’d capture me between them. He found me always, and having him in the room always gave me comfort as a performer. I really had, and have, a deep level of trust with him so when he was there, it felt like okay we’re doing this together and I’m not alone and he understands what I want to achieve. But I always find that when I’m watching something, and there are so many examples of beautiful sex scenes and I actually had a lot of reference material, I had an assistant on set, one of her jobs was to find me lots of sex scenes to look at (laughs).
And generally in terms of references for the film, did you look at any directors or films in general?
We looked at Margot at the Wedding. We were looking at films that had tonal shifts, that were comedic but also had two feet on the ground at all times.
And not just queer film or films with queer relationships?
No, no. We looked at High Art, which is a film I love. And I had the girl who played Maxine, the actress Rebecca (Henderson) watch that film after I told her to. I also looked at My Summer of Love. It’s British, it’s gay. It has Emily Blunt. But what I found with sex scenes, not all of them, but the ones I had problems with were either all or nothing. They were either incredibly smooth, sexy, no problems, everyone’s coming at the same time and it’s beautiful, like he just instantly is just penetrating you and he slides right in perfect. Or it’s so awkward and clunky and why would anyone ever have sex ever, this is the worst experience of your life. And I never felt either of those. I always felt like things ebbed and flowed, a great experience could go into a bad experience could go into an okay experience. There was so much grey matter in between that I hadn’t seen in film, and I hadn’t felt there was a lot of honest conversation in movies about how people are, and I really wanted to have that in this movie.
In terms of tonal shifts, I think the threesome scene was a really good example of that. And also what you never really see in film are those awkward conversations and goodbyes after sex, and I liked that you included that.
And I did fight to have the threesome scene. Cecilia was the one who kept pushing me to keep it. There was someone we were working with who, with every draft of the script kept saying ‘it’s okay, everything’s fine, just cut the threesome. Cut the threesome’ and during the edit once again this person was once again ‘I think you should cut the threesome’. And it was Cecilia who said no. And I wavered, I was really scared. And that’s another thing that a collaborative producer will do, is that not only will they tell you when to stop but tell you when to keep going. And that you should trust your gut. Because I knew I loved it but I didn’t want to be self-indulgent or gratuitous, and especially because once you watch it – it’s hard for me to watch that scene, I don’t like watching it. That’s my body.
But that’s what’s good about that scene. Because threesomes are so often idealised as the ultimate sexual experience, but it was just so uncomfortable and great because of that.
But that also that it hadn’t been a terrible night. That she had a real connection with that girl, and that it hadn’t worked out throughout that entire evening. That it started out as such a great night, and ended up so isolating. And also sometimes a great really great sexual interaction can make you feel so alone.
Fun question: I’m assuming that you were the master filmmaker behind the kids videos in the film, the farts one and the uber-arty one. Was that fun to make?
It was fun, we shot those before principal production. And it was actually-
-was it part of your personal collection of old shorts you’d made when you were younger?
(laughs) No, a couple of days before we went into production it was raining, and I was stressed about going into production. But at the same time it was one of those things that was really fun to edit. I remember watching the edits and laughing so hard. And even to this day, most of the film doesn’t make me laugh out loud, I’ve seen it so many times but every single time I see the fart video, when he’s walking and farting with each step, I can’t help it. I just can’t not laugh. I really enjoyed that, and it’s really a testament to my sense of humour. I like dry things, I like not playing the jokes, but then I also really like Mel Brooks’ films like Young Frankenstein. I really do appreciate good slapstick and silly farce. That is my nod to it. I don’t think I’m the best at it, and I don’t think I could do an entire film of silly jokes, but I love love silly humour. And that moment is super silly. For better or worse, I think that’s the trademark or the thing about the film that stands out to me, it tries everything. And the tone shifts dramatically. And the film starts with silly joke, joke, joke, and then goes to the coming out scene and the threesome scene, which is really serious and to the fart scene.
It builds. It starts out-
-one thing, like an episode of a TV show.
Yeah, but then it builds and snowballs and gets really strong.
And I really hope people stick with it. In the first 20 minutes I get really nervous, like ‘oh, do people think this is one note, or shallow’, because it does go somewhere differently. And that’s the funny thing about making films nowadays, if everybody was just going to watch it in movie theatres I’d be really confident, but knowing that people download things and stream things and that the nature of watching something has changed so intrinsically.
And also the nature of responding to things, anyone can go online and say something.
Yeah or in the middle of the film while watching, they can just tweet ‘I hated that shit’. And at that moment you do, and then you can just shrug it off, and that’s your relationship to that film. And I’m guilty of it too. I think that the way we consume media is going to change the way it’s made.
It already has. Like with Mumblecore films, Joe Swanberg’s new film is playing at the festival. And especially with his early films, was that genre something you had in mind, or something that influenced you?
Hannah Takes the Stairs is a film I saw when it first came out, and I was inspired by Joe Swanberg’s work a lot. I watched his webseries Young American Bodies. It was all about young, normal people having sex. And I liked that it existed. And it was inspiring to me, and it definitely influenced how I wanted to shoot sex scenes. And he’s just so prolific.
I think he’s made 14 films, one every year or something like that.
I mean one year he made 6 films. 6 films. The way he works is very different to the way I have, but I think its about where your talent lies and if your talent lies in pulling together a group of people in a room and coming at them with a story and finding the dialogue and the nitty-gritty together that’s an amazing skill. I love writing dialogue, and that’s where my joy lies. So I want to write that all out, and have that experience and bring it to people. So mine’s slightly more structured and just a different process. I watched Funny Ha Ha and those are films that changed the game for me, and I was like ‘oh, there are so many different ways to make films’.
And another instance of you deal with what you have, and can do. Do you see yourself sticking to this philosophy of independent film-making, of low-budget, relationship focused films, or would you like to explore film-making on a larger budget.
I definitely would like to explore working with a bigger budget. I mean this isn’t a financially feasible plan, making films at this level for me, and for most independent filmmakers. Films at this level like Appropriate Behaviour, so far its been such a huge shock that some people have seen it, or are interested in seeing it, but I’d like to up the ante a bit and make things that many, many, many people see. And especially because I made this in a bubble, with a very small budget and very small means. I think we like to put our minorities in a corner, and say ‘this is adorable, keep going, look at you and your art’. Like you’re not a mainstream voice, or not someone to be taken seriously in a real world context of this business. And I would like to be a player in this business.
Do you feel like you’re struggling to get attention or support with the film because it deals with two minorities?
I have no idea. I don’t like to play the blame game. But I will say that this experience of coming out with this film has made me political. And I do sometimes wonder at times, what’s working against me. On the indie film circuit and in the film festival world, it’s very attractive to be a gay, Iranian film, but then in the theatrical setting to get a distributor and a release, it’s not. I have no clue. That’s the long and short of it. But I also know that my sense of humour, and the budget and that we have no stars, that’s inherently – that’s not going to get us a release. And that’s not the equation that equals – and I know that. So I’m not shocked. So many indie films are made every year. So few of them get the kind of attention that we’ve gotten. We’re lucky.
I’ve read somewhere that you’re working on a script with Cecilia at the moment that is meant to be Election-esque. Can you say anything about it?
Just that it’s a high school comedy, we’re still working on it right now. It’s the first script I ever wrote, so we’ve been finessing it. But Rushmore-Election, with two female leads. A 15 year old girl and her adult, acting teacher.
And also mention of-
Yeah, an animated webseries. Have you done any animation before?
I’ve never done animation. I knew that this story – and what I said before about stories finding their home – I knew this would be an animation. And it wasn’t that I always had this dream of making an animation. So it’s called ‘Origin of Shame’ and it’s a comedy about awful memories from growing up at this New York City prep school I went to. So these are anecdotes and they’re going to be animated and funny and crazy and over the top, so that’s something I’m really excited about. I keep talking about these things which I shouldn’t, because ideas change and projects change and you never know, but I think it’s because I like to write a lot and see what moves up. And in that process you lose a lot. Appropriate Behavior used to be Scenes of a Marriage-esque.
So it went from Bergman-esque to kind of Woody Allen.
The first draft was totally Bergman-esque, and it was episodic and it was this couple and the major events of their life. I definitely want to make that Ingmar Bergman sort of script one day, I just didn’t feel ready. It was really ambitious. So I have no idea which one of these projects will go into production, they’re all in the script stage.
I really hope something sticks, and that we’ll see you two years down the line bringing something new to the festival. Thank you very much for speaking to me today, I really enjoyed it and the film in general, I hope it gets distributed here.
Thanks and we’ll see if any of these things happens.