After enchanting festival audiences around the world, Iranian-American filmmaker Ana Lily Amirpour’s acclaimed debut feature A Girl Walks Home Alone at Night finally comes to UK screens. Shot in gorgeous black and white, this Farsi-language tale about a chador-wearing skateboarding vampire drifting in the desperate world of Bad City creates a seductive, singular world out of an eclectic mix of influences that include comics, David Lynch and Italian Western music.
Virginie Sélavy talked to Amirpour at the London Film Festival in October 2014, where they discussed places of the mind, the magic of music and the loneliness of humans.
Virginie Sélavy: You’ve described your film as an Iranian vampire Western. The first two elements are fairly clear, but in what way do you see it as a Western?
Ana Lily Amirpour: I think it’s definitely the music that was such a defining characteristic. The musical spine throughout the whole film was Federale’s awesome Ennio Morricone-esque music. I think there is that slow-cooking construction that a Western does as well, but it’s more the music.
Why did you choose to shoot in America but in the Farsi language?
I don’t think a film is the real world, a film is a world of the mind of a person. David Lynch’s Mulholland Drive is supposedly in LA, but it’s the LA of his mind. So I think this is a dark fairy tale and it’s a place of my mind. I’m part Iranian and part American and born in England, and it’s like a soup of so many things. What’s so awesome about the film is that it doesn’t have any loyalty to the real world and it doesn’t have to. It’s like a dream, it’s just consistent to itself.
You grew up in California.
I had my period there, yeah. [laughs]
So where did you spend most of your childhood and adolescence?
I think where you have your puberty and period is a big part of it. I was in Miami before that, but I was just a kid. When I hit puberty I was in Bakersfield, in California – there’s this redneck desert, farming, malls, I was going to a mall, I wore short cowboy boots, and there’s also all the Mexican gangs, and all the Mexican girls that I was mixed up with because I was brown, the cholas, the gang girls with lipstick, they’d push me and all that [laughs].
It’s interesting that you grew up in America and that the Iranian part of your identity is a place of the mind for you.
It’s a weird thing about Iranian culture. We’re one of those cultures like Italian or Jewish, we have very strong families, aggressively imposing families, in an awesome way. So I always had my Iranian-ness in that way, my grand-mother and my aunt and everybody, and the dinners and the noises and everything. But I never had the place itself. There was a weird thing that happened when I made this film. It became this imaginary limbo. I felt like I was making my own country in a way. Here’s the rules, and here’s the citizens, and now is the place and everyone can come and visit, and if you like it, stay… Other people in the film were similar. Arash [Marandi] was in Germany, his family lived there, and Dominic [Rains] went to Texas and Sheila [Vand] was born in California, very similar to me. I think everybody liked how it was like getting to have a place that was Iranian. Because even when I went to Iran I didn’t feel like it was my country… It’s something else. But I am Iranian. What am I? [laughs]
I liked the chador for the vampire because it’s very visual, but it’s also very interesting because it is a piece of clothing that has become a symbol for the oppression of women and in your film it becomes a superhero cape.
And a brilliant disguise. No one is going to expect it from her. For me it was just because I put one on – I had one as a prop in a movie and put it on for the first time. It felt like a stingray, I instantly felt like a creature. It moves, and it’s made of a different kind of fabric, it’s very soft and it catches the wind, and it’s beautiful. And I just felt like a badass. And then I thought, this would be an Iranian vampire, this is it, it’s this girl. And the whole idea for the film started with this character. I don’t even like black in my movies. But it’s black and I just pictured it against white, and so it had to be a black and white movie. And the whole thing about whether, like you said, it’s something that symbolizes oppression for women, I think somebody who is Muslim maybe wouldn’t feel that way. You feel that way because that’s what you are bringing. I do like flipping the script, but it’s about something else. In this world, with all these people and all these countries and all these places, we come up with systems on how to exist as people, the clothes people wear, the bumper stickers on the cars, saying ‘This is who I am’, ‘This is what I believe’. But with all of us, if you start peeling it back like an onion there’s weird, weirdo, weird shit inside all of us. And if you get into the inside, and see the weird shit, usually it calls to question the system that’s on the outside, and that’s what I find interesting.
I like the fact that there’s so little dialogue in the film.
It’s weird because I noticed that I have an aversion to it, and yet I talk a lot. When I was a kid my dad called me ‘Chatterbox’, and I had that New Year’s resolution many years to talk less and listen more, and then there’s this stuff, which is really self-indulgent. I love Sergio Leone and I love David Lynch, and I feel they do similar things with the soundscape and the sound design and the music. If you really think of it as a character in itself you have to create space for it. In Once upon a Time in the West Leone was playing that music when Claudia Cardinale was coming on the train in that sequence when she arrives in town. He had that epic piece already made and he was playing it for her to move to the music, so if you make films that way you’re thinking of it like a character and you make space for it. I also love Quentin Tarantino’s dialogue, I could listen to it all the time, and Woody Allen’s films, they talk all the time, it’s a different thing, it works well, but not in my own films so far. Actors were like, ‘I want to fucking say some lines,’ because they want to talk, they don’t want to just stand there. But what you don’t realise is that the less you’re saying the more you’re saying.
THe lack of dialogue makes the film more powerful. In the case of Sheila Vand in particular, if she was talking more, she would be less menacing.
She was always such a creature. I’m very close with her. She’s hypnotic, I can just stare at her face, stare at her eyes, infinitely. And there’s a sadness and a lonely, aching dissatisfaction to her that I find extremely charming and beautiful and self-destructive. The biggest thing was that, it’s supernatural, it’s not human, and she is a human, so my only concern was, ‘you’re a creature, no matter what, at all times, in all scenes’. So we were watching cobra videos on YouTube, and they follow your hand and imitate the movement, and looking at the tension of it too because they can strike fast.
The film seems to have a very melancholy view of human relationships, and it seems to show how those two isolated characters slowly learn to trust each other. Is that what you wanted to put in the film?
That’s my favourite part, when you say stuff like that, it’s the most interesting time for me. I love what people say about the film. My relationship to my film is like my relationship to my reflection in the mirror, like how others look at you. Yeah I have loneliness, and being a person is so singular and lonely in a way, fundamentally. And also when you’re making stuff you go even more into your little mind tunnels. I think I just want magic and meaningful connections and intimacy and it’s so hard, and life can be so automated. And it’s terrifying. That’s why I love music because it’s that and it’s instantly that. And it’s really special when it happens with other people because that’s really rare. But music does give me this feeling of freedom and comfort.
For that lovely scene of the first intimate moment between Arash and The Girl, when he comes up behind her in her room as she plays a record, you chose ‘Death’ by White Lies. Why that particular song?
It’s a really great song. I heard it when I was living in Germany the year before I made the film. It has this vintage nostalgia, it’s a new song but it has this feeling of synth-pop from the 80s. It just felt like the feeling of falling in love but in an adolescent way, it has a high school love feeling, it’s this innocent John Hughes kind of feeling. That’s what they are to me, those two. Because it’s so dumb in a way to fall in love, it’s two people who have no clue who each other are, so it’s that dumb, sweet, nostalgic love.
Why the title?
It’s so weird because I made a short film that was called A Girl Walks Home Alone at Night, it was five minutes long, in black and white. It was after I put that chador on and I thought of that character. I thought it’d be so cool to have her in a park and some man starts following her, through the streets, into a building and then into an apartment, and then right when he enters into the apartment she turns around and eats him. I was telling Sina [Sayyah], my producer, and I was explaining ‘and there’s this girl, and she walks home alone at night’, and then I was, ‘that’s it, that’s the title’.
The secondary characters are very interesting, there is something very rich about them. This is particularly true of Atti, the prostitute, because it is hinted that there are many things in her past, and it feels like she could be the main character of another film.
I feel like that about all of them, they are all the main characters in their own films. And they all had extremely detailed back stories, every single one of them. Atti watched her mother kill her father when she was 14 years old. She has a very intense and long story that ended her the way she is. But she is also a pragmatic, sensible, tough type of hero. I feel like it’s hard to ruffle her feathers. I love the pimp so much too, he is a fetish of mine.
The character was based on Ninja from Die Antwoord, the South African rap-rave duo. I’m a huge fan and I love Ninja, and I modelled Saeed a lot after him. I knew he was going to be this scary gangster because he looks so intense, so I made Dominic watch Friends because Saeed loves the show and Russ is his favourite character, and six weeks after the shooting he was still watching Friends. It was just to bring it down and make it sweet because it’s impossible, if you look like that you’re going to be taken a certain way.
The two women characters, the Girl and Atti, seem to know more than the male characters, they seem more aware of the forces that move them, whereas the male characters seem more confused about what is happening around them.
Yeah, I would say that’s interesting. The girls are cleverer. I read one time that the men seem more open and vulnerable, and the women are more closed-up and hard to read. I think both are astute observations. I feel that they’re also lonely. It was the one common thing that they all had, stages of it becoming crusty, a loneliness that becomes so stiff it’s really difficult to change.
Interview by Virginie Sélavy
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