Appropriate Behaviour, the feature debut of writer, director and actress Desiree Akhavan, was released in UK cinemas last Friday. It’s a surprisingly fresh take on the NYC hipster film, embracing the genre’s deadpan comedy and narrative simplicity, while mixing things up with a modern queer edge and Desiree’s unique experiences as a bisexual Iranian-American. Check out George East’s review.
Akhavan made the film following the success of her web series The Slope (2010), a comedy about politically incorrect lesbians which found an audience despite its hyper low budget. Hailed by many as the “next Lena Dunham”, she has landed a role in season four of Dunham’s HBO hit Girls, and looks set to make a splash in the Indie world. Gorilla George East sits down with her to talk about her career so far.
Hey Desiree, how’s it going? Are you enjoying this new lifestyle?
This last year talking about my film has been very new to me, so the commodity’s still there. And I’m not just saying this: conversations I’ve had in the past week in the UK have been far more intelligent, to me. I feel like the way that it’s resonated with people here is the way it’s resonated with me. Whereas in other countries I’ve been having to translate a lot. I feel like the people here have my sense of humour a little bit more. The deadpan style of my comedy maybe translates better here than it does in the States, which has been really interesting.
Appropriate Behaviour has been met with fantastic reviews surrounding your comic performance. When did you first know you were funny? Have you always been funny?
Yeah, first and foremost I see myself as a comedian. And I always wanted to make people laugh. My initial desire was always to make people laugh. Even to diffuse a situation, to try and make friends, to do anything. Also, my brother’s very funny and I think I just wanted to be like him. But in every classroom I was in, every social situation it was always made with comedy.
Did you ever do stand up?
I didn’t! I think about it a lot now, because when you’re doing Q&As it sometimes feels like you’re doing a stand-up routine. And I have a lot of fun doing Q&As. And holding a mic. So I would love to try that.
Were you always going to play Shirin in Appropriate Behaviour? Was there ever a question of other actresses?
Yeah, and no, for two reasons. First off the film was written while I was doing this web series [The Slope], so the experience of starring as you direct was one that I was just coming off of. And I wrote with me in mind, so it just felt really disingenuous to have had someone do an impression of me, because it was so clearly a personal story.
What’s it like directing yourself, and directing others, while in character?
It’s really fantastic, especially as a first time director. Because you’re really in the thick of it with them, and your relationship to your cast is very different. I think it was a fantastic learning experience, and I’m really excited to take that with me to shoot my next feature, which I’m not in. It really felt like one job was enabling the other and they fed into each other really beautifully. Like, it was so exciting to direct what I had envisioned as I was writing. And it was so exciting to act what I had envisioned.
You mentioned how personal the story is, and it’s clear you brought a lot of your own, very unique experiences to the film, as Iranian-American and bisexual. But filmmaking is so collaborative, so what was it like having input from others?
Really great, because I only work with people I trust and people who know me really well. I shaped the script with my producer Cecilia [Frugiuele], and she’s smarter than I am and she knows me better than I know myself. She’s also very different from me. So having someone that you trust helping you get outside yourself and see the wider picture is crucial when you’re wearing so many hats in a project. I wanted to make a film that was very specific to my experience of New York, but I wanted it to be universal to everyone who was watching it, on some level. And I think without Cecilia’s input, and that collaboration, it wouldn’t be.
So at Gorilla we’re really into our short films and new filmmakers. You started with your short film Nose Job, which I haven’t seen –
– Nobody’s seen it. Nor should they.
Is it available to see?
No. One day it will be. I would really love to make a compilation of director’s bad shorts, called ‘The Worst’. Directors you love all give their worst early shorts. And it would all be in one DVD. And then interviews about them…oh god I love this idea so much. I thought this up this week, because people asked if they could see Nose Job and I was like, ‘of course you can’t see it, it’s bad.’ But if I had more of a track record for good work, if I was a very established filmmaker, I would love to release Nose Job and have a dialogue about why it’s bad, and the choices I made.
Everyone’s got old work they’re not so proud of.
Yeah, everyone’s made something really shitty. I would love to talk about failure, and failure’s role in making art. So yeah, Nose Job was the straw the broke the camel’s back. It got me to such a dark place, because I was trying so hard and I failed so miserably. And afterwards I gave up on trying to be a certain kind of filmmaker, that I just wasn’t. And for a while that made me want to give up filmmaking. I was at grad school and was just like ‘whatever, let me finish this degree and I’ll see what I’ll do with the rest of my life’.
And that’s kind of how The Slope came about.
Your web series…
Yeah. It had a lack of preciousness that I had with Nose Job. Every frame in Nose Job I would fret, like, ‘would Ang Lee approve of this frame?’. It would be so hard for me to make one choice. I used to study film criticism as well, so I was like, ‘oh my god Truffaut would never have done this, I’m an asshole.’ There were so many examples of successful work behind me and I felt dwarfed by it.
But when I made the web series, there was no example of a web series, no way to monetise it, no one was watching, like who gave a shit? If I thought it was funny it gets on screen. That was the only criteria: am I laughing? Is my co-creator laughing? Done. We did an episode a week, it was super fast, super fun, and we put them online. And that was the first time in my life I started getting attention for my work, and it was so effortless. The making of it was effortless, and the attention just came to us. And people resonated with the work. It was a total shift in my mentality in the way that I create work.
So how did The Slope lead to your first feature, Appropriate Behaviour?
Well, we were between seasons. The first eight episodes we called one season and took a break because we were exhausted. And then we made another eight episodes. But the month or two in between that time I started writing this feature. We were actually talking about Nose Job, and how it’s being really shitty propelled me to make the kind of work I wanted to make. So I started writing this because I was so on fire, I was like, I want to take this energy and mind set of making something like nobody’s watching, and making my own rules, and apply it to a feature film. And that’s how the first draft started. That was my mentality while writing. Approach the feature the way I’m approaching the show. I’m so lucky it happened like that, and it wouldn’t have if I hadn’t hit rock bottom with Nose Job and said ‘I can’t make films anymore’.
So with that in mind, do you have any advice for new filmmakers trying to break through and get an audience?
Yes. Don’t wait for someone to enable you to make things. Enable yourself. Do not wait for the right anything. Find your own opportunities.
I feel like people are constantly waiting for the right amount of money, or the right grant to come through, or to get into that lab. Or for a mentor to say ‘the script is perfect, lock it down!’. Those things never came through for me, and I pushed forward anyway according to what I thought was good. But it was because I was able to work within my means and find stories, shape stories, towards the budget that I could put together. The Slope had zero budget, but that was fine. It does not look great, it is rough. I edited it myself so it looks like shit. I can barely export something in final cut. But that’s what I did and it was great. And by great I don’t mean like “It’s genius!”, but it was a great experience in my life.
I’m so excited to share that. Like, I kept waiting for Nose Job to go to Sundance, so I could make the feature version of Nose Job and become to next Cary Fukunaga. And it didn’t happen for me. And when it didn’t happen for me I was like, oh my god I didn’t fit this one trajectory of being a filmmaker, I’m done. And there’s so many ways to go about this work.
What was it that got you back, after Nose Job?
I made big life decisions. I think it was an emotional growth. My life has always been driven by the work I make. And when I lost that idea of ‘I’m gonna be a filmmaker’, that identity, because I felt like I’d failed, I began being very introspective and examining the choices I’d been making in my life. And I went into rehab. So it was really personal. I had to let go of a lot of insecurity and shit before I could make The Slope
I think it goes hand in hand with what kind of filmmaker you want to be. When you’re chasing a goal that isn’t you, your work is gonna suffer for it. So my other suggestion for filmmakers is to go to rehab! It changed my mentality and it changed my life, and my work instantly followed because I was a happier person.
Appropriate Behaviour is on release in UK cinemas now.