British/Iranian/American filmmaker Ana Lily Amirpour made waves with her debut feature, A GIRL WALKS HOME ALONE AT NIGHT, the first Iranian vampire western, when it screened at the Sundance Film Festival in 2014.
The tale of a teenage skate-boarding, hijab wearing vampire (Sheila Vand), shot in the US but in the Farsi (Persian) language, was not only a unique, deliciously weird and atmospheric movie, it also announced its writer/director as both a major new talent and a new voice in feminism. The Guardian called it “a defiant statement of girl power, a modern twist on the Reclaim the Night battle cries of international feminism set against the backdrop of oppressively dysfunctional patriarchy.”
The following interview took place during the film’s release in 2014. Amirpour’s second feature, cannibal love story The Bad Batch, was released in 2016.
Interview with Lily Ana Amirpour on A GIRL WALKS HOME ALONE, the first Iranian Vampire Western
Where did you get the idea to make an Iranian Vampire Western?
I put on a chador while we were making a short film called Ketab [English title ‘Book’] (2010) that Shelia Vand was in. When I put it on, I felt like a bat and it made me want to skateboard. It was supernatural. The chador was a costume for one of the extras on the set during the film, and after putting it on, looking in the mirror I immediately thought I look like an Iranian vampire. Why has no one thought of this before?
The film is in Farsi but shot in America. Is Bad City supposed to be a double for Iran? Is it the real world? There are piles of dead bodies and stuff. Do you think it’s present day life? Is it not a metaphor?
In that way everything is a metaphor. Cinderella is a metaphor for present day life. For me a film has nothing to do with the real world. It’s real in the way that a dream is real. My dreams make perfect sense to me. I don’t have any trouble with the things in my dreams, but they are very weird, it’s weird s**t and it doesn’t have to make sense or anything. It doesn’t have loyalty to anything but the dream. The dream only has to be consistent to the dream or the dreamer.
“I just make films to understand myself”
So is this film about your dream self?
In the end I think it’s like a Fincher movie, where you do like 97 takes and then you’ve been stripped down to what is left and you’re really primal in your feeling and interaction. It’s like you don’t want to make films to understand this or that or whatever. I just make films to understand myself, who I am, what I feel, and what I think.
Can you tell me about the characters in the film, the girl, the junkie, the pimp. Where did you come up with them?
I know the characters. The Pimp. The Junkie. Like I know what they live before the movie and the movie is clearly a manipulation because it’s showing something in a certain way on some level. You’re going to see what you want to see based on who you are, and that is what’s exciting actually. Film is like a mirror and you end seeing yourself in the movie.
“I need to find the sound that the film wants”
The soundtrack (Radio Tehran, Federale) is excellent? How did that come together, are they the bands that you like?
The soundtrack is musically anything. I myself listen to a lot of very specific house music. Electronic music is going through a really cool renaissance right now. I’m into Bob Moses and Black Light Smoke. So when I make a film it’s really cool because it’s kind of like an obsession, or a character, other kinds of music. I need to find the sound that the film wants, and not what I listen to, like the Spaghetti Western music that is in A Girl Walks Home Alone at Night, that is a band called Federale, a really cool band from Portland.
I was at a show for The Brian Jonestown Massacre and afterwards I met the bass guitarist Collin Hegna and I told him that I was making an Iranian vampire film and it’s really dark, kind of Lynchian and Rumble Fish and he said I have this side project. So I listened to the music and it had that Spaghetti Western feel and I thought this is the sound of the film and sohis music became the spine of the soundtrack. Then for each character I looked for music that would suit them, like with Arash it was Radio Tehran, which has a really good Iranian vintage feel, it feels like the Pixies or Cure if they had been Iranian.
“An Iranian fairytale”
Do you see this film as being American or Iranian?
The film is an Iranian fairytale about an Iranian world and characters. It’s also like a John Hughes movie where the weirdo freak is trying to change to fit in and be like other people in the movie and then by the end of the movie they learn the lesson to be themselves and true to the people that they know. I grew up on American pop culture. You know Sergio Leone is an Italian guy making American Westerns. In movies you don’t really have to have any rules, whatever you feel like you can do. Even David Lynch, Mulholland Drive is a movie about Los Angeles, but it’s an L.A of his mind. It’s something else. It’s the dream and the dreamer dreaming the dream inside the dream.
“Where you grew up is where you had puberty”
So what’s your own background, American, Iranian, both?
I was born in England, in Margate, Kent. I’m not Iranian from Iran, but I’m not claiming to be. If you took a DNA sample of me, I’m sure a rabbit would just come out. We moved out of Margate when I was a baby and then we moved to Miami, not the beach, that part of Miami that is the giant asshole, Miami was so horrible. I was a kid there. I got my period in Bakersfield, California. I think where you grew up is where you had puberty and that for me was in California. Then I went to Santa Barbara, then Colorado, then San Francisco, now in L.A. I spent five months in Berlin.
You shot the film in Taft, is that a place you know well?
So I went to school in Bakersfield and our high school football team would play in different towns. Taft was a neighbouring town and was interesting because it has some of the highest density oil in California. There are so many of these prehistoric oil rig things. The air smells different. But it’s really economically depressed with all these businesses that are closed. So it didn’t take much to make it seem Iranian.
“She was always the vampire”
When did you meet Shelia Vand?
We met in 2009, we worked together on short films. Although I did one that was the girl vampire called A Girl Walks Home Alone at Night, and she couldn’t do it as she was on Broadway at the time. But she was always the vampire in my mind. The character in the film is old and young at the same time and I feel that way about Shelia. So much of how she acts is in the way that she moves, she has this physicality, and then I’m also so infatuated by her eyes. So I wrote this part thinking about her.
When did you first get into vampires?
It was reading Ann Rice’s Interview with a Vampire and Stephen King, which I read, probably when I was way too young and also looking at cat’s and vampires. I definitely went through a horror phase. A vampire is a lonely, alienated creature. It’s a disguise for someone with something bad to hide.
You have since written a comic book based on the characters?
When writing the script, I wrote down the back story to all the characters. For the Girl, this went back around 200 years, back when she was human to how she became a vampire and how she got to Bad City. One of the executive producers on the film told me he was starting a company publishing comic books. I write the scripts and Michael DeWeese draws the illustrations. I really love doing it, especially as I don’t have to work out the practicalities of how to film what I dream up in my mind.
“Huffing on the same vampire fumes”
The film has seen you compared with Jim Jarmusch, especially as his latest filmsOnly Lovers Left Alive was also about vampires.
Everyone is saying it. It’s like literally unavoidable in every conversation. I’m not actually a Jarmusch fan. I’ve seen his films. I saw his vampire film. I think we must have been shooting our films at the same time. I was in postproduction, and I saw the film with Shelia Vand, my vampire. We were sitting watching the film together and then we both looked at each other in the scene with the music and they fall on the bed and stuff, like wow, we clearly huffing on the same vampire fumes.
Can you tell me about your new film that is currently in production?
It’s called The Bad Batch and it’s a post-apocalyptic desert cannibal love story.
So you’re dealing with the undead again?
Oh! No, actually no one is dead, they keep you alive and kill you slowly.