Desiree Akhavan is the kind of rising star who has a star on Hollywood’s Walk of Fame waiting for her. But before she pushes her hands into that revered cement, she has a lot of filmmaking to do, and with any luck, her future work will be a fraction of Appropriate Behaviour’s quality. She sat down with HeyUGuys in a breezy hotel room in London to speak about her first full-length feature, and how she pieced together a riveting bisexual tale in the ever-changing landscape of LGBT cinema.
I lived in London for a year, ten years ago.
So is this kind of like a return?
I come back every six months to see my best friend and producer of Appropriate Behaviour (Cecilia Frugiuele), so I come here pretty often. But this is really a homecoming because we’re releasing the film, so it feels really exciting – I made my first film here, a short.
No, it’s not Nose Job. It’s not on IMDb. It was an exercise. But it was the first film I ever made and it’s really bad. It’s hilariously bad; I really want to find it now, I want to watch it.
What’s it called?
(Laughs) It’s called Two Drink Minimum.
I’m sure it’s on YouTube somewhere.
No it’s not! I did not upload it.
Will we get to see it sometime in the future?
I was just telling this other reporter this idea, and I have to do a series called ‘The Worst’, and it’s established filmmakers’ worst films. But shorts. Their worst teenage films, and a DVD accompanying a magazine with interviews with them, or extra footage with interviews; talking about the process of making that film, that really shitty film, and maybe why it was bad or what they were going through at the time, what it taught them, because I think the first films you make, they’re so telling of what you want to do and your intention, but you have no experience and your execution is really shit. I think it’s hilarious. But until I get that moving, I would have to be more established as a filmmaker, ’cause I want to do it with Ang Lee.
In 10 years maybe?
In 10 years, God willing… I won’t even say years. I’ll say after my third feature. If I’m in a position to make a third feature, and I’m feeling good about it – my career – if I am still in this industry in two films, then I would love to share Two Drink Minimum, and Nose Job, and all the shit films I did.
Well, I look forward to it. The relationship between Shirin and Maxine, played by yourself and Rebecca Henderson in Appropriate Behaviour, is really the catalyst for the events in the film. So how critical was it that you cast the exact right people for the roles, and did you have any doubts casting yourself?
I had no doubts casting myself. It was really scary casting Maxine. And it’s so funny, because I know Rebecca – I knew her socially – and I never thought of her for this role. It seemed like I needed to cast someone who was butcher, who was more masculine. Rebecca’s gay, but to me she’s very feminine. Also when I cast her, she was in a relationship with a man, so I didn’t see her that way, and I didn’t use my imagination that she would do this thing called acting, where she would create a character and perform it. I think one thing that was quite drilled into me earlier – and it’s a myth – for films and theatre you cast actors, but for film you cast type. And that’s wrong. Rebecca really proved me wrong with that. So I asked Rebecca to do a reading on a whim, because I needed someone on short notice – it was a staged reading of the weed scene, where they say ‘I love you’ for the first time – and she was fantastic. But I was still like, ‘oh, she’s not this vision that I had of this butch lesbian.’ But my casting director was at that reading, and she kept pushing for Rebecca, and I wasn’t ready to commit. And then I saw, over the course of three weeks, a whole lot of women come in and do what I like to call ‘gay face’ where they really butched it up, wore a backwards baseball cap and baggy shorts and big T-shirt, short of hunched and walking like they had a huge dick in between their legs.
Is there a set of rules I can find somewhere for ‘gay face’? Because that sounds interesting.
It’s fascinating. I’ve never researched, but time and time again, it would be a straight, blonde TV actress coming in with a little pony tail and a backwards cap, and act very angry. And I was like, oh my god, you don’t realise this was a human being, not a stereotype. When I started working with Rebecca, I realised the talent that an actor can bring to the table. I didn’t really understand; I had acted a lot growing up, but then I abandoned that and I started making movies. And I just forgot that a good actor can interpret what you have, and take the next ten steps on her own. And I feel like that’s what Rebecca did. She interpreted the script, and then she created something new, and it was better than I could have ever imagined. She embodied this character who was nothing like herself, and she added so much more colour to it, and I’m so grateful that she did it, and happy that I cast her, because I think that in someone else’s hands, you could really hate that character. And in hers, I respect that a lot.
There’s definitely a lot of depth to her character (Maxine). She plays, I don’t want to say stereotypical…
Well you know, she’s a butch lesbian who’s politically active. It’s not a stereotype, but it is. There’s someone who’s sensitive to those things, and in anyone else’s hands it would be just like, the language of the overly sensitive type.
Which is great. Was there an exact moment where you thought, ‘wow, she’s right for this role’, or was it a gradual realisation?
It was a gradual realisation. Because even her audition wasn’t like… we auditioned and I read with her in front of the camera, and it didn’t feel great. We were just off. But I think it was because we were both under so much pressure. She wanted to do it well, and I wanted her to do it well, and it was just this energy in the room of, ‘oh god, this is our chance’ – I needed a Maxine, and she wanted to do it. But then, the minute I cast her and we were rehearsing, it was like, oh my God, of course she’s Maxine. It made perfect sense to me. But because the pressure of that decision was off, because it had been made, and there’s no looking back once you cast someone, there’s just a comfort in that, and it was hers to do as she saw fit. She’s just so intelligent, too; you can talk with some actors, and you have to coax the performance out of them, and I don’t like being manipulative, I don’t like that process. I like to have an intellectual conversation about something, and then let them do their job. And she does that really well.
Moving away from performances and onto the structure of the film, the movie’s narrative – it’s not strictly linear. Shirin’s story is essentially told in flashbacks, in a way, or fragmentally. So was that a structure that you had in your mind from the very beginning, or did it kind of reveal itself to you while you were writing?
Well, what happened was the first draft I had written… I wrote it on my own. I thought I was just going to shoot it on my own, produce it on my own, and shoot it over weekends. So I wrote a script to suit that. I’m a firm believer in making your own opportunities, and writing within your means, so I wanted to make a script that wasn’t too ambitious to shoot, that I could do and not die, y’know? Because most film shoots feels like you’re at war, and I don’t like feeling that way. I like to be comfortable, I like everyone to be comfortable. So I wrote that script, and I shared it with a best friend who’s also a producer, and that was when my web series The Slope was getting some attention. And she said, ‘I can make this film. I can raise financing for this. Let’s make it a little bit more ambitious. Let’s raise a little bit of a budget, and do it feature length, and tell a full story’. Because what I had done was just tell the story of this couple, but Cecilia – my producer – said, I want to know about the couple but I also want to know about your character.
There are things about your life that fascinate me -she asked me all the right questions. I wrote all these themes – and suddenly, it did not make sense. It was just this huge relationship, and then all this aftermath of the relationship. And I liked it all, but it didn’t fit like this. I thought, what’s the heart of this? What’s the story? I don’t outline beforehand, which is a very inefficient way of working, so once I had all these scenes, I started thinking, what’s the story here? And it seemed like the love story that, through each draft from the very first one, it was at its heart a love story about a couple that didn’t belong together. And that’s when Annie Hall came to mind; that was the only film I could think of that did that. So what I loved about it (Annie Hall) is that it opens, and the first line is, ‘we broke up. I don’t know what to do with myself. Annie and I are done.’ And then you go on this journey learning about who Annie is, figuring out why they broke up, and then that they really loved each other, and the pieces of their relationship unfold in front of you. So that informed the structure; the next pass was really about what motivated these flashbacks, and turning them into memories. Memories that were informing her current-day trajectory. And then how she was stuck in the past. So that was the journey of finding that structure.
Now, your Wikipedia page says that while you were studying film and theatre at Smiths college (in the States), you were ‘a bit of loner’. Is that correct?
Oh my god, it says that?
Yes, want me to show you?
Yes, let’s see my Wiki page…. That’s such a good description; but yeah, I never had friends.
If it’s any consolation, I don’t even have a Wikipedia page.
It’s an accurate Wiki page; I was a bit of a loner.
Did that sort of solitary mindset, does it help with your creative process or do you feel it might hinder it?
I think it motivates me to want to work in this medium. I never felt I was communicating to anyone, because I didn’t have any friends to talk to growing up. So this is my joy; this was how I expressed who I was, and how I saw the world. And that started really young for me – I was a lonely kid, and I started writing plays really young, and getting people to be in my sketch comedy show, ‘Friday Night Live’. It was how I got people to hang out with me when I was nine years old. And I think that being an observer, and being an outcast, and seeing the world from the outside looking in, it’s a really fantastic quality for a storyteller. When you’re in the thick of things, you’re not observing the hierarchies and the subtleties – because you’re having fun. But when you’re on the outside looking in, it’s fascinating; there’s so much to dig into.
Appropriate Behaviour actually feels – obviously – quite personal, and it feels so personal that, to an extent, it actually feels autobiographical. Would you say that’s true?
No, not at all. It’s very personal in that the themes of the film explores are themes that I grapple with. So identity, heartbreak, being the child of immigrants; those are all themes, being a bisexual; those are all themes from my life. But the events of the film never happened. And I think the characters are inspired by people in my life, but then they go on such a tangent, to fit the mould of this convenient 90-minute narrative, where everyone has to change, to adapt to it. So my parents aren’t really my parents, my parents actually act very differently – but I don’t have interest in telling my parents’ story in this film. So they become this convenient version; because I was never closeted in mind to my family, so I was just thinking what kind of family does she come from? She is still 27, 28, she’s living with another woman, and she is lying to her parents about it. So then you mould the parents; what kind of girlfriend does she have to be, that the girlfriend is being disenchanted with her because she’s not coming out? So it has to be a politically active girlfriend who has really strong morals, really strong ideologies about what it is to be gay in her identity. And not coming out would be a deal-breaker for her. So that’s the liberties, the liberty I took, with people in the story and in my life. But yeah, I have had my heart broken; I did come out to my Iranian parents; I do live in Brooklyn; I do get lonely. (Laughs) those are all true in my life, but I have never carried a strap-on down the street.
So you’ve got all these personal themes in Appropriate Behaviour, and you’ve grappled with them so well in this film – is there anything left to grapple with for your next film?
There is so much. I’m so full of pain (laughs).
How are you going to focus your pain for the next film?
I have a television series pilot that I’m developing right now. That’s one side of my brain; the other side of my brain is my next feature, which I’m doing with the producer of Appropriate Behaviour. And the next feature is actually an adaptation of a YA novel; it’s going to be a teen film, but I think for adults, in the vein of John Hughes films.
May I ask the title?
I can’t talk about the title; but it’s a teen story, and I really resonate with it. There’s so much about that moment in time where you realise that your parents are flawed humans, and that you’ve been led by the blind. They’re not even your parents; they’re adults. And that’s not the story of the film, but that’s one of the elements that really resonate with me. So it’s very personal; it really means a lot to me on many levels, they’re very heartfelt. But at the same time, it’s someone else’s work; so I didn’t come up with that story. So it’s going to be a really interesting departure from Appropriate Behaviour, but at the same time I feel very personally invested, because it does feel like my story in so many ways, even though it takes place in Montana.
How do you feel about the state of LGBT cinema today?
I think that it’s a really exciting time to be a fan of queer cinema. Because people are taking a lot of leaps, and they’re taking chances and they’re changing the genre, that we’re getting more nuanced portrayals of queer characters from many different perspectives, and I felt like, when I was coming out, I consumed everything voraciously because you feel so alone, and you’re like these are my friends now! And with most films that I watch, I felt very alienated by it. I was like, this isn’t me – I really think that more stories are being told from different perspectives, and there are so many different perspectives. There’s the idea that there’s just the one camp one, which is insulting to all of us, so yeah – I think it’s a very exciting time. It’s just getting better, and it’s the same with female-driven stories; all of this shit is just getting better.
Appropriate Behaviour is released in cinemas on 6th March by Peccadillo Pictures, and you can read our review here.