It's Supposed To Be Fun
Ana Lily Amirpour brings pulp to Persia
To describe 2007 BlueCat winner Ana Lily Amirpour requires generous use of the hyphen. She's an English-born, California-raised, Iranian-American writer-director who, in a matter of weeks, will be invading a small town in eastern California to film an action-romance-horror-noir-spaghetti western, set in the Iranian equivalent of Gotham City. Over drinks in West Hollywood, we spent an evening talking about Iran, America, cultural assimilation, vampires, the making of Michael Jackson's 'Thriller' video, and above all else, fun.
When did you get started writing?
I didn't really have a very straight and clear path... As a kid I was really into reading a lot. I read all the Stephen King books, Choose Your Own Adventure books, Ann Rice books... I read tons of romance novels in junior high. Back then I was mostly into drawing and putting on little shows. I was always creating shows out of situations with my cousins. Then, my Dad got a video camera and we started making movies and commercials.
I wound up going to art school in San Francisco and realized pretty quickly that art was really boring for me. I feel like painting and stuff- It's the artistic cultural medium of three generations ago, and now it's kind of static. Video is the medium of our time.
I just love movies. I learned how to be American and acclimate to mainstream culture by watching movies, y'know? I must've watched the Michael Jackson Thriller "Making Of" video a million times.
The 'making of' video? Not the actual thing?
Well, I had a VHS with both the 'making of' video and the actual video on it. Don't get me wrong, I love the video too, but the 'making of' video for Thriller is so good. That video was amazing.
So when did you go from art to writing screenplays?
I started writing short stories in art school. And then one story I wrote was published in a literary journal in San Francisco, and this producer contacted me and said, "This would be a good TV pilot. Would you turn it into a teleplay for a half hour pilot?"
So I acted like I knew what he was talking about and I said "Sure." And then I looked up Seinfeld teleplays and manually formatted it into a very bad teleplay. It ultimately didn't go anywhere - but I guess it did, because that was how I figured out that a script was a cool way to tell a story.
And then I wrote a script, and it was really bad, and then I wrote the script that won BlueCat.
And that was The Stones?
What was it about?
It's an intricate plot and story... But essentially it's an ensemble story set in modern day Tehran about five different young people from different walks of life. There's a maid, there's a rich boy who she works for, there's a really poor guy who's kind of blue collar, there's a rich girl, and then there's an American Iranian guy who's gay whose Mom sends him to Iran because she's thinking it'll make him straight. And she tells him to hide it while he's over there.
All their lives kind of collide one night in a park where the girl and the boy are attacked and the boy abandons her there, and in self-defense she kills somebody. But because of circumstances it gets misconstrued and she gets accused of murder, and she winds up being the sacrificial lamb.
Where'd you get the idea for the story?
I'd just dropped out of college and I was snowboarding in a small ski town in Colorado, and my parents thought I was lost. My Mom said, "Do you want to go to Iran with me?" because she thought it might be a grounding experience. And it was, actually. It was a genius plan, to give me some perspective!
That summer I went to Iran was when I really realized what we have here [in America] and what freedom really is. To be able to think what you want and say what you want is really a huge epiphany, but it takes not having it to know what you've got.
A lot of the story is supposed to be a portrait of what it's like to be 19. Because no matter what, 18 and 19 year olds still find a way to act like 18 and 19 year olds. They're going to have fun, boys are going to get girls, they're going to go to parties, they make it happen. It's a kind of archetypal classic story about how you can't put out the light that's inside youth - that longing to experiment and figure out who you are. If you're just told ,"These are the rules, you can't do this, you can't do that," then what do you see? You don't see the world. Seeing and doing and feeling and touching is how you figure it out.
Did The Stones ever come close to turning into a feature film?
I wanted to make that film. I had producers. That was right before I moved to LA to go to grad school. It was a great way to come to LA, really. I met Gordy right away, and he became just an incredibly generous mentor and friend and a guide into what is going on in Hollywood, in a way that even grad school doesn't give you at all.
Gordy was really supportive about this project and he knew I wanted to direct it. Ultimately, though, it was just a really big film. Even on a tight budget it's a big budget and it involves tricking Iran for another country. And this script went on to go to all these labs and fellowships and it took on a life of its own. But in the end it just became not fun for me. And over the course of these three years I made like ten short films, four music videos... Working and writing other scripts. [The Stones] started to become really oppressive for me.
I'm not some UN public interest activist. I'm not working for a human rights organization. I care about human stories and the human condition. But it's not like that's my MO. I just wanted to make a film that I could make. So I started writing all these other scripts, and I still wanted to do an Iranian story.
Which is what you're shooting soon?
Yeah. I was like, "Okay. I'm going to write a script with what I have," like Robert Rodriguez, El Mariachi style. So I had this cast. I wrote each part with a person that I knew I wanted to play it in mind. I created a fictitious city. It's an Iranian Gotham. It doesn't exist. It's a very dilapidated, broken down town called Bad City, with archetypal characters.
There's a prostitute, a drug dealer, a gambler, a vampire, the Persian James Dean... It's a city full of nasty, hopeless people. It's called A Girl Walks Home Alone At Night.
Sounds like it's got a little of everything.
For me, it does. It's going to be my first feature film. And your first film is like your one freebie, you know? It's the one film where you get to do whatever you want. So I'm doing a black and white Iranian film set in a fictitious city with a vampire, a Persian James Dean... Y'know, I'm free. It's more me than even The Stones, because it's this limbo-like mashup of culture and influence. Part spaghetti western, part graphic novel, part Iranian story, part horror, part romance.
Are you nervous, going into directing your first feature?
I'm nervous, but I think I'd be depressed if I wasn't nervous. That's when you feel alive. Coming into your heightened state to talk to everyone, answer everyone's questions... It's all fun, y'know? I love it.
And I've shot short films before, in Germany. If you want to do it, you have this story - and then it just takes on a life of its own. Making a film is like life. It never goes in a certain way. It happens, it becomes a living thing, and you have to pay attention to what's happening and make something that you're comfortable with and be really open and try to have a good time. The balance of life on Earth doesn't lie in the outcome of your film. It's just a fucking movie. It's supposed to be fun.
Want to see get a peek a Bad City? Head on over to Lily's indiegogo page to watch the first trailer for 'A Girl Walks Home Alone At Night', which goes into production in August. If you like what you see, put your money where your mouth is and donate to the production! Donors get more than just a feeling of goodwill, though - $10 gets you exclusive, behind the scenes updates from the world of the film, $75 lets you name one of Bad City's streets, and $5000 gets you a co-producer credit, a seat at the premiere, and a trip to the swanky Hollywood wrap party!
Let's pitch in and help out, BlueCat - we take care of our own! Good luck, Lily!