In a world where Hollywood is investing more and more into comic book heroes and reboots, it’s perhaps unsurprising that a black and white Iranian vampire western wouldn’t be the easiest pitch to studios. Ana Lily Amirpour knows this all too well.
The writer and director’s debut feature film, A Girl Walks Home Alone at Night hit theatres this week after building significant hype at Sundance. Vice Creative Director Eddy Moretti, whose company is promoting the film, has called Amirpour “the next Tarantino.” The New York Times‘ A.O. Scott said the film has “Jim Jarmusch-like cool” and “disarmingly innocent outlaw romanticism.” But despite the accolades, not long ago Amirpour felt pressured and constricted by the conventional thinking of those around her and the narrow definition of Hollywood success.
“I had an agent and manager at supposedly great places and they creatively castrated me for more than a year, giving me bad suggestions, changing my scripts and taking out all the weird shit, which is all the best shit,” says Amirpour. “I finally got to a place where I decided I was just going to do what I know. It sounds cheesy but it’s true. And it’s different for every person. I can’t tell someone how to fall in love, and I can’t tell someone how to get creatively motivated.”
In the year before making “Girl,” Amirpour had two other feature projects she was trying to get made and says she was doing it the wrong way. “You’re changing the script here and there, writing for this actor or that actor, or for this money or that film fund or whatever,” she says. “That’s a stupid, completely ridiculous way of being creative because it’s goal-oriented and creativity is really about yourself and finding something, and you can’t find something if you already have an end or destination in mind.”
Amirpour went to UCLA film school, but says she didn’t have any illusions about what she was there to do. “It wasn’t about learning how to make a film,” she says. “Teaching how to make a film is like trying to teach someone how to fuck. You can’t. You have to fuck to learn how to fuck. It’s just how it is.”
When it comes to the lessons she learned making her first feature, she sticks to the sex analogy. “I’ve had enough partners before making this movie that I was at a point where I knew what I liked and picked people to have creative intercourse with who I was passionate about,” she says. “Everyone from my editor to my DP to my cast were all people I wanted creative intimacy with, so I was very comfortable and figured out what turns me on and I’m not a liar about what doesn’t turn me on. I can’t fake it. That’s what I learned the most.”
A big turning point for Amirpour was a five-month 2012 stint in Germany making a short for the Berlinale Talent Campus. “I wasn’t hearing any of the noise of all those people reeking of desperation in L.A., just trying to make something and just get Leighton Meester attached and get money because of that and do it that way. Where’s the soul in that?” she says. “Not that there’s anything wrong with Leighton Meester, but it’s the idea of changing your vision for a specific actor in order to get funding. That’s not what it should be about.”
For Amirpour, all the people who worry about money in filmmaking aren’t the brave adventurers. They’re on a different side of things. “The filmmaker has to protect the adventurous side of their self,” she says. “I’m an explorer, I’m an inventor. Doc Brown is the character I relate to the most and he’s a madman. He’s a madman alone, locked up with his ideas but he does whatever he wants. He makes what he makes because he wants to make it. Yes, the DeLorean has to work in order for him to be a madman with a purpose–the DeLorean should work–but the point is I think everyone should try and find their own DeLorean.”
Amirpour’s reverence for and influence from Robert Zemeckis’s 1985 classic doesn’t end there. “Speaking of Back to the Future, I think people misunderstand it because it’s very hard to separate it from the pop culture phenomenon it became,” she says. “But when Zemekis was trying to get that film made, which he was for seven years, he was trying to get a film made where basically a teenager gets in a time machine, goes back to 1954 and almost fucks his mother. That pitch is extremely subversive and twisted in a way. My point is, he had a fascinating idea that no one had done before, but was clearly special to him and he stuck to it and made it what it was. When you do that you can create culture, but I think a lot of movies are just echoing culture and there’s a difference.”
Girl may be her first feature, but Amirpour has been making films since she was 12-years-old and insists she has found the creative approach to tell her stories and avoid the traps of Hollywood. “I don’t have that pressure anymore,” she says. “I don’t think of things that way and will make it my goal never to think of it that way. Why I love filmmaking and what it is to me is a search for magic, to tell a story and be a kid with my mind. I think that gets tampered with and threatened by the weird illusion of what filmmaking is and what success is.”
She recently went back to UCLA to talk to film students and, once again, looked to Back to the Future and channeled her inner Marty McFly. “How can I be useful to them and get them excited?” she says. “I’m going to get in a time machine and go tell my former self all the things I’ve learned since then. Like there’s this fixation on getting into a certain lab or getting a certain agent, all this stuff is not really the point and not what you should be fixated on. You should be fixated on what fascinates you, what really fascinates the shit out of you. Forget what you should be into. I hate Citizen Kane, I think it’s super fucking boring. I never liked that movie. What movie can you watch 100 times? What movie have you always loved? That’s what you should follow and see where it leads you.”
To invoke another ’80s icon, Amirpour says being a filmmaker is a lot like being a geek in a John Hughes movie. “Each one of us is the geek who tries to fit into all these different groups and at the end of the movie he realizes he just has to be himself,” she says. “Be the freak that you are. You don’t have to be friends with everybody, just find the people you like and you want to spend time with. I made this film and I can honestly say it’s from my true soul.”