The chador-wearing, skateboarding, vampire protagonist of A Girl Walks Home Alone at Night would fit right in to a John Hughes movie
If the phrase “Iranian vampire western” doesn’t get you interested in watching A Girl Walks Home Alone at Night, then you should know the film is actually a John Hughes high school romance in disguise. The chador-wearing, skateboarding, wide-eyed vampire protagonist of A Girl Walks Home Alone at Night spends her evenings slaying misogynistic men before she falls in love with Arash, a James Dean-look-a-like who has his own personal demons to slay. Ana Lily Amirpour’s feature-length directorial debut has generated a large volume of critical praise—The New Yorker called it a “tightly scripted, pictorially lavish, downbeat romantic fantasy” in one glowing review. We talked to Amirpour about her first feature film, story-telling, and how she humanized her teenage vampire protagonist.
The only films that I see about Iran in the United States are socio-political films, like Argo. It’s great to watch something that’s not about that.
It’s fun to watch that kind of expectation not be met, so it allows for a whole new door to be opened. I would just hope it means that other types of films could be imagined and supposed because of it. Because there are a lot of Iranians and other Middle Eastern people who are growing up outside of those countries, and what happens is your culture and who you are and your identity becomes a hybrid of many things and not just one compartmentalized thing.
You filmed this in a fictional “Iranian” city in Bakersfield, California. It’s almost like this conflation of two homes that you have.
Yeah. When people say where are you from, I always think it’s, ‘Where did you have your period?’ And so I had that in Bakersfield, in desert, redneck mall country. My closest American familiarity is with that part of California. That’s also near where I shot the film. It’s a real mash-up.
Sometimes people are like, ‘Isn’t this an Iranian film? Isn’t this supposed to be Iran? It’s not America, it’s not this, it’s not that.’ Whatever I am is actually really accurately represented by the film. In a way, it’s the most accurate cultural version of what I think it means to be this mix [of cultures].
And what drew you to film? You clearly love storytelling, because A Girl Walks Home Alone at Night is such a great story. But it’s also a great art piece.
I think the story is super important, and I’m very much a writer first and foremost. But I think it’s also a story that’s just plot-driven—it doesn’t really absorb into the feeling of life. A film like Gummo…is one of the most important films I’ve had in my life, and continue to revisit endlessly. I can remember crisp details of Gummo. I watched the X-Men film, the new one, and honestly, I had just finished the movie and I didn’t really remember [it]. It’s like a haze. I couldn’t tell you what happened.
People are so strange and specific, all of them, and each one is a story, just how they are, how they talk, how they behave. That’s why I love David Lynch. A Girl Walks Home Alone at Night, at the heart, is just a love story about lonely people, in a way. What’s better than a love story? What’s better than love?
There’s the juxtaposition of this really dark narrative on the surface and this really sweet love story just beneath it. I loved it because it was also really visceral—there were a lot of visceral scenes, like a lot of puncturing scenes and a lot of really close close-ups, like of the cocaine cooking on the spoon. Being a teenager is this highly sensitized experience and I love that those visceral scenes conveyed that experience, even in a black-and-white film.
I mean, the visceral experience—for me a big part of that was the sound design. The close-ups and inserts, they take a lot of time and production, otherwise I would have had much more. But the sound design—that’s also a very Lynchian thing. Sergio Leone westerns have a lot of that, too—the sound design and the close-ups.
I showed one of my friends a rough cut way early on and after he saw the film, he said, ‘I have to tell you the truth. When you told me to watch and give you notes on a black-and-white Iranian film, I was like—ok, this is going to be like taking my cough medicine. But it’s kind of like a John Hughes film.’ And I was like, cool.
But I love the John Hughes thing, because I feel that. More people were saying Jarmusch. I’m not a huge fan of Jarmusch. I don’t mind it, I take it as a huge compliment because I get it.
When you hear ‘Iranian film,’ for some reason, there’s a switch in perception…
It’s like, ‘Life is going to be hard and shitty. We’re about to learn the same lesson we’ve already been told that life sucks. It’s hard. Tears will be shed. Children will be barefoot.’
No, for me, it was definitely a love story. There are so many good things about it—like the scene where he pierced her ears. How did that come to you?
I don’t know…there’s something about her wanting to be made right. This feeling of ‘Make me right. Make me what I should be. Fix me.’ There’s something about love that has that in it. It’s very erotic, almost like losing your virginity, letting this guy [pierce her ears].
She’s this vicious character, but she’s never had her ears pierced, so there’s that sweetness you’re drawing into the character. You also decided to dress her in a chador. How did you make that decision? Because that piece of clothing is so politicized.
The chador is what started everything because I had one—it was a prop from another film, a short film that I had done. And I just put it on, and when I did, I felt like a bat. It felt like a cape. I felt like a stingray. It’s made of a certain kind of fabric. It’s like this thicker, heavy, velvety—it catches the wind in a certain way, and I really felt like a creature. It actually felt very powerful with it. And then I was like, oh yeah, of course, this is an Iranian vampire, like obviously. And it’s a brilliant disguise.
Most movies, in general, I think what’s interesting is when what you see isn’t what you get. It’s more about how all these things—what people look like, the clothes they wear, the cars they drive—they tell a story outwardly. But all people, when you peel back the layers like an onion, there are very strange, unusual, secret, weird things inside. And when you find those things, it makes you question the external system. That’s what I’m interested in, the things you discover when you go a few layers in make you have to think about what you see on the outside.
Sheila Vand does this role so perfectly…
She’s so hypnotic and special.
Her face is perfect for this.
I can stare at her eyes for infinity. Her eyes are magic and she’s somehow very old and wise and very young and innocent at the same time. There’s a sadness and a loneliness [in her].
I’m sure you get asked this a lot—about the gender politics of the film. Because [the film is] about this girl who by night is killing off lecherous men. Were you ever intending to make it political in that way or was that something that just emerged out of the narrative?
A film is a mirror. There’s no one reading of it. What you think of a film ultimately ends up being because of who you are. You see things of yourself when you watch a film. That’s why there are no two identical impressions of a film. I think it says more about the people watching it, needing to kind of categorize and organize things in a certain way.
When I hear the words ‘gender politics,’ I’m not sure what that means because I feel that female and male animals of all kinds are engaged in gender politics. Gender is politics and so is life. And in some way, everything is politics. Dirty Dancing is politics. Romeo and Juliet is politics. The human dance and melodrama is politics. I don’t really know what it is. And the general feeling I have about the labels and categories is that they’re very frightening to me and I’m very uninterested in it because I feel like [they] create laziness in people’s ability to think and engage each individual moment and thing.