CAROLINA A. MIRANDA
Q&A

Director Ana Lily Amirpour on Iranian vampires and weird SoCal towns

Iranian vampire western director Ana Lily Amirpour on the bat-like quality of chadors, why L.A. is like Tehran

A statuesque young man with family troubles. An abusive pimp with diabolical facial hair. And a lithe young vampire who wears a chador and rides a skateboard. All of these were set to a Sergio Leone-ish soundtrack, filmed in lush black-and-white cinematography and directed with the romantic tension of a French New Waver. 

"A Girl Walks Home Alone at Night" is not your average vampire flick. For one, it features a who's who of Iranian actors (all speaking Persian), with various bits of the Southern California landscape serving as stand-ins for Iran. Plus, there's the stripped-down storytelling and the fusion of styles. It's been billed as the first "Iranian vampire Western."

All of this has drawn a good deal of praise for its young director, Ana Lily Amirpour, the London-born, U.S.-raised daughter of Iranian immigrants. The movie had its premiere at the Sundance Film Festival last year to rapturous praise. And it has been nominated for two Independent Spirit Awards, including best first feature. Times critic Betsy Sharkey included it in her list of the best films of 2014.

A glimpse of Amirpour's style can be seen in the film's trailer, but Los Angeles moviegoers can see the full film Monday and Tuesday at Cinefamily, with an appearance at Monday night's screening by the director. "A Girl Walks Home Alone at Night"  is also the final entry this week in "The Contenders" series of screenings at the Hammer Museum, showcasing the most innovative and influential films of the last 12 months. At the Hammer's Tuesday-night screening, Amirpour will participate in a discussion with director Roger Corman. 

The L.A.-based Amirpour is already busy scouting locations for her next movie (about post-apocalyptic cannibal love story set in the Texas desert). But she took time over the weekend for a leisurely telephone chat about how she conceived her chador-wearing vampire, the ways in which Los Angeles resembles the Iranian capital of Tehran and her dislike of "Citizen Kane."

How did the idea for an Iranian vampire Western emerge?

I don't think it was one thing. You get scores of ideas and one leads to five more. Sometimes you write one script you don't want to make, but a character or a scene from that might end up in something else five years later. I'm always collecting things: ideas, pieces of music, moments, and they become useful at some point. I knew of the town [Taft, Calif.] and wanted to shoot there. The chador gave me the idea for that character. Many years ago, I put on a chador, which I used as a prop for another film. It felt very bat-like. That's when I thought, "That's an Iranian vampire."

You were quite into horror films when you were young. Are they still something you draw from?

There was a horror period. I'm not into horror now. But I did go through a very saturated, dense horror period, from the time I was 9 years old to about 14 or something. I watched every horror movie that ever existed: "The Exorcist," "Faces of Death," the Freddys [from the "Nightmare on Elm Street" movies].

I was also going into the operating room with my [orthopedic surgeon] dad. I wanted to see surgeries. But I learned that most surgeries are quite boring since they're arthroscopic. I wanted to see an amputation and I watched him saw someone's leg off. I couldn't do it now. It affects me more. But back then, that was my horror phase.

Your dad doesn't sound like the average dad.

My parents have always supported every curiosity I had. They're very progressive. My dad is like a rebel. His family was Muslim and he was a self-proclaimed atheist. He's a scientist. He values reason and decency. He doesn't appreciate lazy thinking. 

What types of films are you generally drawn to?

I've always loved fantasy. When I look at filmmakers I like, it's Robert Zemeckis, David Lynch — it's a light fairy tale or a dark fairy tale. I like [Quentin] Tarantino. Harmony Korine. They're all creating their own worlds — magic and fantasy, limitless storytelling. When I was a kid, it was all "The Never Ending Story" and "Back to the Future." Then, when I got older, I got into Tarantino and some other filmmakers.

In film school, they force you to watch "Citizen Kane." I hated "Citizen Kane." I had to watch it like 13 times and write this term paper and I was like: "Your curriculum needs to be revised." But I took this class about this French filmmaker named Robert Bresson and I watched all of his films. I love his films. "Au Hasard Balthazar," about this donkey and this girl, it's one of my favorites. If you see my first short film, I was clearly huffing on Bresson.

What about Iranian film? Has that been a point of inspiration?

I was never one of those Iranian filmmaker cinephiles. All cinema comes from a point of view. With Iranian filmmakers in Iran, it's so completely ingrained in the politics and culture of what they can and can't do. It's a very specific filmmaking. I tried to get into it and I found it really boring. I know that my film has a very deliberate pace, but at least there's stuff happening. In Iranian film, it's like, the pencil is an allegory for society and some kid has to take that pencil to the next village.

In the film, various parts of Southern California serve as stand-ins for Iran.  What kind of feeling were you looking to capture?

Well, it's not literal. There's this weird thing about Tehran. It kind of stopped developing sometime in the 1970s, so there's this retro deco thing, but also this 1970s cheap ... building. And then it all fell into disrepair in a way. When you're in Westwood, it does look very much like Tehran, the parts that look European. I saw that in Berlin too — the parts of East Berlin that were rebuilt with [cheap] architecture after the war.

Both Tehran and Los Angeles have inwardly-built architecture — in which a lot of buildings are all about what's behind the wall or the hedge, and what you see on the outside is not necessarily what's on the inside.

Yes. That's one of the general things I find the most interesting about characters as well. In my film, a lot of people latched onto the chador and talked about the feminist element. But that's not really what it's about for me. It's really the outward definition of something that is hardly ever a true indicator of what's underneath. You jump to a conclusion. You underestimate this person because what's on the outside is different from what she has underneath. It's true of all of them. It's true of the place. There are strange things inside secrets.

How did you end up finding some of your locations — oil towns such as Taft, in the San Joaquin Valley?

I went to school in Bakersfield. I know all about those towns because our high school played them in football. Taft has some of the highest density oil in California. It's thousands of these oil monster rig things and they're beautiful and prehistoric. There were like 12 refineries that we scouted, these strange dark industrial dreamscapes. The air tastes different. It smells different. It's got this metallic, strange flavor.

It's a really economically depressed area, so you'll have all of these storefronts and shops and businesses that are closed. It's a bit of a blank canvas. There was really nothing to cover up. So then we could give it the little touches that gave it its Iranian-ness.

Going back to the idea of the chador: you took a garment that is known for obscuring, which in the West is often regarded as a symbol of repression, and you turned that meaning on its head.

I don't think of telling a story to turn an idea on its head. It's about characters and what they're going through. In this case, it's really about loneliness. A vampire is the loneliest, most isolated cut-off type of creature. She also has something very bad to hide about who she is and it's a brilliant disguise. It becomes a way to stay under the radar and underestimated. There are a million ways to read it. It will tell you more about you than it does about me. What's interesting is that now people are posting pictures of themselves dressed as the Girl and it makes the chador a cool thing.

In Iran, I have had to wear a hijab [headscarf], and personally I find it completely suffocating. I don't want to be covered up in all that cloth. But there was something about the chador though. It's made of a different fabric. It's soft and silky and it catches the air. When I put it on, I felt supernatural. But I also get to take it off.

You've done a comic book featuring characters from "A Girl Walks Home Alone at Night."

When I made the movie, I had written all of the back story. I had about 200 years of the Girl's origins, from the time that she was a human, to when she turned to a vampire, and then getting to Bad City. When I was in post [production], one of my executive producers told me he was starting a comic book company [Radco]. It was like a dream situation. I write the scripts and Michael DeWeese does the illustration. The comic jumps back and forth in time to different times in the Girl's life: 100 years ago, 50 years ago. I love it. You don't have to figure out how you're going to get her on top of a telephone pole. You just draw it.

You're working on a new film called "The Bad Batch." Where are you in the process?

Right now, I am scouting. We will be shooting in April. It will mostly be shot in a lot of desert: lots of dilapidated desert ruins, deserted gas stations and empty, small towns. Everyone in the big cities, they think that is what reality is. That you have your kale salad and your iPhone. But drive an hour in any direction and you come across small strange towns with people who look different and talk different. That's America. Those places feel somehow more real to me.

The movie is a dystopian kind of almost post-apocalyptic love story — but a very twisted and violent love story. It's about people who have been outcasts of society and they're trying to survive in this desert in Texas and some of them have become cannibals. So you're going to fall in love with people who eat people. [Laughs.]

"A Girl Walks Home Alone at Night," screens at Cinefamily Monday and Tuesday at 7:20 p.m. Director Ana Lily Amirpour will appear at Monday's Cinefamily screening. 611 N. Fairfax Ave., Los Angeles. cinefamily.org. The film also screens at the Hammer Museum on Tuesday at 7:30 p.m., followed by a discussion between Amirpour and actor and director Roger Corman. 10899 Wilshire Blvd., Westwood, hammer.ucla.edu

Find me on Twitter @cmonstah.

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