Ana Lily Amirpour wasn’t about to let a hurricane go to waste. It was in the middle of filming “Mona Lisa and the Blood Moon” in New Orleans that a storm alert had come across the transom and the production had moved to Alabama as a safety precaution. With five days of unexpected free time on her hands, the director could catch her breath and start to consider what she had in the can already and whether there were any changes to be made once she got back on set. She had honed in on the moment that Officer Harold (Craig Robinson) finally catches up with Mona Lee (Jeon Jong-seo), a suspicious young woman who caught his attention after answering a call at a liquor store, and Bonnie Bella (Kate Hudson), the exotic dancer that has taken her under her wing, and finds the tables turned on him when Mona follows up a question of whether he likes people by catching him off-guard when asking why.
“I wouldn’t have done that if we hadn’t had that hurricane. It would’ve been different and I’m so glad it happened because I got a chance to tweak a few things and it just turned out how it was meant to be,” recalls Amirpour of what became one of the film’s most poignant and provocative moments. “There was a weird thing with the energy of the movie becoming what it wanted to be.”
It’s long seemed as if Amirpour, a force of nature in her own right, has been attuned to a certain frequency in the universe that eludes most and with her third film, you’d half-expect the writer/director to establish her own possessory credit like Spike Lee’s joints to introduce her films as “A Vibe by Ana Lily Amirpour.” There’s enough pleasure to be derived from simply going along for the ride, a subterranean adventure through the French Quarter and its outskirts as Mona looks for a sense of belonging amongst drug-dealing deejays (Ed Skrein) and the strippers at the Panty Drop, but after previously telling stories of eternal wanderers in “A Girl Walks Home Alone at Night” and “The Bad Batch,” Amirpour’s investment of a superpower for one of the countless babies separated from their families in Korea and relocated to American shores becomes profound when Mona can use mind control to have a hold on the situation directly in front of her, affording her the time to make some sense out of the strange world she traverses.
Of course, others are frightened by Mona’s abilities or see opportunity in them, namely Bella, who starts making better tips when the patrons at the club finding themselves dipping into their pockets for singles more than they ever expected to, but the blessed child gradually starts to have sway over her own life rather than concern herself with others and what starts out as a free-floating journey in the swamp in the Big Easy takes off as a self-empowerment tale that knows no boundaries. On the eve of the film’s release following its premiere at last year’s Venice Film Festival, Amirpour spoke about what inspired the story and what she looks for as she’s assembled her effectively eclectic casts, as well as building her characters through wardrobe and the film’s distinctive visual style.
I was really moved by the notion of this person having telepathic powers as some measure of control in a crazy world when I imagine it might be the same sensation you get as a director. Was that a starting point for this?
The whole thing came out of wanting to have a character where I could really explore freedom, and control is such a big part of that. This character Mona Lisa is powerful and you get to invent a superhero in a way if you’re doing a character that has a supernatural ability, so if I’m thinking what power would be the ultimate ideal power to have and if you’re able to control whatever anyone else is going to do in any situation, then you never have any fear. You can move through the world — you can move towards that group of shady people, you can go down the wrong dark alley, you can really go anywhere any time and especially as a girl who has to constantly calculate those fears and gauge the danger of every situation, [I thought] what a joy it is to imagine how it would be to explore all the people of the world without having that be part of the equation. You could really look at humanity.
New Orleans is such a great setting for that. Was it immediately in mind?
I’ve spent a lot of time there, just to have fun as people do – you eat, you drink, the city has music, it’s alive and it’s debaucherous and hedonistic and loose in a way. It’s also cheap and affordable, so I feel anyone can go and you get a really motley crew, a mix of people – obviously, drunk college kids and then there’s strip clubs and the red light district energy, but it’s all [a bit] mundane. I love that city. Visually, it’s just beautiful.
I imagine no one might be bothered by a camera down there, but watching Craig Robinson trudge down Bourbon Street, could you close things off or was that all in the wild?
Bourbon Street isn’t a controlled location. You can never shut it down, so if you get permission to shoot there, you’re always working around the drunken madness of the crowd. You can kind of separate and create some barriers…we had to bob and weave around which way we could go and holding people up. But if you would’ve looked [on the opposite side of] where the camera was, there’s crowds of people just with their phones taking pictures of him, like why is Craig Robinson hobbling down Bourbon Street with a crutch? It was really funny.
Part of what I’ve loved about your last two movies is seeing actors you wouldn’t think of at all in this context. Is there resistance to that when you first approach some of them or do they immediately embrace it?
With all actors that I’ve met and come to know, even if they’re like a big movie star and we know them for a certain reason or a thing they do, they are all artists at the heart that just want to disappear into a character. What I think happens is if you’re a movie star, if you’re Jim Carrey and you’re this brilliant comedian and the movies do good business if they’re a certain type of comedy, then the industry just [wants them to] do the same thing. It’s not because he doesn’t want to try different things. It’s more because that’s a formula that makes money. I’d say it’s the same for Keanu [Reeves], for Kate [Hudson], for everybody who gets branded for a certain thing they’re so good at and then they don’t really get the chance [to do anything else] because they’re getting sent things that are always that same formula.
But in my experience, the minute they get a whiff of the thing, if they get it and they’re into it, it’s so weird and specific, I feel it sets apart quickly the people that are like, “Oh yeah, I want to do this,” like with Kate, for example. And I am attracted to actors that have great comedic chops because I think comedy is one of the highest art forms. It doesn’t get the credit [it deserves], but it takes true genius to be a master of comedy. I think hard drama is actually easier than the people that really know the nuance of humor, so to take people that have that sensibility and put them into these other weird situations, I feel it becomes really alive.
I’ve heard Kate Hudson say that the hair and makeup and costume part of this really helped her build the character – is that actually a pretty collaborative moment in the process?
Because I write everything and I give [the actors] a lot — I give them the backstories, what I’m imagining, where [this character of Bella] came from, who she was, how she ended up having [her son] Charlie and all these things, those ideas come to life in both our minds and we’re brainstorming. Because I have a visual approach, I’ll usually show some pictures, but once we find those few things – the nails, the red shorts, the mesh top — and my costume designer Natalie O’Brien is so incredible, she has done all my films — we pool all these ideas. In all the tattoos, it was a very specific reason why it was this tattoo and that tattoo. I feel you put all those things on [as an actor] and it just happens. You’re there already. And I do tend to have visually distinct characters in my films.
Did having a bit of a communication barrier with Jeon, who speaks limited English, actually benefit the kind of performance you wanted from her?
Yeah, I think all of those things strangely absorb into how the movie’s going to feel and how she’s going to feel. I saw “Burning,” her first film and I knew that was Mona Lisa. Because she was in South Korea, I asked her agents, “Can she go on tape?” and I just wanted to see her eating a few things [since Mona Lisa munches throughout the film]. And then when she came to L.A. after that and we spent time together watching movies and listening to music — music became a real connection because she really likes house music, as do I, so we got into this beat and this rhythm. I can’t really explain it. We just connected and I feel like she understood something in the searching and longing of this character and in her separation so intuitively and deeply, I got to trust her completely. Sometimes words make a big thing smaller, if you try to explain it, so it was a really beautiful way to work. She’s astonishing.
No argument here. And I loved the connection the camera had with her — how did you come up with the shooting style for this?
The lenses were quite different from my first two films. They’re really wide, like a 15mm lens for most of the movie, and a 10mm lens [in other parts]. And it was really because New Orleans is really the other character/star of the movie and to see those oak trees, which are massive, gigantic, historic, dinosaur-size trees, you had to have a really wide lens that could see so high up, so the lenses are wider because the palette was just wider. [With] Bourbon Street and New Orleans architecture too [where] you have those trellises in the second stories, to get a sense of the physical landscape, it had to be wider. I remember when I was talking to my cinematographer about references, I was talking about Terry Gilliam’s “12 Monkeys” and “Fisher King,” and both of them really have that aspect of the story that’s about mental illness and an almost psychotic energy so that you feel things in a way that [the lead character] does – in this amplified way and those lenses do that because it distorts everything a little bit.
“Mona Lisa and the Blood Moon” opens on September 30th in select theaters, including in Los Angeles at the Sunset Cinelounge and the Alamo Drafthouse Downtown and New York at the Alamo Drafthouse Lower Manhattan and the Williamsburg Cinemas, as well as on digital and on demand.