When Ana Lily Amirpour was just a kid growing up in Bakersfield, California by way of Margate, England where her parents decamped after the Iranian Revolution in 1979, she was drawn to the macabre. There was the maze-like haunted house she created in her backyard with her friends serving as the cast that would scare those who walked in, then the slasher movie she made when she was 12, inspired loosely by the videos she’d rent. She even got into dissecting frogs to see what was inside.
“My parents saw that and thought it meant I was going to be a doctor,” says Amirpour, who may have had both the stomach and the attention to detail required for the profession, but whose demeanor otherwise these days would dispel any such notion.
While her parents would have likely preferred that Amirpour had gone that route, cinephiles can rejoice that she went another, recently making her feature debut with “A Girl Walks Home Alone At Night,” a dreamy, enigmatic fantasy about a haven for societal outcasts called Bad Town where hookers, drug dealers, addicts and even vampires roam. Casting a spell in smoky black-and-white, the film draws on places ingrained in Amirpour’s memory, if not necessarily the ones she’s been to herself, the sight of old men playing backgammon on the streets and the sound of Farsi being spoken a tribute to her Iranian heritage while the lonely vampire (Sheila Vand) that wanders the dusty burgh in search of connection may owe to her formative years in the desert.
However, in the brief time I was able to spend with her, it was clear the magic Amirpour conjures isn’t limited to the screen, a filmmaker unusually relaxed in her own skin, which shows in “Girl” as she confidently creates a world that hasn’t been on screen before. Though a desire to live in the moment seems to discourage an interest in rehashing the past, Amirpour nonetheless graciously reflected on how such an original production — first inspired by her discovery of the Middle Eastern headdress, the chador — came to be, her kinship with outcasts and where to find the real America.
What made you gravitate towards horror?
Do you think it’s a horror film? If there’s a vampire in the story, you’re in a certain realm. But I think it’s more like a John Hughes film than it is a horror film. I watched a lot of horror when I was really young – three, four movies a night on the weekend. I’d just go to the video stores and rent and my parents didn’t really know what this stuff was, so I’d bring it home and they didn’t ever really check it, so I was watching “Faces of Death,” all the “Halloweens,” all of the “Fridays”, “Poltergeist,” “Exorcist” … “Jacob’s Ladder” I saw when I was 12. Now, I don’t know why I went through that horror phase, but it was really intense and it lasted for five years. When I was young, I was just into violence in a way, but more than anything I like fantasy — “Legend,” “NeverEnding Story,” “Back to the Future,” “Superman” — and I’m still into stuff like that. And Westerns. I grew up watching them with my cat a lot. Now, it seems like everyone is into them.
Did the environment you grew up in Bakersfield help shape the film? It was shot in nearby Taft.
Even though I was born in England, then Miami was the first place I lived when I came to America, I had my period and puberty in Bakersfield, so I think that’s where you’re really from. I feel like I’m definitely an Inland Empire, California desert wasteland [person] and I knew about all those spooky, shitty towns around Bakersfield, having grew up there and for my next film, I’m shooting in the Salton Sea/ Palmdale/Lancaster [area] because it’s very comforting and natural for me. I love it.
I love American ruin. I think it’s the most beautiful part of America and that it’s actually the most accurate part of America. In the city, we’re all the same. You have your latte at Starbucks, you have your phone, everyone’s watching “Game of Thrones” on their DVR. But if you drive an hour or two in any direction away from these major cities, that’s America and it’s strange towns stuck in past decades where people look weird and talk weird like a fairy tale. I don’t know what the fascination with ruin and the underbelly is, but I find it more beautiful than all of this put together stuff. I find [the city] very alien, and over in these places, people seem more almost primitive but honest in a way.
How did you create the set of characters in “A Girl Walks Home Alone at Night”?
There’s a whole back mythology to Bad City of how it ended up being run the way it is. It’s an extremely stylized version of this shitty outlaw, lawless, western town, a place for people that have had been dealt a bad hand. It was also a place for drug addicts and gamblers, people that had to hide from something bad they’d done and for prostitutes to take refuge and where also prostitution wasn’t really criminalized.
I love all the outcasts and the rejects. I feel like hookers are almost a mythical thing because sex is the most valuable on thing on Earth. I also love a gangster. Other little kids may have been brushing their Barbie’s hair, but I love a bad guy, so designing the gangster was one of the big joys. I love Bobby Peru in “Wild At Heart,” I love Drexel in “True Romance,” Travolta and Jackson in “Pulp Fiction,” it’s like the juice of the movie.
And it’s weird because I saw “Spring Breakers” when I was in post and I didn’t know anything about the movie, then I’m watching this movie where it’s like the same super mega gangster in [James Franco’s character] Alien. My gangster loves tigers and lions – tigers on his wall, tiger blankets, tiger tattoos, there’s a heroine bags of tigers, tiger watch or necklace and Aliens-like, so it’s similar. I don’t know why, but I’m endlessly fascinated by it.
This seems like such an unusual world to create. Was it ever difficult to give yourself permission to make it?
I made a lot of short films and music videos and I had several other feature scripts that I was developing with different people before I made this. I ended up going to Germany to do a short film and I was there for four or five months and during that time I was there, I was cut off from L.A. and the way people think and talk here. Over there, especially Germany, it’s all about story and limitless possibility. There’s no, “Oh we can’t have this or that.” There are no taboos. So I was in this vacuum where I [thought], “You know, I’m sick of the horseshit. I’m just going to do something. I’m going to write something and I’m going to shoot it the next summer when I came back to L.A.”
It was March when I started writing. I actually talked to Sheila [Vand] first. I was like, “Look, I want to do this vampire film. It’s going to be black-and-white, Farsi, Iranian vampire film. Once you get a vampire, you have to cut your hair.” She’s like, “I’m in.” So I wrote the script in two months and I just wrote it for myself. It was lucky that I did because I had gotten to the point where I knew I was only interested in doing what I wanted to do. I don’t want to play this game, and it’s very easy for me in a way because I can’t fit in. I have a really hard time doing that. I can really only be the freak that I am, so it’s like a John Hughes film where you have the geek at the beginning. He’s a weirdo with weird friends, then tries to change and fake it to fit in with the other people and at the end of the movie, he realizes, “No, I’ve got to be in my freaky self to be able for people to get me.” That’s how it was with this movie. If you do that, you will get your friends. The people who get the movie and enjoy it, those are my friends, but I don’t expect to be friends with everybody.
I came to peace with that when I set out to make “Girl,” because I knew all those actors who I wrote those parts for. They were all in. They were like, “I get it. Let’s do something weird.” The musicians, I pulled together a soundtrack, they were all in. All the creative people that were collaborating with me, they got it right away. Then Elijah [Wood], and some other producers that came on board and backed it. They were like, “Black-and-white, Iranian vampire movie? Yeah.”
What’s it been like to travel with the movie?
It’s so exhausting because I feel so disconnected from it in a way. This part is really strange because you never really know the experience of your own movie. It’s like seeing your reflection in the mirror. You look at yourself, however many times a day you do that, [and other people] see me more than I see myself in a typical day. It’s really surreal. That’s my relationship to my movie. The only time when I really felt the movie was every step of making it, when you’re write it, shooting it, editing it, then it’s gone from you. It’s almost like talking about someone you were in love with two years ago. It’s an interesting thing, but it’s away from me.
“A Girl Walks Home Alone at Night” opens on November 21st in Los Angeles at the Nuart Theater and New York at the IFC Center before expanding around the country. A full list of theaters and dates is here.