Ana Lily Amirpour on the cult of cinema
There's a timeless, otherworldly image in director Ana Lily Amirpour's mesmeric feature debut A Girl Walks Home Alone at Night. It haunts you, to the bone. The vampire, played to unnerving, dark perfection by Sheila Vand, skates down a moonlit road, her chador flapping in the night air and looking for all the world like the wings of a bat. Except, as Amirpour explains, that's not Vand up there onscreen.
"Do I ride a skateboard?" the director says in answer to my question. "Yeah, that was me in the film, skating down that narrow street. I started skating when I was 17."
The desperate characters in Amirpour's dreamy, monochrome "Iranian vampire spaghetti Western love story" are looking to escape their Bad City however they can: drugs, dancing, sex, love, death, and, hell yes, skateboards.
General rule of thumb: Scratch a vampire and you'll get bit; nick a skater and you'll spot a thin crimson trickle of alienation, rebellion, and loneliness entangled in and protected by the melancholy, empowering sounds of polyurethane on concrete or steel. Vampires and skateboarders. Desolation angels ... or devils.
When I mention the sense of unwanted solitude and the hunger for emotional connection that pervades her film, Amirpour responds, "Absolutely," before asking, "Were you an only child?"
I tell her yes, I was.
"Yeah, me too. I think there's a real power in [loneliness] for people like us. Some people are able to skirt and avoid it, but I always felt that the power of going off into your own little world is really good. I was always coming up with weird shit, from an early age. I was putting on shows and I had this thing where I believed that there was a troll living in my backyard, behind this one shed. Basically your imagination and your fantasy life just bloom and go crazy and force you to use your brain."
A Girl Walks Home Alone at Night may have as its central character an undead femme fatale with a penchant for truly transgressive pop music and dancing (or skateboarding) in the dark, but there are enough genre conventions exsanguinated in the course of the film to render it profoundly unique. So how did Amirpour come by her love of the moves in the first place?
"I'm an immigrant [from England]," she explains, "and when I came to America I learned how to be an American through movies, music, and pop culture. I really sucked it up and grabbed on to it hardcore. I couldn't get enough, you know? As far as movies, I went through a horror phase for sure, hardcore-intense for about five years when I was around 9 years old. My parents had no idea, they were just, like, 'Go to the movie store and rent movies.' I remember watching, like, Faces of Death and all the horror movies I could watch, and I watched them all the way through. Somewhere around puberty, I guess, I lost interest and now I don't really care for horror films that are, like, straight horror, you know? But I've always been into fantasy. Fairy tale fantasies, that's my thing. I never liked Star Wars and I hate Citizen Kane. I hate a lot of stuff that they tell us is important."
Now that the DVD has been released and pirated copies of A Girl Walks Home Alone at Night are probably flowing through the capillaries of Iranian society, has there been any blowback from the powers that be?
"Yeah, I know that they've already ripped it and it's getting passed around," Amirpour says. "There was an official statement from, like, somewhere in the government that said this film is, um, horrible."
So, kind of like when the Vatican denounced Rosemary's Baby?
"Right. Well, no. More like they said that I'm a criminal and the film should be avoided at all costs because it's against Iran. It's worse than Rosemary's Baby. Anything against God is bad there. Anything that's fun. My aunt is coming from Iran this summer so I'm sure I'll hear about it then."
Last question, then: Why do you make movies?
"I make movies because I get to make my own worlds. The kinds of movies I make, and the kinds of stuff that I've always been doing, before I ever made films, allow me to make my own universes, my own mythology in a way, like when I was a kid and I made up that troll in my backyard.
"It's almost like inventing your own cult. And then you bring people into it who believe. Cult is a scary word, but it is like that. It gives me meaning and sense. It's a bittersweet agony. From the time an idea for a film is born, up until the moment when you're done editing it and the umbilical cord is severed, that whole incubation period gives you complete meaning and clarity. For a short while, it's a universe that you fabricate and that you know all the rules of, and other people are part of it, so you're not lonely anymore. You're connected. It's like a drug in a way because you get to go into this fucking other dimension of your own mind-cave and get it all out. Yeah, man, that was like therapy, right there."
The Austin Film Society will screen A Girl Walks Home Alone at Night, Friday, June 26, 8pm, with Ana Lily Amirpour in attendance. See www.austinfilm.org for info and tickets.