The romantic, stylish "Girl Walks Home Alone at Night," is one of the year’s best films. (David Thomson, our film critic, agrees.) The movie, which opened this past weekend, was filmed in California but the characters speak Farsi. Ana Lily Amirpour, its director, has an equally cosmopolitan background: She was born in England to Iranian parents, grew up in Miami, and now lives in Los Angeles. Last week I spoke to Amirpour about vampires, feminism, and some of her cinematic influences.
How did you come up with the idea for a vampire movie?
The first thing really was the chador. I had one—it was a prop from another film—and I put it on and I felt like a creature. I felt like a bat or a stingray, and I just instantly saw that this was an Iranian vampire. And she would be this girl, and she was probably someone that you underestimate.
You shot the movie in Bakersfield, in southern California. Why did you decide to film it in Farsi?
Well, it’s an Iranian fairytale. It’s an Iranian story with Iranian characters. I don’t think it really matters where I shot it. I mean, Middle Earth isn’t really New Zealand, and that’s where Lord of the Rings is. Sergio Leone made American Westerns in Spain. A film is a place of the mind. So I just see this as my soundstage where I’m putting my play on. I’m modeling it after a lawless, nameless ghost town from like, a Sergio Leone western. Or Rumblefish, which is also a stylized American town, or Gotham or SimCity. I feel like this is maybe the question I get asked the most and I don’t really know why. Like if I was Polish, and I made a Polish story I wonder if people would be asking me why it was in Polish?
Well, I think they would. I can’t really think of any Polish-language movie shot in America.
America is a country of immigrants and there are lots of movies about Italians who come here. I mean Goodfella—Scorsese’s got Italians speaking Italian in New York. America is like the place where all these ingredients cook together and are truly mixed. I am in some ways exactly what the movie is, which is a mix of so many things. I mean, it’s not a documentary. So I don’t understand the question. When people ask me that, I really feel struck by how many times I get asked that question. When you were watching the film did you think to yourself that it was supposed to be set in Iran, like the real country?
There’s a vampire in the movie, so I don’t think we’re in the real world; I don’t think we’re in Kansas anymore. If there could be the wizard of Oz, if Marty McFly could go to 1954, I can have an Iranian ghost town in the desert and shoot it in California. Have you seen Dogville by Lars von Trier? He shot the movie on a soundstage, but I was completely caught up in the stories and the character. Honestly, if people are hung up on where it was shot and what language it’s in, I failed. It’s a love story and it’s about caring about these characters and what happens to them.
So let’s shift gears. Have you always been interested in vampires?
I definitely have loved vampires for a very very long time. I got into Anne Rice when I was a kid. I fell in love with Lestat. It’s because I don’t like death. I don’t feel comfortable with death, in any way, and I think vampires have that figured out. They’re like eternal observers of all this stuff. They get to see it all and experience it all: every era, every time period. Every change in technology, change in style and fashion. They’re very romantic and eternally lonely and extremely powerful. And they grapple with their own kind of killer instinct. I’ve seen all the vampire movies, everything from Lost Boys to Once Bitten to Coppola’s Dracula, Kathryn Bigelow’s [Near Dark.] I love Only Lovers Left Alive. I like the more existential emo vampires.
There have been so many vampire movies in the last couple of years. Why do you think they’ve been so popular?
I mean, it’s the last hundreds of years! Dracula is very OG. It’s because they don’t die! We hate death. What’s better than not dying? I’ve thought about it a long time and I would do it.
In the movie, the Girl walks around at night and sometimes attacks violent, predatory men. Did you intend it to have feminist themes?
Well, did you interpret it as a feminist movie?
Yeah, I did.
That probably says more about you than it does about me. A film is like a mirror. What I connect with in a movie is my own stuff. So consciously, no. It’s more about how surface are not what they seem. There’s more than meets the eye to people. It’s not just women, it’s everybody. Everybody in the world, in the film, in my mind, is much more than what you see on the surface. All people underneath have strange weird secrets inside and when you get to those things it makes you re-evaluate the outside and re-evaluate your assumptions. That’s what I’m interested. It’s not an -ism. All those things confine your thinking because they tell you, this is what it is, and then it’s done. I think everything just has to be considered in its own individual space and time.
It’s very abstract, observing your film become its own thing. I honestly believe it’s more about hearing what you think and what you liked, and what you were most exited about. I’ve been trying to understand the experience of releasing a film. For me personally, I really relate to Doc Brown, the inventor in Back to the Future. when he invents the Deloran people go and ride it all around time and mess up everything. That’s got nothing to do with Doc Brown! [pause] My film is a Delorean.
So what are you working on next?
It’s a color, English movie. It’s a cannibal love story set in a desert wasteland in Texas. I think it’s time for cannibals to become a sex symbol—a symbol of romance eternal. It’s very violent, psychedelic, apocalyptic—Road Warrior meets Dirty Dancing. It’s a savage pop fairytale.
Did you know you wanted to make movies when you were a kid?
I did. I got hooked on them. It’s how I assimilated and became American, through American pop culture and music—Madonna, Michael Jackson. And movies. I was always putting on shows and stuff. My dad got a camcorder when I was 12 and I started making films and imitating commercials. Like, I would remake commercials. I wasn’t like, I’m going to be a filmmaker. My parents, they never encouraged that; I don’t know how they even would have. Iranians don’t do that.
When did you first move to the United States?
In the ‘80s—I was a small kid.
Was it a hard adjustment?
Oh yeah. A hard adjustment? I went from [an Iranian community] in England to Miami. I also had an English accent and the kids used to stand around me in a circle and tell me to say things because they like the way it sounded. And I did it. I went along with it, and then one day—I remember the day—when I said: no, I’m not gonna say it. And then they kind of had no use for me and I was completely an outcast. So then I’d go sit and play in the dirt. I would go to the baseball diamond at recess the soft white dirt at the home plate, I would sit on it, and put the dirt on my legs and cover all my legs so they were white like chalk. I think I was like making myself invisible or something—like camouflage.
Wow, this is now turning into a really interesting psycho-therapy. I figured out some stuff about myself.