Desiree Akhavan is set to make her feature film directorial debut this week with her new film Appropriate Behaviour, a movie that see her direct, write and star.
We caught up with her to chat about the new film, making the transition into features, as well as her role in the latest series of hit television show Girls.
- Appropriate Behaviour is set to hit the big screen this week, so can you tell me a bit about the film?
Appropriate Behaviour is like a... sometimes I say it is a gay Annie Hall and other times I say that it is a story of woman who is trying to win back her ex-girlfriend while coming out to her Iranian family.
- You star in the film as well as write and direct, so where did this project start for you? And what inspired the idea for the story?
The project really started with a web series that I made called The Slope - I co-created that with another filmmaker and it was a look at a superficial, homophobic lesbian couple living in a very liberal neighbourhood in Brooklyn. It was a Curb Your Enthusiasmesque comedy with a satire on daily live in this very liberal neighbourhood.
That experience was so exciting and fun and it really felt like we were discovering the work as we were going and making it up as we went. With my other projects, I felt very pressured and very nervous that I wasn't living up to expectations or standards.
This film and this script really did come out of that experience of working so freely. I wanted to tell a story that was entertaining and fun, but also touched on subject matter that was important to me in my life.
First and foremost, I wanted to tell an entertaining comedy and I don't think that anything is really funny unless it is has roots in something sad. It was also important to me to talk about the loneliness and the isolation you feel when you have broken up with someone who you thought was the love of your life.
- How much is the film inspired, not only by your own experiences, but also the things you witnessed as you were growing up in New York?
It is inspired by my life in many different ways for sure. The satire elements are making fun of the worlds that I grew up in, including the Iranian community, gay community, and the Brooklyn community.
The events in the film are not based on my life; the things that happen have not happened to me and the characters are different from the people that they are inspired by - my parents are very different from their characters.
However, the scenes are very close to my heart as I have had my heart broken and I did come out to my Iranian parents and those were the emotions that I wanted to inject into fictional situations.
- These are clearly themes and ideas that are very close to you, so what do you hope will take away from the movie when they see it? It is possibly unlike any other comedy that we are going to see this year.
Thank you. I see that as a real strength of the film that it is unlike anything you have seen. I am tired of seeing the same thing as a viewer (laughs), when I go to the cinema I want to be surprised and I want to have a new relationship.
I hope that people leave feeling that they had a connection to a character and a subject matter that isn't necessarily found in their own lives, but they found a kinship with the story.
- As I said, you penned the screenplay for the film and have done a lot of writing throughout your career. Can you talk a bit about your writing process - do you build the story first or do you work on characters for example?
I work very inefficiently, I just write, write, write, as I love dialogue, I love scenes, and I love finding a character's motivations through finding their voice. I love language and the way that people talk to each other.
I will just write scenes and dialogue, most of which will be thrown away eventually, I keep going and going until I notice patterns and I find that one scene or series of scenes that motivates the whole film. The scene where they get stoned and they say 'I love you' for the first time was effortless, and it didn't change much during the scriptwriting process. I wanted to show that romantic scene.
Once you have those moments that you love and the people that you love, then the journey takes shape and I map out what I think I have and where I should be going.
The first draft of this script was completely different as it was only about the couple and was in very few locations. I didn't think that I would be able to raise any money for the film, so I just wrote something that was within my means. When my producer got involved, we worked together to map out a different plot, which would include a more ambitious production.
Once I was given that liberty I... before I was writing within many constrictions and I didn't want to have a big cast and I didn't want to have a lot of expenses. Once I was given the freedom to write what I wanted and was encouraged to write about the Iranian community, Brooklyn, and what this woman's potential profession could be, suddenly, that changed my writing process a lot and I just kept going.
- Appropriate Behaviour also marks your feature film directorial debut, so how did you find the whole experience? And did your directing work in TV and shorts help that transition?
The web series changed it entirely, if it hadn't had been for that experience I wouldn't have been able to make this. I had to let go of what I thought a film should look like so I could try to do it on my own and try to make something that didn't look like what you had seen before.
- Scott Adsit, Rebecca Henderson, and Halley Feiffer are just some of the other names on the cast list. Can you talk a bit about the casting process and what you were looking for in your actors?
Halley Feiffer is one of my oldest friends - we went to high school together and we did our first plays together - and she is someone that I admire a lot and have really been inspired by over the years. I wrote that role with her in mind.
Rebecca Henderson was a friend of mine - she is actually now a very close friend - who I didn't think would be right for that role; she is an actress that I had seen primarily in theatre. I thought that everyone had to be the character they were playing, which was really dumb of me because that is really not the case. I asked Rebecca, as a favour, to do a reading with me and she completely shocked me by how good she was and how much chemistry we had. That is really how we cast Rebecca.
Then I really worked very closely with the casting director to cast everyone else. It was amazing because she brought everyone to me on the first day: we kept looking at people for three weeks but most of them came on the first day.
I was very clear with her from the get go that I wanted to have very down to earth casting and find people who seemed genuine in their portrayal, who weren't taking the piss throughout their reading and the believed these characters.
- The movie premiered at the Sundance Film Festival last year and has been playing on the festival circuit. How have you found your festival experience? And how are people responding to this film?
I have been awfully lucky as I have almost exclusively positive interactions - there have been a handful of situations that were uncomfortable - but mostly people seem to really enjoy and relate to it. I have been so surprised by the diversity of people that I have met and the conversations that I have had.
There are so many different film festivals and each one of them is different. At each festival, I have had at least one strong connection with another person and I learnt something that I didn't know before. I went to fourteen different festivals - I am going to my fifteenth this week in Glasgow - and every single time I think 'I am so tired I can't do another one of these,' but I have always had one interaction that was so special and I have a new friend.
There is something magical about travelling with your film, meeting lots of different people in different parts of the world, and seeing that we are all connected through insecurities and struggling to find their path in life.
- Women in film has always been a big debate, but more recently we are hearing about how there are not the same opportunities for women as actors and directors as there are men. As both an actor and a filmmaker, how much do you think that is true?
I get this question a lot and I have to give the same answer, I have not worked in the major film industry, I made an independent film. The industry is Hollywood and LA, and I haven't been there very long; I am really taking my first baby steps into finding my way in that world.
I can't tell you if the opportunities are less or more because I made this film with my best friend and no one was watching us and no one gave a shit if we succeeded or failed - we were very lucky that we succeeded. This was not an opportunity that someone gave us; it was something that we enabled ourselves to do.
Now that I am moving forward, it is really something that you can't know until your second or third feature film, what your role is in this industry, and how it has been influenced. That said, I do feel resistance towards films with a female protagonist and there is a very subtle reading between the lines when you are trying to pitch that subject matter.
I really want a good answer for this and I feel I will once I have a first hand and educated view.
- Away from Appropriate Behaviour, you are currently appearing in Girls - which is being aired in the UK at the moment - who what can we expect from the character of Chandra?
I would say that Chandra is really a Type-A personality and has a narrow view of what a writer should be. She really challenges Hannah in an academic setting and outside of it. She is a bit of a villain, which I enjoy.
- Girls is the first project you have appeared in that you have not made yourself, so how have you found that experience?
It was exciting and nerve-wracking at the same time. When you are directing, you don't have any time to second guess yourself, you just blindly move forward, but with this, I had all this extra time to really obsess over every minute detail.
I think that it takes a lot of experience to calm down that side of your brain and focus entirely on what you are doing rather than what you could or should be doing.
- How did you get into acting and filmmaking in the first place?
I have always been writing scripts, acting, and performing since I was a really small child. This is the way that I communicate with the world - and it has always been that way. It is very much a part of my personality. I was never sure if I would be able to make a living out of it, but I always knew that I would have to be making things in some way.
- Finally, what's next for you going through 2015?
I have two projects that I am pushing forward right now; one is my next feature that I am making with the producer of Appropriate Behaviour. We are about to start writing the script. I have also written a pilot for a television series. It is a bisexual dating comedy and I developed it after the Sundance Lab, so I am trying to figure out what's next for that project.
Appropriate Behaviour is released in cinemas on 6th March by Peccadillo Pictures