Desiree Akhavan talks Appropriate Behaviour, Girls and more

Desiree Akhavan in Appropriate Behaviour

Appropriate Behaviour tells the story of Shirin (Desiree Akhavan) as she picks up her pieces after breaking up with girlfriend Maxine (Rebecca Henderson). The story is told through flashbacks of the arc of the relationship alongside her Shirin getting through the aftermath, supported by best friend Crystal (Halley Feiffer).

The film is smart, aware and hilarious female led comedy, a drama with tragic comedic elements. The film made it’s UK debut last year at the BFI London Film Festival and is in cinemas across the country from Friday.

We were lucky to get the chance to talk to director, writer, actor and all round babe Desiree Akhavan about the film, her favourite break up songs, her recent stint on Girls and more.

You lived in London before, so is it nice to be back here?
It’s really nice actually, I’m not just saying because you guys are British.  I have been travelling with this film for about a year on and off, and nothing hit me about how it exciting it was to be talking about my feature until I got back here. My producer Cecelia (Frugiuele) lives here and coming back to London, it’s really coming home cause we wrote a lot of the script here. I would come to visit her and spend blocks of time on her couch just working with her and reciting the script out loud to each other. And there’s something about being back here that’s really full circle. I lived here in 2004/2005 and I studied film and I made my first film in Mile End when I studied at Queen Mary.

What was the film about?
It was called “Two Drink Minimum”, it’s about a bunch of people who live in a bar on a Friday night and these couples there was three different couples interacting and there was a narration.  It was really stupid but there was a TV show in America called Mixology that was on last year and it was the exact same plot!

Appropriate Behaviour is Desiree’s first feature film, prior to that she was one half of the duo that brought The Slope webseries
With The Slope it was a week each episode, I would write Monday, we’d shoot Wednesday, edit Saturday and put it online on Sunday.  And because we were in school at the same time, it was not that many hours we’d be working on it. It was such good training for shooting a feature because you can’t over think anything, you just keep moving forward.  And I find with the short films I made which I shot on Super 16, it was obsessive compulsive thought and like really every frame I was like “Oh my god! Would Ang Lee approve of this frame?” and I’d get so caught up in the bullshit insecurities.

I had never seen a webseries before so it can be anything I want it to be. I’d seen so many films I had such a clear of what a good film looked like, but with a webseries it was like make your own genre up, it was so much freedom and you decide what’s good. If this is entertaining and funny then it’s a good webseries.  That’s how I decided my criteria, and having that mind-set when going into a film, ok this is entertaining and good by me then it’s a good film. If I hadn’t made the webseries I would never of been able to make a film like this that’s kind of outside the box.

I brought up that one of my all time favourite break up songs “Believe” by Cher (it’s more than just autotune, honest!) is mentioned in the movie. So I of course had to ask Desiree what her favourite break up songs are.
I love Fiona Apple’s music and she has some amazing songs like Getting Back is really good.  Anything by Fiona Apple if you’re like feeling melancholy it just seeps into your soul. The last time I had a really bad break up I listened to Tegan and Sara’s The Con.

Also Radiohead is just like really good if you want a soundtrack to feeling dead inside, if you listen to OK Computer, that album is my all time favourite.

10421297_10153199979723573_2342585206501160371_nThere was some awesome music in the film like Electrelene, MEN and Verity Susman, did you have any input into that?
I had nobody telling me what to do, it was amazing!  The great thing about the film was there were no rules but I was surrounded by very talented people, who I stole everything from. All the music I credit to my editor Sara Shaw, she’s really talented and she’s a musician, she was in bands for years and now she edits film. She put in all the temp music and Electrelene was all temp music, we never thought we’d be able to afford it. It was a real process in getting the rights to that, getting the band involved and them getting on board with the project helped us get it, cause of course their publisher did not want to give us the music and we had such a tiny tiny budget.  I really love J.D. Samsom and wanted to use the MEN track really badly.  Then the score was by Josephine Wiggs who is the bassist with The Breeders

She did the music for The Slope as well?
Yes, she contacted me and Ingrid (Jungermann) whilst we were making The Slope and said “do you want an intro track I’ll just do it for you, I like your show and I think you need a track”. So we were really excited, we’re both really big fans. Then she and I became friends and when I made my first cut of this film I invited her to watch it and afterwards asked her to do the score. I was so nervous “you can say no, it’s ok, we can still be friends, no big deal”.  She was on tour with The Breeders at the time cause they did a reunion tour, so she would send me tracks from the road. It was difficult in terms of we were never in the same place but it was a really easy cause I could just keep sending her files of the new cuts, she could compose to the files and she’s really incredible.

How was it directing yourself?
It was actually really ideal for a first feature, what I found is on my shoots when I wasn’t acting I had too much time to overthink and then I would obsess over every last detail and I wouldn’t be able to move forward.

If I hadn’t of been acting I don’t think I’d have had the same feeling of comfort with my actors. That I feel good asking for anything from them that I would’ve asked of myself, cause otherwise I always feel really guilty like I’m crossing some kind of boundary, especially when it comes to the sex scenes. I felt really comfortable asking people to go places because I was there with them.  And then on the otherhand as an actor I felt really confident to take huge risks, I would never have been comfortable shooting the sex in the film if I hadn’t of been the director.

It felt like I was at the helm of this ship, I was in power, this is the situation that I was telling a story I believed in and if anyone was going to be taken advantage of it would be me, by me.  So it was perfect. But moving forward I’m really exciting to see what it feels like just to direct a feature and not act.

How much can you tell us about your next feature?
It’s an adaptation of a young adult novel that Cecila is producing and I’m directing and writing and it takes place in Montana in 1993 so it’s gonna be a bit of a shift in tone. It’ll have the same tone in that it’ll be comedic with tragic elements to it, but what I really like about this is that it’s about young adults, 17 years old and I really miss films like The Breakfast Club and this is to me like my homage to the Breakfast Club.

So your take on the classic teen movie?
I feel like teen films have lost their gusto, that we’re not saying new things. We’re not revealing something honest about what it is to become disillusioned with the adults around you and figure out that noone knows more than you do.  Like that moment in life where you’re like “oh shit, it’s the blind leading the blind”.  I don’t think it’ll be a classic in the sense of Mean Girls which I really love but don’t think I could’ve made.

Is it a conscious decision to do something quite different
No, it fell into my lap.  I loved this book, I shared it with Cecila and she said this is what we’re doing. I was really focused on writing another project so I was like “ok, if you want it, then you chase the rights, lets see if it happens” and it happened.

I always have three or four projects that are perculating in one stage or another and it’s always where the financing is coming through. It’s never strategically what do people want to see me in a different light.  Do I not want to pigeon hole myself, I don’t think anyone gives a shit.  I mean maybe once I have a few features under my belt I’ll be strategic.  Sometimes I worry I do too much gay content, all my work at the moment deals with LGBT issues in some way or another, but also it’s where I’m interested.

Desiree Akhavan in Appropriate Behaviour 2I think it’s important to get these stories out there, it’s still not mainstream or common place, but a film like Appropriate Behaviour has mass appeal
I know and that’s what worries me is that people who don’t actually watch the films are like “oh it’s that gay film maker, don’t watch her films”.  I really want to make films that people see and I have this fear that in the states that people don’t see films about margionalised people.  Cause you’re not sold them, it takes millions more to sell a film to an audience than to make it, the advertising budget for the films are much larger than the budgets for just production and production houses aren’t willing to spend that kind of money on a film they don’t think they can sell.  And those films for the most are films with female protagonists or queer films, or films with black protagonists, unless it’s Will Smith.

It was so awesome to see you in Girls.  How did that come about?
Lena (Dunham) saw my film and we met up and had a really nice meeting and she’s a really inspirational, intelligent, cool person.  And then months later I got an email asking me to do a table reading, I was not expecting it.  It was so exciting for me cause I’m a really big fan of the show and I had just finished watching season three and I was just so excited to read the scripts of the next season, like this was such a gift, now I get to know what happens!

She’s good at bringing in really cool people for bit parts on the show
Lena and Jenni Konner, her show runner, they’re partners in every way and they’re known for casting, they know how to cast certain parts. They know who’s cool and who’s smart and what’s happening.  That was one thing I remember one of the writers told me, everyone just has infinite confidence in if they say so-and-so does this part, no one ever doubts it, they’re always right.  They keep their eye up, they’re generous and they’re not stuck in their bubble, they have their eyes open to who else is working and making things.  And I think it has a lot to do with the fact that Lena started making small indie films.

There’s been quite a few lazy comparisons between yours and Lena’s work, how do you feel about that? It’s generally been quite positive, but apart from the fact you’re both female, from Brooklyn with an open look at sexuality, there’s not really a lot of stuff which is similar.
I am flattered on one hand, but on the other hand I think it’s sexist, it’s just lazy, but it’s not an insult.  It’s one of those weird things, like I just got another call from another place that’ll do an interview and they were like “we read that you were outraged by these claims that you are like Lena Dunham”.  Look I’m not outraged, there are things that people could say who would outrage me, this is not outrageous.  I think that what’s outrageous is that the press is setting a president that there’s no room for more than one woman who’s work can be monetised, that’s outrageous. I think it’s sending quite a signal like “watch out, this is the next one” or she’s going to fail and crumble because there’s already a Lena Dunham, that’s ridiculous, I’ve never read about my male contemporaries that they’re the next Noah Baumbach.

And I’ve also read about the Isreli Lena Dunham, the Mexican Lena Dunham, the South American Lena Dunham, we should start a Benetton commercial!

Appropriate Behaviour is released in cinemas on 6th March by Peccadillo Pictures

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