Ana Lily Amirpour is the director of A Girl Walks Home Alone at Night, one of the year’s most impressive American cinematic debuts.
Premiering at Sundance this year and taking absolutely no prisoners, the film is an “Iranian vampire-Western-love story” in black and white, its genre-bending proclivities coming hand-in-hand with a surprising depth of soul. Amirpour, formerly an artist and frontwoman of a rock band, here explains what propelled her to make the film she did, and the importance of asking “why” – the question you’ll spend your life answering.
I recently got back from the Sundance Institute’s labs, which are like a week of intense therapy where you pay close attention to yourself. The supreme question you hear there is: “Why? Why do you want to make this film?” That question is the beating heart at the center of this absurd, multiple-year-long process we undertake, to create a two-hour experience for people to watch and say, “It was cool,” or, “It sucked.”
The thing is, as the maker, you never really know the experience of watching your own film. It’s a trip, sitting there in the theater wondering, “What’s this movie like?” But what you do have is your experience of every step of the moviemaking process. And if you’re not enjoying that, what’s the fucking point?
Also recently, I spoke to the film students at UCLA (where I went to film school). I figured I’d think of it like Marty McFly, getting in the time machine and going back to tell myself something from the future. What I told them was how lucky they are to be in a place when their only job is to pay attention to themselves. When you’re in film school, your job is to ask yourself “Why?” To pay attention to what you think, what you love, and what fascinates you. You’re not yet tarnished by all the pressure of the “industry” and the desperation of “making it.”
And then when you’re finally out here trying to make your films, it’s really fucking hard, and you feel alone and defeated. That’s when your attention drifts to a million external things, like, “How do I get the attention of this producer? That agent? That actor?” And you start to change your script to be right for this grant, or that lab, or whatever. You change yourself to fit a million situations. And then you’re lost.
It’s like a John Hughes film: The outcast is trying to fit in, and then at the end of the movie, realizes she is better off being herself, and being with the people who really appreciate her.
People ask me, “Why did you make A Girl Walks Home Alone at Night?” My answer is that I was lonely—that’s why. But taking that a step further, the truth is that I make films to make friends and find real intimacy; a connection with others based on something that’s meaningful to me. The people who make these films with you, your cast and crew—it’s like they’re on a vision quest with you. That is an incomparable experience. And then when the film is done and out there, the people who are attracted to your film—the audiences, festivals that embrace it, other filmmakers, artists, the critics who like what you do—those are my friends. And I don’t expect to be friends with everyone.
Your first film is truly a freebie. Because the moviemaker you are doesn’t exist yet, there’s no expectation about what type of storyteller you are. It’s a clean slate, and you can really do whatever you want. Pure, unimpeded freedom. This is a powerful thing. The first film is the perfume you’re putting on that will attract your future collaborators to you, so pick your fragrance wisely. Love that fragrance intensely. It’s going to attract people into your orbit, and you want to attract the right people.
I realized all of this after I made A Girl. It’s an Iranian vampire-Western-love story, and every part of my vampire’s invented mythology, every piece of the story, every character, every costume, every bit of music, is something I love to the point of obsession. That’s good, because I had to talk about it, and explain why I love it, for years while making the film.
It takes a long time to make a film. The question “why?” never stops being asked. It should be fun to answer. Even if you’re exhausted and it’s been two years of work and you’re still going at it, it should be fun. Not being able to answer this question with joy and passion is, to me, the definition of misery.
The whole endeavor of filmmaking is very much like sex. There’s a certain basic anatomy, certain parts that fit in certain places, but no two people do it the same, and you can’t learn it ’til you do it. Sometimes there’s crazy chemistry and it’s easy, and sometimes there isn’t and you have to put a lot more effort in. You have to adjust, be open, try different things. What you try to do is pay attention to what you like—which is more about being aware of what you don’t like. Don’t fake it. Don’t ever fake it.
What really turns you on? What fascinates the shit out of you? That should be what burns inside you when you write, pick your locations, choose your crew and your cast; it’s what should inspire your choices at every step of the way. Then you’re having fun, and heading for a climax. MM
A Girl Walks Home Alone at Night opens in theaters Friday, November 21, 2014, courtesy of Kino Lorber. This article appeared in MovieMaker‘s Complete Guide to Making Movies 2015 issue, on newsstands now.
To subscribe to MovieMaker Magazine, click here.