The Girl Isn’t Scared: An Interview With Ana Lily Amirpour
I’m confident that my neighbourhood is safe, but I still hate walking home alone after dark. There are men everywhere. Early in the morning construction workers crouch on top of their mini-coolers, smoking cigarettes and waiting for carpools; late at night are the cab drivers, smoking cigarettes and finishing shifts or waiting for fares. In the middle of the night, it’s all kinds of solitary young men, lumbering off the bus, sauntering toward a convenience store on their way to this bar or that.
Safety is a feeling, not always a state of being. When I do walk home by myself, I grip a housekey between the knuckle of my index and middle finger on my right hand so that if I have to punch someone it’ll hurt extra hard. I think. I’ve never punched anyone. But this is how I feel safe.
In A Girl Who Walks Home Alone At Night we meet The Girl, a stern-eyed figure who prowls the barren streets of Bad City, a fictional Iranian town, preying on the morally bankrupt. She wears a striped shirt beneath a chador — that modern day invisibility cloak — that flaps in the wind behind her as she coasts on a skateboard, a wraith on wheels. The film’s title conjures prompts fear — who’d walk these dark streets (these hacksaw-wielding-maniac filled streets!) by themselves? But of course The Girl isn’t scared. The Girl is a vampire.
Ana Lily Amirpour’s first full-length is a delicately paced, black and white neu-horror ode to the vampire. It’s billed as Iranian, because the characters speak Farsi, but Amirpour filmed in her home state of California with Persian-American actors. Girl, which was executive produced by Elijah Wood and distributed by VICE Films, demands little but evokes a lot. Movie posters and trailers might hint at a feminist, chador-reappropriating revenge fantasy but, in truth, it’s more Tallahassee than Tehran, more pleasure than polemic, a romantic film that’s more besotted with aesthetic than narrative.
So why does the idea of a vampire wearing a chador feel so urgent? Why does our culture relate more to the supernatural than the human? Why is a piece of cloth so provocative? Why does the ultimate predator, a vampire, wear a chador to feel safe? This film doesn’t answer anything and, when we speak, neither does Amirpour. Good art can cure our anxieties, but better art tasks us with the heavylifting. Instead, Amirpour and I talked about small town America, Anne Rice, and how what you see is almost never what you get.
What brought you to filmmaking — I mean, what interested you in films as a child?
I think it was coming to America. Not the movie, but actually coming to America. I was born in England. You kind of learn how to be American through pop culture. Books, music, and those ’80s and ’90s American movies with that very specific sense of magic, were like a surrogate family. I loved Back to the Future, The Neverending Story, Blade Runner, and Ferris Bueller, all those John Hughes films. Oh man, and Michael Jackson. I remember watching the making of “Thriller” on VHS every day — not the music video, but this 15-minute documentary with John Landis about the production. I recently digitized it from VHS and watched it and I was like, “Oh yeah, that was truly my first form of film school.”
What was the first thing you ever filmed?
My dad got me a video camera when I was 12 and I started making movies with it right away. I made a horror movie. Oh and I would basically re-do commercials, like I did one for Zest, and one for Effersyllium, which is a laxative. (laughs) It was a guy that kept running to the bathroom!
I used to make radio shows on tape, because I loved listening to the radio. And I’d like do fake interviews and stuff between songs.
Do you still have it?
Nah, I’m pretty sure I destroyed them when I was old enough to be mortified but too young to realize that everyone does dumb shit like that when they’re young.
No! You should totally look for them. That stuff is amazing, it’s an anthropology about yourself. I recently found this one thing at the end of a Hi-8 tape of me doing this crazy, confessional, Grizzly Man-style monologue when I was 17. I filmed myself for 40 minutes, which is a long time. And I’m just talking about wanting to lose my virginity and how I couldn’t picture a dick getting that close to me — all this crazy stuff. Grizzly Man had to die for that documentary to exist so I told my cousin, “If I die, you can expose this tape.”
That’s cool. I feel like that experience, that solitary figure, is a big visual cue in this film. What were some films that inspired this project?
There were many many films I had people watch for different reasons, but there were three that I had everyone working on it watch: Wild At Heart, Rumblefish, which is this black and white, hyperstylized pop fairytale, and Once Upon A Time In The West. I was looking at a lot of Sergio Leone westerns and talking to the lead actress Sheila Vand about Clint Eastwood’s man with no name in the Dollars trilogy. He’s this quiet protagonist and you can’t tell if he’s good or bad and what his motives are. That’s pretty juicy.
A lot of the films you’ve talked about kind of take place in these lonely, isolated small towns.
Yeah, Gummo is one of the most important films for me. I love the way the characters are so alive and real and specific; I can remember details of Gummo that are so crisp and clear it’s almost unnatural. That doesn’t happen for me a lot — I go to see bigger movies now and it’s like a bachelorette party, I might remember one or two things but it’s mostly a blur. But yeah, I like the small town feeling. There’s a physics and law to a small towns that’s unto itself. I think small towns are really isolated and incubated, but they are what America is. We’re all mistaken in thinking the big cities are America. This is a big fucking country, and if you drive one to two hours outside of a metropolis, you’ll find people who look like they’re stuck in a different decade — that’s fascinating to me.
Is that what Bakersfield, your hometown, was like?
Well, I also lived in this shitty, weird industrial town on the English Channel called Margate. I moved as a kid, but I had my period in Bakersfield. It’s California redneck mall country. It’s like Footloose with less dancing. That badland desert is very familiar to me — I’m shooting my next film in another badland desert part of California, I like that weird stuff.
You also grew up reading Anne Rice. Not surprising, but unusual for a kid to be heavy into.
It’s so funny because I was taking to someone earlier today and had this epiphany. I was so young when I was reading Anne Rice and Stephen King, which is intensely scary stuff, and also romance novels, and that’s what kind of sums up my movie. Anne Rice stuff is porn. It’s like crack.
Vampires are pretty sexy these days; why do you think people are so fascinated by them?
I mean, mythologically, vampires are OG. This is old shit. Werner Herzog, Katherine Bigelow, Jarmusch, Coppolla — everyone’s touched vampires. And there’s no limit to these stories. It doesn’t get old — literally, because it’s a vampire. (Laughs)
What’s more awesome than that fantasy? Cheating death. I hate death. I’m not cool with it. I like it here, and I think we should stay here. I would do it. I’ve been thinking about it for a long time. But also, Lestat from Rice’s Vampire Chronicles is my favourite vampire. He’s so lonely, and loneliness and guilty are really romantic feelings. And vampire stories are a way of seeing the world and society change through technology and wars. They provide an existential contemplation of human existence.
After watching your film and speaking with you, I’d say there’s nothing that suggests it’s meant to be explicitly political or feminist except for the use of the chador. My reading is based solely on my assumptions about the chador and the way the way it’s wielded as this loaded political symbol. Can you tell me why you used it?
Well, I had a chador as a prop on another set and I put it on and I felt like a bat/stingray. It felt supernatural to me. I wanted to ride my skateboard. Of course certain things are loaded with meaning. But, well, have you seen Thunderbolt and Lightfoot? Clint Eastwood plays a priest, but pretty quickly into the film you realize he’s actually not a priest — he’s a thief on the run and it’s a disguise, and I loved that.
For me, this isn’t about saying something about religion or politics or girls or gender. I don’t compartmentalize things that way. These things make up systems with which to organize your world, but when you peel back the layers there are strange, secret things in everybody that sometimes contradict what’s on the outside. That’s what I love. I’m about what you see is not what you get — ever.
Anupa Mistry is a writer living in Toronto. She is a former child genius who peaked in 8th grade, and has the ego to prove it.