Desiree Akhavan on Making Her Film a Reality

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In the spirit of Sundance, which kicked off this week in Park City, Paste had a chance to chat with one of the breakout stars of last year. Director, writer and leading lady Desiree Akhavan premiered Appropriate Behavior at the 2014 festival to immense praise, and this week it’s being released theatrically and on VOD through Gravitas Ventures. Over the course of the past year, Akhavan has been nominated for an Independent Spirit Award, featured as one of Filmmaker magazine’s 25 new Faces of Film, in Vanity Fair’s “Persia in New York” and just last week in HBO’s Girls.

It’s no surprise. Like Lena Dunham, Akhavan has a unique sense of humor and an introspective take on being a twenty-something in New York City. In Appropriate Behavior, Akhavan plays Shirin, a bi-sexual Persian who’s dealing with a massive break up. But she isn’t out to her parents, one of the reasons her relationship with ex-girlfriend Maxine (Rebecca Henderson) went sour. After Shirin’s brother announces his engagement to a family-approved Iranian woman, she begins to rebel, attempting to re-define herself and re-visit her journey with Maxine.

Akhavan’s thesis at NYU, the film exemplifies indie filmmaking and personal storytelling. Paste chatted with Akhavan about her past, making the film a reality and her advice to other DIY artists. She also reveals insight on Lena Dunham, Girls and her hopes for women in film.

Paste: First off, I’m a twenty-something who very much connected with Shirin. I have to ask, what’s the “appropriate behavior” for someone lost in that age group? You’re thirty now. Do you feel any more clarity?
Akhavan: I don’t feel any clarity about anything anytime. I feel like when you make a film you’re so in the thick of it you’re not thinking of the bigger picture. Maybe I’ll look back on this in five or ten years and have a real thought about it. There are many messages, and one was that you can love someone and they can love you and you can both be good people and it can just not work out. You’re not the right pair. In life, we fall in love with so many different people and they’re incredible, but the actual act of remaining around each other for longer than a year is incredibly painful. I don’t know if that’s a twenties thing or what? I still ask myself all these big questions. How do you maintain the love and the passion and the respect when day-to-day life pushes all those things down to the ground?

Paste:I don’t think we’ll ever stop asking those questions. I also can’t help but watch the film and think you’ve plucked some of these moments from your actual life. Have you always used your experiences for your art?
Akhavan: I mean one thing is that the scenes of the film aren’t lifted from my life. The experiences of being bisexual in this family and of having this relationship [turn] sour are true. That is something I’ve always done. Maybe I’ll grow out of it, and I’ll become inventive enough to make up stories! I think that life and these experiences tend to make me feel disempowered and that somehow working it into a narrative makes you in control of what’s happened. It’s no longer something that happened to you but rather something you manipulated and used for your own narrative.

Paste: I love the exploration of being a bi-sexual twenty-something in NYC. We don’t see it often. Has growing up in a Persian family with parents that are similarly conservative affected your sexuality personally and artistically?
Akhavan: It’s hard to diagnose exactly how these things bleed into life. I think I have an inherent sense of shame. Clearly it doesn’t work well enough for me to censor myself like I believe most Iranians do. I really want to please my family, which I think is normal. I would like to make them proud. It’s a push and a pull because with my work I find myself being incredibly absurd and exposing myself in a really ridiculous manner, and then in my head feeling the extreme shame and knowledge that everything I’m doing goes against what I’ve been raised to say or do.

Paste: You’re speaking my language! I’m from Texas and a conservative background. I totally understand. It’s crazy that you wrote this in your grad year at NYU. I’m curious about the writing process.
Akhavan: I write a lot of scenes, that’s how I like to start, the main moments that I think are important and that I’d like to see on screen. I also work a lot with index cards because once you’ve written the bulk of the pages giving it a shape or form is a real challenge. It was a matter of breaking down each of the narrative arcs. It took a really long time to figure out the structure. The plot unfolding was real challenge.

Paste: This was your first big feature. Did you have doubts and fears? If so, how did you quell them?
Akhavan: It all happened so fast. I just was really pigheaded about making it happen. The doubts and fears didn’t sink in until post. I was so determined to make it and get it in the can. Once we were in post and it all sunk in, I just thought, ‘Oh shit did we just waste everyone’s time and money?’ I remember my producers and I just looking at each other thinking, ‘It doesn’t matter what other people say as long as we’re proud of our work.’ The day we picture locked I remember thinking, ‘This is it. We’re proud of this and we can’t look back.’

Paste: What’s important about showing the messy, gray area of sex? I guess I’m asking for you to defend the graphic scenes in the film. Why was it important?
Akhavan: I think that there’s a difference between graphic, gratuitous sex and something that communicates something about the characters and the story and where they are in their life. Those scenes were crucial to exposing something about this woman.

Paste: Which was what?
Akhavan: That she was on a spiral and that she was using sex as a way to heal and cope and move forward. She wasn’t even able to connect to people sexually, let alone emotionally. Even the thing that usually gives people solace in breakups, that wasn’t working for her.

Paste: Your DP Chris Teague is stellar. He also shot Obvious Child. How did you work with him on set, especially since you’re in almost every shot?
Akhavan: We worked very closely together. We did a lot of prep, and I feel like he understood what I wanted. He’s a director as well as a cinematographer, but he also as zero ego. That’s the perfect combination for a great cinematographer. He understands story. Before each scene, he whittled down exactly what each scene was trying to communicate. We had a shot list and we understood what we were doing. We would always pow-wow and I could lead him to his work. He knew exactly what he was doing.

Paste: The prep makes sense given you shot this sucker in 18 days! What were three things you learned to pass along to anyone else shooting on such a tight schedule?
Akhavan: I would say do a lot of preparation. Make sure you’re all on the same page and that everyone has done their job. Limit your locations. We had a lot, but we didn’t do very many combinations during the day, which saves up time. I’d also say be flexible. You’re not going to get everything you scripted, and that has to be okay. You have to be able to think on your feet. You have to have a plan B, D, C, E, F.

Paste: You’re a part of this movement of female filmmakers, Film Fatales, which is awesome. As far as women in film go, there’s been one conversation lately. Do we embrace the system and use it to our advantage, or do we work outside the system?
Akhavan: It’s so personal. It’s about how you like to work and how you like to make films. I personally would like to build a place in the system and make a name for myself in Hollywood. Joe Swanberg produces and finds the financing and gets major Hollywood stars and is a big part of the investment team and he sells them himself. He’s doing it completely outside the system and on his own. And yet he’s selling all those films and doing really well and working at an amazing rate. That’s how he works. It would be incredibly obnoxious for me to say one system is better than another. It’s about how you enjoy living your life and working. I think that change can be made within the system and it takes inventive new storytellers. I, for one, really love the work that Lena Dunham is doing, and she’s proving that there’s a lot of money to be made off of funny, female-driven stories.

Paste: Speaking of Lena, you have to give me some hints about what your role is with Girls! How did it all happen?
Akhavan: Someone Lena works with had seen the film at Sundance and asked her to watch it. We met, and it was really nice. I very much like her as a person. A few months later, she emailed me to do a reading of the next season of Girls. Afterwards, she offered me the role. The role is a really pretentious, obnoxious graduate student who really undermines Lena at every go.

Paste: That’ll be fun to see you play someone pretentious! Shirin definitely isn’t. What do you have planned next as far as your own work goes?
Akhavan: Right now, I’m working on a television series. I developed it at the Sundance labs earlier last year in September. I am pushing that forward. It’s a half-hour comedy set in New York. The show is a bisexual dating comedy about a woman who’s been lesbian-identified her entire life and then she comes out of the closet as bisexual and she starts dating men for the first time in her life in her thirties.

Meredith Alloway is a Texas native and a freelance contributor for Paste, Flaunt, Complex, Nylon, CraveOnline, Press Play on Indiewire and The Script Lab. She writes for both TV and film and will always be an unabashed Shakespeare nerd. You can follow her on Twitter.