It’s easy to see writer-director Desiree Akhavan in the protagonist of her debut feature film, Appropriate Behavior. Like Akhavan, Shirin is the bisexual daughter of Iranian immigrants, living in Brooklyn, and navigating the trendy social scene of the 20-to-30somethings. Akhavan wrote the film, which centers on a breakup, as therapy when dealing with an actual breakup. And she plays Shirin herself. But while Akhavan is already an acclaimed web-series producer whose debut film is getting raves, Shirin is one of those awkwardly lost women who’s trying to figure out how to navigate the world: How and whether to come out to her parents, how to deal with a job that’s well outside her expertise or interests, and how to escape a vague dissatisfaction that resolves into irresponsibility and indecision. Appropriate Behavior is a wry, lively comedy, but also a self-effacing one that navigates the grief of a splintered relationship. It’s funny, but also mournful and sexual in equal percentages.
Appropriate Behavior has garnered heavy comparisons with Lena Dunham’s Girls—especially since it emerged that Akhavan will be a guest on the show next season—but Akhavan suggests there’s something suspicious about the comparison, and the way it implies there’s only room for one woman at a time writing about young women in Brooklyn. Ahead of the film’s December 16 release via iTunes, The Dissolve talked to Akhavan about the comparisons, and about onscreen sex, cultural comedy, and being the nakedest person in the room.
The Dissolve: With a debut film that has so many autobiographical elements, it’s tempting to see your protagonist character as you. How is Shirin most different from you?
Desiree Akhavan: I think Shirin is all of my most absurd impulses explored, a bit like a choose-your-own-adventure. It felt like a heightened, absurd version of everything you would hope to do, but definitely know better than. I don’t think I’m as reckless as Shirin is. I am far more—hopefully—respectful and reserved. The attitude I had on set when I was playing the character was just, “Both feet in, go for it,” in a way I don’t think I am in real life. In real life, I’m actually far more shy, a little withdrawn, constantly observing the world around me, which I see as a trait in a lot of filmmakers I know. This was actually my opportunity to just go for it.
The Dissolve: And yet the humor in the film is extremely deadpan.
DA: Yeah. That’s my sense of humor. I like throwaway jokes. I don’t like overselling them. And the script is so over-the-top to me that in the execution, I really wanted to have two feet on the ground as much as possible. So that’s why it was important to me to keep everything dulled-down a bit, and not have all the characters winking into the camera. We played everything really straight. And I had heard every joke rehearsed so many times that they were no longer funny to me. I think there was some laughter on set, especially with the family scenes. But personally, when I’m at that stage of shooting, I do not find anything funny. I think the best jokes are delivered without a smile.
The Dissolve: Did you use the autobiographical elements in the same way to keep your feet on the ground, by writing what you know?
DA: You know, it’s just the way I am. I write things that are deeply personal, and if something gets stuck in my head, it’s there. But of course, there’s so much difference between my life and this story. There are things that happen in it that have not happened in my life. When I was writing it, I was really in the thick of having just come out to my family, and a break-up, so those elements were true. But my ex-girlfriend was nothing like this character, and my coming-out was nothing like this. It’s just how I experience life, how I process life. Every film I’ve made has been a direct response to something that happened. I think that as I develop as a human being and as a filmmaker, I plan to take this with far more salt. And the next projects I have are more arm’s-length from me. I’m adapting a young-adult novel right now, and I have a prep-school comedy that’s sort of like a female Rushmore. Of course, it’s personal in that I went to a New York prep school, and I wanted to explore that world, but I take huge liberties, and it’s more of a made-up story. But the kernel in these stories… That’s my way of working. I find the thing I can latch on to, and then I take it from there.
The Dissolve: An interview from 2012 described Appropriate Behavior as an Election-esque autobiographical comedy based on your close friendship with a teacher at your prep school. How did the film evolve from your first conception?
DA: I know that exact article! That was the Filmmaker magazine interview. They were completely different films. That’s the prep-school comedy I still want to make. The title of Appropriate Behavior wasn’t given to the film until the week before we went into production. I could not think of a title for it, and I had this other script my producer knew about, which we had always wanted to make, but it’s a much higher-budget film. And I’d called it Appropriate Behavior. I’d had that title for that script since I wrote it years ago. The entire time, we were brainstorming titles for this film, and we came up with 20 really shitty titles, and exhausted every idea we had. And finally, my producer looked at me, and she said, “You’re going to have to sacrifice the other title.” The only title we could come up with that would fit this film ended up being Appropriate Behavior, as a commentary on the fact that Shirin was incapable of appropriate behavior. I guess that’s a running theme in the things I write—characters deemed inappropriate.
The Dissolve: We’re constantly reading about what a hostile environment filmmaking is right now for women writers and directors, and for stories about women. How did you go about getting this film made?
DA: Fortunately, those stories you’re reading about have a lot more to do with people making films on a higher tier financially, and who are further along in their careers. With a first film, and especially working way below the $500,000 mark in the ultra-low-budget category, it’s a different journey. My producer and I met 10 years ago in undergrad. I studied abroad in London, and she lived in London, and we met there, and immediately had a kinship, and made our first film together. And then I came back to the States, and every six months, one of us would fly to see the other. She studied producing at the graduate level, and I studied directing, and we always knew we wanted to work together on a project, but it just never was the right time. And then when I was making this web-series called The Slope, we were getting press for that in the U.K. I had the first draft of this script written, and I showed it to her, and she said, “I think I can get my production company to finance this.” So we worked together to write and re-write to make it work within our budget. They raised the money in the U.K., and that’s how it happened. But it was all about writing something within our means that we could shoot in New York with the people we knew.
The Dissolve: The film has been compared a great deal to Lena Dunham’s Girls, and it also has elements of recent films like Obvious Child and Frances Ha—they’re all stories about women who are technically adults, but are immature and awkward and not particularly well-equipped as grown-ups. Do you see a reason why we’re getting such a wave of variations on this story right now?
DA: You know, I’ve seen this kind of story written about men my entire life, so it’s really odd to me when I hear that there’s this new wave. I feel like women are just beginning to give themselves permission to not play the mother, the daughter, or the girlfriend in films. And I think it’s just the beginning of women-directed stories. I’ve been watching the most absurd, infantile behavior in males forever, so then the idea that this is a new wave of women being craaaazy, it’s ridiculous to me. No, more women are directing, more women are writing their own stories, more women are feeling less ashamed to be honest about what it is to be a human being. That’s it. I honestly don’t see this as a wave, I see this as the beginning of adding women to the mix of auteurs. Moving forward, not all films directed by women are going to deal with this subject matter, but the women who are doing these films are now in their late 20s, early 30s.
The Dissolve: The other film that’s brought up over and over in relation to Appropriate Behavior is Woody Allen’s Annie Hall, in terms of the breakup and flashback structure. Is that another false equivalency for you?
DA: No, I was very aware of Annie Hall’s structure, and we even, with one of the shots in the film, paid homage to—that’s my polite way of saying stole recklessly—a shot from that movie. I love that movie, and that was the first movie I saw that showed me… I feel like cinema is responsible for these crushed romantic expectations I grew up with, like many people did. Annie Hall was one of the first films that told me the love story of a couple that wasn’t meant to be. I had this idea before in my head, like “There are good people who fall in love, who stay together forever, and that’s love. That’s happily ever after. If you break up with someone, it’s because they were a bad or abusive person.” Annie Hall was a story that was like, “These people were totally in love, and meant to be together, and then meant to not be together.” And that’s why I loved it so much.
The Dissolve: You don’t waste time in the movie on explaining what Shirin thinks. There isn’t a lot of dialogue where she lays out what she’s feeling. Did you set yourself a goal of trusting the audience to pick up the nuances, to not need hand-holding?
DA: That’s something I believe should be in all good writing. If you’re overexplaining yourself, you’re doing something wrong. Your audience should be with you, and if your performers are doing their jobs, they should be in the characters’ heads. And if the plot is moving forward in the right way… Your script should stay tight. I really don’t like spoon-feeding, and I think that we, the audiences, are far more intelligent than anyone gives us credit for. I’m so obsessed right now with the film Force Majeure, which I watched twice last week, because I loved it so much. That’s a really good example of a film that not only walks this very fine line in tone, but that leaves a lot up to the audience, especially with the last 30 minutes.
The Dissolve: The sex in Force Majeure, like the sex scenes in Appropriate Behavior, communicates a lot about characters with even less explanation than the rest of the film. There’s a lot of deep emotional current going on whenever Shirin’s in a sexual situation, but again, it’s never spelled out what she’s feeling. What were your thoughts going into these sequences?
DA: To me, those were the most important scenes in the film, and it’s just because I personally care a lot about how sex is depicted on the screen. And the films that I deeply love, like Catherine Breillat’s work, or The Piano Teacher, those are films that communicated a lot through sex. It’s funny, before I became sexually active, I watched films with sex scenes, so I assumed, “Oh, and then sex happens. It happens uniformly, everyone does it the exact same way.” But when I became sexually active, I realized so much is communicated through the way people fuck. It’s so frustrating in movies when—the fact that you would miss that opportunity when you already opened the door, when you already have two characters who are kissing, and then fall down onto the sheets, and then you cut to the fireplace or whatever. You miss this huge opportunity to communicate where they are, individually and with each other. And why did you lose that screen time? Why would you waste that opportunity? When I was in film school, this amazing editing teacher, John Tintori, did this whole class on sex scenes. We watched the sex scenes from Lust, Caution, which is incredible. What is Lust, Caution without those scenes? Everything you know about that woman and her dilemma, which is the entire point of the movie, is communicated through the way she is having sex with that man. And it’s none of their dialogue together. The way I pursued these sex scenes just shows what a dork I am for good films, and films with good sex scenes. Red Road and Fish Tank are also films with incredible sex scenes.
The Dissolve: You’ve talked in other interviews about how part of what you wanted to get at, particularly with the threesome scene, was this sense of currents, power dynamics, and emotions changing during sex. Was that scene in particular tightly scripted? Is there any room for finding those currents in the moment in something so intimate?
DA: It was on the page, and I got lucky. I was open to us taking it somewhere else, because these are humans, and these are our bodies. And you know, anything can happen when you’re shooting something that intimate. But I think because I’m in the scene, and I was the most nude, everyone else was cool with whatever I wanted them to do. Whereas I think if I had just been directing the scene, and not been part of it myself, it would have been maybe a different situation. But this is how it was scripted. That that was the dynamic that happened, and I was very lucky to be doing it with people who were game.
The Dissolve: There’s so much embarrassment and awkwardness in the film about cultures—the grim sincerity of lesbian culture, the garish Persian clothes and attitudes at the party, all the awkwardness around the children’s school. Were these things where you particularly wanted to highlight the absurdism of life as you’ve experienced it?
DA: Yeah, for sure. I feel uncomfortable in most situations I’m in, and I belong to all of those communities. And I don’t know how to belong, but I technically belong to them, and my time is spent among them. I feel very left out of all of it. Not to say that people are mean and bullies and leave me out. It’s just this weird knowledge that I don’t belong, and I was born into these communities that don’t quite know what to do with me. A film I grew up really identifying with was Muriel’s Wedding. Up until I was 21, 22, I felt like I was always pledging to be a member of these sororities I didn’t even want to belong to, just because they were the only sororities around me, like the only social groups or cultures that I’m from. And then as I got a little older, I realized, “No, I think there’s a reason I don’t belong, and it’s me too, we are not fit for each other.” And yet I really have affection for these groups, because they’re who I am.