As the old Beckett adage goes, “Nothing is funner than unhappiness, I grant you that. Yes, yes, it’s the most comical thing in the world.” And in her heartfelt and gutturally funny feature debut, Appropriate Behavior, Desiree Akhavan proves that’s certainly true—giving us a genuinely funny and delicately nuanced tale of heartbreak and self-discovery. As the writer, director, and star of the film, she’s crafted a story filled with a refreshing sense of energy, that’s both poignant and full of strength, as well as simply enjoyable to experience.
Having evolved as the follow-up to her web series The Slope, Akhavan’s Appropriate Behavior dances back and forth between memories of her failed recent relationship and the consistent series of missteps in her current post-break up world, as she attempts to navigate the abyss of the future. And as a bisexual Persian Brooklynite trying construct an identity for herself and find a way to articulate her sexuality to her family, Akhavan’s Shirin undergoes an endless series of emotional pratfalls while trying to deconstruct just where it all went wrong with her last girlfriend Maxine.
Filled with a cast of talented actors and strong personalities, Akhavan is brilliant in her role and gives us a complex look at sexuality and the way we relate to the world around us and deal with the love we’re faced to lose. So last week, it was my pleasure to chat with the first-time feature filmmaker to discuss the emotional origins of this story, writing humor with caricature, and taking ownership over your own experiences.
I was at the screening last Friday and before it began, you said this was the first time you were watching it entirely completed. How was seeing it for the first time and to have everyone there for that?
It was really strange, but really exciting. I was very surprised by the jokes that landed. It was interesting how the slapstick humor really communicated more than some of the more sarcastic or witty comments—I liked that, that was entertaining to me.
So you had made your web series The Slope prior to this, but how did Appropriate Behavior come about for you and evolve from that?
Well, I was working on the web series and during the second season of the show I started writing a feature. It was a very different script back then—at first wanted to adapt the web series into a film. Then when I decided I didn’t want to adapt the series into a film anymore and my co-director and I parted ways, I realized that I wanted to make something completely different and that’s when the family started to play a larger role in the script. I think the heart of the film is really the family and her relationship to the family and her coming out process.
In your notes for the film you say that this is something that’s really been brewing since you were a child. Can you tell me about your background as a filmmaker? Was writing something you were always drawn to?
I really wanted to tell stories in whatever format that took. So I wrote plays growing up—my first play I wrote when I was ten, and I was constantly putting on plays in school. Then when I got to college, I took a film class on a lark and just fell in love very fast. It was a revelation for me. It never seemed like an option for me to make films. I grew up in New York and I thought that theatre was a possibility, a very realistic goal. It was lofty still, but it was something I saw people around me doing and thought I could maybe pursue. But then I realized film would be so perfect and I could have so much more control—it all comes down to being a horrible control freak. So in college I took more classes and added a double major and I went to NYU’s graduate film school. Then I just did a bunch of short projects; it’s just where my voice found itself. I really wanted to make films that reflected the things I was grappling with. At the time I was writing this, I had recently come out to my family and I wanted to find some way to communicate that. I was trying to break down my last relationship and see exactly where it went wrong. So I watched Annie Hall a lot and that film really inspired me to go this route with the narrative.
I really loved and admired the balance between the comedy—which was so strong–and the genuine way in which you dealt with the real pain and confusion of ending a relationship with someone you love deeply. It’s a fine line to walk when portraying something genuine that’s also laugh out loud hilarious, so what was the tone you were looking to strike?
All the filmmakers I want to emulate do that really nicely. I think Noah Baumbach does a fantastic job of balancing that, as does Sarah Polley whose work I really love. But that was a scene by scene struggle, and from every aspect of production—from writing to editing it—we were always like, is this going too far in one direction? It was a lot of pulling it back to where we thought it wasn’t gratuitous. We kept wanting to earn our jokes or earn our sad moments and never be too masturbatory or too self-pitying. It’s also a testament to my editor and producer, who both had a big hand in finding the right balance. I relied on them heavily to look over things and get me out of one schtick or the other.
Had you written it with the intention of playing the lead in the film? For a script that seems to stem from a very personal place, did it just make sense to imprint yourself on it that much more?
After I started the web series, it was a natural next step. I never considered casting someone else. I just knew that if I really wanted to put my money where my mouth was, I was going to have to do it myself—not to say that an actress wouldn’t have done a great job, but it was just right for this project. I don’t know if it will ever be right again, but sometimes you know in your gut how you want to portray something, and for this story it felt right to do it myself.
Was it challenging, for your first feature, to take on the starring role as well as being the director?
It was actually really positive, but it was definitely a challenge, and it took a couple days to find my footing, In terms of how I wanted the work to flow, I really had to detach myself once the camera was rolling. The first few days I kept finding myself tempted to look at monitors. One time we were doing a reverse on on someone I was talking to in a scene, and my eye kept wandering to the viewfinder in the camera, and I kept thinking I can’t do this, I need to be in it 120%. Once I figured that out, the balance between directing and totally throwing yourself into a scene, I felt very comfortable and really enjoyed that experience—but you’ve got to figure it out first. It’s a little bit of patting your head and rubbing your stomach at the same time.
How did you and Allison [Twardziak] go about casting. Eve the minor characters, like Felicia her roommate, were all really perfect for their roles. What were you looking for in terms of the supporting cast?
Allison and I were very much on the same page. We just wanted to keep it as two feet on the ground as possible and as realistic, just to avoid making caricatures. Like I think Annalisa [Rose] (Felicia) is a really intelligent artist and she understood that this was a farcical role, but still a real person. So I never wanted to take the piss out of anyone. And Alison was the same way, she knew this world and she knew what I wanted to put on screen. Our challenge was really finding Middle Eastern people. I’m not involved in that arts community of Iranians and that was my challenge. But when it came to finding people who fit into this world, Alison just knows so many great actors and so many different people. I remember her first day she brought in most of the people I ended up casting—it was kind of beautiful—but we still looked for weeks even though I knew what I wanted and I knew we had it on the first day. But I remember a couple days later a bunch of agents sent us people and they all looked like people in a very glossy film. I wanted to make a very different film, and I thought, if I cast these people, it would be a much more shiny, glossy cohesive narrative. But I had no interest in casting the butch lesbian stereotype either or the freaky artist. I really wanted to keep it nuanced and have you like each of the characters in their own way.
Although the film was a love story and a break up story between two women, the love and the challenges were entirely universal. Did you think at all about people looking at the film as a gay romance or how that would translate?
I didn’t think about that at all actually, and now people ask me if I was worried about that. But I wasn’t at all because I don’t worry in life. When I’m with a woman, I’m not walking around thinking, Oo it’s a gay relationship, we’re gay ladies in love. It feels very much like the relationships I’ve had with men, so I never wanted to shoot it differently on film. And how people react to it is kind of out of my own hands. I’m aware that we may get pigeonholed and I’m aware that we may not. I have faith in the movie going audiences that this would be perceived like any other relationship. It all depends on how others market us and how we’re perceived. I like to think this is just first in a long line of romantic films that treat same sex couples like human beings or not victims.
What is your writing process like? Were the actors improving at all on set and did the script change once you locked in the cast?
Once I come to set I like my script pretty locked. There were a couple occasions where time permitted and I let people play around, but the final cut is very close to the script. I rewrite a lot—my process is rewriting. I work really closely with my producer and love to act out the scenes. I spent a year just going over it act by act, scene by scene,and character by character. I write very rough drafts very quickly and then I write a lot of content and then I pair it down. I really try to get in there and make sure each scene is earned. I don’t like to play around if I’m under a time constraint. If I ever have the privilege of shooting for more time, I would love to play around and have a feel—that would be fun.
I loved how the film danced back and forth and jumped from their relationship her present life. It really gave the story an interesting sense of life and kept you engaged. I know you mentioned Annie Hall as a reference for that but were there any other films or writers you found inspiration in?
In Julie Delpy’s films, I think she does a really nice job of dealing with time. I also looked at Scenes From a Marriage, which is very episodic. I love episodic structures and I thought for this story this was appropriate. Another film I really love is Muriel’s Wedding. That’s a film I really worship and looked it, but I feel like these are people who tell stories that don’t follow a classic narrative yet you’re still engaged somehow.
What role did the different spaces and locations in Brooklyn play for in narrative?
I moved to Brooklyn straight out of college and found for myself that each neighborhood as a different personality. Then as I moved around, I felt like I was switching identities with each zip code. If I moved back or visited the old neighborhood, it was never the same. It’s just a place in constant flux right now, and I thought that really suited the film and suited the narrative of coming of age and figuring out your identity. It’s a place where adults live, and in your 20s you’re sort of an adult but still dealing with these ridiculous growing pains, except without the support of your family or any guardian—there’s no guidance counselor.
And how did your character’s job of teaching filmmaking to children come about? Was that taken from your own experience?
I’m glad that that made the film because it that really had the loudest comedic moments in that screening. People really liked it, and it provides a really funny break and perspective from this girl inside her own head. There’s a world outside of her that’s so different from her day to day. But that’s one of the few things that I did steal from life. I did teach filmmaking to five-year-olds and didn’t realize they’d be five when I got the job. They were all boys and I was a terrible teacher. My boss was not a stoner and he doesn’t lose his children, so it wasn’t strictly true to life—but I was really bad at it. And I was writing the script while I was teaching and it found its way into the script and I always wondered if it would stick, but it ended up being such a great vehicle for change and it was just too good to pass up.
Before the screening, you mentioned that you’d been here a year prior and amazed at how the filmmaker had everything all together and something completed. How does it feel now to be in that position?
It doesn’t feel completed, just having finished days ago. It’s still new to me; ask me in a couple months. It hasn’t really sunk in yet. Any second now it feels like I’ll have to go back to nannying or teaching filmmaking to those five year olds. No, I don’t think I could ever get that job again, I think I’m fired for life.
Is there a reason you’re drawn to telling these very person stories that stem from your own life? Does it feel cathartic for you to have made a first feature like this?
I don’t know how to communicate otherwise. You know, it’s gaining ownership of something that happens to you. It’s like having a sense of power in that situation—any situation, as small as having bad sex with someone or as dramatic as you coming out to your family. It’s feeling like that’s your story and you have a bit of control. The film isn’t true to life. Nothing happened that way, nothing worked out that way or was said that way but this is my reality of the world just entirely skewed. But I like creating that reality. If anyone’s going to engage in it in any way, that’s how I derive pleasure.
I wanted to ask you about the sex scenes as well. I thought you did a really fantastic job of making them so natural and familiar—both the good and the bad. Was that something of importance to you?
That means a lot to me. I really care about how sex is depicted on film. It usually goes one or two ways: it’s either incredibly smooth and effortless and beautiful or incredibly awkward and pained—a they’re both quite one note. In my own experience, usually they move in and out of awesome and terrible, and I never saw that. There’s a filmmaker I really like, Catherine Breillat, she did Fat Girl, I love her work and she really gets into it with sex in a graphic way that I respond to. I didn’t want to go about in quite that way, we’re very different, but I really admire the way that she shows sex and I wanted to do something that danced back and forth a bit and showed the subtle power shifts that happen. Especially when you have sex with a stranger or someone you don’t know very intimately, it’s neither one or the other. There’s a muddy grey area that is clearly shown—especially with women pursuing pleasure.
Are you pretty thrilled and nervous to take the film to Sundance?
It’s a dream come true. I’ve known for a month and a half now, and at first it was just complete shock, and then it was elation, and then this week I think the reality of it sunk it. So this week is when the actual terror of the reality of it is hitting me. It can make or break a film and I’m shocked that we’re in that arena. I’m very, very lucky.
Do you want to continue telling these kinds of personal, intimate female stories? Do you feel like Appropriate Behavior is a good introduction to you as an artist?
Definitely. I don’t think they’ll all be starring me for sure. I have another feature script that I want to shoot next that’s sort of an Election-esque high school comedy that would star a teenage girl and her teacher. But yeah, that story is personal to me as well and inspired by my years growing up in New York City at a very competitive prep school in the Bronx. I really care about these personal stories and particularly these women’s stories and the struggling, ugly stuff that people don’t talk about.