Discussing ‘Appropriate Behaviour’ with director Desiree Akhavan

Appropriate Behaviour“The very core of these messages are sexist. But I get it. It’s a machine. We’re trying to make it palatable to an audience that isn’t used to women being at the helm of ships. “

Fresh from storming the film festivals the world over, Desiree Akhavan’s debut feature Appropriate Behaviour is finally due to arrive in UK cinemas on general release.

It is a surefooted debut, and Akhavan has impressively commandeered the writing, direction and the acting. Though it can be said that the New York-set comedy wears its influences on its sleeves, it is no less affecting for the fact. Appropriate Behaviour is full to the brim with heart and humour, whilst playfully imparting its observations with a sardonic glint in its eye.

We caught up with Desiree Akhavan for an illuminating chat about her tough travails in cracking the industry as a teen, the inherent sexism that still exists in the media, the state of indie film and the joys of telling stories.

What’s funny now is that the indie films are the Oscar films“, she tells Greg Wetherall.

How long was the gestation period for this film? And how did the autobiographical elements fit in?

From pen to paper to premiere at Sundance was 2 years exactly. I wrote the first draft very quickly when I was doing the second series of the web series (The Slope). It was such a great experience that I really wanted to turn it into a feature.  The idea was to shoot something very inexpensively, in Brooklyn, with the resources that I had at hand. The initial idea was just the life of this couple, and then, once I had written my first draft, Cecilia (Fruguiele), my producer, noticed that I was getting a lot of praise in the Guardian and other UK blogs/outlets. She said that maybe we could make this together. She and I sat down and rewrote the script. I came out to London for a month and we just slept, ate, breathed and lived this story.

We changed the scope of it to include her family. She (Cecilia) was the one who helped me structure this story together, which was loosely inspired by Annie Hall; a story where you knew that the love aspect was doomed from the beginning and that it was this character’s journey to go through that.

It is not autobiographical, but it is very personal. It’s inspired by what I was dealing with at the time, which was the aftermath of a breakup and having come out to my family, but none of the events in the film took place. They were all events that were very convenient for a 90-minute narrative. What scenarios could I put this woman in? One who was a very silly version of myself; all of my best and worst qualities heightened. It is super personal, so it’s clearly inspired by everything that I go through in my life, but it was heavily influenced by the collaboration with Cecilia.

When the collaboration began, were you initially precious about your work? Was it hard to relinquish control?

No, it wasn’t. I really like collaborating with people. Especially when I wear so many hats. And because the work is so personal, it’s important to me that other people put their hands on it, because I don’t want it to be a diary entry. I don’t want it to be something that only speaks to me. I want to make something that other people can have a grasp of and I get that through the collaborations that go into making it.

What came first? Were you an actress who got involved in filmmaking? What was your journey into making that web series?

I’ve always told stories. I grew up in New York and I took acting classes as a teenager. It was never something that I saw as a possibility for a career. Actors look a certain way.

I saw an agent when I was really young. I was 15. She looked at me and said, ‘do you play basketball?’ I said, no. She said, ‘do you speak Arabic?’ I said, no. She said, ‘you’re never ever going to get a job’. And she was right. Looking the way I do, there’s nothing, but if you create opportunities for yourself, then you can do whatever you want. I was never going to walk into a room and have people want to use me as a blank canvass for whatever character they had. I think that being an actor in that respect is a very specific skill and it’s not one that I have.

I was always a storyteller and I like telling stories myself and writing stories for other people to tell. However I can utilise the tools at hand to tell stories makes me happy.

When I was 15, I wrote my first play. That involved my experiences at the time; I had depression, I was dealing with pharmaceuticals. It was a comedy about how badly I wanted to kill myself. It was really silly and I had all these fantasy sequences at my own funeral and how badly the college admissions guy was going to feel.  It was all really silly, petty stuff from when you are 15, but that was the first play that I ever did. I wrote more plays after that.

I really wanted to be a playwright and I thought that if I was really lucky, I’d be able to do theatre in New York when I grew up, but then when I got to university, I really didn’t fit into the theatre programme at all. I never got cast, my plays never got made. It was a really frustrating experience for me.

I took a film class on a whim. It wasn’t like, ‘this is a new career choice for me’. A friend of mine was taking a film class. She wanted to be a filmmaker and she said that if you come with me to this class, I’ll get you stoned on the ride over, so for free weed, I took this class! And I fell in love, and it was really instant. I thought, ‘this is it. This is the thing that I can do’.

I came abroad for a year to Queen Mary University and that’s where I met Cecilia, who lives here, and we made our first film together. Then I went back to New York, and after undergrad I went to film school at NYU, and I started making short films.

What’s next?

I have a pilot. I’m developing a television series that I’m really passionate about. It’s a bisexual dating comedy. I just went to the Sundance labs with it, which was two weeks ago, and it was an amazing experience. So, now I’m the process of taking the next steps forward with that. Plus, Cecilia and I have two features that we’re working on.

Are you particularly drawn to television at the moment? Do you think that is where the best writing is at the moment?

Appropriate BehaviourI think each story has a different life. I don’t think that all stories need to be told for more than 2 hours, but sometimes you really want to live with characters and the experience of being able to take as much time as you want and keep exploring with these people is so attractive to me.

I was raised on television. I’ve always wanted to write for television. I really enjoy TV and always have, so this is a long-held dream of mine. But, yeah, we are in a golden age where TV can take more risks. I think that, before, there weren’t so many platforms for television, so I would have had to fit my aesthetic or my voice onto something very palatable to the masses, whereas now, maybe I could find a Netflix or an Amazon or a Showtime, where they’re willing to take risks that we couldn’t take beforehand and put a woman like me or a voice like mine on the air and not put so many parameters on.

Do you find that with film, the middle ground is disappearing, where you have the big popcorn movies and the indie movies and nothing really in between?

What’s funny now is that the indie films are the Oscar films. If you look at something like the indie Spirit Awards in the States, they have the exact same films as the Oscars. There are a few commercial breakouts at Sundance every year, but they’re usually star-driven and they’re the more formulaic of the films there. It’s a really hard medium to monetize at this moment in time. I’m excited to see what’s next. I think that this is a growing period. It is tricky. I mean, what exactly is indie film? An indie film right now is 12 Years A Slave.

I detected some Mumblecore elements to Appropriate Behaviour. I was wondering, what were your influences? I know you mentioned New York-set comedies like Annie Hall

Woody Allen, Noah Baumbach. I don’t know how much of a direct influence she was on this, but I love Catherine Breillat and, in particular, her film A Ma Soeur! (2001). It’s very, very good. This is a TV show, but I am really heavily influenced by the tone of it, is Louie by Louis C.K. That series is fantastic. He has this tone that really dances between comic and tragic, weird and Lynchian at moments. The liberties he takes I love and admire a lot.

In terms of everything else, it’s comedies. I grew up watching Mel Brooks films and Tracey Ullmann, so those types of films were really influential as well.

You’re a first time director, who is starring in a self-written film. You’re also a woman and, sadly, history has taught us that antiquated and outdated views may still reside in Hollywood. Did you experience any prejudice or resistance in the making of this film?

I haven’t felt anything forthright. I was so championed by my producer that she really enabled me to do this. She believed in me so strongly that she convinced everyone around her. It’s been an incredible partnership… (thinks again)… not to my face… Everything is subtle and done with a smile in this world. Of course I do. Of course, whenever I read something about myself it’s cloaked in disdain… well, not disdain, I mean, it’s very subtle. I’ve read beautiful things that have been very championing, but there’s a subtle disdain that you read when you keep hearing of a girl’s knock-off or a Lena Dunham-esque world.

When people say those things, I don’t take it as an insult, because I really like Lena Dunham and I love her work – I’m happy to be compared – but I don’t see my male contemporaries categorised as such. That’s something that doesn’t escape my attention and I think if I were a male filmmaker it wouldn’t be the same. I don’t see the men in my category at Sundance praised as the next male Wes Anderson or Noah Baumbach or Woody Allen or any of that. They’re their own creatures. They are creating their own things. Yet, if you have the audacity to be a woman, who wants to be paid attention to, then you’re the next so-and-so or ‘a knock-off’, which is what I read and pissed me off!

I’m not personally offended, but it is prejudiced at the very core of it. The very core of these messages are sexist. But I get it. It’s a machine. We’re trying to make it palatable to an audience that isn’t used to women being at the helm of ships.

So far, so good though. It’s been very positive. I think that what makes my work compelling is the fact that I star in it, because it is so personal. If it were someone else, she might be an amazing actor – better than me – but it wouldn’t be quite as honest and the fact that I self-generate these stories makes it somewhat compelling that I also star in them.

Appropriate Behaviour is on general release from 6th March 2015.

You can follow Greg Wetherall on Twitter @gregwetherall.

About The Author

Having upped sticks and marched down the A13 from Essex into the smog of London, Greg can be found ranting and raging as the Film Correspondent on the Jon Gaunt Show from time to time and also on his weekly 'The Film Review' podcast (plug alert - available on iTunes and Audioboom). Aside from Front Row Reviews, he also scribbles regularly for HeyUGuys. Lowlights, thus far, have been John Hurt scolding with the question 'do you really think like that?', upsetting acclaimed filmmaker Ondi Timoner with his piece for the Sunday Mirror and falling out with the blog editor of the Huffington Post. Oh, and he did bring Liv Ullmann to tears (but in a good way... more of a highlight, that one). He can also be found writing on theatre and music for the Islington Gazette, Ham & High, Hackney Gazette, Bargain Theatre, SupaJam and others. He's often moaning about how tired he is, and he's a frustrated musician.

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