Sundance Director's Cut: Desiree Akhavan ('Appropriate Behavior')

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"Sundance movie" has become something of a dubious distinction over the last 15 years or so, the label suggesting a precious brand of rough around the edges indie filmmaking that labors to soften even the most sensitive experiences into sentimental claptrap. Desiree Akhavan's debut feature "Appropriate Behavior" is the kind of movie that helps restore "Sundance movie" to its proper definition. It's the kind of movie that Sundance needs because it's the kind of movie that needs Sundance.

"Appropriate Behavior" is sort of like "Annie Hall" if Woody Allen were a bisexual Persian girl living in Park Slope. An organic extension of Akhavan's popular web series "The Slope", the film chronicles the various misadventures of a vaguely employed Brooklynite named Shirin (Akhavan, unflinchingly funny in the role she was born to play) as she tries to figure herself out in the aftermath of her first lesbian relationship. Closeted to her strict Iranian parents, one foot in their immigrant culture and another in a bizarro episode of "Girls" where there's less narcissism and more races, Shirin has no idea what box she belongs to, struggling with how hard it can be when you don't recognize yourself in the world around you.

In a time when most films without movie stars aren't even seriously considered for Sundance, "Appropriate Behavior" finds Akhavan fronting a cast whose biggest names are Halley Feiffer, that bald guy from "30 Rock" (Scott Adsit, he's great), and your ex's best friend (always a scene-stealer). But here's the thing about "Appropriate Behavior" – it's really good. Unfortunately, given the glut of seemingly similar movies that are made possible by cheap digital cameras, and despite Akhavan's fan base, its immediate appeal and vitally fresh perspective don't guarantee it the attention it deserves. But Sundance does.

That movie where Kristen Stewart plays a Guantanamo Bay prison guard is going to be seen no matter what, but "Appropriate Behavior" needs to be rescued from oblivion. It's the kind of movie that's completely transformed by the festival. Last year, Akhavan wrote an IFP post in which she expressed concern that the film might "end up premiering at the Hoboken Film Festival for Ambiguously Ethnic Women & The Gluten Intolerant", but I'm glad things didn't quite work out that way. And now, whether or not "Appropriate Behavior" is a Sundance Movie, it's definitely a movie that's playing at Sundance, and that's really all that matters.

I met up with Akhavan for coffee in Chelsea Market, two days before she was flying out to Park City. Just as funny as the character she plays in the film, but more grounded and – dare I say – inspiring, Akhavan is exactly the kind of person who you want to root for at Sundance, extremely gracious but also confident in her voice. This transcription of our conversation doesn't include the confessional outbursts about my ex-girlfriends, tangents about the movie stars who've had sex with our friends, and why "Persepolis" creator Marjane Satrapi is Akhavan's hero, but the fact that those topics naturally came up should give you a pretty good idea as to how much went into "Appropriate Behavior", and how much you're likely to take away from it.

FILM.COM: So the movie is really good.

DESIREE AKHAVAN: Thank you! I’m so excited to hear you say that. I love the montage you made of the best films of 2013, by the way.

Oh, you saw that?

It made me really emotional. Well everything makes me emotional these days because it’s Sundance time.

Well, that’s nice of you to say. You might be the first person I’ve ever interviewed who’s actually done homework on me.

Well I like to know who I’m talking to.

[Laughs] That won’t last, but I’m glad I got to catch you while you still feel that way. Well, I wasn’t surprised that the movie was good or anything, but I know that you must have been nervous screening it for the first time, and your head is so in it by that point that you have no idea how other people are going to react, so I just wanted to be sure you knew.

Thank you. I was actually really worried after that screening because I had some issues with the sound and I ended up remixing it later, but I was like oh no all the press was at this screening and it was awful and now I’m going to die alone!

I’m sure that whenever anyone sees something they’ve made, all they can see are the flaws.

At least the first time, yeah. I hope it gets easier.

Do you think that it might get easier for you because... well, you have to be at least a little brave to star in your own movie. I mean, even with the s**tty short films I make I can’t even be in the same room when they screen.

Really? I feel like you have to but it’s painful, it’s really painful. I did a lot of theater and I performed a lot on stage and I loved it, but watching a film – especially because so many things can go wrong technically – it’s very painful.

Especially with a comedy, because the laughter makes sure you’re aware of how it’s playing.

Oh God. And you know sometimes you don’t laugh out loud when something is funny, and when I’m in a room I never think that the only test of whether or not something is funny is laughter. But when you’re the director that’s all you hear. You think if it’s silent then everyone must hate it.

I’ve actually been thinking a lot about how the movie was originally called “Disposable Lovers”, and I thought that changing the title to “Appropriate Behavior” provided a nice way into the movie so far as seeing it as a comedy about social and cultural identity.

Well, I’m verrrry bad at titling things, it’s my least favorite part of the process. Either you’ve got that talent or you don’t, and I’m just not one of those people. So “Disposable Lovers”, we titled it right as we were going to the IFP labs, and I kept thinking about disposable razors and I kept thinking that all of the people with whom I have a romantic encounter in the film is sort of like a disposable encounter. But then as time went on it was kind of a hard title to hear. Every time someone said it I would think “that’s not my film.” It’s funny, I actually have this other script that I’m working on called “Inappropriate Behavior”, it’s sort of an “Election-esque” comedy, and then it got to the point where my producer was like “I think we need to bite the bullet and call this one ‘Appropriate Behavior’ because it’s about a girl who’s trying to be appropriate in many venues but just because of her nature she’s always going to feel inappropriate.”

It’s always going to feel that way to her, at least.

Yeah. And there are certain guidelines to fitting into any of the communities that she was born into that she’s just not good at following.

The movie for me is really about those identity politics, and also shame. There’s a confessional breed of cinema in which shame is processed, can you talk about how movies became that tool for you, that way of exorcising your demons?

I’ve just always been like this, for better or for worse depending on who you ask. I’ve been writing plays since I was 10, I wrote my first sketch comedy show then, I was always a comedian, I always liked to perform and I didn’t have many friends growing up. When I was 14 I was voted the ugliest girl in my school.

Um, where did you go to school?

Horace Mann.

Oh, so you were in the city? Wow. I would have thought that was a backwoods racial indictment of some kind.

No! It wasn’t racial at all, I was just ugly. There was a super cute ethnic girl who was very popular. I never think that anything bad that happens to me has anything to do with my Persian-ness, especially having grown up in New York City. So that happened to me, and I remember the first big play that I produced at school – it’s funny, the actress who plays Crystal, Halley Feiffer, she and I both wrote plays at our school and started this little festival. But first I wrote a monologue about how it felt that this happened, because a teacher told me to. She was like “You’re kind of funny, you should write about it.” So that was the first thing I wrote, and I performed it for the school years later, and I remember feeling no shame. People were like “Oh, you’re so brave!” And I was like “Wait, what is there to be brave about? Should I feel embarrassed?” And I felt like the minute I wrote something it elevated it into something different. It was no longer just this thing that happened, it was an awesome story that I get to tell! A way to get more attention! It actually became something I had ownership of. And ever since then, things that get under my skin find their way into my work.

So that’s why a story about a girl coming out to her parents was such natural material for you?

Yeah, and also I think, working on this script for a year, I had a lot of perspective. It’s not strictly autobiographical, a lot of scenes were made up to service the narrative, and the sequence of events didn’t happen this way. These were just the themes that I was grappling with. And having the space and that time to explore like, “how would this work best in a narrative”, was what I needed. And also I think that if it were so deeply confessional, I wouldn’t be able to be in it. It would have been too painful.

So having the right kind of fiction that elevates it somewhere else is really important. You don’t want it to be just a diary put up on screen, I find that really boring and masturbatory. It’s actually a really delicate balance between what you think is urgent and has to be said and is specific to you versus what you want to communicate to an audience.

So making the film, and your webseries as well, was not a consciously meta-textual part of the process of coming out to your family or anything like that?

No. No. Because I deal with that in my life, and this is my profession. I actually take my work very seriously. For someone who’s so heart on her sleeve, I always felt like “this is my script, this is the character I’m playing.” I draw strict divides and my parents see my work as my work. And fortunately by the time I was shooting I was having a very different dialogue with my family. It wasn’t about coming out anymore, it was “How can we make Desiree make this film?”

That’s great.

How can we help her chase her dream? Not so much like “What about the gay thing!?” Fortunately, the position that “The Slope” put me in was that it allowed my parents to respect me. I think I was making work that people were gravitating towards and they were really excited about it. So in that sense it affected me, but the work itself never became something that they looked at and wondered... I think the fact that I made it and owned whatever situation I was in... I think it’s sort of like when a child falls over. If you freak out and go “Holy s**t, are you ok!?” The kid is gonna start crying. But if you’re like “Eh, it’s no big deal” then the kid is going to be okay. And I felt that way about coming out. Like for a little while I was like “Holy s**t, this is the worst”, and I really indulged them and myself. And then when it was ugly I started making “The Slope” and they just had to keep up.

That’s interesting, because one of the things that you don’t have in the movie is that big, tearful coming out scene with the hugging and the swelling music, etc. It’s so effective how it’s handled in the movie, heartbreaking but still hopeful. I’m curious if at this point – when those typical narratives have become so cliched that they’ve petrified and even disallowed other narratives – it would be worse to make a movie that has that scene than to not tell a story that speaking to an LGBT audience at all?

So are you saying “Is it better to make a s**ty gay film than to not make a gay film at all?”

I'm playing devil’s advocate a bit...

Well the thing is that that could be somebody’s reality. I mean, everyone loves the s**ttiest gay films. I could never say it’s a bad thing to make a gay film. When I came out I didn’t want to watch anything more than gay films, they were some of the only things that gave me comfort. In every respect it’s nice to have yourself reflected, be it some Middle Eastern cultural minority or some sexual minority, it’s nice to see it. So whether or not it’s heavy-handed, who cares? It’s just not the way I want to make films. But that’s someone story, you know? There are lots of narratives. I wanted to make films that I would enjoy but not discount films that other people would enjoy.

And part of the thing about the transition from film school to the web series to making a feature is learning how not to be beholden to your idea of what a film is. Was the biggest challenge of finally making a movie not getting caught up in the idea that you were making a movie?

Yeah! The very first second of the first day I remember looking into the monitor and not approving it. I would be like “Would Noah Baumbach be okay with that frame?”

[Laughs]

No!

He probably would. He’s not too picky.

I kept wondering “What would Noah do?” I was always like “I can’t approve this, it’s going to be in the final screening!” It’s so funny cause that scene got cut, but I was so caught up with that first frame. But then I let it go. Getting started, you always have that difficulty.

You know that could be really great advice, to always shoot something you don’t care about first.

Yeah, because that first day is a learning curve.

Well I appreciated that the movie was filmic, but also an organic extension of the web series. Were you conscious of what you wanted to bring with you from your previous experience as a filmmaker and what you wanted to leave behind?

Yeah, the preciousness of those film school shorts, I didn’t want to do that anymore. After that first shot I let it go, I pulled the stick out of my ass, and then I was like for better or for worse let’s just do it. Let’s get our hands dirty. And the first cut of the movie was awful. It was one of the worst things I’ve ever seen.

Do you have a four-hour assembly somewhere?

No, it was actually really short! It’s so funny, my stuff always ends up cutting short, and it was just bad. I kept looking at my resumé, and I was like what on here can I do again... should I be a nanny? How do I learn how to be a good barista? I wrote this really long letter to my producer that was like “We tried, we failed. Let’s move on.”

Wow. And filmmaking is so public. Everyone in your life knows your successes and failures as an artist.

I kept thinking of all the funders. I was like “Oh my God, they’re going to be so disappointed.”

Yeah, it’s never about the money, it’s never about “Oh, they’re not going to make a return on their investment.” It’s always about how they’re going to be disappointed.

It’s “Why did I believe in that dumb-ass, loud-mouth bisexual? Never again.”

Going back to the film school thing, do you think you had to go to film school to realize that you didn’t have to go to film school?

Well I got a lot out of film school. I had to go to film school to realize that I didn’t have to do it like everyone else, or the way that I was taught. I remember I was taught a lot of checklists from my directing teachers, and none of those were needed. I’m not sure if you can teach directing. I learned much more from my editing classes than I did from anything else. But working on all those shoots I learned so much, meeting all of those other people. But I just needed to believe in myself. It’s so cheesy. I have this Ira Sachs quote that...

I was just about to ask you about Ira Sachs.

No, I meant Ira Glass! All the Iras in the world are just precious. I read this one quote that said “All you have at first is your taste, and you just have to believe in it.” And I didn’t believe in my taste for a little while there. And I think they knock you down to bring you up.

They take away all your money to make sure you can fight to get it back.

Exactly. I don’t know how I would have done it otherwise. I’m not sure how anyone does anything.

AB lead

Well, you did it. So tell me, what was it like when you got the Sundance call?

I can’t talk about it or I’m going to cry. Since we started editing it’s just been a real slow burn. Like “Oh, that’s what a film looks like.” When you see the dailies you think you’re a rock star, and then you watch it together and I was like “Oh, I may not have a future.” So you deal with that reality for several months and then we submitted a rough cut to Sundance, and when I got the call I was... I don’t even know how to describe it, because never in my life have I had a dream that came true. It was the equivalent to me of like... I’m trying to think of who I had a crush on in 6th grade. It would be like Jonathan Taylor Thomas giving you a phone call and being like “Hey babe, let’s do this, wanna be my girlfriend?”

And now he’s waiting for your call. That’s actually a likely scenario. About your cast, I think in some circles it could be said that you have stars. I mean, a guy from “30 Rock”...

Scott Adsit agreeing to do the film...

I sort of feel like his character is the glue that holds the entire movie together, because I’m watching it as this cisgender white guy –

[Laughs] The fact that you knew the term “cisgender” is beautiful, though. You just negated your white guy-ness.

There’s a lot to negate. And then there’s Halley Feiffer.

Halley Feiffer is my oldest friend, and if she didn’t do it, it would have been quite shocking.

And she could tell you personally if Noah Baumbach would or would not have done something [Feiffer played Jesse Eisenberg’s girlfriend in “The Squid and the Whale”].

Yeah she could. She’s been my inspiration since I was 14 and I was really lucky to catch her at a time when she was free. We have a really talented cast, but I have no idea what it’s going to be like at Sundance at our level when you look at the other movies there.

Well, I don’t know, you look at like “Beasts of the Southern Wild”, and that didn’t have any name talent in it. And I like your movie so much more than “Beasts of the Southern Wild.”

But every year there’s a film like that that breaks through, and they’re never comedies, so I have a real curiosity about how it’s going to go.

It’s so hard to find the arc in a movie like this, in a movie that’s about the subtle maturation of a character. I’m curious if your plan was to introduce your characters as archetypes and then break away from that and develop them into fully realized people as they began to view themselves as such?

I think that’s what happened in the edit. But we cut so many jokes for the sake of saying that this film has to have two feet on the ground, these have to be real people not in a fantasy world. I think the mom in the coming out scene is a good example of that, because in some ways it’s silly and over the top, but in some ways it’s also the most honest moment when the mom is like “You’re not gay.” And the way that she looks at me, it’s so real.

The casting really gets to the heart of that idea.

Yeah, myself and my casting director Allison Twardziak looked for actors who could not make a joke of these people. Because then the things they do end up being absurdly funny, but also sad and alienating.

The movie does such a neat job of making the movie both universal and personal. I’m curious if being the child of immigrants gives you a head start as an artist in seeing the various boxes that people put themselves into, because people are always putting you into one? I’m not sure how I got there from what we were talking about.

I see your point. You were saying that you related to the movie on a personal level, and you’re just a cisgender dude, you know?

That’s what it’s going to say on my epitaph. "Here lies David. Cisgender dude."

[Laughs] I grew up so incredibly normal. I mean, sometimes I would look in the mirror and be taken aback not to see a white girl staring at me. I mean, Halley Feiffer was my best friend. I felt alienated by the Middle Eastern stories of struggle, I never quite related to them. But then the way I found myself rubbing up against the outside world I was like “Okay, I’m different, got it.” But I was raised on the same bullshit television as everyone else, I grew up on “The Brady Bunch”, being bisexual or Iranian didn’t change that. My parents are so American. They’ve lived here longer than they ever lived in Iran. Iran is a part of my life and Farsi is the language I speak at home.

So let me ask about sex toys in your work.

[Laughs]

I never get to ask, you know, like Kenneth Branagh about the recurring use of sex toys in his films, so I’ve gotta go for it. What do you think of their narrative value, and how did a dildo come to define the movie’s big opening moment?

It was just convenient. I was looking for something that would signify Shirin’s bond with Maxine, something that she potentially couldn’t take with her to the next relationship and represented an investment in their relationship. In the web series there was a scene that got cut about them negotiating the terms of the dildo. One of them not wanting to buy it, and the other saying “Is this your way of telling me that you’re not ready to commit to me because you can’t commit to this purchase?” Because they’re not cheap!

Who owns this when we’re done? How do you divide it?

That’s the sad thing, too. In no other relationship do you have a disposable dick. And to throw it away is painful.

It goes back to “Disposable Lovers.” I think everyone on both sides always feels disposable, no matter how great the relationship was.

Completely, especially when someone has tossed away something that meant so much to them.

Yeah, the dildo was literally the way they connected.

[Laughs]

It’s a great metaphor, and it strikes me as the kind of thing that, if you didn’t break free from the expected idea of how to make movies, you would never have included. Like “Noah Baumbach would never do this.” Although he might.

Yeah, I can’t imagine doing that without having made “The Slope” cause I would have thought it was so silly. And now I’m able to look back and see that it has a little depth and it’s also a stupid, funny gag. It’s a couple of things at once.

And the extras down the street in that scene, those construction workers, they sort of spring out of the frame when you come towards them.

I think men are really, surprisingly intimidated by a 5’10 lady running at them with a strap-on penis.