Desiree Akhavan on writing, directing and starring in her first feature

Desiree Akhavan on writing, directing and starring in her first feature

By Rachel Segal Hamilton IdeasTap 06/03/15

Filmmaker and actor Desiree Akhavan is best known for the web series, The Slope, and appearing as Chandra in series four of Girls. As her debut feature, Appropriate Behaviour, is released, Desiree talks to us about shorts vs web series, directing herself and filming sex scenes…

How did you know you were ready to make your first feature?

It was from making The Slope. Before that I was in film school and I had a very specific idea of what a “good film” entailed. Every time I set up a shot I would have a mini panic attack and be like, “Would Ang Lee approve of this?” 

When I started making the web series it was really liberating because it was this new genre that you could make up as you go. No-one had a preconceived notion about what a good or bad web series was. And there’s no way to monetise it so the pressure’s off. I worked really fast. It was rough, not perfect, but I really like what it is. I wanted to take that energy and apply it to a feature film.

Based on that, what advice do you have for other new filmmakers? 

Create your own opportunities. Before The Slope I kept waiting to get into the right film festival with a short. I spent $1,000 on entry fees, which I think breaks down to about 30 festivals. It got rejected everywhere.  It’s disheartening. It’s hard to see why some shorts are successful and others aren’t.

Not getting into any festivals and feeling like a failure was really good for me because then I looked at it from a new perspective. I was obsessed with making this calling card that would show my best colours, whereas with the web series I just wanted to make something funny. And it got such a good response. Suddenly everything I craved just fell into my lap because what I’d done was genuine. 



How much did the film change from the first draft you wrote?

The first draft I wrote was sort of along the structure of Scenes from a Marriage. There were 12 scenes over the course of a year of the life of this lesbian couple – from them falling in love to breaking up. I wrote it within my means – very few locations, very few actors.  I thought I’d shoot it on weekends. 

I showed that script to my best friend, Cecilia Frugiuele, who’s a producer in London. The Slope had some attention here in the Guardian and she started getting excited about it. She was like, “I think we could raise some finance. Why don’t we widen the scope of this script?” 

She really helped me shape it. We had all these conversations where she asked me, what about this girl’s family? What about her job? What neighbourhood of Brooklyn does she live in? Suddenly I had scenes and scenes and scenes and no idea of how to assemble them. When I put them together, they didn’t quite gel; there was no forward momentum. Then I came up with the idea of memory and a non-linear narrative. The original script [is what] you see in the flashbacks. 

I felt like every love story sold you this idea that love is forever. I kept finding myself having wonderful, meaningful relationships with fantastic people but it wasn’t going to work out for reasons that were nobody’s fault. That’s the story I wanted to tell.

In films, there’s already a lack of stories told about women – but even fewer about bisexual women. Was that something you set out to counter? 

I think I’m always going to be inherently on the margins of what’s normal – being from an immigrant family, being bisexual – so I end up having a political agenda. And it’s important to me to make work that’s true to my experience. I don’t think I’d take on an issue because it’s not getting enough representation. 

But I find it really fascinating that no-one has touched the subject matter of bisexuality. The thing that drove me into doing this too is that I myself hate saying I’m bisexual. It’s like saying, “Hi, I’m a huge slut.” It has such a negative connotation. And if anything makes me uncomfortable, I start writing about it.   

I believe that the thing that links good films together isn’t execution, it’s bringing a new conversation to the table. 

Appropriate Behaviour isn’t autobiographical but you draw on your own life experience. Have you got any pointers on doing that?

Identify the personal theme or emotion that you want to illuminate and then build around that. The mistakes I’ve made have been when I’ve been too literal, when I’ve stolen from conversations. I did that in a student film I made that I was holding too close to what had happened. That’s when shit gets bad. 

What is fascinating and anecdotal in real life is not necessarily going to translate to screen. You have to be faithful to the characters you create. I like to change character traits a lot. Because then you’re able to take something that starts off in the truth but then think, well this character wouldn’t respond that way and suddenly you’re making different choices. 

I don’t think it should feel cathartic or emotional. I didn’t feel like I was working through personal feelings when I was doing this. I felt like I was making a film.

What was it like shooting your threesome scene? Was it awkward?

In the morning we shot the previous scene. I had lunch with the actors. I didn’t want to eat too much – I was so nervous I was going to be naked in the afternoon. But I think what made it OK was that we were all in it together. I was putting myself on the line too. 

Basically we choreographed it to a tee. I showed them storyboards and we kept doing it with our clothes on and not actually kissing – just going through the motions of it. As we did that Chris [Christopher Teague – the cinematographer] figured out where the camera could be. 

It was intense but it was a fun day where we accomplished what we needed. When you’re doing sex scenes, everyone really overthinks it.

That’s an example of where acting and directing at the same time was an advantage – but were there times when it was difficult to juggle?

The first time we shot a family scene was a clusterf**k. It was day three and I hadn’t yet done a scene with so many people in it, which is tricky. I remember the camera was on my right and instead of being in the scene I kept looking into the monitor. The actor just stopped talking. After about 30 seconds I was like, “What’s going on?” And they said, “It’s your line.” 

After that everything changed. I decided: if we call action I’m not thinking of myself as a director, I’m turning that part of my brain off. Once we call cut I change back. Once I figured it out, it was easy.


Appropriate Behaviour is released in cinemas on 6 March from Peccadillo Pictures.
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