One of the films taking part in this weekend’s Sundance’s Next Fest is Ana Lily Amirpour’s A Girl Walks Home Alone At Night. Billed as the first Iranian Vampire Western, the film is a unique mix of genres and cultures, complete with a chador-wearing vampire (Sheila Vand) stalking her prey on a skateboard. To put it another way, A Girl Walks Home Alone At Night very well might be the coolest movie you see this year.
The Hollywood Reporter caught up with director/writer Amirpour to discuss the film, her obsessions and the band Warpaint, which she’ll be sharing the bill with on Sunday night.
The Hollywood Reporter: This film is set in Bad City, which looks like it’s based on film noir and graphic novels rather than an actual place. So why was it important to you to place it in Iran?
Ana Lily Amirpour: The film is really a dark fairy tale, it’s not the real world, and Bad City is a strange place born from inside my slimy brain caves. When you make a fairytale it can be whatever you want, so I turned a small desolate oil town in California into a ghost town haunted by a vampire. It happens to be that these characters are Iranian, so the world they belong to is as well. But it’s an interesting question because I think a lot of it has to do with me; I’m Iranian, born in England, but also American, and grew up in California, so somehow the world of the film is this mash-up of things that are part of me.
This film is Quentin Tarantino-esque in the way it borrows and blends from different national cinemas and sub-genres to create something new. Are you a big film nerd like Tarantino?
Tarantino is one of my obsessions, so for you to compare anything I do to him gives me a huge boner. I geek out on lots of stuff though, not just movies, and it grows out of what I’m working on at the moment. Music is huge, it’s everything — right now I’m listening to a lot of Black Light Smoke, Bob Moses and Footprintz. I love dancing, graphic novels, Bruce Lee — and not just his films, but his philosophies on life are epic — David Lynch, Jim Phillips’ skateboard art, skateboarding, Burning Man, and sometimes I get obsessed by a movie character or icon, like right now it’s Bridget Bardot and on the last film it was James Dean, and I’ll watch all of their movies.
I think one of my basic human needs is to show people what I love and am obsessed with and making a movie is a perfect way to do that. David Lynch, Tarantino, Harmony Korine, [Nicolas Winding] Refn, I think you feel their love for things in their films and it makes you love the things they love, so somehow it’s like falling in love with them through their obsessions.
What were some of the specific film influences for Girl?
In the beginning there were three films that I had everyone watch: Rumblefish, Wild At Heart and Once Upon A Time In The West. So that was some of the original building blocks. Also the movie Gummo has been a huge influence on me. I’m obsessed with small, rundown towns stuck in past decades. I call it “ruin porn.” Bad City is a town like that, and Xenio, Ohio, from Gummo is like that, and Big Tuna in Wild At Heart is like that — filled with these strange people who are so bizarre, how they look and talk, they almost feel invented.
Speaking of inventing characters, I looked up Dominic Rain, who plays Saeed the scary looking pimp in your film, and was shocked that he was this clean cut, handsome guy. How did you come up with this character?
Well, another one of my obsessions is the South African rap/rave duo Die Antwoord. I love them hard. And Ninja [front man for Die Antwoord] was the muse for what Saeed was going to look like. Dominic Rains is an amazing and committed actor. He gets into the character completely and was game to go all the way with the physical transformation to becoming this pimp. You remember Bobby Peru in Wild At Heart? How can you not? That’s probably my favorite role of Willem Dafoe, he’s one of the greatest gangsters of all time and he’s barely in the film a few minutes. Also Gary Oldman in True Romance is another great example, so is James Franco in Spring Breakers. I think it’s great fun for an actor to have a physical transformation and become an epic character like that. I love designing a gangster; they’re like the juice in a movie, the electricity.
There’s some real emotion in this film mixed with a great deal of stylized playfulness. Were you ever worried everything would mesh together into a cohesive whole?
A film is like a dream and so it’s truly limitless. I guess that’s terrifying on one hand, but it’s also pure fucking magic. Infinite possibilities. And a dream doesn’t care about making sense, it just has to be consistent to its own universe and it has to feel real. With Girl I believed in the script, which at its core was a simple love story about two lonely people, and that was the backbone of everything.
Making a film is like being an explorer into these things and there’s an element of constant discovery. But since the things I’m exploring are my own fascinations, they always made sense to me. You see lots of weird things in your dreams, but you never question them. They come from you, so it makes sense.
Is it true you had some projects stuck in Hollywood development before you got frustrated and went out to make this film?
Every filmmaker I know has some project or script or something and they are stuck waiting for someone to say yes. It’s like we get trained to look at what isn’t there, instead of what is there. There’s a way to make a film with what you’ve got, with people you know, and what’s available. Be like water and adapt to the shape of the place I’m in, like Bruce Lee. That’s what I did with Girl. I figured the people who tune in and are turned on by what I was doing would reveal themselves along the way, and they did.
And so how did Elijah Wood‘s SpectreVision become involved?
Elijah is a great example. I had already written the script for Girl and put together the cast, soundtrack, locations and a short film that was like a shop piece, so there was a nice complete package in place and around that time he heard about the project through a mutual friend and he could really see what it was going to be and he loved it. For him an Iranian Vampire Western shot in black and white was as exciting as it was for me, and he was starting SpectreVision and wanted to make next-level genre films, and so our paths converged and we made this film.
There’s a few scenes that are completely driven by these amazing songs I’d never heard before. Can you talk about the use of music in your movie?
When people comment on the music, and say they love it, I feel an unmatched sense of peace. All those songs were written into the script and I got all the artists involved before I shot the movie, because I knew I would be playing it on set, and building whole sequences around those songs.
I’m so proud of the soundtrack. It’s an eclectic mix of the modern Iranian rock of Kiosk and Radio Tehran, vintage Iranian music by Dariush, whose son Milad [Eghbali] is in the film, the Middle Eastern fusion beats of Bei Ru, the techno and synth songs by Farah, and Daniel Brandt who is a friend from Berlin, that beautiful EnnioMorricone-esque spaghetti western music by Portland-based Federale, and that epic pop track from White Lies.
I’m thrilled because Death Waltz Records is going to be releasing our soundtrack, and they have really great taste and style and it’s going to be pressed on vinyl which rarely happens.
What can you tell us about the band Warpaint that’s playing with your film on Saturday?
I was recently introduced to Warpaint when I saw them at Coachella this year. Their music is beautiful and psychedelic and so are they. I’m excited to see them again. And the venue on Sunday is in Chaplin’s first United Artist movie theater downtown. Have you seen that place? It’s this huge otherworldly gothic theater. I feel like I should introduce the movie in a cape like the Phantom of the Opera. It’s going to be a surreal and next-level kind of night.
The tag line for your new film is “a cannibal love story set in a post apocalyptic wasteland in Texas.” What else can you tell us about it?
The next film is very much underway and I can’t say too much except it’s called The Bad Batch and it’s like my Road Warrior meets Pretty In Pink. It’s very weird and romantic and extremely violent. With a dope soundtrack.
Next Fest is a mini-festival showcasing up-and-coming musical and filmmaking talent. ‘A Girl Walks Home Alone At Night’ will be playing Sunday night, followed by a live performance by Warpaint. The film will be released theatrically in October by Kino Lorber.