'The Bad Batch' Director Ana Lily Amirpour on the Rise of Dystopian Entertainment (Q&A)
"The problem with the world is we are not paying attention to how much dystopia there is," the writer-director says.
Iranian-American screenwriter and director Ana Lily Amirpour, who grew up in a Farsi-speaking household in Bakersfield, Calif., first garnered buzz at Sundance in 2014 for her vampire spaghetti Western A Girl Walks Home Alone at Night. (The idea came to her when she realized that a woman in a chador can resemble a bat.)
Her second feature, The Bad Batch, was produced by Annapurna Pictures and Vice Media and premiered at Venice in 2016. It stars Suki Waterhouse as a woman who is ejected into a dystopia where members of the “bad batch” must kill or be killed (cannibalism is involved).
Amirpour, 36, spoke with The Hollywood Reporter in New York ahead of the film’s opening on Friday to discuss its mysterious characters and challenging themes and plans for a Bad Batch TV series that will “psychedelically spiral in many directions.” (This interview has been edited and condensed.)
Are cannibals the new vampires? There’s the new French-Belgian film Raw and Netflix’s Santa Clarita Diet — did you know cannibalism was in the zeitgeist when you wrote this film?
It’s so hot right now, right? I had no idea! (Laughs.) There’s also [Nicolas Winding] Refn’s The Neon Demon, where cannibalism is just a perfect allegory for the competition in this modeling world!
This thing happens in art sometimes where there is almost this cumulative psyche to some existential pressures and feelings. It’s this harsh man-eat-man world we’re in right now.
We want to watch all these dystopias, like the new adaptation of Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale —
When you say “dystopia” — I always marvel at that word because there’s no such thing as utopia. There’s just maybe this chance to create a bubble-corner safe space within dystopia.
And the problem with the world is we are not paying attention to how much dystopia there is. If you just leave your hubs of comfort, sophistication and modernity, this is a very big country and there are a lot of people who don’t fit neatly into society and also don’t have a lot of the privileges.
Your film also fits into this new “genre bending” of horror, like breakout hit Get Out, which blends horror with very strong social critique and elements of comedy — why is horror going though this renaissance/metamorphosis now?
I don’t like horror movies. Just to be scared doesn’t mean anything to me. But Get Out really made me feel tense and afraid because it’s about things that are tense and frightening in life. And [filmmaker] Jordan Peele is brilliantly showing you every line that you are not supposed to cross and waiting, holding and then crossing it. It’s masterful when a movie can frighten you, terrify you, make you look at yourself and think about how people view each other … and if you keep that levity, too, it makes the tense stuff work.
You don’t reveal much about your characters’ backstories, or how this society came to corral and discard all the outcasts.
Miami Man [Jason Momoa’s character] shares that he’s an illegal immigrant. For the actors, every single character had a complete backstory. But at the same time, in life, while we don’t always know everybody’s story, we do know that some people are falling into the corners. Take the large homeless population on Skid Row in downtown Los Angeles. I go there and talk to people. But do I need to know every detail? Is that how you get empathy for people? I hope that people do a little bit of work and think and question and wonder. …
I will say that I’m cooking up a Bad Batch TV show in which it would psychedelically spiral in many directions that maybe will satisfy that curiosity to know more.
I understand that you had a surprisingly easy time recruiting some big stars to this, including Jim Carrey, to whom you offered a supporting role as a bearded, filthy desert vagrant where he is unrecognizable.
If you were on the set of Bad Batch, you wouldn’t know that was Jim Carrey. My mom the first time she saw the film said (in Iranian accent), “Lily, I thought you said Jim Carrey was in this movie!? Where is he?!” It was important that the dirty homeless guy on the street corner — to know that could be Jim Carrey.
There was a heated exchange that took place at your Chicago screening, when someone in the Q&A questioned the violent death of the black woman whose child then becomes a pawn for the film’s protagonist, who is white. You got some heat on social media afterwards.
I am a filmmaker who is very conscious culturally, socially, racially, morally on every level of my observations of people and humanity. It’s part of what I’m making films about.
I think there are two separate issues. One is two human beings in a room having a miscommunication. And then there’s this whole other thing that happens on social media that I don’t quite understand, which is when you have many people are coming to a conclusion then they haven’t seen the film.
Isn’t it three things, really? The third being what’s actually onscreen?
Well, yeah. And I don’t get to control every reaction to it. ... I felt like she was accusing me of something I never had in mind. It was jarring; I grew up brown in America, assimilating, and English wasn’t the first language. I know what it is to be the other, my own experience of the other. …. [But then] you realize that when you make a challenging piece of cinema, you have to be ready.
Tell me about being invited to join the Film Academy. There’s been an effort to diversify the membership in terms of gender, ethnicity, age, etc.
It was so trippy. I didn’t know I was being considered. I was in a sound mix for Bad Batch in a dark hole when I got an email. But I have always felt excited and am ritualistic about watching the Oscars: I get a really big pizza from Barry’s on Third Street in L.A. and a really good red wine. I watch all the arrivals and stuff. I get so into it, like it’s my Super Bowl. Now this year, since I get all these screeners and I get to vote — so I was out of control passionately into it! It feels good to vote for all these movies you love.
The Bad Batch is convention-flouting in a lot of ways: little dialogue, the use of music but no score, lack of exposition. Are there things you’re afraid of people misunderstanding about this film?
I don’t think it’s easy. It’s an immersive kind of cinema that will ask you to go through difficult things, even stylistically. And add to that it’s a very savage portrait of modern American society. But I really believe in the experience of this movie, and I really hope that people take the ride and go to The Bad Batch. It’s not The Kind of Medium Batch or The So-So Batch or The Soft Batch. It’s The Bad Batch.
Just make sure you watch this first, then the next Nancy Meyers movie.