The girl of Ana Lily Amirpour's A Girl Walks Home Alone at Night is not like other girls. She is, for one thing, a vampire, but she's not like other vampires, either. She wears a hijab and prowls the fictional Iranian town called Bad City (actually Bakersfield, Calif.). Her inevitable feeding seems to come as much from personal needs as it does a sense of social justice: she feeds on the bad guys and spares the ones that she seems to regard as good or at least having potential. She is lonely and almost entirely silent. Her best friend is her record collection.
I met with Amirpour and her titular girl, actor Sheila Vand, earlier this week in the office of her film's distributor, Kino Lorber. We discussed their Persian backgrounds (both came of age in California), the enduring relevance of vampires, and the "feminist" label that is so often applied to this movie in the press. A condensed and edited transcript of our conversation is below.
Gawker: Ana, you said in your director's statement, "I wanted to make an Iranian film, but the question was how?" Can you talk about the logistical difficulties you faced at the onset?
Ana Lily Amirpour: I think the thing about making a film or making any kind of art is you start to identify the boundaries or obstacles and then find a Bruce Lee way to look at it and move around it and actually turn it to your advantage is when you can really be set free. It was a thing where I wanted to do this Iranian vampire film, but it wasn't going to be in Iran and then it was like no, it's going to be in my own place. An invented place. I'll make my own place. A film gives you a wonderful opportunity to do that, and then it's limitless, too, because it's just a fairytale and a fantasy and it can be anything you want. It really just reminds me of being a kid. I feel like I get to be a kid with my mind.
Why did you want to set a vampire story in an Iranian environment?
ALA: It's just the Iranian environment inside my brain, which is Iranian and American and all these things. I wanted to make this Iranian vampire, but really just a vampire. It becomes more universal in a way, a vampire, because they don't die and they get to pass through all time and never have to quit. I hate death.
You're afraid of it?
ALA: I hate it, I don't want to do it. I also don't like old. I don't care how many fuckin' Ansel Adams photos you take of old people and try to tell me it's beautiful. It smells bad and shit's failing. You're rotting inside yourself, inside your own body. That's what it is, in my opinion.
So there's an aspirational aspect to telling this story?
ALA: Yeah, this is like a mating call. I made it for vampires out there. If you're out there, I'm down. I'm ready.
ALA: I think people tend to see themselves in films. It's the same way that a song makes you feel the way you feel. You feel that because it's stuff you have in you, not necessarily the songwriter. You don't really know exactly what went down for that song to be written. All the stuff that's written, the more I see it and read it, I think it tells more about the person writing it. A film is an opportunity to look at yourself, really.
Personally, do you find this film to be feminist?
APA: Personally, I find that these philosophies are the disease for which they claim to be the cure. I am afraid of categorization in general. I don't really see a usefulness to it. For me, what it does is it stops thinking. I want to live in a world where people have to constantly think. You see a guy with a bumper sticker on his car that says, "World peace," and then you see him kicking a dog. You don't get a get-out-of-jail-free card for being like, "Well, that's what I am." I don't like that stuff.
I am not trying to speak for anyone or give answers to anyone other than myself. I'm more interested in asking questions than finding a specific answer. It's weird, too, because doing the press I started to think about it. I'm a filmmaker, not an answer-maker. I would have become a teacher or activist or something if I was trying to tell you stuff. I get more excited when people are asking their own questions and seeing their own stuff.
Sheila Vand: It really didn't come into play for me. [The character] is a girl, but it's not about her being a girl, in the same way that the movie is set in Iran, but it's not about Iran. But there is a tendency, for whatever reason, for people to want to understand things via these tropes. I guess it's legitimate, whatever your interpretation is your interoperation, but for me it's like a film is meant to be experienced. The movie is the movie. The movie isn't all these other things that are around it.
I couldn't help but feel the movie was politicized, though. I mean, take the irony of the title. If a story is told about a girl walking home alone at night, it's usually because she's prey or somehow in danger. In this movie, in fact, she is the predator.
APA: That's for sure conscious. I'm not trying to be completely nihilistic and say, "I don't believe anything." I'm in the world and I'm seeing stuff. But giving someone something to look at doesn't mean you're telling them what to see. There's just a huge difference. I do think, though, I'm very interested in the fact that in this world, in this crazy world, what you see is never what you get. People are not this (motions to appearance) only. These outside systems of existing here are fronts for very, very strange shit that's in the juicy core. All that weird, juicy, unexpected stuff forces you to question the outer system. That's what I'm interested in. It can be anything. It can be clothing, religion…
SV: I'm really into dreams, like a Jungian approach to dreams. I'm really into filmmakers that operate in dream logic like David Lynch and Jodorowsky. You can explain your dream to somebody and they might, depending on what kind of philosopher they are, say, "This means that about you," or, "You're repressing this and it's in your subconscious." But you don't have to explain it. It's legit because it happened. You dreamed it. It existed. It's not necessarily your place to examine it. Sometimes when I hear people's interpretations of [A Girl Walks Home], it's like, "I get it now," but it was intuitive. It's not like Lily was like, "This means this and this is symbolic." Jodorowsky says that if you have the impulse to do something, that justifies doing that thing. The impulse is the justification. You don't have to explain it in a bunch of words.
APA: Like murder.
It seems like a vampire setting is a good place to explore your interest in what's under the external veneer. Vampire rules are rigid, but this character isn't a blood-sucking machine. She has agency.
APA: I think vampires are very bipolar. You can either go this existential, romantic, historian route like I did and Jarmusch and Anne Rice. If you are living through watching the dance of history and existence, what happens? Ultimately, it's super emo. The bloodsucking, killing violent side is the other side. Nosferatu is the first monster, but he's kind of lonely. 30 Days of Night. Blade. With vampires, it could go either way.
SV: There are strict rules, but because it's mythology, whatever you make just adds to the lore. When we were making this, I thought that was really cool. It was like, "If this gets out there, we're going to inform the mythology." In Let the Right One In, you never see her fangs. You can take some liberties, I think. It was cool to think about it that way: there is a certain box, but within it, you can push and play.
It's surprising for a vampire movie released in 2014 to do something different with it. It felt like we were at the point of saturation five years ago.
APA: No way, man. This shit is O.G. This is Dracula, Nosferatu, Coppola, Bigelow, Lost Boys, Spike Lee did it…It's like the juiciest, juiciest kind of character. What is like a vampire? You've got eternity and not dying. That by itself is just fucking crazy. And then you've got the fact that it's a killer. It has to kill. So then you negotiate that: Who do you kill and when and where and how does it go down. And then there's like what is the meaning of watching all human history. Vampires look at people and it's like watching an ant farm, observing this weird order.
SV: You described it once to me that it's like being in a room where everyone else is on the drugs but you. Everyone has taken ecstasy, and you feel alien, wondering, "What is this trip these people are on?"
APA: On top of that, they're lonely. For me, [this movie] is about loneliness. I'm very much into [being] lonely. It's not a sad, losery thing. It's like an arty, romantic thing. I love my loneliness. I feel like solitude is one of the places where you can really find yourself. It's also why I find a psychedelic experience on LSD so valuable. It brings you into yourself in a really present way. In the best case scenario, filmmaking can be like that, where you're really here with yourself. Vampires are the loneliest. It's, like, so romantic.
A Girl Walks Home Alone at Night is now playing in select cities.