Five Questions with Appropriate Behavior Director Desiree Akhavan
Fans of Desiree Akhavan and Ingrid Jungermann’s comedic web series The Slope could not have guessed at the impressive range that Akhavan displays in her debut feature, Appropriate Behavior. As emotionally devastating as it is uproarious, Behavior stars Akhavan as Shirin, a woman dealing the aftermath of a breakup with a serious girlfriend (Rebecca Henderson), as well as her prolonged struggles to come out as bisexual to her Persian-American family.
The film rings deeply personal and true, and Akhavan manages to establish herself as a real star-to-watch and the rare triple threat – a witty writer, a nimble director, and a wholly engaging on-screen presence. Appropriate Behavior premieres today in Sundance’s NEXT section.
Filmmaker: When you were working on The Slope, did you always know that you wanted to make a transition into feature film? And, now that you’ve completed Appropriate Behavior, do you see yourself remaining in features, or can you imagine a return to web series?
Akhavan: I always knew I wanted to make a feature and I was working on this script while shooting the second season. I would like to tell stories in whatever format fits the narrative and I’m currently working on an animated web series for Judy McGrath’s new site, Astronauts Wanted. It’s a comedy called The Origin of Shame. Each episode depicts a humiliating memory from my high school days at a prep school in New York.
Filmmaker: In your opinion, what’s the biggest way in which directing a feature film differs from directing a web series?
Akhavan: The scope of both the story and production. Each episode of The Slope focused on one location and a joke inspired by it; with the film I had to opportunity to go in depth and really build a world and a narrative around the characters and the space. In terms of production, we completed each episode of The Slope in a week, while I’ve been working on this film for two years. It’s a completely different beast — so much of the web series was handled by my co-director and I, whereas for this film I’ve been passed off from one collaborator to another depending on the stage of production (a month with my casting director, four months with my editor, then onto the sound designer, etc.).
Filmmaker: Appropriate Behavior feels like a largely autobiographical film. In the writing process, how closely did you stick to your actual story? Are there fictional incidents you added for dramatic or comedic effect? Or are there real moments that you left out because they were simply too personal?
Akhavan: The film is not autobiographical. It’s definitely inspired by my experiences, but the events did not take place and the characters are fictional. As I was writing the script, I was dealing with the aftermath of a breakup and having come out to my family and this was my way of fitting those themes into a feature-length narrative.
Filmmaker: Starring in a film about events similar to what you’ve already lived through must give off quite a strange feeling of deja vu. Was it hard to relive these moments, or did you find it to be more of a cathartic process?
Akhavan: The film is not true to life, so no deja vu. Even if the events had taken place, the minute you write something down it becomes fiction because it’s coming from your point of view, which will always be subjective and therefore a completely inaccurate account of events. That said, all my work is personal and therefore cathartic. I like the write about things I’ve grappled with and take control of them in that way.
Filmmaker: One of the chief conflicts in the film is your complex relationship with your Persian family. Has your real family seen Appropriate Behavior yet? And if so, what were their reactions?
Akhavan: My mother watched the film and seemed to enjoy it. I don’t think the humor or the subject matter appeals to my father (he prefers a Two and a Half Men brand of comedy,) but he’s incredibly supportive even if he doesn’t quite “get” the appeal. After three decades of having to sit through my plays, films and a web series, I think they’ve come to understand my style and have developed a thick skin.