Notes on Camp: Desiree Akhavan on The Miseducation of Cameron Post, ADR Rewriting and 4 Non Blondes’ “What’s Up”
In Desiree Akhavan’s feature debut, Appropriate Behavior, the cowriter/director was front and center as Shirin, a young, bisexual Persian Brooklynite trying to figure out how to live her life, one sexually impulsive bad decision at a time. It was in keeping with the of-the-moment nature of The Slope, Akhavan’s reputation-making 2011 web series about a year in a lesbian couple’s New York relationship, in which she again costarred. Her sophomore feature, The Miseducation of Cameron Post, tackles new territory: It’s Akhavan’s first time working from an adaptation, first period piece and first time staying offscreen in her work.
Miseducation was adapted from Emily M. Danforth’s 2012 YA novel of the same name, but the differences between the book and movie go beyond streamlining or compression. Danforth’s leisurely novel takes the first two-thirds of its sprawling length (470 pages) to follow the upbringing of young Cameron Post from 1989 to 1992. The day before her parents die in a car accident, Cameron makes out with a girl for the first time, and the two events are fused by guilt in her mind. While living in Miles City, Montana, with her beloved grandmother and uncomfortably religious aunt, Ruth, who instigates a regimen of regular attendance at a nearby megachurch, Cameron grows into her sexual identity. A passionate crush on Coley Taylor, a member of her youth group, leads to a heavy makeout session. Guilt stricken, Coley tells her parents. In short order, Cameron finds herself shipped off to a gay conversion camp, God’s Promise.
The movie effectively begins at God’s Promise, run by Reverend Rick (John Gallagher Jr.), who himself can profess to testify how he struggled with, and defeated, his homosexuality. Cameron (Chloë Grace Moretz) isn’t entirely convinced, and two rehab buddies only heighten her doubts: the improbably named Jane Fonda (Sasha Lane) and Lakota tribe member Adam (Forrest Goodluck). The trio takes advantage of the small privilege of taking long, unsupervised hikes to crack wise, talk honestly, build solidarity and smoke weed. Tensions with the staff, particularly Rick’s sister, Lydia (Jennifer Ehle), manifest in a scene where Cameron jumps on the kitchen table mid–dinner prep and lets rips with a rendition of 4 Non Blondes’ “What’s Up,” a song choice that brings Lydia storming in, showing Cameron a long-ago-sent letter from Coley categorically repudiating her. It’s the kind of small change that makes all the difference: In the book, there’s a sing-along to the hymn “Oh Happy Day” that takes place, with Reverend Rick merrily joining in before offering the letter as a reward, not an attempt at moral correction.
Dozens of these small changes have been made by Akhavan (a fan of the novel from the moment it was published) and cowriter/producer Cecilia Frugiele in adapting the book’s last third into a surprisingly low-key, pleasant but not bland, hangout film about three queer teens finding solidarity in an unlikely place. Working for the first time with DP Ashley Connor (who also shot Madeline’s Madeline and is interviewed on page 34), Akhavan has made a poised, cleanly crafted adaptation that stands as its own artistic object—as well as the winner of this year’s Sundance Dramatic Grand Jury Prize. I spoke with Akhavan about the film’s lengthy journey from page to screen. Miseducation is in theaters August 3 from FilmRise.
Filmmaker: You moved around a lot of the timeline from the book—which characters do what and when—in subtle ways. The impression I came away with, to some extent, is that you took the structure and some core scenes and then wrote a lot of it from the ground up, despite the fact that you also really like the novel.
Akhavan: This was the first thing I’ve adapted. The first draft was incredibly loyal to the book; then, slowly, it changed and took on a life of its own. When we were in post, a lot of it got rewritten as well. A 90-minute narrative is a really specific beast, and it was just like, “How do we have the impact in this tight period of time? How do you keep her arc moving?” The film that we shot was also really different from what we edited. Things got changed, timelines were moved—[there was] a whole “asking for permission to go on a hike [sequence]”; there was a whole different protocol to [set up their] leaving. Their escape was something they were planning for a while and had to work up to. But once we got into the edit, it was like, “This is slowing [things] down. The minute they decide to leave, they have to get out of here.” The first cut was an hour longer than the final cut.
Filmmaker: Could you talk more about the post process?
Akhavan: It was really involved. At the start of editing, it felt like it was a very theoretical film. It was beautifully shot and beautifully performed, but it didn’t punch you in the gut. Hopefully, the film, at the end of the day, punches you in the gut a bit. The first five minutes of the film is now a quick montage, and then we get to God’s Promise. Before, it took about 35 minutes to get to God’s Promise [while] getting to know her aunt and getting to know Coley. All these scenes were then clipped down into, basically, a music video. It all came together, but it was a lot of work. On Appropriate Behavior, I worked with my same editor, Sara Shaw, and we took three months to edit. We had scheduled to do this in three months, and once we got into it, it took twice as long. Three months in, it was just like, “This thing isn’t done yet. We have to keep going.” Before, I think Cameron felt very opaque and at arm’s length. Every change we made was more about bringing you closer to her and feeling that gut punch of how alone and scared she is. I find it really fascinating: We completely resculpted a lot of scenes in post and ended up doing ADR to change plot. I had never done anything this involved, and it taught me a lot about how to manipulate an audience. The script should have been far more manipulative than it was.
Filmmaker: Is there a specific example of this ADR rewriting you could talk about?
Akhavan: When [Cameron, Jane and Adam] go on the first hike, now [Cameron says], “Couldn’t you just get out of here whenever you wanted?” And they’re like, “What are you going to do, turn tricks?” Before, they played a game during that hike. It was a really funny bit of dialogue that I loved, but it was sacrificed. It also didn’t work that well on the screen, but [we thought], “We need them to talk about what their lives would look like if they ran away” to [create] this sense of foreboding once they do run away [because] you get a sense of what their options are at that stage. We cut the scenes where they discussed escaping—now we know that they already discussed it. They can go on a hike anytime and run away; they just don’t have any money or plans. Before, it was close-ups on their mouths talking, and we ended up going to the widest shot of that, wherever the kids were covered up by trees, and ADRing the whole thing. It works, weirdly. I’m shocked that it works.
In another scene, Cameron is on the phone—that was supposed to be at the end of the film. She [originally] calls her ex-boyfriend, and he’s like, “I’ll send my brother to come pick you up in a pickup truck.” And she apologizes to him for what happened. But instead, we have her now calling Coley. It is much more hurtful that she gets that letter from Coley now that she’s called Coley. It’s clear that Coley is still the person in her heart, and she very much thinks that relationship is still alive. When Coley’s like, “Did you get my letter,” which is ADR added, Cameron said two lines. She says, “I’m really sorry the way it all went down” and “Really?” Now, we have Coley saying, “Did you get my letter? I sent a letter,” and Cameron’s like, “Really?!” She sounds really excited, and then when you get the letter and realize that it’s shunning her, it’s really heartbreaking.
Filmmaker: Did you suspect you’d be doing this type of postproduction reworking and shoot more coverage than you might have otherwise during production?
Akhavan: I had no idea I would have to be doing this kind of Houdini work. It was a real collaboration between myself, Sarah, Joe Landauer, [who is] a second editor we brought on midway through the edit, and producers Michael Clark and Cecilia Frugiele. Everyone was in it together, but I think it was a testament to the way Ashley Connor shot the film. We had a lot of options because she handholds beautifully and moves. We’d always do a take where we were like, “Let’s punch in tighter and get some options for cutaways.” Ashley’s fucking brilliant. She gave us a lot of options, and we ended up using a lot of that stuff. But we shot really quickly and were moving super fast, so it’s not like we had all the time in the world to imagine what we could get. I thought the script was tight at the time, going into production. I didn’t think we would be doing so much of this work, but I don’t think we knew what it was to make a film like this.
Filmmaker: Appropriate Behavior was 18 shooting days. How many did you have on this?
Akhavan: 23. It still felt incredibly tight, just as run-and-gun and stressful as doing Appropriate Behavior. What was great is that we were living on the location [where] most of it took place. We were living there and moving efficiently because we were all together. We didn’t have to commute in every day. It was a really good experience—it felt just as immediate and tight as Appropriate Behavior. I never had a learning curve. What was nice about Riedlbauer’s [a resort in upstate New York] is that it was designed in the 1970s. It’s a German-American resort, so when we were checking it out there was polka blasting from stereos outside everywhere. It’s a place that hadn’t been redesigned, and it was of its own time. It wasn’t trying to be modern. It was from another time, and it hadn’t changed, and that was something I loved about it. They closed down while we were shooting. We shot in the fall; they were open in the summer and then closed for us.
Filmmaker: One of the reasons I’m glad I read the book is because it made me aware of how many small details were changed in the adaptation, which included cutting or changing a lot of the pop culture references. Can you talk about the use of “What’s Up”?
Akhavan: In the book, it’s not a moment that she’s punished for. It’s a really happy, religious moment in her life. We wanted a moment to solidify her bond to Adam and Jane and to feel like they were pulling in her another direction, and she was being punished for it. That was the arc of where we were going: She had these forces that were driving her in different directions. That’s why “What’s Up” came up: It was a song that we were listening to while we were writing, and it’s a song that reflects what’s going on with her. And it’s so of the time, and it’s by a queer artist. The [song] that was in the book was “Oh Happy Day,” and it was her falling in love a little bit with that place in the same way but more giving in to Rick’s side. Each scene of the film was ping pong–ing when we were writing it: her going toward Rick and Lydia and then falling in with Jane and Adam, who were pulling her in a really different direction. The script had to be really strategic about where Cameron’s development was [in every scene]. So, the book was sort of a guideline of, what can we use and then take to this agenda? That moment is a good example of, yeah, it’s inspired by the book — she does sing and get on the table and go wild for a minute in the book, and it’s a really nice moment. With the film, it’s like, “Instead of singing ’Oh Happy Day’ and pleasing Rick, she’s singing ’What’s Up’ and displeasing Lydia.”
Filmmaker: Was there a playlist of ’90s possibilities and that was at the top?
Akhavan: No, actually we were lucky. It was in the script, and then we were in prep and I made sure we could afford it—or my producers made sure. I shouldn’t take credit for that. We went into production knowing we could afford that, but that was by far our most expensive track and something that was in the budget from the get-go.
Filmmaker: One of the things I found startling about reading the book after seeing the movie was not just all the small changes you made, but that the book has these long stretches in which Cameron talks about realizing her experience isn’t unique—where she positions herself in relation to the queer culture she’s learning about. The movie doesn’t really have that didactic element.
Akhavan: I don’t think I would have been able to make that movie. That’s a very different film. Anything that has queer characters is automatically queer cinema. I don’t see it as having an agenda or needing to fulfill certain guidelines. Maybe [they did] in the ’90s and previously, but I don’t think in the last 20 years queer films have had the same tropes. So, I was never looking at [a particular film] and trying to live up to it. I was just trying to tell this story as beautifully as I could, and I don’t think it’s so specific to the gay experience. I think it’s a film about growing up and the moment you realize you can’t blindly trust the adults in your life. Also, it’s a story about life in rehab. And it’s about sex, and I don’t think that things having to do with sex necessarily have to do with sexuality, per se. I think it’s a sexual coming-of-age story that happens to be specifically queer, but I think that’s a footnote. I guess what I’m saying is, there’s a difference between coming of age sexually and coming of age Gay, capital G. And I don’t think that a film about coming of age sexually needs to lead with its gay foot forward. I don’t really think this film is about the gay agenda. That said, I don’t think any good queer cinema really is.
Filmmaker: Did you have any kind of general principles for framing and cutting that you went in with?
Akhavan: We wanted it to be super clean, and to feel like a voyeur in this place. Similarly, I wanted to be able to do long takes and not cut things up for too much coverage. Which is usually my preference in working, to be able to do the whole scene with every setup.
Filmmaker: Is that a performer-favoring preference so that they have more space?
Akhavan: Yeah. I don’t like cutting things up. It’s also my own preference. I don’t like to do just little moments. Everyone has their preference for how they like to work, you know? Some directors are cool doing 200 takes—I go insane, and nothing makes sense to me. When I can watch a full scene unfold, it makes sense to me, but it’s really personal. As an actor but also as a director, I don’t want to sit and watch that shit unless it’s the entire scene. I’m normally working under such a tight schedule that it never goes—seven [takes] is the most I imagine I’d be able to do, but usually it’s three or four. But that’s so far, you know? So far, I’ve been really, really tight on time, and I’ve really compromised.
Filmmaker: With this film, you’re working from a YA novel that already has some traction, and you have name performers. Does that make the process of bringing this film into the world easier? Or is it just dealing with the same problems on a different scale?
Akhavan: Same things, different scale. There’s less pressure on me because my actors can speak, but I’m still hustling and selling. You have more help but also more people around you. There is something really personal and immediate and fantastic about Appropriate Behavior because it was just us, you know? It was me, Cecilia and a couple of actors, but they dipped in and out. Mostly, it was the two of us handling everything. And it was really lovely. This is sort of like, you’ve got this massive machine with lots of actors, and then actors’ managers, and hair and makeup and wardrobe. Suddenly, you’re part of a bigger beast, and several publicists and several vans. It’s a little bit bigger, but you’re still walking into the same locations with the same reporters, talking about the same stuff. You just talk a little less and listen to others a little more. But as a director, you’re corralling all of it—not the logistics of everything, but those interviews and the content of them. It’s the same thing on a different scale, and it was really lovely and different.