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Women of Sundance: Appropriate Behavior

Desiree Akhavan (Photo by Danielle Lurie)

“So, is this exciting to you, or, like, totally normal by now?” director Desiree Akhavan asked her executive producer, Katie Mustard, when we three met over coffee just two weeks after their film, Appropriate Behavior, was accepted into Sundance’s NEXT section. While this is Akhavan and her London-based producer Cecilia Frugiuelle’s first time at Sundance, Mustard has had nine films there – seven features and two shorts. Mustard had been drawn to come on board Akhavan’s film because the script was “just so good” and so “fresh.”

Akhavan, who stars in the film as an Iranian-American bisexual struggling to find her identity in Brooklyn, seemed to be in a state of humble shock that her movie was about to hit the big screen at such an esteemed festival.

Appropriate Behavior is the sort of film that you’ll be thinking about long after you watch it. It uses raw and fresh humor to take us on a journey of sexual awakening that blatantly and provocatively questions the rigid lines we often drawn for ourselves around issues of sexuality, gender, and ethnicity. Akhavan’s character is, in a way, a one-woman melting pot of it all, and she uses raw and often raunchy humor to accentuate the complex and confusing internal struggles this causes within her character.

Appropriate Behavior is one of several female-driven comedies to look out for at Sundance this year (Gillian Robespierre’s Obvious Child is another) which use witty comedy to tell very compelling stories about real issues that women face.

Below are interview with Akhavan, Frugiuele and Mustard.

Interview with Appropriate Behavior writer/director/actress Desiree Akhavan

Filmmaker: Why this movie?  Why did you each decide to do it?

Akhavan: As I was writing I just wanted to make sense of some huge changes that were going on in my life (a breakup, coming out, having no job or prospects) and it all translated into this bittersweet comedy. Also, a film about a lonely bisexual slut in Brooklyn lends itself well to a microbudget.

Filmmaker: How much of your crew was female?  Was hiring women a consideration for you?

Akhavan: Most of our department heads were female, but it wasn’t a conscious choice. The only position I was actively seeking a woman for was my cinematographer. I was worried a man would overpower me, and I was especially sensitive to that since I was acting in almost every scene. I eventually found my prejudice against male d.p.s to be unfounded.  The moment I met Chris Teague, I knew I wanted him to shoot the film. The man is a gentleman, a feminist and a crazy gifted storyteller. He’s one of the main reasons the shoot was such a pleasant experience.

Filmmaker: This is your first feature as a leading lady. What sort of pressure or responsibilities did you feel being as such?

Akhavan: I find it slightly embarrassing that I’m the writer/director AND actress, so I was mostly self-conscious of how incredibly self-indulgent the film could potentially turn out. There’s a fine line between refreshingly honest and cringe-worthy. I think this particular brand of dry comedy kept us from veering into that territory.

Filmmaker: What is this shot on?

Akhavan: The RED SCARLET.

Filmmaker: Do you think a male director might have handled the making of this film differently? How did being female filmmakers effect how this film got made do you think? Specifically, do you think a male could do a film about lesbians?  Or are women directors more capable in handling topics like this?

Akhavan: This film is so personally driven and clearly written by me, for me, that it’s not really something anyone else, male or female could have directed. In terms of appropriation and who has the right to tell what stories, I have no idea. Some people tell beautiful stories about marginalized groups they don’t personally belong to and who am I to say that’s not cool? It’s not a matter one can make sweeping generalizations about, however my knee-jerk reaction is skepticism. Then again, there are films like Show Me Love, where I’m so grateful the film exists I can’t fault the director for having a penis.

Filmmaker: Tell me about the emotions of making this film.

Akhavan: The most overwhelming emotion has been gratitude. A year ago, I was up to my elbows in soap suds, hand-washing panties as a live-in nanny to 12 year-old billionaires from Oman.

Filmmaker: There is a lot of male humor in this film (yes, I’m referring to the fart jokes). Do you think that is just your sensibility or was there some thinking toward a more gender neutral audience? Who do you hopes is your audience? Men or women?

Akhavan: I think it’s problematic to label jokes as “female” or “male.” Funny is funny.

Filmmaker: In what ways do you think being a female filmmaker/actress has helped or impeded your trajectory in the film industry?

Akhavan: I have no idea. I have so much going against me, being a woman is the least of my troubles. I’m also Iranian, bisexual and I have a size 11 foot, so it’s really hard for me to find shoes that fit…

Getting intelligent films made is a challenge for everyone.

Filmmaker: How do we get more women making movies?

Akhavan: I’m the last person who should be asked this question because I’m just some asshole hustling to make films by whatever means possible. You should ask someone in a position of power who understands how this industry works.

If you’re asking how do we get more women interested in making films, I’ve noticed that most men I encounter tend to have less shame and a larger sense of entitlement. Those are essential qualities when directing a movie, so I’m sure if more women felt their stories warranted attention more would try.

Filmmaker: Of the big blockbuster movies out there, which do you wish you had directed?

Akhavan: This is tough because I don’t know what classifies as a “blockbuster” these days.  I think the first Austin Powers film is pretty great. Tootsie doesn’t count as a blockbuster, does it?  I would die pretty satisfied is I had made Tootsie.

Filmmaker: What is your dream role?

Akhavan: “Louie” on the series Louie.

Filmmaker: Speak to being a writer, director and actress.

Akhavan: Starring in my first feature was an incredible experience because I found that one job enabled the other. Because I was constantly occupied I didn’t have the energy to second guess myself. As a director, I was connected to my cast in a way I wouldn’t have been able to had I been behind the monitor and as an actor I was able to reach a state of vulnerability that would have been terrifying had the film been in someone else’s hands. It was a very empowering position to be in as well as a delicate balance. The only reason it was such a positive experience for me was because I was working with an amazing crew, particularly my producer Cecilia, who I trusted to be my eyes on monitor.

Filmmaker: What’s next?

Akhavan: Cecilia and I have developed a feature script for an Election-esque comedy about a NYC private school that I want to shoot next. I’m currently working on an animated webseries for former MTV CEO Judy McGrath’s new site, Astronauts Wanted.

My dream of dreams is to make this television series I’ve been developing. It’s a comedy about the women in an inpatient rehabilitation center for eating disorders.

Filmmaker: Considering this article will be released at Sundance: A) What do you hope to gain from being at the festival? and B) Who would be your dream person to meet while there?

Akhavan: A) My life goal has been to premiere a feature at Sundance for as long as I can remember, so I’m going to let go of expectations beyond having my film screen.

B) The two women in this industry I emulate the most are Marjane Satrapi and Amy Poehler. Their work has given me permission to be fearless. The fact that they both have films at the festival this year is a complete mind-fuck. I just want to thank them.

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