Appropriate Behaviour with Desiree Akhavan

Desiree talks comedy, her web series and the success of Appropriate Behaviour.

6 April 2016
Simran Hans
By Simran Hans
Simran is a freelance writer, and the producer and programmer of Bechdel Test Fest, an ongoing celebration of films that represent women in a positive and progressive light.

I sat down with Desiree Akhavan, the Iranian-American writer, director and star of Appropriate Behaviour (2014), an indie comedy about the messiness of millennial relationships. Akhavan and I chatted on Skype from our respective kitchens — mine in Stoke Newington, hers in Edinburgh where the native New Yorker is currently living. Over tea, we talked about The Slope, Sundance and Ira Sachs.

You could say that all of your films — from your web series, The Slope, to Appropriate Behaviour, and even your stint in Lena Dunham’s Girls — are sex comedies. What films inspired you to write your own?

I don’t think I saw a sex comedy and was like, that’s what I wanna do. I love films like [Catherine Breillat’s] Fat Girl — to me that is a comedy that’s also about sex. I just love comedy and I am also obsessed with sex. I find it so fascinating that when you’re with someone you kind of have this free pass to all their memories. I mean, probably not, that’s why I’m still bad at relationships — because I believe that to be true. It’s such a missed opportunity in movies, because who we are sexually is so telling of who we are and where we are in our lives, and what we think of ourselves, and our bodies, and intimacy. I see it as this huge opportunity to investigate personality and backstory.

Have you ever worked with people who were resistant to the focus on sex in your films?

No. The Slope was a web series I made that dealt with sex, but we self-funded — it cost nothing to make and people just did us favours. With the feature, Appropriate Behaviour, my producer Cecilia [Frugiuele] just okayed everything. When we asked people to look at the rough cut, we had a lot of resistance to the threesome scene, and everyone said it was unnecessary.

No! That’s the best bit.

It’s my favourite thing I’ve ever written.

It’s the funniest, most truthful bit of the film!

Thank you. I think so too. I think it says more about them than it does my film, because I don’t think it’s gratuitous — it actually tells the story in a deep way. The story of being in your twenties and trying to find your way along sexually, through throwing yourself into a bunch of ridiculous scenarios. But I remember, we had an executive producer who was consistently saying, “we have to cut that.” I remember when we were shooting it, looking at Cecilia and wondering, have we gone too far? And she looked me in the eye and said, “Trust me, I have your best interests at heart.”

What advice would you give a filmmaker who’s trying to find the right producer, and maybe doesn’t have that existing relationship?

This is so cheesy — please acknowledge that I know how cheesy this is — but my work comes from a really personal place and a place of vulnerability, so I need to feel love on my side. And my producer is not only incredibly talented and has good taste, but I know she loves me. And that’s very important to me, so I protect that. All the people I know who are successful in this industry have a very keen awareness of what they need, and how to curate the best crew of people to enable that.

close up of two girls lying down and looking at each other

Let’s talk through the journey of Appropriate Behaviour. What was the process like?

I wrote the first draft in a month and it was not the film you see on screen. I wrote it to shoot for maybe $5,000. All I knew is that I didn’t want to make another short film. My short films were not successful.

Why do you think they weren’t successful?

I think my shorts ended up being me trying to do an impression of what I thought a short film should be, or what I thought would win at festivals. It wasn’t really authentic; it was more like, here ya go! Here’s the immigrant story you wanted, Sundance! And, of course, they always got rejected. The web series was really great because it was the first time I really felt as if I got to make the up the rules as I went along.

So you had written the screenplay for your feature...

I felt as though I was ready to shoot a feature and I was going to do it at whatever cost I could. I thought, I can take out a loan for maybe five or ten thousand dollars, shoot it on the weekends with friends, have everyone work for free, just get it in the can. So I wrote a script conducive to that. It was twelve scenes, one scene for each month of the year, tracking the progression of the couple, a little bit in the vein of [Ingmar Bergman’s] Scenes from a Marriage. It was all just made to be very DIY.

I shared that script with my producer Cecilia, and at the time she was just my best friend and not my producer. I remember she had a film at TIFF Kids. She was in Canada, so I flew there to meet her. She read my script and spoke to her business partner (they run a company called Parkville Pictures in London) and she said, I think there’s an audience for this girl’s work, trust me, I know her, we can make this feature film on a really low budget, we’ll raise the finance in the UK. And he said yes, just because he trusted her so much. Then she told me, I like the script but it’s really small, why don’t we take a year and expand the scope of it, and turn it into a feature that’s maybe around $100,000? We spent a year — I came to London for a month, and we rewrote together.

Over that year there were so many times where it felt as though it wasn’t going to happen. All signs pointed to ‘no’. And we applied for about eight different grants and labs and we were rejected by all of them. I remember a lot of really experienced producers would read it and be like, this isn’t really a film script, it’s kind of like TV, it’s very episodic.

How do you come back from eight people saying no?

It was so painful. But I had no other options. I’m really bad at everything else, but I’m extraordinary at this. You kind of have this dumb blind faith.

Fortunately, the older you become and the more years you do this, the more nuggets of confidence you accumulate. Having the support of Sundance is really cool. Having had certain experiences by now, you’re like, ok — I’m not a complete joke, I have something to show for my many years of struggle.

How important are festivals like Sundance in a filmmaker’s journey?

I know people who didn’t do well festival-wise, but did well distribution-wise and vice-versa; people who got into fantastic festivals, won amazing awards and couldn’t sell it for shit. Everyone’s totally different, and every movie is totally different, and if you get into a big festival that’s amazing, but you can also find other ways.

When I went to film school, the rule was you had to get a short film into Sundance, then make a feature based on the short film and finance it because you went into the Sundance labs. And I never got into the labs and I never got into the festival up until I made this film. I didn’t know any of the programmers.

You kind of have to let the pieces fall where they do, and put your effort where it’s worth. Putting your effort into trying to control the outcome is such a fucking waste of time. But if you put your effort into things that are actually tangible — like your script, like your film, like your colour correct, the things that you can control — you can control that. But there’s no controlling a programmer’s point of view or what the line-up is that year. I could never have controlled my short films getting rejected. I applied to thirty film festivals with a short film once and it got rejected from all but two. Not every successful feature filmmaker had this clear trajectory with successful shorts and was someone to watch out for from the beginning.

Do you have any mentors?

I don’t have mentors, but I’ve had a lot of people in my life who are very generous and available to me. One person who’s always been very kind, and is always there for me whenever I ask him a question, is Ira Sachs [director of Keep the Lights On, Love Is Strange]. He was a teacher of mine at film school. I actually started the web series while being his student. The first episode was my assignment for his class. He’s a really great person, and he’s really someone I look up to and know I could ask anything.

What’s the most useful piece of advice Ira Sachs has ever given you?

I sent him the script of Appropriate Behaviour before we shot, and he just wrote back saying, “It’s ready, you should shoot it.” Everyone else had pages and pages of suggestions, but I remember him saying that I should change the title — and I did.

What was the original title?

It was so embarrassing. Disposable Lovers. You can print that. People should know how bad working titles are. It’s bad. I just had to allow myself to make it. Sometimes I think it’s really hard when you’re inexperienced at anything to just allow yourself to go for it.

a girl sits fully clothed on a toilet

What was the biggest challenge you faced

Our premiere was fine, although there were some technical issues during the film, and people with more experience told me that we were competing against another much bigger film, which would’ve taken the distributors there. I was so happy with everything but I kept being told [what to do] by powerful people who had just entered my life — that was a weird thing too, a lot of new players entered my life who I had never interacted with before and, suddenly, they had a big stake in my future.

I hadn’t signed with anyone yet, so [before the festival] I met an agent in LA. It was such a tacky, sleazy cliché of a meeting. He was like, well, if I love the movie as much as I love your web series, I’d really love to sign you. I’d love to work with you and I think you’re incredible. He came to Sundance, and before the premiere he gave me a big hug.

After [the screening], my brother sends me a text being like, “You’re in Hollywood Reporter!” and I click on the link and it’s the meanest review we got. It’s the only bad review we got of the film, and it’s the first one I read. Then I got a call from the person who put me in touch with the agent, who was like, yeah, the agent is going to pass on signing you, he did not like the film.

Then the next day I had to wake up early and do a day of press and have my photo taken and do a bunch of interviews — like fifteen photoshoots in one day — but I remember that night, we found the one shitty diner that had space to seat us all. Everyone from my crew was there and even their friends who had come to Park City just to party. They were all sitting round and I remember I just sobbed like a baby.

I felt so vulnerable and as if I was given this huge opportunity and I completely blew it. And that wasn’t true. It was fine. It really didn’t matter. I’m not living in a mansion right now, but I’m doing the work I want to do, and I’m living the life I want to live, and those reviews didn’t make or break me.

Do you think there’s pressure on first time filmmakers to make a hit straight away?

It’s funny because a) what’s a hit? and b) every asshole has shot some kind of feature. It doesn’t mean that they necessarily premiered anywhere, or got distribution or any of those things. Now that we have [cheap] equipment, everyone can make a feature.

What advice would you give to first-time filmmakers?

Don’t wait for other people to enable you. Don’t let a grant or a scheme be the deciding factor. These things can motivate you to reach a goal or a deadline, but can’t make or break your project.

Write within your means. If you only have $50, don’t have twenty locations. My short films were unsuccessful in most part because I wrote for things I didn’t have. I remember I had a script in Farsi, and I didn’t know any Iranian actors. Why would I do that to myself?

Finally, it’s really not about who you know. Be really cool with everyone you meet, be interested in people and their stories — be generous in that way. I was so paranoid all the time that there were rules to this business that I was just too naïve to understand, and maybe those rules are there, but I also think there’s room for a lot of different kinds of ways of running your life and making movies.