Desiree Akhavan is the actor-writer-director who’s made this year’s coolest debut movie with Appropriate Behaviour. Lena Dunham loved this Brooklyn-based break-up comedy so much, she gave Akhavan a part in the latest season of Girls. (She plays Chandra, Hannah’s not so friendly classmate at the Iowa Writers’ Workshop).
Anyway, in Appropriate Behaviour, Akhavan stars as Shirin, a woman in her 20s struggling to move on after splitting up with Maxine (Rebecca Henderson), her first girlfriend after years of dating guys. The results are sad, funny and often horribly relatable – you’ll empathise with Akhavan’s Shirin even when she makes you cringe. NME met up with the Iranian American film-maker earlier this week to find out more about her brilliant debut feature.
You’ve described the film as “personal” rather than “autobiographical”. What do you mean by this exactly?
“To me, autobiographical means you took scenes and characters from your own life and put them into a film. That’s not the case here. I wanted to take the feelings and emotions I was dealing with [at the time] and inject them into a fictional journey that I didn’t actually go on. While I was writing the film, I was going through a break-up, but I’ve been through many break-ups. This film is my ode to all the romantic encounters in my life, not necessarily that one break-up.”
What are the main differences between you and Shirin, the character you portray?
“Well, I was never in the closet and I never lived with someone and lied to my parents about it. And my exes aren’t like Maxine. I never dated anybody who is sensitive politically [like Maxine]. I’m very politically incorrect and always have been, and the people I date tend to enjoy that about me. Because if you don’t, you really wouldn’t want to be around me!”
Shirin can be embarrassing and incredibly self-absorbed, but she’s still likeable – by the end of the film, you’re rooting for her. How did you know where to draw the line with her less appealing character traits?
“I’m glad you found her likeable, because though I feel endeared by the character, I’m not sure everybody does. With this film, I didn’t want to make any of the characters a villain or a saint; I didn’t want there to be any clear idea of who is right and who is wrong. It was a matter of walking a tightrope: I wanted to make Shirin real and entitled. Whenever I see people from marginalised communities depicted in films – be they gay, Middle Eastern or whatever – they’re treated as either noble or a joke. Or in the case of Iranians, they’re treated as villains. I really wanted to make Shirin a multi-dimensional character that you can relate to on a lot of levels. So it was important to me that though Shirin is someone who makes a lot of mistakes, she isn’t one big fuck-up. She has good intentions but is just struggling to keep up.”
Did you have to rein in the script at times to keep her likeable?
“Yeah, especially with the comedy, we were constantly reining it in. I’m constantly pitching jokes and they can go too far. The process of rewriting and rewriting the script helped me and Cecilia [Frugiuele, the film’s producer] keep two feet on the ground: we knew these characters had to feel like real people, not just jokes. I wanted the film to be a comedy, but a realistic, heartfelt one that felt close to home and had some sad truths in it.”
There’s a really funny scene that we premiered on NME.COM recently where Shirin and Maxine attempt a sexual role-play – but Maxine spoils it by choosing to play a tax auditor. Where did the idea for that scene come from?
“I’m just, like, a silly person. It’s sort of absurd that scene – like, who would do that? – but I also think it’s realistic in some ways. If you have a couple where one partner is more invested sexually, that partner will do anything to try and seduce the other. To me, that scene is sad: Maxine is no longer attracted to Shirin because Shirin can’t come out. That’s a huge turn-off for Maxine and it becomes emblematic of all the things about Shirin that Maxine can’t handle. Being sexually rejected is really painful, so I thought the only way I could include this scene so early on in the film is if it was laugh out loud funny. So that’s where the tax auditor thing came in. I didn’t just want the scene to be Shirin trying to kiss Maxine and Maxine shrugging her off. It’s funnier if Shirin is trying to set up this elaborate role-play and has great expectations and then Maxine can just squash them so quickly.”
There’s another memorable scene involving an awkward threesome. Was it equally uncomfortable to film?
“No, but I did freak out after we finished the first take and watched the playback, because it looked like porn! It was just so explicit. There’s like a minute of [co-star Robyn Rikoon] cumming that’s not in the film – she was really convincing, she did a very good job. I remember excusing myself to go to the bathroom and telling my producer while I was out of the room, ‘I’m making a huge mistake, I’m taking this way too far’. She was like, ‘No, you’re not, trust me on this’. And she was right. It’s not like it’s super-pleasant pretending to have sex with people on camera in front of a room full of crew members, but it was a fun adventure. And it was exciting seeing how well that scene worked. Because everybody knew their job that day, it went like clockwork.”
There are couple of bangers by JD Samson’s band MEN featured in the film. Were you very involved in picking the music?
“Very involved. I really wanted MEN in this film because I’m a big fan of JD Samson. My editor knows JD and wrote her and that’s how that happened. My editor has great taste in music, so when she was editing the film she put in temporary tracks [as a guide] and they were all just perfect. So my job was to work with the film’s music supervisor to find songs that sounded like the temporary tracks, but that we could actually afford to use. Two of the temporary tracks were by Electrelane and we tried so hard to replace them with other songs because we couldn’t afford what the publisher was asking. But nothing else worked; the scenes flopped without those Electrelane tracks. So we reached out to the band and I begged them to let us use them for a cheaper price. Luckily they were lovely and went for it.”
Are there any other bands whose music you’d like to have used?
“I really wanted to get a Julie Ruin track in there but I didn’t have any connection with Kathleen Hanna [to ask her]. But in the future I really want to use some Julie Ruin music in one of my projects. I’m also a Tegan and Sara super-fan; we actually wanted to use some of their music in the film but couldn’t afford it!”
Did you like their last album Heartthrob? It was less folky, more full-on pop.
“For sure I liked their last album – any direction they go in, I’m down. I think it’s a really god pop album and I like pop music. And I love that they do different things.”
Appropriate Behaviour opens in UK cinemas today (March 6) through Peccadillo Pictures. Read NME’s review of the film here.