Create the Space You Want to Inhabit: An Interview with Desiree Akhavan

In early March, at a talk held by the Australian Directors Guild in Melbourne, actor, writer, and director Desiree Akhavan said of filmmaking, “you do this because you’re lonely, because you want a family, because you want to be loved.” 

In conversation with Australian director Sophie Hyde (52 Tuesdays [2013], Animals [2018]), Desiree wasn’t in Australia to promote a new film. After her talk in Melbourne, she was off to Adelaide to stay with Sophie and get some writing done on their new projects. Nonetheless, she took the time to share what she could about art, writing, filmmaking, and what it means to create a space for yourself.

What is immediately clear with Desiree is how generously she gives herself to her audiences. Although her credits are few, she has already cemented herself as an iconic queer filmmaker, dealing with issues of identity and sexuality. She has acted in both her debut feature film Appropriate Behaviour (2014) and the miniseries The Bisexual (2018), drawing from her own identity as an Iranian bisexual woman in creating raw and personal exploratory work.

Watching Desiree’s talk, I think of Jenny Slate’s recent comedy special on Netflix, and how she describes the nexus of her stage fright: “I don’t earn the love unless I give something beautiful that goes out.” It is this sense of radical openness and honesty that draws me not only to Desiree’s work, but to the woman herself.

She talks slowly, calmly, like she considers her words but she also feels very present. To talk to her in person, as I did briefly after her Melbourne talk, is to feel like all of her attention is on you. She is happy to talk, curious, and inquisitive. She asks questions about your own thoughts, to engage in discussion. It’s quite jarring. During that quick discussion and in this later interview, it was I who bowed out of conversation, wary of taking up too much of her time – time in which she could be writing, or having other people to talk to. It’s a by-product of my own nervousness, or from being used to having interviews monitored by publicists with a strict time limit. Yet as I reflect, Desiree gave no indication that there was anything else she would rather be doing than talking to me. It’s as if she had all the time in the world – when I asked how much time we had for the interview, she asked me how much time I needed.

During her brief visit in Australia (which was cut short due to the Coronavirus crisis) we exchanged phone numbers and talked about her film The Miseducation of Cameron Post (2018), a coming-of-age story about a lesbian teenager sent to a gay conversion therapy camp called God’s Promise, intimacy in filmmaking, and how being true to your voice can pay off.

CLAIRE WHITE: I really love how open you are. You’re very generous with how much you give yourself – to your films or to your talks, or even agreeing to talk with me. I guess I’m going in the deep end already, but is this something you’re compelled to be doing, that you have a duty to do, or is it an instance of oversharing, that you can’t stop?

DESIREE AKHAVAN: Well I guess I just don’t see the point in not being honest about certain things. And I also like, I’m just not very good at half-truths or… I don’t know how to put it. I think, especially with being Iranian, Iranians are very good at disguising how they really feel and being very poetic about it all. Being poetic is a nice euphemism for being passive-aggressive, but it’s definitely a talent of the culture that I’m from, and I was just never very good at it. So, I think I’m just doing what comes naturally to me, which is to be very straight forward and say exactly what’s on my mind, and I don’t know how to communicate outside of this. It’s not really strategic.

CW: I think it helps people connect to your work on a deeper level.

DA: That’s nice, yeah. I mean I think everyone just does what comes naturally to them, and if that’s being more guarded, then maybe that’s a way to protect themselves and that’s fine, too.

CW: Speaking of being guarded, I noticed that a lot of the time when people talk about The Miseducation of Cameron Post, they describe it as being quite a restrained film. I was wondering, how do you feel about that as a descriptor of Cameron Post? Did you mean for it to be seen as something that’s quite restrained, or did that just kind of happen?

DA: I think the execution was dictated by the story, and the style of the script. I agree: I think it is restrained, especially as it compares to my other work. It’s in a different world, and it made sense for the context so yeah, I don’t take that as an insult; I think that’s true. It lives a lot in tableaus and tight close ups. It doesn’t cut too much, the coverage is pretty simple, and if a scene is working in a wide, it stays in a wide. I guess that is what I interpret as what people mean by “restraint”. It’s not always going for the easy joke or the easy emotion and it’s a subtle, slower film compared to the other things I’ve made.

So that’s been my interpretation of it, but I don’t know, what’s your interpretation of the term “restrained”?

CW: I think it’s what you’ve already said. I also think… I’ve said this to a few of my friends when I talk about this film: I think maybe it wasn’t what people were… expecting of it, or what they expected it to be. It is a quiet, restrained film. There are obviously moments of high emotions and outbursts, but I feel like people expected it to be more dramatic rather than this very real thing that’s simmering under the surface.

DA: Oh, dramatic. That makes sense.

CW: That’s just my interpretation of it, but I think there are multiple interpretations of the way that could have gone, of what “restrained” could mean, which is why I was curious.

DA: Oh yeah, I think just because of the nature of the subject matter, maybe. I mean, first of all, I don’t know what people expected, it’s hard to gauge that, or how people responded, but I hear you. I think when people hear “gay conversion therapy”, they have a very specific impression of what that would look like? And the level of drama, [but] it’s not a melodrama – it doesn’t go for the full punches and that was very strategic.

I don’t like melodrama, I don’t respond to that as a viewer and I kind of shut down when I feel like people doing evil things become evil characters. I like to have a lot of empathy for the people I’m watching. I was saying, when we were making this film, in a perfect world you would really identify with Lydia and Rick, who run God’s Promise. That you would get where they were coming from and feel a lot of empathy for them. That was always the goal in the execution, was to feel a sense of understanding for what these kids were aspiring to and why they were aspiring to it.

CW: I think the strongest films about youth or adolescence are ones that seek to understand teenagers and what’s going on within themselves and in their heads, rather than an on-the-surface-level judgement being made, or an exterior assumption of what makes them work. This is the first time you’ve worked with adolescents or teenagers. How did you dive into that?

DA: Well, [the actors] were all over eighteen, so they weren’t too young, but we all lived together in the location that we shot on. It was incredibly intimate, and I would like to think that the way I dealt with it was through empowering them to make their own choices. I never wanted anything to feel like I was backseat driving anything, and I think a lot of the best moments of that film are moments which were dictated by those actors and led by where those instincts were taking them.

CW: I want to mention the last shot of Cameron Post for a moment, because I remember the first time I saw it which was at the Melbourne International Film Festival with the fellow members of Rough Cut. I remember watching the ending and the shot just keeps on going and going and going, and I just found it a perfect, contemplative, and reflective way to end it. Did you always know it was going to end like that?

DA: Yeah. Yeah, I usually have a pretty good sense of how a film is going to end. I really struggle with beginnings, for some reason – and it’s funny as I’m writing something right now, I already know the ending. With short films as well, it was always something that I know where I’m going to. I definitely wanted to end [Cameron Post] with hope and levity but in awareness that these kids were about to embark on a really… [long pause] you know, a dangerous future, even though it’s better than what they’re coming from. They’re about to go be homeless, which is still preferable to being in prison, so what does that look like? And in the script, it said it should feel like the last shot of The Graduate (1967). They’re sitting in the car, and it’s exciting, there’s jubilation and then it kind of sinks in: what they’re heading towards. And they have to sit in it for a minute, and it’s going to last as long as it takes for that shoe to drop.

CW: In regard to not just Cameron Post but all your films, how do you convey intimacy on screen? What is intimacy, to you?

DA: I don’t think there’s any one way to capture intimacy. I think it communicates in lots of different ways. I will say I would like to think my sets feel intimate, and that I am definitely feeling very intimate with my crew, and the way that we communicate, and how much of myself I put on the table while I’m making things. I’m very close to my collaborators, they know me, and I know them. We edited Cameron Post for six months and one of my closest friends helped. I wrote it with my other best friend and we wrote it in her kitchen. I moved to London to do that with her. There was nothing paint-by-numbers about this. There was nothing strategic. It comes from friendship, it comes from people sharing really personal stories and putting it on the page, putting it on the screen. I’d like to think that if you make something with that kind of honesty, and vulnerability, and every day on set you bring that to the table, that it shows up on screen.

CW: Are you the type of person that trusts their instincts?

DA: Oh, for sure, yeah. I have a lot of insecurity, for sure, but in terms of being on set, that’s sort of all you have, that trust. Just saying like “Ok, this is what came to my mind first, and it’s a choice, it’s something and let’s chase that instinct and see where it takes us.” But of course, there is so much doubt along the way, especially when you’re making films for years and it’s so easy to second guess yourself and to get frozen in place, especially when things move slowly. But overall, yeah, I definitely trust my instincts.

CW: A lot of our contributors and people within the Rough Cut team are also filmmakers. We’re also all in our early 20s, so I was wondering, what advice do you give to young creatives?

DA: Well, I would say to trust your instincts, for sure. When I went to film school I was taught very prescriptive rules for being a filmmaker, like “There’s good and there’s bad, and this is how you network, and this is how you dress yourself and this is how you market yourself,” and it was all bullshit. Like, it works for some people, but I remember hearing all of it thinking, “that’ll never be me.” I could never do that, and I really did waste a lot of effort trying.

The minute I let go of that came at the exact same time that I came out to my family, and I just did not give a shit. After I did that, my whole life changed, because I had failed. I officially had disappointed the only people in the world that I was trying not to disappoint, and it was such a great freedom: Like, “Oh, ok, now what? What are my instincts telling me to do?” And that’s the thing: to kind of create what comes naturally to you and see where it falls. I get so frustrated when people talk about what audiences want, what’s marketable and what people like, and I think that’s a really counterintuitive way to make things.

I think you should make things for yourself; I think you should put on screen what you would like to see and follow those instincts, and then see where it all falls. At the end of the day, you have to love that thing.

CW: It reminds me of something you said at your talk in Melbourne; that “you’ve got to create the space that you want to inhabit”.

DA: Yeah, for sure. And it’s something that you love, and that you can feel proud of… like today, I’m with Sophie [Hyde] right now and we were free-writing and asking questions about our projects and she asked me, “How would you like your film to be perceived?” Like, of course I want my film to be perceived as a huge success, I want it to win X, Y, Z awards, I want to cross over to this market place, blah blah blah, but then she asked me “Well, what’s your definition of success?” and it’s actually quite different.

Success to me is I make the film that I love. That I look at and I’m like, “Fuck yeah, that’s the movie that I intended to make, that’s the story I intended to tell”, and that looks very different. Yeah, in a perfect world I would really love to access sections of the audience, but I wouldn’t want to do it at the cost of what I believe success is, which is making the project that you wanted to make, saying the things that you intended to say, and not deluding that through fear of not fitting in or not being liked.

CW: And you feel that you’ve achieved that?

DA: I think with Cameron Post I did, I made the film I wanted to make. I don’t think it was … like in terms of what it did in the world it didn’t, you know, it didn’t reach my wildest expectations but in terms of the success, I can look at the film and think yeah, that’s the film I intended to make and I’m really proud of that. I’m really, really pleased with that.

CW: Yeah, that’s the feeling. I’ve felt the same. I wrote a thesis last year and I was like, at the end of the day I just wanted to make sure I write a thesis I could be proud of.

DA: Yeah, and whatever grade you get back, whatever feedback you get, that’s kind of outside of your power? My advice also is don’t worry so much at looking to fill other people’s idea of what’s good or outside outliers of success of winning that award, or getting that grant, or getting that money. I feel — especially as an artist — to make your own opportunities, see what you need, find a way to get those bare necessities taken care of, and then make your own rules.

I felt for so long that if I didn’t go to the Sundance labs, if I didn’t get these criteria, if I didn’t make that grant…but when I was making Appropriate Behaviour, I applied for every grant that was available to me and was rejected by all of them. I’m really glad I didn’t take that as a sign that I shouldn’t keep going. And that’s the thing, too, at least when you’re starting out. You’re so desperately hoping that someone can give you that check mark like, “no, yes, keep going, you deserve this!” And outside, personally, I never got that and that’s ok. It was really hard, but then once I made the thing, I met the people who needed it, and who wanted it, and it really changed my perspective on making [things].

CW: I love the phrase “the people who needed it and the people who wanted it.” Is that something you keep in mind with all your projects?

DA: Yeah, for sure, but I try not to let the fear of it dwarf me, you know. I let it fill me like, “fuck yeah, I’m gonna make this, this will have an audience,” even if it’s not crazy lucrative. It means a lot to me that there are people watching and that there are people who have cared.

CW: It’s like what I said when I saw you in Melbourne; you make art because you want a family or you want to feel love, and I make art or I write so that I can put out something into the world so that someone can connect with it in some way, even if it’s just one person.

DA: Yeah, it’s definitely a dialogue, I wouldn’t want to do this in a vacuum, like I definitely do it to feel like that I am not alone.

CW: I read this beautiful essay a couple of weeks ago on the British website Read Me, run by the people who put your name on a t-shirt called Girls On Tops—

DA: Oh yeah, I read that. The love letter, right? It’s so funny, it came out on Valentine’s Day and I was having kind of a lonely, shitty Valentine’s Day. You know, single for the first time in a long time and I was feeling like real low, and I was thinking wow, it would have been so nice to have a valentine. Then I read this love letter to me, and I was so touched. It really moved me.

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Claire White is a writer, bookseller and teen screen tragic from Melbourne, Australia. She recently completed an honours thesis on girlhood on screen, and has written for Junkee, 4:3, The Big Issue, Screen Queens and more. Follow her at @teencineteq and @theclairencew.

Claire White