The Hallucinogenic Worlds of Ana Lily Amirpour
ANA LILY AMIRPOUR IN NEW YORK, JUNE 2017. PORTRAIT: TESS MAYER.
Writer-director Ana Lily Amirpour thinks the world is inherently a bad place, but that its inhabitants are strong. The Bad Batch, Amirpour’s genre-bending second film, takes place in a future where society’s castoffs have been condemned to roam a psychedelic desert wasteland. The mysterious Arlen (played by British model-turned-actress Suki Waterhouse) arrives in the desert and almost immediately loses her arm and leg to cannibals. With the help of a desert drifter (played by Jim Carrey, of all people), she finds her way to a sanctuary community, ruled by a drug lord called The Dream (Keanu Reeves). Meanwhile a cannibal called Miami Man (Jason Momoa), whose daughter Arlen inadvertently kidnaps, comes in hot pursuit. Despite her significant handicap—to say nothing of the brutal environment she has found herself in—we watch Arlen not only fight for her survival, but seek revenge on those who have wronged her. She even manages to find love.
As in her acclaimed breakout film, 2014’s A Girl Walks Home Alone at Night—billed as the world’s first Iranian vampire Western—Amirpour exerts meticulous control over the world she builds; what it looks like, sounds like, and feels like for her characters. While A Girl Walks Home Alone at Night was monochrome and sparse, The Bad Batch is like a trip through a hyper-saturated funhouse. The desert is filled with the detritus of our society: broken furniture, hulking plane wrecks, discarded objects, and discarded people. Amirpour calls it her portrait of America.
MATT MULLEN: Where did this film come from?
ANA LILY AMIRPOUR: It was this pain that I felt in my personal life, that was personified in the image of a girl missing limbs and bleeding in the middle of the desert. There are some parts of heartbreak that make you feel dismembered. So that was the beginning, but I knew this girl was going to survive, and she was going to figure out who she was again, and how to adapt to this new form. Then it became a portrait of America as I see it. This played a part in my first film, too. I’m interested in looking at the systems that we exist in: the clothes you wear, the money you have or don’t have, the culture you’re in, religion, politics. All these things are systems—even identity is a system. I think it’s interesting to peel back these systems and see who we are, if we can get a look at ourselves.
MULLEN: Why did you choose to set this in a desert? Your first film took place in one, too.
AMIRPOUR: I was born in England and I came to America as a kid, and the first place I lived was in Miami, but then my parents moved to the California, to this desert badlands region called Bakersfield, and that’s where I had my period for the first time. I went through puberty there. So I feel attached to the desert in a deep sense. It’s part of my coming of age. I feel it in my bones.
MULLEN: The casting struck me. How did Suki Waterhouse become your lead?
AMIRPOUR: I don’t go into a relationship with an actor—whether they have the experience or not—with anything other than absolute certainty. I guess you could compare it to falling in love head over heels. When I wanted to cast Arlen, it was the one character in the story that I didn’t have an actor in mind while I was writing it. There were just no young actresses that had what I was looking for; none of the known actresses that were suggested to me were satisfying. I was telling my casting director, “Let’s find someone we can discover, the kind of actress that I want to see in movies right now.” I was telling them a “White-trash Brigitte Bardot.” That kind of feeling. And I saw Suki on tape, and it was just like, “Oh my god, that’s her.” It was a very physical, incredibly difficult role. It’s an action movie, and there’s a lot of prosthetics and stunts and things that she had to take on. But she’s a warrior-gladiator-type girl. She’s a tough motherfucker.
MULLEN: What about Jason Momoa? I understand you’ve wanted to work with him for a long time.
AMIRPOUR: I wrote Miami Man and thought of him. I wrote it just for him. Meaning if he had said no, I wouldn’t have done the movie. But I knew he was going to say yes. I knew like a psychic knows.
MULLEN: What is your writing process like?
AMIRPOUR: I write alone, it’s a very solitary part of the process. But it’s a nice thing as well. It’s a private time. I get to be with the characters in this really intimate way. It’s difficult. Once I finish a draft that I rewrite and rewrite and rewrite, after rehearsals it changes. Me and Keanu and Suki did so many rehearsals. The rewriting process is very collaborative once actors are involved. But the initial invention of the story part is me alone in a hotel room in Vegas, pacing around in circles.
MULLEN: Setting and world-building is very important to you. Why?
AMIRPOUR: I think locations are as important as a character in a story. The whole personality of the place. I’m into creating an immersive, transportive experience. And there are so many interesting places on Earth already. I found that airplane junkyard in the desert in Lancaster, California. There’s this guy who’s been harvesting airplane wrecks for 25 years, and it’s an amazing place. And then of course there’s Salton City, which is an off-the-grid community of people that live outside of society and outside the structure of the government. Dystopia is what I see in our present, current reality. I’m not sure I understand what utopia is, or what people think it is.
MULLEN: Some of the visuals reminded me of Burning Man. Was that intentional?
AMIRPOUR: Have you been?
MULLEN: I have not. Have you?
AMIRPOUR: I have, I’ve been a few times. There is a handful of visuals in Bad Batch that definitely are inspired—just visually speaking—by Burning Man. Burning Man is a special place. It’s a result of a massive explosion of human creativity. What those 50,000 people build in the desert for a week is the best thing about us people on display: how creative we can be.
MULLEN: What did making your second film feel like? Especially one with a bigger cast, a bigger budget. Was it motivating, or was there more pressure?
AMIRPOUR: I’m really just engaged with my story and everything that’s happening in the movie, that’s what drives me. It’s all one amorphous creative process. I made the first film and it was cool because it meant I could have Keanu Reeves play The Dream in my second film. It’s like Keanu fucking Reeves. I love him. I had his poster on my wall when I was 12 years old. I just love collaborating with people that are inspired. I get off on it really, really hard. Every movie is an opportunity to do that, to create an adventure like that.
MULLEN: Is a new project in the works?
AMIRPOUR: I started writing the third film when I was editing The Bad Batch, and I’m going to be shooting it soon. Once a movie’s done, it’s like birthing a child, it’s out there, now it has to go run amuck in the world.
THE BAD BATCH IS OUT NOW.