Sundance: Newcomer Desiree Akhavan on Her Debut ‘Appropriate Behavior’ and Dodging Comparisons to Lena Dunham

Sundance: Newcomer Desiree Akhavan on Her Debut ‘Appropriate Behavior’ and Dodging Comparisons to Lena Dunham

Jan 18, 2014

On paper the debut feature of twentysomething Iranian-American writer-director Desiree Akhavan seems like a tailor-made Sundance entry: a young Brooklynite with relationship problems, little career aspirations and she’s gay. But Appropriate Behavior has something that no other Sundance title has ever had… Desiree Akhavan.

With striking looks, a dirty mouth and incredible comedic talents (both writing and acting), Akhavan is sure to be one of the breakout stars at this year’s festival.

Akhavan first showed up on people’s radar two years ago when she started the Web series The Slope with her then girlfriend and collaborator Ingrid Jungermann. In two seasons, the show explored outlandish gay tropes that were both shocking and hilarious. Amongst the height of the Girls craze, Akhavan’s talents were quickly compared to another funny girl that loves to talk about love, sex and relationships: Lena Dunham.

Now Akhavan has expanded on her The Slope stories with Appropriate Behavior. In it she plays Shirin, a bisexual who is in a tailspin after breaking up with her partner, Maxine (Rebecca Henderson). Told in an Annie Hall-like style with flashbacks showing their relationship, we follow Shirin’s darkly funny newly single life. From exploring Shirin’s sexual needs to the outrageous scenes of her attempting to teach six-year-olds how to make movies, Akhavan gives a fresh look at the indie relationship comedy. talked to Akhavan leading up to the festival about crafting her comedic style, how she offended truck drivers during shooting and being compared to Lena Dunham. What were the kind of movies/TV shows that made an impression on you growing up?

Desiree Akhavan: I was the last child of immigrants so everything I know about life I feel I learned through TBS back-to-back reruns. I’ve watched so much TV growing up, maybe four or five hours a day. But I also watched a lot of films. My parents were not cinephiles but my father loves Mel Brooks films and Westerns. So that was my education growing up along with television, then when I got a little older I found directors I really loved. As cliché as it is, I really love Truffaut films. I liked Catherine Breillat, I really loved Fat Girl. So I’d go between incredible crude slapstick comedy and very elegant French, high art. It’s funny you mention your interest in Mel Brooks because in the screening the scene that got the biggest laughs was the students’ film about farts and boogers, which is very much in the realm of a comedy like Blazing Saddles.

Akhavan: It’s so funny. Every single time I see that scene I can’t stop laughing and it’s really silly because I’ve watched it hundreds of times and no other joke lands for me anymore, I’m so tired of the film, but every time that boy walks in the field farting I can’t stop laughing. I don’t know what it is about farts, I’m just proud of fart jokes. Fart jokes just always work.

Akhavan: You give the people what they want. Was there anything that pushed you into wanting to become a filmmaker?

Akhavan: I was always a comedian. I always liked to make people laugh. I love theater. I wrote my first sketch comedy show at 10, the title was very cutting edge, it was called Friday Night Live. And it had a bunch of sketches and my favorite was this commercial parody for “vomlet” the omelet made of vomit. I thought I was a genius. And I remember I got in trouble with the teacher because I mentioned Showgirls, that was around the time the movie came out. So I wasn’t able to put on the show.

So that led to more play writing and in college I switched to movies. I never thought of movies as a possibility, my mind didn’t even go there. “Cameras? What’s that?” I grew up in New York where there is so much theater; that seemed like the natural next step. But in college I said f**k it and fell in hard love, crushing love with making movies. And it’s crushing because my first films were awful. At that time I really loved Woody Allen and Noah Baumbach. The Squid and the Whale had just came out and I remember going to see it and just being completely blown away. You write great dialogue. Has that always come natural for you?

Akhavan: That’s my favorite part. I’m a pig in s**t when writing dialogue. I act it out with myself, I have so much fun. I start with dialogue in my scripts and then finally put a story into it and some kind of arch. You got attention for your Web series The Slope. How did that come about?

Akhavan: I went to grad school at NYU in their directing program and made a bunch of short films. I was very precious about it and was making short films on Super 16 mm and trying to be an auteur of sorts. But this one short that I worked on for a year and used all the money I had in my bank account got rejected from 30 different films festivals and I was exhausted. I wanted to make things but I didn’t want to work like that anymore. So I was dating this woman at the time who was also a film student and we were similarly frustrated. Ira Sachs was my directing teacher and he just said, “Make a short film for this class.” And my girlfriend and I were having these funny conversations but we were like no self-respecting lesbian would talk like this and she said, “This should be your short, what if we filmed ourselves being obnoxious versions of ourselves?” And we did and screened it at school and it went over well and we realized these were easy to make so we started a Web series. There are many similarities to The Slope and Appropriate Behavior, so is this movie an extension of what you did on the Web series?

Akhavan: With the Web series you pick a location and write something funny around it. It was just a joke. Get in, get out. But with Appropriate Behavior I wanted to delve into what I was grappling with at the moment: How did I feel coming out to my family? The life that I was carving out. So parts of it was different but the process of how we made the Web series spilled over into how we made the feature. How much were you in your head when making the film on if the jokes or performances were working?

Akhavan: I worked so hard on making the jokes work in script form that I try not to doubt it. Especially when you’re directing and acting, there’s no room to doubt anything. But in the editing room was where we worked the material and searching for where the comedy was. Is it true that the opening scene with the dildo was a challenge to shoot.

Akhavan: [Laughs] Yeah. We were in Gowanus and we were at the location by a dumpster and this was the first day of shooting and things were chaotic and a heard of truck drivers showed up the minute we started shooting. All of them had a huge problem and were up in arms that we were shooting this. The looks I was getting and the anger I couldn’t really deal with because I was on camera. My DP was like, “We’re going to get kicked out in any minute so just grab the dildo and run.” So I kept doing that over and over again and the takes were so long. It was just me grabbing the dildo and just walking constantly take after take. Why were they so angry?

Akhavan: They thought we were shooting a porno. Such upstanding truck drivers.

Akhavan: I know! You would think truck drivers would pull up and just watch. Are you prepared for constant comparisons to Lena Dunham for the next 10 days or so?

Akhavan: I mean, it’s a flattering comparison. Do you think it’s a fair comparison?

Akhavan: Yeah. She’s my age and a female and doing comedy, so in that respect it’s totally fair. But at the same time I’m really hoping that in five years time we can live in a world where there’s more than one intelligent, funny, woman making films and television. Hopefully less than five years.

Akhavan: Yeah! [Laughs] I guess I’m modest with my hopes.





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