Director Ana Lily Amirpour Makes American Movies Weird Again
by April Wolfe
When director Ana Lily Amirpour showed up to Jim Carrey's art studio, she wore a pillowcase over her head, featuring two cut-out eyeholes and a Sharpie frownie face. She was there to convince the megastar that he'd want to play the small role of a homeless desert wanderer in her upcoming film, The Bad Batch, a much-anticipated follow-up to her Iranian-vampire-Western hit A Girl Walks Home Alone at Night. The character would not speak, his beard and long hair would cover much of his face, and he'd only be on-screen for a few minutes. Amirpour's producers had let out a gasp when she told them on the phone — on the way over to Carrey's studio — that that was the role she was actually offering him, not the one of the wacky, whimsical doctor they'd previously agreed upon. But Amirpour had sent Carrey A Girl Walks Home to watch, and he loved it, and she knew right then he would take the role.
"When he opened the door, he had this full beard like the character, and I had goose bumps," Amirpour says, taking a break from slurping her fruit smoothie at Swingers Diner here in Santa Monica. "Right away, I gave him a pillowcase with a happy face, and said, 'Just put this on because you're Jim Carrey and I need to acclimate.' We both had these pillowcases on and we just talked." But he was still under the impression he'd play the quirky doctor and seemed dismissive. "I said, 'Wait, before you say another word, forget that character. He's not even in the movie. I want you to be the hermit,' and he had this big wide smile and said, 'Yeeeeeeeeaaaaah.'"
Ana Lily Amirpour is not a household name yet, like Quentin Tarantino or Kathryn Bigelow. But the indie auteur is about to break out. Although she had only written and directed one feature — her 2014 Farsi-language, art-house Western A Girl Walks Home... — Annapurna Pictures welcomed her to the fold for her sophomore effort, The Bad Batch, which hits theaters in June. The powerhouse production company — run by zillionaire Megan Ellison — is responsible for churning out critical favorites including Foxcatcher, 20th Century Women, Her, The Master, and Bigelow's upcoming Detroit, while supporting a laundry list of top directors including Spike Jonze, Richard Linklater, and Harmony Korine. Now the 36-year-old Amirpour joins the team, which is a world away from how she brought A Girl Walks Home into existence.
The meager budget for the spare noir film included about $57,000 crowdfunded on Indiegogo, with Amirpour using her video-artist background to consistently release oddball shorts to keep people interested. Her relentless enthusiasm drew other financial backers to the low-budget "Persian pulp" project, which opened with a $600k-plus box office after a much buzzed–about Sundance premiere, and went on to be distributed by VICE Films. It was a huge success for an indie, and earned even more fans through distribution on streaming services and an adaptation into a graphic novel. Not bad for a debut.
With a $6 million budget from Annapurna, The Bad Batch got a real financial bump and features a cast of A-list actors including Keanu Reeves, Jason Momoa, Giovanni Ribisi and Diego Luna. The film took top honors at the Venice Film Festival last year and has been making the festival rounds heading up to its summer premiere. So why does Amirpour get financed while other indie filmmakers don't? As a director, Amirpour takes risks.
The Bad Batch is a hyper-color, acid-trip caricature of the not-too-distant future, but the fears explored in it are very real: What kind of person can you become when your only goal is to survive until the next day? The story follows a young woman named Arlen (Suki Waterhouse), who is dropped off in West Texas in what's called "Not America." Arlen is a "bad batch," an undesirable pariah exiled to this desolate world. She's given a hamburger and a jug of water, with the vague instructions to "find Comfort," an ironically named shantytown. But as she traverses the barren desert in a pair of bright, watermelon-emblazoned shorts ("I wanted her to be this juicy fruit," Amirpour says), Arlen is intercepted by a tribe of greased-up bodybuilding cannibals, who eat her arm and lower portion of a leg before she escapes. The rest of the film follows a badass, prosthetic-laden Arlen as she gets revenge, then attempts to connect with other humans who still give a shit about something.
But this isn't a postapocalyptic tale; it's what Amirpour sees as the inevitable conclusion of the government's quest to just sweep away the poor and the weirdos.
While writing the film, she was affected by the time she spent with L.A.'s Skid Row community, a population that has previously inspired works by upstart filmmakers including John Carpenter, with his cult classic, They Live. "Skid Row is already different from three years ago, when I was going," she says, referring to the city's squeezing of the community to make room for wealthy residents. "Whole groups of them are being pushed out of their homes. In The Bad Batch, this kind of cleansing is called a fitting, like you would fit a dress. Cities are getting all that extra room by clearing the people who don't fit."
Amirpour's smiling, but she's unnerved by the idea that whole swaths of people with elaborately constructed dwellings could all disappear in an instant. She researched people who live off the grid, like the residents of Slab City — a rough-and-tumble, ramshackle California town near the Salton Sea — where Bad Batch was ultimately filmed. She is drawn to outcasts.
"On a certain level, I'm a social lunatic, but my lunacy has a practical application," she says between sips of her smoothie. "I can use it to make films and be useful, but if I didn't have that or the opportunities, it'd be like if Doc Brown couldn't make a time-traveling DeLorean. What would he do?"
Amirpour plays nothing safe in her films. She immerses viewers into bizarre, fantastical worlds, testing the limits of how arty you can get with an action film. It's for precisely this reason that she attracted some huge talents to The Bad Batch.
Momoa plays Miami Man, one of the cannibal bodybuilders, who stands apart from his necessarily cruel kin because he makes beautiful sketches in his notebook for his kid (Jayda Fink). No one else could give a shit about art in this wasteland.
Momoa, who has built his career on being a bulked-up badass warrior — he is Aquaman, after all — gets to be the sensitive type here, something Amirpour says is way closer to his real personality.
"Momoa's like a brother. I was always joking that if you unzip him, I would come out, because he's just this goofy, arty, sensitive guy. But he's got this whole business as a muscled superhero. And it is a business to be that thing, but I also know that he's down to do something different."
Amirpour has tapped into other actors' desires to "do something different," much like Tarantino, who seeks out underused or typecast actors, often reinventing people's careers. Luna and Ribisi have tiny but memorable parts in The Bad Batch, which fall outside of their comfort zones. Yolonda Ross (Treme, The Get Down) stretches her wings as the simultaneously terrifying and tender wife of Miami Man.
But the most fascinating casting choice by Amirpour has to be Keanu Reeves as The Dream, a smooth-talking cult leader whose harem of pregnant, gun-toting devotees all wear shirts reading, "The Dream Is Inside Me." Her pitch to him had the same ballsy approach she used on Carrey.
"Keanu came over to my house, and I had gotten this airbrush artist to put a picture of him with long hair on this shirt, and it said, 'The Dream.' And I'm thinking, I'm just gonna wear it when he comes over. And then he's minutes away, and I'm like, 'Oh, this is kind of aggressive,'" she laughs. So she took it off. "He came in and he's so humble and kind and gentle and benevolent. We talk about this character, and it's crazy for him to play, but he's excited."
An hour later, after they'd been drinking wine, Reeves assured Amirpour that if she wanted to go in a different direction and find someone else for the part, he would understand with no hard feelings.
"I was like, 'Dude, you wanna understand how fully my commitment to you is?' I went and got the shirt, brought it out, and then he put it on." Amirpour's eyes widen as she tells the story, and then she brags, "I have an awesome picture of him wearing that shirt."
Amirpour recounts filming a scene in Slab City, where Reeves' character hypes up the rowdy crowd of Comfort, all played by locals. "When he made that speech, all the shit you hear from the crowd, there was no direction. They were like, 'Yeah!' because these people are outcasts, a little like the bad batch," Amirpour says. "I remember just tripping out — these people in this town right now, where nothing happens, a dried-up tiny thing, have Keanu Reeves on a boom box giving this amazing speech. That was a special fucking night."
Working with cinematic luminaries like these actors on only her second feature doesn't seem strange to Amirpour but only because she lives perpetually in the moment. Most often, you'll find her with giant headphones fastened to her ears, blocking out the white noise. She was born with only 70 percent of her hearing, so she says it's best to stay in her own world, avoiding confusion and awkward conversation. She laments she hasn't even seen Get Out yet because she can't watch films in the theater — no subtitles. ("I get really frustrated.") But this hearing impairment has positively influenced her work. Growing up, Amirpour was drawn to action movies, because she could follow the story through image rather than dialogue.
In many interviews, Amirpour is asked what it's like to be a woman director or an Iranian-American director. She engages with those questions, because she knows some people feel an anxiety about who gets to make films right now. But for Amirpour, being on set, directing brazenly eccentric films, is the one place where she doesn't have to be "the woman" or "the Iranian-American."
"I'm just 1,000 percent alive."