Ana Lily Amirpour on her wild post-apocalyptic drama, her crazy desk, and what influenced the film’s vibrant universe.
Ana Lily Amirpour is an expert stylist. That her latest movie, The Bad Batch, looks almost nothing like her much raved debut only proves this. Anyone mildly talented can make the same movie over and over again but it takes a certain voice to challenge audiences filling their seats with expectations.
The Bad Batch, is, in my opinion, a great movie. It is interested in things most people who watch indie movies don’t like: music festivals in the middle of the desert, the unlikable lives of the poor, Die Antwoord. Because most people don’t like those things, critical opinions have been divisive. But I think the movie will stand up, people felt the same way about Spring Breakers and everyone still wants to remake that.
I had the chance to talk to Amirpour about her latest film and our conversation veered from recent audience reactions to the movie, some of which have read the film as hostile, to the personal influences that she used to fill the film’s vibrant universe. This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.
Andrew Karpan: Loved the movie, seen it twice. But the beginning definitely feels a little more ‘challenging’ than your debut. Did you deliberately set out for that?
Ana Lily Amirpour: I guess it does punch you in the face, physically, as far as what happens in the first twenty minutes.
It’s hard to categorize what’s happening. Most horror movies compartmentalize that sort of stuff.
Well, I think that’s the thing that’s fun. Using the tools, the arsenal of horror and fantasy. Really, for me, it’s more the fantasy, sci-fi and surreal fairy tales that get me off. And then, yeah, the horror, the pain and using it for something else. I watch superhero movies or action movies and it’s like, you know those are good guys and those are bad guys and we’re all rooting for these guys to kill those guys and, after that, I kinda don’t remember what the movie even is.
The formula hampers them from being about anything else.
I just feel like, for me, this movie is really about something. I don’t want to tell you what or make it because you should tell me what you felt watching it and what kind of things you were feeling.
I really related to Jim Carrey’s character, he was sort of the moral center of the movie. Did you set it up that way?
I guess he is the moral kernel of goodness in there and that’s the big question at the heart of this movie is, are we inherently good or bad, since we have the capacity toward both behaviors which makes the ones we do choose feel meaningful. Are you good? Where would you go? Where do you fit in?
I thought it was really interesting to see what people were cheering for, especially at the screening last night [at the House of Vans].
Really? What were they cheering for? I wasn’t in the room. Tell me, tell me.
They seemed to be really into Arlen when she killed the mother.
And when Miami Man threw that ax at that person of color they run into in the desert. There was lots of cheering.
Was that how you felt?
No, I think I found it a bit disconcerting. The only character who felt particularly evil, in a traditionally villainous sense, was Keanu Reeves’s character.
Really, why? Just because he’s got his big, flashy existence?
It was more the speech he gave in the beginning. It felt very Trump.
Oh, well. That’s the time we’re in. I wrote the movie three years ago but there’s always eccentric, powerful people. There’s many Trumps.
And he also makes a populist appeal that revels in his outcast status, much like Trump supporters who self-identify as ‘deplorable.’
I think that’s really interesting to hear you extrapolate all those questions about modern American society that you can get from a weird, savage fairy tale like this, one where I am very consciously taking a look at what is America, what are our behaviors, what does the system make us into and make us capable of doing to each other. That’s what I’m seeing. Right now, right this minute. It’s not some future dystopia. This is a dystopia, hello. I don’t know where your attention has been focused but if you look around this is it.
You consciously don’t have any futuristic imagery or gizmos in the movie.
Exactly. I think having that makes people feel safer if they can think, oh this is post-apocalyptic, this is after the world is gone. It’s actually pre-apocalyptic, in my view. It’s weird, you have to realize, I wrote this in 2013 and 2014, there was no ascendant Donald Trump.
Do you think your movie says anything particular about the current situation, intentionally or not?
There’s all this complicated stuff because America is a complicated country. There’s a lot of people, in a lot of different situations. When I tell a story, I think of every character as the star of their own movie. It’s the way I think about people, too. You are the star of your own movie, sometimes the stars of films overlap and share screentime but each person is the star of their own movie and that’s what makes this all such a big fucking complicated mess.
Do you have any response to people who reacted negatively to that, who feel alienated by your portrait of America?
I don’t know if that’s any of my business as an artist. I know who I am and I know what I believe and I have to believe in myself and tell my stories and make my art and hope that, you know, it’s going to be something that people can engage with. I can’t control everything. This might be the movie of your life or it might really upset you.
Some people need to get upset; there was this really cool thing that Banksy posted on the internet which was: “Art should comfort the disturbed and disturb the comfortable.” So, that really spoke to me. We all need different things.
Both of your movies also take place in invented cities. Could you ever see yourself making a movie that takes place somewhere, you know, real?
I feel like we get this whole reality thing every day. A movie, for me, is a joyous opportunity to leave this and enter into something else. The movies that I grew up watching and really being transported by were all fantasy or had some element of fantasy in them. Do you remember The Golden Child with Eddie Murphy?
I don’t believe so.
He plays this cop and he gets into this, Tibetan kid whose been kidnapped by these bad guys and he has to go to Tibet. It’s really so good, Eddie Murphy is so funny in it and they did really cool things with stop motion and old school practical effects. But it’s really about a cop in America who gets caught up in the crazy, weird Tibetan kidnapping of this kid, the golden child, and there’s fantastical elements. I loved The NeverEnding Story which is also dark and weird in that way.
Those kinds of universes require a lot creatively. Where do you find ideas for, like, all the stuff Carrey’s hermit collects?
All of it was stuff that made sense to me. He was someone who collects things. It’s like, your fetishes go into the film and I have things and I like things. I like my coffee table books, my toys, my buttons. They’re things that comfort me. All kinds of weird stuff. I have this big table where I do all my writing, it’s like a big chunky dining table and it’s covered in pins and buttons. I have a little miniature shopping cart on there which has a rabbit’s foot inside of it and a two-dollar bill that my mom gave me. I have a Rubik’s cube, two magic eight balls. I have stickers, books, Polaroids. It’s just comforting to have my stuff. It makes me think good thoughts or gets me inspired by other creative people.
And a lot of that went into the hermit?
Designing the hermit was such a joy since I’m a packrat too. And so it was fun picturing him but all of his stuff comes from what he found in the luggage or in one of those airplane racks from an overhead container. It was fun to think like that. What would have been there, in those airplanes?
The movie is also really interested in white trash culture, something that’s really in vogue right now. What drew you to that?
I came of age in Bakersfield, California and there’s a lot of rednecks there and a lot of Mexicans. It’s like the agricultural epicenter of California. And, growing up, I kind of was in between that. I’m brown, so when I feel like everybody always thought I was Mexican which made me always feel like I was in the middle. Whenever I would hang out with my white friends, the Mexican group would want to kick my ass for hanging out with white people and, I guess, that’s where that came from. I hung out with a lot of poor Americans in my life.
And ‘The Bad Batch’ represents that world?
It’s my perception of America, which comes from that, sure. The Bad Batch is how I see America.