Writer-director Ana Lily Amirpour has just arrived for her interview wearing puffy knickers, a flag-printed cravat and an Andy Warhol wig. It's Halloween, but that may be just a coincidence. "I'm from the future," she explains in regards to appearance, before cackling loudly and tearing into a wedge of red velvet cake. You would not necessarily expect an Iranian-blooded, British-born, Miami-and-Bakersfield-raised skater kid to show up wearing, say, a plain white tee and or a power suit. You might, however, expect such a singular, cross-culturally influenced filmmaker like Amirpour to come up with the character at the center of first full-length feature, A Girl Walks Home Alone at Night: a jeans-wearing, Goth-like Persian vampire who skateboards down suburban streets, her black chador flapping like bat wings in her wake.
"Vampires have the weight of eternity," Amirpour claims. "They're much bigger than zombies or [Friday the 13th's] Jason or serial killers. They encompass the time and the history of humanity." And according to her, a vampire who looks like a vulnerable hipster but feasts on drug dealers and alpha brutes…well, that's just badass.
A minor sensation at this year's Sundance, A Girl Walks Home Alone at Night drops its creature of the night — simply called "The Girl" — into a dreamy, black-and-white world of pretty-boy greasers, muscle cars, punks, junkies and your run-of-the-mill male predators. She appears to be a damsel in distress, cruising the dark streets of a spaghetti-Western like town named "Bad City" (a fictional stand-in for Tehran via Southern California). But once The Girl is threatened, she quickly goes into bloodsucker mode. Complications arise when a handsome local stirs something in her undead heart besides primal hunger.
Amirpour claims she found her inspiration for Girl thanks to two of the childhood past times she'd adopted after her family migrated from London to Florida in the early Eighties. The more the kids at school teased the youngster about her accent, the more she searched for a way to define herself outside of being "the other." (A fan club for Superman II's General Zod was a start, but she and the other members weren't sure what to do beyond writing out a Kryptonian manifesto and burying it in the backyard.) So filmmaking became an early outlet, with Amirpour shooting her first short — a slumber-party slasher flick — on a giant orange handycam that was so big the then-middle schooler could barely carry it. "The movie did have a kill scene that was pretty scary," she recalls. "I showed it to my friends and their parents, and everyone jumped. I was like, 'Ahhh!'" The youngster had found her calling.
Her next shorts weren't as good, though, so Amirpour launched her own film school, of sorts. Every day, she'd watch the behind-the-scenes making of Michael Jackson's video for "Thriller" over and over again. Then she'd go outside and indulge her other obsession: skateboarding. Fast-forward to the West Coast years later, when Amirpour was whizzing down the street on her board while wearing a traditional chador. "From the moment I felt the cape on me, it felt so natural and good," Amirpour says. "It's felt like the wind…like I was a stingray, a creature. It was amazing." She suddenly had the idea of using a chador-clad skateboarder as the heroine for some sort of major story — and to her, there was nothing more major than vampires.
The filmmaker quickly came up with the basics of what would become A Girl Walks Home Alone at Night. She even had an actress in mind for the lead: Sheila Vand, who played a small but pivotal role in Argo and starred in several of Amirpour's film-school shorts. Next came the movie's look ("The chador, it's so dark and geometric — the movie just had to be black and white") and a killer soundtrack featuring underground Iranian bands like Radio Tehran and Kiosk. Most importantly, however, she insisted on shooting in Farsi as a way of showing her cultural roots, despite the fact that investors were begging her to make the film in English.
'Cool' is not really a word people associate with Iranians. The Italians got to be gangsters when mafia movies came out, but this is a first for us.
"I think this might be one of the first genre movies in Farsi," Vand says. "We've certainly billed this as the first Iranian vampire movie. When you censor everything creative — art and music and dance — you're kind of sucking the cool out of a culture." The actress sighs. "'Cool' is not really a word most people associate with Iranians. The Italians got to be gangsters when mafia movies came out, but this is like a first for us."
Amirpour and Vand claim that, SoCal shooting locale or not, Girl should be looked at as an Iranian film; both sets of their parents were born there and both identify themselves as Iranians first and foremost. (Vand wanted to visit Tehran for the first time while filming Argo, but was warned off when the country's film consultant "really freaked me out about it.") And they agree that Bad City, the film's fictitious town, is intended to be a heightened fantasyland, not a factual place — think Frank Miller, not Abbas Kiarostami. Still, audiences can't help but read real-world politics into a movie where a young Iranian woman in semi-traditional dress kills abusive men. When The Girl skates up to a small boy and threatens to eat him if he grows up cruel ("For the rest of your life, I'll watch you, understand"), you wonder if this is what it would take to shake up a society built upon a sense of systematic oppression.
Both women claim to be caught off-guard by the feminist applause that's greeted their film; to them, they were just making a cool movie about a girl vampire who happened to wear a chador. "After the fact, I'm like, 'Well, of course people are reading it that way.'" Vand says. "Frankly, we didn't even think twice about the protagonist being this powerful girl. Like, why wouldn't she be a girl?" "You flip the script," Amirpour claims. "She's not a victim, like in many horror movies. Here, she's a creep!" She laughs. "Sometimes being a woman is a disguise. It's all about the sneak attack."
Meanwhile, Amirpour's preoccupied with prepping her next film: The Bad Batch, a project she describes as a "Texas cannibal love story." But she's still fascinated by her female bloodsucker, so much so that she's created a graphic novel that includes the 187-year Girl's origin story and the male vampire who made her. ("He was the son of a cake-maker in this village and he was in love with this prostitute. It's like ancient shit.") She's thinking about a prequel, and this time she's picturing a reverse-engineered Wizard of Oz. "I have this idea that it would be really cool to do it in color, and let it turn black and white the moment she became a vampire."
"I always like to be making stuff," Amirpour adds, piercing one last big bite of cake. "I'm extremely greedy about life. In 15 years, there will be a nano-shot where you can live forever. I'm sure of it. I don't think it'll be FDA-approved and I don't think it'll be given to everybody. But I would fucking take it in a second."