One of the filmmakers making their debut at Sundance this January is Desiree Akhavan, a New York writer/director/actor who pulls triple duty in her feature film, “Appropriate Behavior.” Chronicling the romantic (and otherwise) misadventures of Shireen, a bisexual Iranian-American Brooklyn twentysomething in the wake of a devastating breakup, “Appropriate Behavior” is a funny and poignant look at this world through the eyes of a very specific perspective. We chatted with Akhavan before Sundance kicks off, and also have an exclusive clip from the film to check out before its debut.
Akhavan cites many different influences on the development of her comedic voice, including Noah Baumbach, Mel Brooks, and Louis C.K., whose TV show she says leaves her feeling “full of joy and sadness.” As for the writing process on “Appropriate Behavior,” she says that on the first pass, “I wrote the first script of the film in a month, and I was heavily influenced by ‘Scenes from a Marriage,’ and I just really wanted to show the rise and fall of a relationship.” However, the film in its current form is intricately structured with flashbacks, which was influenced by the structure of the classic New York rom com “Annie Hall.” After the structure was in place, for Akhavan, “it was about finding the voice and the tone of this particular story, which clearly wasn’t Woody Allen. For me, the writing was in the rewriting.”
Akhavan wrote this specific role for herself, after co-starring and co-directing in a web series, and that for this project, “it felt like the right time and the right story. I always knew I wanted to direct, that was a non-negotiable.” As for balancing both the roles of star and director, she “found that one job really enabled the other, once you get in the groove of it, it was kind of like patting your head and rubbing your stomach at the same time. You’re kind of like, ‘Oh it’s working, I figured it out.’ There are some growing pains for sure, you know, because it’s multi-tasking at its worst.” But while a balancing act was required, inhabiting both roles, “was such a great way to get closer to my actors,” Akhavan says, and she was able to say to her co-stars, “Here’s how far I’m willing to go, come with me.”
Many of Shireen’s experiences will ring true for anyone who’s been through the trials and tribulations of being a young adult in a big city, and Akhavan did draw from her own life in the writing process. “A lot of things were inspired by experiences I had, I was going through a breakup and coming out to my family right before I started writing this. So it was what I was grappling with … I wouldn’t say the stories were lifted from memories, I would just say that they were inspired by where my life was at the point I was writing it.”
The film also features some incredibly honest sex scenes, which are funny and authentic, something that was important for Akhavan to capture, as she says “it’s rare to see depictions of sex in film that I relate to… they’re either incredibly awkward and uncomfortable and beginner style or they’re too smooth and silky, in front of a fireplace … I felt there had to be some kind of in between. It can be both.” Ultimately, the most important thing for her to express about Shireen’s sexuality was the character, “owning her desire 110% and wanting what she wanted.”
After Sundance, Akhavan has some projects lined up, including an animated web series, that will continue to draw on her personal life experiences, though she does say that in the future, she hopes, “I grow and change for different stories to come in.” There’s no doubt that her voice is a fresh and welcome one in film, and we’re sure to see more of her soon.
Check out the clip from “Appropriate Behavior” below, featuring Akhavan and Halley Feiffer as her best friend Crystal, engaging in some lingerie retail therapy.