One can consider every square inch of Brooklyn and Manhattan cinematically mapped, but it will always be a unique perspective in films like Desiree Akhavan’s feature debut “Appropriate Behavior” that warrant another look. Centered around Shirin, an Iranian-American Brooklynite transitioning in and out of a major relationship with girlfriend Maxine, the film succeeds via Akhavan’s merging of several thematic strands —it’s a coming out, culture clash and break-up dramedy all in one, told with a subtle touch.
We called it “a supremely satisfying and irreverent take on the New York rom-com” in our review, which will be familiar to anyone who’s seen Akhavan’s webseries “The Slope,” about two “superficial, homophobic lesbians,” produced with co-star Ingrid Jungermann while attending NYU’s graduate film program. “Appropriate Behavior” similarly started out in school as Akhavan’s thesis film, but its creative team met when she studied abroad in London and met Cecilia Frugiuele, her eventual producer at Parkville Pictures.
“We met nine years ago when we made this short film together that she wrote, [for which] I did a little bit of everything,” Frugiuele told me in a joint interview alongside Akhavan recently in a Los Angeles coffee shop. “I was really quiet and had just moved to London, so I was just learning the language. And she was just so outspoken and loud —she was the only American in the class.”
Unaware at the time of her “ridiculously obnoxious” reputation, Akhavan confirms she still ended up best friends with Frugiuele. “I moved back to the States and then every six months one of us would fly to meet the other, and we would spend as much time together as possible. She got her degree in producing from Westminster and I was pursuing my grad degree from NYU in Directing. But she took one year; my degree was three years of class and two years of thesis. So while I was in school, she saw every student short that I made.”
One of her NYU short films, “Nose Job,” about an Iranian-American teenager who considers the titular operation, toured the festival circuit and helped Akhavan cement her writing and directing skills. Looking back, she calls the short “very clunky in how it unfolds,” but she also says it was the beginning of a recent revelation.
“There’s a point, coming up to making this film, that I’ve finally figured out: it’s really hard to tell a simple story and keep everyone in the loop,” she said. “Of course, this film is non-linear so it had even more of a challenge against it, but I think your average, intelligent audience member can keep up somewhat. But ‘Nose Job,’ or any short that I made, is something like ‘wait, where am I? Who is this?’ I do want to release it someday, because I think you should be able to see directors’ first shorts —it bothers me that I can never tell what their growth was. That’s why I’m glad ‘The Slope’ is online, because you can see where [‘Appropriate Behavior’] came from.”
In addition to a role on HBO’s “Girls” this season, Akhavan is planning a follow-up directorial feature, partnered again with Frugiuele. But since a number of reference points and buzzwords have surrounded Akhavian’s work, we thought it’d be a fitting chance to bring her personal influences forth in a new installment of our Movies That Changed My Life series.
Was is the first movie you remember seeing?
Okay, I was too young to remember, but I know I saw “Amadeus” as a baby. My parents keep reminding me, so it feels like it was the first movie I saw, even though I was in a stroller. I remember “The NeverEnding Story”, but only because every week my family and I would go to the video store. One week, we were going on a trip to Boston to visit my grandparents, and we got to pick out three different videos. I got to pick one, which normally I didn’t get to, and I chose “The NeverEnding Story” randomly because it had a cover I liked. I brought it over to my brother and he was so excited, like “that’s the best film ever! You’re a genius!” He had never given me any positive reinforcement ever, and I felt like a queen. I think because he was so excited that I chose that film, and it then became one of my all-time favorites.
What is the first movie you remember watching in a theatre?
“Amadeus” [laughs] No, “E.T.”. It was someone’s birthday party, and they rented out a small theatre in New Jersey.
How do you currently consume films most often?
On a laptop, unfortunately. I also just got Chromecast for my birthday, so it’s been on a really shitty stream from my laptop and on a really tiny shitty TV that has a crack in it. Every once in a while when an indie film comes out, I’ll try really hard to go out and support it in the theatres, but for the most part, I’ll download it off iTunes. I never stream illegally, partly cause I don’t know how, but mostly because morally I wouldn’t, especially after what we’ve been through.
What do you mean by that?
I don’t know if this is true, but I’ve heard that especially lesbians download their content illegally and don’t support gay films the way that gay men do. It’s a rumor amongst gay distributors, so I don’t want to make any accusations. But I’m very conscious of that. Also in the past year, my eyes have been opened to how rare it is to monetize indie films.
Has that been the largest aspect of the business you’ve learned about since Sundance?
It has been a business slap in the face. In a vague sense, I knew from film school how that would be, in the way I know childbirth will be rough. But I had no idea what it would be like once we got accepted to Sundance, as well as the cast of new players that would enter my life immediately, the roles they would play, and the scope of who would see this film and whether or not I’d be in a position to make more. No bullshit: I have the best team one could hope for, and yet at the end of the day the only person who has my back is me. I need to ride every decision because I’m the filmmaker, but the way in which you learn how to steer that ship is a really sharp learning curve. You fall on your ass a million times and then you’re like “oh don’t make that mistake again.”
This question could be taken a few different ways, but what is your first epiphany film?
I don’t know which came first, but [Catherine Breillat’s] “Fat Girl” and “Muriel’s Wedding” were both epiphany films. I was in my early 20s when both of them came into my life. I remember when I was much younger that “The Tracey Ullman Show” was an epiphany show. I remember it was something that I watched with my family and thought, “oh shit, I wanna do that.” Growing up, I wrote monologues and wore wigs and put on crazy performances, and that was very much my own personal “Tracey Ullman Show.” It’s not a movie, but it was very special to me. Oh, and “Welcome To The Dollhouse.” I wasn’t exposed to indie films that much. It was what was on TV and then whatever was at our video store, which was mostly mainstream films. So out of all them I think the first one was definitely “Welcome To The Dollhouse.” It was magical to me.
Do you prefer to watch films in the theatre or at home?
I prefer going to the theatre. It’s a much better experience, but it’s very expensive and it doesn’t happen often.
What theatre would you go to normally?
That’s a complicated question, because are we talking convenience or the best? I live very close to Lincoln Center Plaza, which I go to, but I slightly prefer the Film Society of Lincoln Center, which is down the street. When I lived in Brooklyn, it was always a tie between BAM and Nitehawk. So it’s like, “what kind of evening or you going to have?” If you have a date and wanna get laid, you take them to Nitehawk. If you have your parents, you take them to BAM because you want to impress them and let them know that Brooklyn’s not for hobos.
What was your favorite moviegoing experience?
I could say our premiere, but that’s so obnoxious. [Gesturing to Cecilia] It might have been our French New Wave class watching “Jules and Jim.” In our year abroad in London, I took a French New Wave class, and I had never seen or heard of those films before. Every week, they screened a film and we would analyze it, and I remember they screened “Jules and Jim.” I was so blown away and excited, and I remember afterwards I would go to the tiny shitty library with a VHS player on campus and sit for hours, watching stuff. “Paris is Burning,” “After Hours” —all these films that I had never been exposed to. So I’d probably say “Jules and Jim” in that classroom at Queen Mary University of London.
“Appropriate Behavior” is now playing select theatres and on iTunes and VOD.