Desiree Akhavan on ‘Appropriate Behavior’: “I Wanted to Explore Dating and Fucking as I Knew It”

Desiree Akhavan is having a moment, with her new role as Hannah’s workshop classmate on Girls and her indie film, Appropriate Behavior earning plaudits from film critics and feminist bloggers alike. The film (showing at indie theaters, on iTunes, and on-demand) falls somewhere between an awkwardly hilarious family, sex, and dating comedy and a poignant sex, family, and dating drama. Ahkavan plays Shirin, a bisexual Iranian Brooklyn type not unlike her creator, at least superficially. She’s navigating post-breakup life — which means a lot of awkward sex scenes, and, through flashbacks, falling deeply in love. Meanwhile there’s the matter of coming out to her parents.

Perhaps my favorite line occurs when Shirin first kisses her girlfriend outside a party, moved to lust by this woman’s inspired rant about the Brooklyn scene: “I hate so many things, too.” Reporters have drawn dozens of comparisons to Lena Dunham, but Akhavan is reluctant to drop her outsider stance to be lumped in with anyone at all.

The last time I saw Akhavan was probably in 2001, in the hallways of our high school; she was a theater denizen a few years behind me while I ran the school paper. We talked on the phone last week about what led her from theater to film, the joy of helming her own project, the female gaze, and weed.

Flavorwire: I remember that you did a lot of theater in high school. What made you decide to get into film as opposed to another medium — or do you also still want to do theater, too?

Desiree Ahkhavan: No, not at all, I’m totally singular-minded. I was obsessed with theater in high school and I thought I’d be an actress or a playwright, but at Smith, I didn’t fit into the theater community. They really loved Caryl Churchill plays. It was a very woman’s college-y environment and I had more mainstream sensibility, so I became an isolated stoner.

But my one friend said, “If you take a Mt. Holyoke class with me, I will smoke you up on the bus.” It was a world cinema class, and it was such a cliché moment. I fell in love really hard. I had been suffering from the withdrawal of having not done theater after doing it every day in high school. Later I went abroad to study in London, met the producer of Appropriate Behavior, went to NYU for grad school, and since then have focused every bit of energy I had on writing and directing.

Basically, I owe it all to marijuana.

Your first project out of grad school was creating your web series, The Slope, which follows a pair of “homophobic lesbians” in Park Slope. Did your aesthetic change at all between that work and Appropriate Behavior?

It wasn’t even a matter of aesthetic, because we were working so fast and loose. We had no money in the can. It was a fun, improvisational experience that was completely the opposite of  aesthetically pleasing. My co-creator at The Slope and I were grad students, and the whole grad program is about using incredible cinematography, and painting with light, but we were just moving forward and didn’t give a shit. I was in my final year when I did that show. I wanted to put everything I learned aside and follow my gut — not that I’m not glad I went to grad school!

Moving to feature work with Appropriate Behavior, how did it feel to be the writer, directer, star — everything behind the whole film?

I was a pig in shit. I was so happy. I really wanted to have a film that had sex scenes that communicated something real about where this character was in her life. I wanted to say something honest about the communities I was born into, the queer community and the Iranian community.

But of course this film was enabled by collaboration with the cinematographer, production designer, producer, editor. Still, when I was in those moments in front of the camera where I was raw, naked, exposed — knowing that I was the person who had final say over it, that was so incredibly liberating.

Do you feel like this is the beginning of a lifelong journey as a writer-director for you?

I’m waiting for the bubble to burst! Now I see these intelligent women around me, monetizing their work. Indie film is very hard to monetize, and web series are impossible to monetize. So, how can you tell these stories, be true to yourself, be a woman at the helm of something different, and still make it sustainable? That’s the question that lies before me.

Did you see the news about Ava DuVernay being snubbed by the Oscars?

I think it’s absurd that she wasn’t nominated. But look at the subject matter of the films that are up for nominations — they have male protagonists. Oscar films are not the best, but content is changing, and that will be reflected in the Oscars five to ten years.

One of the things that’s excited me about the buzz around your film is to see it get a boost from this explosion of feminist-friendly media.

Yes. You know where you’ll be respected online. Before, no one was curating your content, so you’d have to open whatever magazine or journal and flip until you found the section you like.

It’s the same with cinema — you can figure out online what you think is worth your money. You’re voting for what should continue to be made. Hollywood only listens to dollar signs. So if more people spent their money on narratives of marginalized communities, or driven by women, or whatever you give a shit about, Hollywood will take notice.

From a media perspective, it feels like you’re part of a wave or even movement of women writers and directors on film and TV who are rewriting sex from a feminist perspective — or, as Jill Soloway said, “inventing the female gaze.”

I genuinely see myself as an outcast in every respect, so I’m always surprised when people say they see me as a part of a movement or a wave.

I’m a child of immigrants, a latchkey kid, and I watched hours of television a night. It was my third parent. I was lied to by TV about what gave a woman worth, and the lie that film taught me is that romantic love is this thing you share with one person, so you’ve found love and you’re happy and can die with that person. After my breakup, I thought: “They’re a good person, I am too. We tried our best, we were definitely in love. What went wrong here?”

So I wanted to explore not just love, but also dating and fucking as I knew it. I don’t meant to put a gaze on anyone else, I just want to have a frank conversation about sex and the mechanics of sexual relationships.