Where on the spectrum of loyalty and betrayal does song begin? And where does it end? I think each writer has to decide this over and over.
Exiled to adulthood.
Desiree Akhavan’s superb Appropriate Behavior stars the writer-director as Shirin, a bisexual twenty-something equally as dissatisfied with the bourgeois pressures of her Iranian parents as she is with the spray-paint-meets-vomit milieu of Hipster Brooklyn. Even if all Shirin thinks she needs is a little understanding, she’s also looking for a major life change. Whether she realizes it or not, she ends up finding both in a long-term relationship with lesbian activist Maxine (Halley Feiffer). As described, Akhavan’s film may sound like indie boilerplate; it’s also world-wise and bitterly hilarious, as memories of the genesis and slow death of Shirine and Maxine’s romance are refracted—Memento or Annie Hall style—against Shirin’s ongoing spinout as a newly single woman. It’s no stretch to interpret Akhavan’s film as a reflection on the limited use of identity politics in navigating a one-size-fits-all quarter-life crisis: penniless and emotionally ruined, Shirin finds no solace in any of her disparate cultural blocs, remaining closeted to her parents while her queerness is written off by Maxine as a “phase.”
And yet the question of whether or not Maxine is right is kept, to Behavior’s credit, wide open. Shirin’s self-destruction/indulgence (including a riotously ill-advised rebound with a cloneoid, mush-brained Bushwick artist) dares the audience to maintain sympathy, as the character’s faux pas gracefully segue from legitimately funny to legitimately sad. The poster for Appropriate Behavior shows Shirin, after being invited to a putatively open-minded couple’s apartment to mess around, realizing there’s no room left for her in yet another preconceived narrative. It’s the harsh, turbid reality outside these tidy categorizations where Akhavan’s antiheroine—and indeed, any New Yorker—will have to square themselves, exiled into adulthood one letdown at a time. Hot on the heels of last year’s Obivous Child and Listen Up Philip, one could hardly be blamed for wondering if it’s safe, finally, to watch New York indie comedies again.
Steve Macfarlane So… I didn’t have this problem with Appropriate Behavior, but most movies written, directed by & starring the same person, they tend to be kind of…
Desiree Akhavan Masturbatory?
SM You could say that. (laughter) Can you talk about writing a character who you know you’ll be playing, but who is nevertheless different enough from yourself—I would assume? And also, about writing a character who’s given the ability to be wrong onscreen? I feel like that’s usually the missing ingredient. Most of these “auto”-movies are rooting for their main character pretty much every step of the way.
DA I think the reason it wasn’t so difficult for me was because I had come off of The Slope, where the character was named Desiree. And she was so politically incorrect; everything she did was obnoxious. And mildly racist. After the joy of having made that, for a year of my life, then switching to a feature, it seemed like such an easy transition to say, Okay: here’s a character who is, like, the best and the worst of me. Also, it’s kind of a choose-your-own-adventure. I would never do those things—but you know, actually, some things I might do. And it’s sort of that fun of taking yourself on an adventure, like: “Okay, what if I did fuck that couple? Where does that go? What does that trigger?”
Also, it’s about collaboration. I didn’t do this alone. I think if I had, it would suck, completely. You have to rely really heavily on people whose taste you trust, and you know that for a fact. For me, it was my cinematographer, my producer, my editor and my co-star. I knew that whatever they brought to the table was going to elevate the story. If they pushed me on something, and they convinced me, I knew that would be an opportunity to make it better than it was.
SM There’s a scene where Shirin tries coming out to her mom. Your character says, “I’m a little bit gay,” to which the mom replies, “No. You’re not.” Later, Shirin comments that her mom ”totally knows what’s up,” but I’ve read interviews where you claimed this was the mom’s way of telling Shirin that she doesn’t actually know herself.
DA I think you take from it what you will. My interpretation is … Oh god, should I even share my interpretation of it? I always feel like smart directors say, (adopts a superior tone) “Whatever the audience thinks.” But in this day and age, everything is so regurgitated, so…
DA Yeah—exactly. The Criterion Collection will feature the storyboards of every last thought and kernel of an idea that a director can have. For me, it’s like the Mom’s saying, “No. You’re not gay,” but is also in denial herself. In that, Shirin knew she dropped a hint, and this was something, a larger conversation that they were going to have eventually. What was important to me with that whole sequence was that—every film I had seen with a coming-out scene was just so black and white. There’s always a before-and-after, this watershed moment where everyone in the family freaks out, and then everyone’s different. Maybe they accept you, maybe they don’t, but nothing will ever be the same. But, for a lot of people I spoke to, and in my own experiences too, it was a process. I felt like I came out twenty different times. It was a constant conversation we kept having to come back to. And that’s what I wanted to show in the film.
SM It’s usually supposed to feel like a turning point, normally, but you refused that route. Was there ever a version that was closer to the Very Special Episode kind of formula? Or is that something you wanted to correct?
DA It was always going to be like it is. I felt really uncomfortable with that type of scene. I didn’t think it belonged in my movie.
SM Do you feel there are otherwise good films that, when it’s crunch time, default to choosing one of the two sides you’ve described? Succumb to the pressure?
DA I don’t know. The gay films that I love are really subtle; they don’t really hit you over the head with things. High Art is a film that deals with gay subject matter. It’s super-good, and it doesn’t have this huge watershed moment like, “I’m ga-ay!”
SM I’ve read that The Slope started with talking shit, itemizing things that were really getting on your nerves. A lot of Appropriate Behavior feels totally organic to the central relationship between Shirin and Maxine, but there are also aspects of Brooklyn culture in the film which, if I’m being honest, made me uncomfortable—because they were accurate. And not accurate in a caricatured, shout-out kind of way…
DA I keep a running list. I write down things I hear or see that I find absurd. This is the funny thing about absurd humor: it has its roots in very real, uncomfortable truths. That’s just how it happened. It’s like, what’s the journey of this character? For the web series, when we wrote, we’d pick a location then ask, What’s the natural narrative for this location?
One episode takes place at the Tea Lounge, in Park Slope. I’ve been there, like, a bazillion times. I lived very close by for a long time, and for some reason, it’s been a while since I’d gone. But we thought, Okay, let’s make fun of that place. And of course, that means we have to make fun of Park Slope parents. It smells like a diaper there now, and it didn’t when I first moved to Brooklyn. Children have just taken over. Before, it was all writers, just writing. Then it suddenly had Storybook Hour, then Musical Hour. That place really inspired comedy based around the kind of parent who chooses to raise their kid in that neighborhood.
In another episode of The Slope, Michael Showalter plays this Park Slope dad who’s a primary caregiver, and that’s where the comedy came from. With the film, it felt like the journey that Shirin was on, her profession and her moving to Bushwick from Park Slope after having belonged to the Park Slope Food Co-Op, was where it would come from. It wasn’t like I had these bullets I wanted to aim. It’s more a question of, What fits into this? And then, Where do we go from there? What kind of dude would she be dating if she wanted to piss off her ex?
SM So the locations influence the writing, or create a template for comedy. How does that influence the mechanics of the filmmaking? Do you see a location and tell yourself, “We haveto shoot something here?”
DA It’s more like, “Do you think the owners would be nice enough to let us shoot here?“(laughter) We definitely shoot within our means. This was such a miracle that it came together. I try to be really flexible, and say, Okay, what are we asking for? Who can we work with? Who’s gonna be able to meet our needs? I would never say, “I have to do this here.” We faked the Co-Op, for example.
SM Did you even try asking them, or was it just obvious that it wasn’t going to happen?
DA I told people not to try. I’m sure my very loyal line producer did, but I told them not to. I knew they wouldn’t go for it. Everything there is decided by like, jury and voting and trial.
SM Shirin also teaches a filmmaking workshop for tiny little kids. Can you talk about that? I’ve heard of similar programs for teenagers, but this seemed like prime Brooklyn. Also: did the kids influence the films, or was that all shot as it was written?
DA That stuff was shot exactly as written. In fact, the fart film was the first thing we shot.
SM For the entire movie?
DA Yes. We shot it during preproduction; I had an all-day costume fitting, then we ran into the park, and shot the whole short. The kids were not infantile enough to want to make this fart movie, actually. It was my vision completely—I will take full credit. Those were the best line-reading moments, with the worst director clichés you can imagine. I didn’t just do line-readings for the kids—I did line fartings for the kids. I had to act out physically what I wanted these young boys to do. They were shy! But great. I loved the boys we cast; once we were in the classroom space, they got comfortable with themselves, and those were moments where they really improvised, and we were able to work around them. It was really fun. You just figure out a way to capture what comes naturally to them. If your approach is to say, “Be chaotic! Misbehave!”, of course they’re just going to sit there like angels. Once we were in the space, we had room to play. When it came to the fart movie though, it was much more difficult.
SM The movie within the movie was harder to pull off.
DA It was just so staged. I wanted everything just so. “Okay guys, this is how it’s going to come together.”
SM How many days did you shoot with the boys?
DA Two days.
SM How about the set piece with the threesome? Does something like that require a ton of choreography?
DA A lot of choreography, yeah, which I find easy; I think it was easy because every step of it was choreographed, shot-for-shot. Motion, movement, all of it. The actors knew where they were supposed to be and it was very much a dance between the three of us and Chris Teague, the cinematographer. We all knew where we were supposed to be, and we just kept repeating it. It was the one sequence of the film that turned out exactly like I wanted it to be, exactly as it was scripted. It wasn’t like “Oh, we’ll feel it out.” I think that’s why it works, on a craft level. Everyone involved knew what they were doing and were on the same page.
SM If you don’t mind my asking … does that mean the way other passages turned out was disappointing?
DA No! It’s not that. I want to find a new way of saying this, of course, but it’s the old cliché: you write one film, you shoot another film, and you edit another film from that. And then you sell a completely different film. (laughter) Over the course of making something, you’re reinventing. Then you edit according to the footage you have. So, it’s not that I was disappointed. Instead, I discovered something different. The film became something entirely different once we were there, in the room, and I’m thinking: Okay, this is our set, this is the amount of time we have, these are our actors. This is our crew, this is our light. And then, again, it becomes something totally different in the edit. The threesome, for some reason, was just this magical moment. When I first watched the cut, it had come together in a way that I didn’t anticipate. But on-set I was terrified. I thought it looked really graphic. I was like, “Oh God. I went too far.”
SM Was there ever a version of this script you felt went too far in the comedy direction? Or was too serious, as the case may be?
DA Yes. The first draft was absurd. It was so, so silly. And with each passing go at it, it became less so. That was a process I did not do alone by the way. I did it with my producer, and she has a “story-by” credit. She was so involved in every pass. We acted the whole movie out in the living room. There are moments in the movie that stayed that are still a little bit silly, but we love them. For the most part, we tried to get our feet on the ground, and to keep bringing in both the humanity of it, and the sadness that is underneath the surface. Because who gives a shit about the jokes if there’s no point to the entire thing? That’s why I really love Muriel’s Wedding—it’s a film that is, at times, absurdly funny and stupid, but…
SM You could say it gets carried away.
DA But in the best possible way, a way I’m totally on-board for. It tells such a sad, human story.
Steve MacFarlane is a writer, programmer, and filmmaker from Seattle, Washington. A head programmer at Spectacle in Williamsburg, his writing has appeared in publications including Slant, The L, and The Brooklyn Rail.
Where on the spectrum of loyalty and betrayal does song begin? And where does it end? I think each writer has to decide this over and over.