Like most people, I’ve been a fan of Lily Amirpour since her film A Girl Walks Home Alone at Night, a stylishly mute black and white voray into Lily’s Iranian-American roots that was coined as the ‘first ever Iranian Vampire Western’. Followed up with the wonderful cannibal horror The Bad Batch, Lily’s latest feature is a Ring-like parody set in New Orleans titled Mona Lisa and the Blood Moon (available on NOW TV and other streaming platforms). If this writer can suggest a thread to each of her works — it’s the outsider, the motel roving, larger than life tender hearted lunatic struggling to fit in.
As someone who fits her bill, I couldn’t recommend Lily’s films with more energy. Yet Amirpour is feeling mixed about publicity — and for good reason. Between promoting Mona Lisa, the American-based filmmaker has been calling out the ongoing Iranian protests: an eruption of civil disobedience that was sparked after a young Mahsa Amini was killed by Iran’s religious police for wearing an ‘improper’ hijab. A month in, and demands for secularism have been answered with brutal crackdowns and further violence by the regime; now, anarchy and unrest threaten to spread across Lily’s home like fire at an oil distillery.
I’m nervous, as the feeling radiates off Lily when we begin our interview. It’s morning in New York, but her room could be set in night. Not dark, but windowless. We exchange polite hellos — and I notice her tired eyes.
Lily: I’ve been doomscrolling about the protests in Iran.
SM: I understand the Supreme Leader said what happened with the morality police was shameful yesterday*. What’s the situation like now?
Lily: I wouldn’t get information about Iran if it wasn’t for social media, but I have to do all the work myself…They killed this girl, but she’s only one of about 1,000 girls that have been killed and tortured… It’s 43 years of women living under this oppressive medieval-like regime, where women are being killed in the name of morality, as if it’s immoral to show your hair. This is what’s being protested and because it’s such a simple, basic freedom I’ve never felt so connected to my country… We’ve never seen anything like this in the Middle East, a region that’s medieval in regard to the way religion is imposed upon women. I mean – it’s not like Islam has ever been updated to match modern times.
SM: I’m curious if you’d return to A Girl Walks Home At Night and use the Chador to discuss Iran in a future film?
Lily: If I did another film, I have been thinking about the mullahs. I’m fascinated by the mullahs and these evil evil men and their belief systems and their absolute hypocrisy – a lot of the children of these mullahs live in Canada, they live in America, they live in Europe, and they drive Lamborghinis, and they like bikinis. They post pictures on their Instagram and they make billions. They’re gangsters. Iran is like gangsters and America is like the dirty cops.
SM: I found it interesting seeing the clips of Trump and Iran on the television in the background of Mona Lisa and the Bloodmoon. Is there a special relationship between Iran and America to you?
Lily: Yes. Because of what? Oil. We created a situation. And this is the result of the situation.
But then you can go back and look at what England did, before America got involved. The politics is fucked. Every country is corrupt. It’s not just Russia or China, they’re all corrupt and people, unfortunately, aren’t interested in finding the truth.
SM: So what’s the truth to you?
Lily: The truth depends on the individual. That’s the truth. Except we go and blindly get caught up in bickering matches on social media with trigger words that distract everyone. The real truth is just to be vigilant and understand you’re being manipulated at any second of the day. Google is anti-truth!
SM: How do you immerse yourself in the Iranian story then? Are you using twitter, social media – are you talking to friends?
Lily: Twitter hasn’t had it trending – it’s absurd. I try not to spend too much time there because it’s like Dante’s Inferno. I love Instagram because it’s images. But it’s still not showing up in my feed. So I have to go to an Iranian actress and activist called Golfshifteh Farahani. She’s really kept on it for the last two weeks, every single day posting updates from inside of Iran. But none of the media outlets are covering it. Biden only tweeted about it today, 18 days into it: ‘the United States will continue to condemn the violence against protestors and we continue to support the protestor’s right for peaceful protests’. They haven’t had a peaceful protest in 43 years! We are supporting their right not to be tortured and brutalized by this regime.
But his language – that dude is clueless!
SM: In The Bad Batch there’s an image of America as an unfinished puzzle. What does that image mean to you?
Lily: The Bad Batch is a great movie for this conversation. It’s certainly the movie where I was looking very closely at the system. I still feel an optimism for the essential concept of America, I still feel nostalgia and optimism, and honestly patriotism, for the idea of freedom; freedom for the individual, how there’s a place where you can make what you want to make out of your life if you work hard and are ambitious. I am literally proof that the American dream is a real thing. It is. We came here as an immigrant family and my parents worked hard to give me the opportunities that I then used.
SM: So you’re more of a libertarian?
SM: Yeah – I don’t like the government having a say in what I say, or do, or tweet, even what films I make. I don’t like any government, I’d rather not fuck with them. In my own life, I believe if people self-actualized and instead of criticizing everyone, criticized themselves, then the world and humanity would improve. Just by the work being done.
SM: Do you think your films let people confront those fears?
Lily: Well that’s what Arlen does! If you want to use The Bad Batch as an example, she’s got two options. [After she shoots her torturer and finds her captive’s child] she chooses to look beyond what is given to her and look at her decisions made in a moment of hate. She’s not the ideal hero, but she is the hero because she does continue to question it, to move past the temporary solution. How’s it gonna turn out for her? I don’t know, but I know if you focus all your energy and attention on destruction, where does that lead to? If we spend all our time criticizing these governments, what’s the actual call to action from this conversation?
So yeah, maybe I will go make a film about the Mullahs.
I was imagining it yesterday actually. It could be such a good thing for a darkly funny horror movie: like an American-Psycho-style satire of the Mullahs.
The genius of that film is you get comfortable with Patrick Bateman. If you’re just showing him as an evil, diabolical guy it would be an exhausting one-note type of horror. But because of the way it’s presented it shows how he’s a product of his system. Ultimately it shows you how deformed the system is – how he’s stuck in the corporate, Wall-Street greed-soaked reality.
SM: Is that where your fascination with world-building comes from? Do you see the world as creating the character?
Lily: These things are so subconscious now. I’m three films deep and there’s a certain degree of looking at it and having almost a psychoanalysis. I am aware that usually the system is the great antagonist of each story. You’re born into a system with family, religion, politics and that’s how you move through life. So if you veer out of that and try to find the ultimate you, something that isn’t defined by the system, then what is that? I feel like that’s what I’m always trying to grasp onto. So of course, if you’re a true fan of horror you’re probably going to be disappointed by my movies because it’s not balls to the wall gore. It’s not going to satisfy the bloodlust that’s in a horror movie, it’s more like an amplified surrealist fantasy that’s grounded in the grit of reality.
If I wanted to talk about the ideas in my film I would be talking about them. Words can make a big thing small and feelings are bigger than words. ‘This pill would be nothing without you.’ ‘Find the dream’ ‘Find comfort’. What does that mean to find comfort [in The Bad Batch]? It’s such a big question, it’s a town called Comfort but it’s also many more things and maybe all of the entire weight of American life is contained in that idea of finding comfort.
In my optimistic mind, I like to think there’s audiences who wonder how it relates to them. Someone who asks ‘what is comfort?’
SM: What’s the definition for you?
Lily: For me, I’ll get uncomfortable when I get comfortable.
If I’m in a routine at my house, I start to feel ill at ease. It’s the habituation, the robotic, daily stuff. When I’m in the samurai, ninja, monk state of mind and I’m getting up early and using my time, then I feel good. But if I start to get a little into the mud of a habit, I get agitated.
SM: I’d like to circle back. I know you did a graphic novel for A Girl. What goes into the cinematography when you come up with these sorts of larger than life characters like Mona Lisa or Arlen?
Lily: At its core what moves me as an artist is probably my early influences. Films like The Never Ending Story. It’s one of the most profound pieces of storytelling to me because it’s the most beautiful tale about personal freedom. The whole movie is told through the lens of a kid and he’s living with his dad they’re going through a divorce and he’s skipping class at school just to be alone and read the book. And at the end you realize the Never Ending Story is a fantasia, it’s this beautiful imagined fantasy world about the book, which is all within the mind of the kid. Without imagination it wouldn’t exist. It’s a movie about the individual’s power of imagination: that what reality is gonna be, is determined by you. It’s one of the biggest mystic messages. There is no greater message.
SM: Is there a Sufi Mysticism to your characters?
Lily: I think so. I don’t know if it’s conscious, I tell a story and put my characters on an adventure but that mysticism and interest is in me. By the nature of me being the maker, it probably is absorbing into my work. Those ideas are part of who I am. In The Bad Batch once Arlen has arrived in Comfort, there’s a screaming homeless lunatic in the street who is talking about a very profound question, an unanswerable question. He’s saying: ‘There’s one thing…There’s one thing you should do…If you forget everything else but remember this one thing then you would have lived a good life but if you remember everything else and forget this one thing you will have done nothing with your life.’ It’s a poem from Rumi, one of the greatest mystics. I’m all about the question. I think the questions themselves are the point. Whatever comes out of asking the questions, is what we should be doing.
SM: So the ‘one thing’ is curiosity?
Lily: I can’t tell you – everyone should just be asking it.
*Editor’s Note:This interview was first recorded on the 4th Oct.