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« Tweetweek: Cliff Top Screenings, 100 Acre Wood realizations | Main | Happy Birthday to Shu Qi's Cat »
Saturday
Aug042018

Interview: Desiree Akhavan on Queer Desire, Americana and One Scary Mustache

by Murtada Elfadl

The Miseducation of Cameron Post takes place in the 90s and is about a young queer woman who is sent to a gay conversion center after getting caught having sex with the prom queen at her high school. Once there she bonds with her fellow “inmates” (played by American Honey’s Sasha Lane and The Revenant’s Forrest Goodluck among others). She is forced to contend with the strict brother and sister team (Jennifer Ehle and John Gallagher Jr) who run the center and pretend they can "cure" her. The film is based on a novel by Emily M. Danforth and was adapted for the screen and directed by Desiree Akhavan (Appropriate Behavior). It won the Grand Jury Prize at this year’s Sundance and has been making the festival rounds since January. We recently spoke with Akhavan in New York as she geared up for the film's release. The interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.

Murtada Elfadl: The book is longer and has much more detail, how did you arrive at the story for your film?

Desiree Akhavan: I always knew that I only wanted to focus on the last 200 pages; Cameron's time at God’s Promise. I think that when adapting a book it’s about whittling down for yourself what the kernel of inspiration is. What you loved about it and wanted to translate to the screen. And what you think you tangibly can translate into a different medium. To me that was the tone. My co-writer and I were always working in service to maintaining that tone... 

How do you work with your writing partner, Cecilia Frugiuele? Did you write together?

We wrote together. Sometimes we would assign each other different scenes. At first we outligned together and then assigned different scenes to each other to write. We spent a lot of time in the same space talking things out. We are best friends and I moved to London to be near her, once we optioned the book.

Where there parts of the book that you felt you were more suited to write and others that were more suitable to Cecilia?

I love writing dialogue and I’m good with comedic dialogue. She’s really good with plot. So it was about having her put the plot on the page and me dress it up with detail.

Moretz, Lane and Goodluck in a scene from Cameron Post

You identify as queer and this is a story about a queer young woman. Was there a social or political message you wanted to make?

Yeah. To me it was always a coming of age story, about being a teenager. Clearly it’s a film with an agenda - it is about the horrors of gay conversion centers. But to me that was always a metaphor for something universal which is just being a teenager. I think every teen- gay, straight, from any ethnicity feels diseased and that there is something really wrong with them, no matter the circumstances. This conversion center is basically a metaphor for high school and trying to change the essence of who you are, to conform in order to be safe with the people around you.

Do you think artists have a responsibility to push socio-political agendas with their art?

I don’t think I have an agenda. However if your film is saying nothing then I think that’s immoral. It’s immoral to take up space in people’s lives with content that doesn’t say anything.

Did you feel a responsibility to collaborate with women and queer people for this story?

Yes but I also get on better with queer people. I communicate better with women. There’s a shorthand there. I think I have easier time understanding women than men.

Akhavan at a screening of the film this week in New York

The film starts with a great setup, Cameron cringing at all the heteronormativity around her which I thought was a strong way to signal where the story is going. Can you talk about that?

Oh you mean the montage before the credits? Thank you! We had 45 pages and 30 to 40 minutes of footage that was condensed into that opening sequence. It looked at her high school life, at her relationships. When we looked at the first cut of the movie, it felt redundant. We just wanted to get to God’s Promise. I love that so little is said, I love that montage. It’s about Americana, the images of everybody’s high school experience. The prom, the smoking with friends outside, the photos at your parents living room [before you get in the limo.] All these rites of passage, all these cliches of straight American life. We presented them through the gaze of someone who didn’t want to be there and is faking it.

There’s sex in the movie which we don't usually see a lot of in American movies. And while the characters feel shame, there’s also palpable desire - was that important for you to show?

I think desire and sexual coming of age stories are neutered in film. It was important to me to have authenticity, specifically with the female queer experience. To me it’s a missed opportunity when people fail to explore the emotional stories of a sex scene. I wanted to make something that explores life, sex and desire as I know it.

Where there any literary sources or films that inspired how you showed desire in the film?

No, in  terms of sex scenes we didn’t look at anything specifically. But [in general] I looked at the Todd Haynes film, Safe. And Lynne Ramsay’s Morvern Callar. I really love them both.

John Gallagher’s evangelical mustache is such a scary sight. At least for me. It reminded me of straight men I grew up with, who I thought threatened me as a queer person - whose touch was that?

That was my costume designer's idea. Stacey Berman. She looked at Sears catalogues from the late 80s and saw that a lot of the men had mustaches.

You’ve had a few signposts of success - you’ve won Sundance, the film is a NY Times Critics’ Pick. What have you enjoyed most about the reaction to the film?  

I love that people laugh and cry. I love the emotional journey it takes people on. I'm really proud that no matter what your background, it can really suck you in. You don’t need to be gay to love it. You don’t need to be religious to understand those rooms. I’m proud of the universality of it.

Is there any particular reaction that you’d like to share?

My larger family didn’t come to see my first film. My parents did. Becaue I’m in it and it’s very graphic sexually at times, and they are traditional Iranians. But they came and saw this film and really loved it. It spoke to my Iranian immigrant family who, you know, aren't the most eager to watch queer coming of age stories. It spoke to them, and that means a lot to me.

Moretz with Akhavan

I heard you say in another interview that you were inspired by Marjane Satrapi’s Persepolis. Who else inspires you?

Lynne Ramsay inspires me a lot. I love her work. I also love TV. I’m really inspired by The Comeback. I just rewatched Lisa Kudrow in that. I think it’s heartbreakingly hilarious, and poignant beneath the surface.

Are there any actresses that you would want to write for?

Lisa Kudrow is amazing. I adore her. Kate McKinnon is incredible. I like funny women with depth who aren’t afraid to expose vulnerability but also lampoon themselves at the same time. There are a lot of funny women who do that. Tracey Ullman.

And your current leading lady, Chloe Grace Moretz. Why did you think of her for this role?

I didn’t think of her. It was Chloe’s team that reached out. The script had gone out to the agencies, they knew there was a role for her age range. They asked to read it and showed interest. I never thought Chloe would want to make a film like this. She’s someone I associated with Hollywood films. It was amazing timing, she backed out from several studio films and wanted to take her career in a different direction. The minute I heard she was interested I got excited because I thought it was a great juxtaposition of everything I’ve seen her do.


The Miseducation of Cameron Post is out now in New York and wil expand to other cities on August 10th.

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Reader Comments (5)

Let’s stop trying to make fetch (Chloë Grace Moretz Marcy May Marlene) happen.

August 4, 2018 | Unregistered CommenterMareko

Chloë Grace Moretz Marcy May Mareko*

August 4, 2018 | Unregistered CommenterMoreno20cm

Great interview! Can’t wait to see Akhavan’s hopefully long career. She has such a unique voice.

Also, yes, someone needs to tell Moretz to retire.

August 4, 2018 | Unregistered CommenterBushwick

Chloe needs to shut up about Boy Erased if she herself is not queer too.

August 4, 2018 | Unregistered CommenterSTFU

What’s with all this Chloe Grace Moretz hate? She’s problematic and horribly tone deaf, but she’s a fine actress.

August 4, 2018 | Unregistered Commenterbeyaccount

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