Desiree Akhavan has battled self-doubt to realise her dream as a director. But in a medium with few opportunities for fresh voices, she knows that success is never straightforward.
After winning the Grand Jury Prize at Sundance for a coming-of-age film about LGBT teens, Desiree Akhavan has battled self-doubt to realise her dream as a director. But in a medium with few opportunities for fresh voices, she knows that success is never straightforward.
Desiree Akhavan needs a time-out. She’s standing in the middle of a brightly coloured members’ bar at Sundance London, where her new film The Miseducation of Cameron Post is getting its UK premiere, feeling a bit frazzled.
The place is swarming with people – movie geeks shuffling through lengthy queues, publicists frantically scanning clipboards – and the filmmaker has a lot to juggle: not just Q&A screenings and photoshoots, but the more personal hassles of worrying about ticket allocation and herding loved ones about.
This atmosphere is not made for an intimate conversation with a stranger. Yet after taking a brief moment to herself on the sidelines, the 34-year-old takes a seat and locks into the moment: funny, smart and charmingly candid. Desiree, it turns out, is one of those people who thrives in the face of a challenge.
It started at school. Raised by Iranian parents in New York’s Rockland County, she spent three hours commuting back and forth to the Bronx every day – a routine that made it harder to connect with friends. So to make the biggest impact in the smallest amount of time, she’d write short plays and skits to perform between classes – and when her peers voted Desiree the ugliest person at school, she just turned that into a play too.
That ability to reframe crappy moments turned out to be the making of her career. In 2010, Desiree began a crowdfunded web series about “superficial homophobic lesbians” in Brooklyn called The Slope with her then-girlfriend and co-star Ingrid Jungermann. The pair broke up during the course of the show, which in turn bled into the characters’ lives, making for an on-screen finale built from real-life heartbreak.
In its aftermath, Desiree made Appropriate Behaviour: a feature film about an Iranian-American woman (played by herself) who struggles to come out to her parents after a painful break-up. Having grown up in a culture where being “honest about the truths of life” felt forbidden, Desiree crafted a character who can’t manage to follow the rules or fit in anywhere. The film’s mix of humour and intelligence saw her celebrated as an exciting new voice in cinema, a much-needed antidote to the same tired portrayals of women on screen.
But getting the chance to realise her potential hasn’t been easy. There still aren’t as many opportunities for female filmmakers, Desiree explains, so she and creative partner Cecilia Frugiuele have been working hard to carve out their own space. They’ve spent the last couple of years developing two big projects: The Miseducation of Cameron Post, an adaptation of a novel by emily m. danforth about teens sent to a camp for gay ‘conversion therapy’, and The Bisexual, a comedy series about the taboos of attraction.
“Comedy and sex; being outcast; stories about outsiders – it’s what I’m fascinated by,” she says with a smile and a shrug. “Something in me just pulls it all together.”
You have a habit of turning failures or painful events into something positive. What aspect of your personality enables you to do that?
I think it just is my personality. Like, I think you just called me out. That’s what I do. I’m incapable of letting things slide. It’s a sickness. [laughs] But it’s also wanting to take a situation where you feel disempowered and turn it into something that you have control over. With writing and directing, you have the ultimate control. You’re in the editing room, calling the shots.
Your parents invested heavily in education for you and your older brother; he became a surgeon while you pursued creativity. I can imagine there would’ve been huge self-applied pressure as a result of that. But after being accepted to Sundance for the first time, you called your mom and she said, ‘I always knew. I had so much faith in you.’ Were you aware of that belief? Or did it feel like you were failing?
That was, hands down, the coolest moment ever. [laughs] But yeah, I totally felt that pressure, especially coming from New York which is so success-oriented, and I still do feel like a failure. When it comes to professional success, my parents have been incredibly supportive and really pushed me, blindly believing even when I didn’t. If they wavered, they never showed it… which is weird because the odds of being a working filmmaker are so low. This industry is ridiculously competitive and I think it’s shocking to all of us that it happened. But I think my mom genuinely believed and I was like, ‘You’re living in a fairy tale.’
What is your idea of success then? Because people would see you as successful…
It’s tricky and I keep having to redefine it for myself. I think the problem is that when you’re working – no matter who you are or what you do – you keep moving the bar according to what you don’t have. You just maintain the narrative in your head that you’re a loser. But I achieved what I wanted to achieve so I’m really grateful for that. What’s funny is that the lifestyle doesn’t look the way I thought it would. I thought it would be a lot more lucrative [laughs] and a lot smoother. Instead it’s rocky… and… I like it, but… [long pause] I don’t know.
Maybe you shouldn’t feel totally proud of yourself. Maybe the part of you that feels like a piece of shit motivates you to keep going. Maybe when great filmmakers do mediocre work in their later years, when they start doing the same things over and over again, I wonder if it’s because they’ve just become too pleased with themselves and they don’t have this crippling need to prove it anymore. I have such a need to prove myself.
How do you balance the need to express yourself creatively with the need to scrape by to make a living?
It’s a hustle. I think the business of being a filmmaker has been a real learning curve for me. It doesn’t come with a rulebook. No one sits you down and explains anything. You just fall on your ass and keep getting up.
But you studied film at NYU, right? So when you enrolled, did it feel like you’d be given a guide?
Nobody can teach you about the business of being a filmmaker because it’s constantly changing. Every year the marketplace is completely different. So it’s about balancing your integrity and telling stories you want to tell and having the control you want to have versus the lifestyle you want to live.
The older I get, the more I become aware of what I can compromise on and what I won’t. As someone who lives the work 24/7, what should that lifestyle look like? What needs do I have to accommodate if I’m constantly doing this job and always thinking about it? It’s become such a big part of my identity… and I think that might be a problem. [laughs]
I have similar problems: perfectionism, fear of failure, performance anxiety. So how do you navigate that? How do you stop giving a shit about whatever is behind the anxiety?
I’m trying to figure that out. Like, therapy? I don’t know. Lately I’ve been trying to meditate and do yoga. I’m trying so hard. The last shoot was a TV show here in London and it kicked my ass. I was just so miserable and so afraid that it didn’t match up to what I had in my head. And with Cameron Post, I love it and I’m really proud; it may be even better than what I wanted to make. But during post-production, we had something totally mediocre.
And I think that’s just the process of making things: feeling like you failed yourself and then just inching your way closer to something that makes sense. You have to become comfortable living in that self-doubt, but I wish that it would just ease up a bit. If I could give advice to myself before I made Appropriate Behavior it would be, ‘Cut yourself some slack. This is a marathon, not a race. You’ll get there.’ And I need that advice right now, making the show. Like, ‘You’re in the middle of editing it. Of course it’s not going to be great.’
It’s hard to believe you saw the film in those terms at one point. The casting, the performances, the cinematography – surely all those things would have been in the rough cut.
They were, but the story didn’t knock you in the stomach. Everyone who came to the [test] screenings was like, ‘Meh.’ You didn’t sit in those rooms. It was so awkward. Oh God, I’ll never forget this call I got from [an editor] who had just seen the rough cut and started listing all these things that were problems – things that I knew, deep down, were problems.
I was in a Tesco in Dalston [East London]; I remember putting my phone on mute and walking through the aisles adding candy after candy. Then I dropped my credit card and walked down Kingsland Road just, like, lost for a while. He nailed every single inadequacy with the film. In those moments it feels like you failed not only yourself but your financiers and your cast and everyone around you. But what was amazing was… we fixed it! We recut the film completely and I learned so much about what it means to take an audience on a journey.
The morning after Trump was elected, you gathered the cast and told them the film would matter in ways they couldn’t have anticipated before. [Vice President Mike Pence has frequently been accused of supporting conversion therapy.] Now that it’s made, what would you like people to take from it?
I always feel hesitant to answer that question. Like, if you state your intentions then you’re not a very good filmmaker, are you? [laughs] I mean it has a political message… You want to humanise that struggle and show abuse the way you see it; the inherent hypocrisy of gay conversion therapy and how destructive it is.
But I didn’t make it with the intention of teaching people about those specific horrors. It was a perfect setting for a teenage drama because what these kids were going through was so over-the-top – it wasn’t something they could heal themselves from – and it felt more like a metaphor for other theoretical horrors. It just became upsettingly relevant while we were making it. But I’m not naive enough to think that people who strongly believe you can ‘pray the gay away’ would even come to this film.
Tell me about the moment when you realised that creativity was going to be the thing you pursued in life.
It really wasn’t a choice. There’s nothing else I’m capable of doing and my family recognised that too – in a loving, supportive way. They came from Iran and believed that any bit of money they had should be put into our education – and that’s what they did. We went to a very competitive, fancy-pants school. They invested so much time and money into tutors and different programmes to help me succeed academically. But even though I tried so hard, I could never do well.
I had so many jobs throughout school just trying to figure out something I could do – and I was useless at everything. But I wrote plays as a kid, little comedy shorts during recess, and I made people laugh. The first school play I acted in was The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe and I was the lion. It sounds so cheesy, but my parents had never heard me sing before coming to see that play. I remember afterwards they looked at me like I was a different person. Everyone there looked at me like that. I was 12 and suddenly it felt like I had a secret power… But nowhere else in my life did anyone ever notice me. So when I did theatre, it was like I was doing something viably good compared to how bad I was at everything else.
The change came when I studied at [Smith College]. I wanted to do be a playwright but I just didn’t fit into the programme. There was a theatre community and we clashed; they did Caryl Churchill and a lot of very ‘not me’ material. I quickly realised I was not a theatre person and it hit me so hard that I thought, ‘How am I going to spend my time now? This was all I ever did.’
I always had a hard time connecting to people unless I was making plays with them. But I met this girl who I thought was cool; she wanted to be a director and I wanted to be just like her, so I signed up for whatever she signed up for. And it was like falling in love. I instantly felt at home talking about films and reading them like text. I grew up that way – not watching high-art stuff, but mainstream bullshit – and that raised me.
But it never seemed like something you could do yourself. When I started taking these film classes, around 19 or 20, it was like, ‘Oh shit, the pursuit of this will be my life.’ I never thought in my wildest dreams that I’d be able to go to Sundance but I knew I’d spend my life trying.
The reason I ask about navigating anxiety is because you’ve spoken about attending rehab for an eating disorder when you were younger, where you learned something important about yourself that became a turning point. That can’t have been easy. Is there anything you took from that experience that still feels relevant elsewhere in life?
You know what the realisation was? That everything was fine. That was it. And that’s what I applied to filmmaking: ‘Stop trying so hard. Just have fun.’ [long pause] The thing about anxiety is that you just have to turn down the volume on the voices. It’s the same with the eating disorder: it’s not like I ‘beat’ anything. Sometimes the volume goes up and you’re like, ‘Okay, the volume is up. Let’s try to turn it down.’ You just breathe through it, but you always feel like a shithead and you always feel like you’re failing people. Like with this TV show, when I think about it, I just want to cry.
If you told me I would win the Grand Jury Prize at Sundance, I would think that my life would be done, that I would never feel inadequate again and there’d be no qualifier. Done! I would have a stamp that says I’m great and I could look at myself in the mirror like, ‘You’re awesome.’ And that’s not at all the case. But what it has made me realise is that you don’t really need an award to know that. I’m just as talented or untalented as I was before I won. It doesn’t mean anything.
At the end of the day, you’re trying to tell your story and you have to trust your taste. When you hit a rough patch, you just slowly turn down the volume. You don’t marinate in it. And that’s what I’m trying to do now: have faith that I’m doing my best every day. Try again tomorrow. No one’s gonna die; the stakes are relatively low when you consider the fact that everyone will be fine. But it takes a lot of ego to do this work, so you kind of have to hold on to the blind confidence too.
You’ve said that being bisexual is like a superpower because you see sides to both sexes that others don’t. So what is it that people don’t realise about men and women?
That people aren’t that different. It’s so funny, I just read a book that I’m obsessed with called The Power [by Naomi Alderman]. It’s about women developing the ability to release this electrical current, which leads them to become the dominant gender… and they act exactly like men do. It’s the same world we live in, only women are in power and men are marginalised. It’s so fascinating because I see the truth in that.
I’ve dated men who have been more feminine and more maternal or comforting than the women I’ve been with. I’ve dated women who have been more stereotypically masculine. When I first had sex with a man, I thought it would be so different. I thought that I was on for a different ride. And it was like, ‘No… of course it’s the same thing, you idiot!’ It’s just sex.
Relationships are just relationships. It’s your perception from outside that makes you think, ‘How could you possibly have the same kind of intimacy with a man as you would with a woman or vice versa?’ We put on these dresses, these codes, these rules of conduct that are self-imposed. But if you learn to see past those things, you realise that we’re all human.
The Miseducation of Cameron Post is in cinemas 7 September and The Bisexual is coming to Channel 4 this autumn.