The crush is where all the dopamine is. I think the movie lives in that part of their relationship.
Ana Lily Amirpour’s high-contrast, monochrome debut feature A Girl Walks Home Alone at Night finds a vampire (Sheila Vand) gliding through the night, stalking the denizens of a fictitious Iranian town, Bad City. It’s here we find a James Dean-esque young man Arash (Arash Marandi) and his junkie dad (Marshall Manesh) running afoul of the town’s drug-dealing pimp (Dominic Rains), who in turn delights in making life hellish for a hooker named Atti (Mozhan Marnò). Beautifully photographed by Lyle Vincent—2015 Independent Spirit Award nominee—we’re witness to suggestive and symbolic images resonant with intersecting meanings and emotion. Nothing’s too spelled out or underlined, much like the vampire in question known simply as the Girl.
In Bad City, the shadows are so pitch-black that the Girl’s able to stalk the streets in full chador practically undetected. She hides almost completely in the liquid black, revealing herself to her victims from across the wide expanse of vacant lots or abandoned parks. At one point, she skateboards down the middle of a darkened empty street, her chador flowing behind her like gigantic bat wings. People don’t understand what she is or who she is—until it’s too late.
The Girl’s riddled complexity is entirely to Vand’s credit, who impressed last year in a small but critical role in Ben Affleck’s Argo. The 29-year-old Palo Alto native’s two recent roles couldn’t be more different. On NBC’s Katherine Heigl vehicle State of Affairs, Vand is a brainy CIA Secretary of Defense briefer, a far cry from playing the centuries-old vampire who sucks the life out of misbehaving men and avenges scorned women in the stunner A Girl Walks Home Alone at Night.
A Girl Walks Home Alone at Night is now playing in select theaters.
How did you and Ana first meet? You had worked together prior to this film.
We had a mutual friend who thought we would really get along so he introduced us. At the time, she had written a different feature that she was doing a table-read for and recommended me for it. But I was in Argentina at the time and couldn’t be there for the read-through. I decided to read the script anyway and really liked it, so I met with her even though I wasn’t available for the reading. Immediately, I clicked with her. Then we did a few short films together. When she offered me the part of the Girl, the script hadn’t been written yet. I’d never had a part written for me before.
Did Ana tell you what the film would be about or who you’d be playing?
She had made a short film prior to it that sort of ended up serving as a proof of concept. It was a short film version also called A Girl Walks Home Alone at Night. When she made that short, she wasn’t planning on turning it into a feature. She wanted me to be in that short film, but I wasn’t available for that either. [Laughs] But I saw it and I was totally fascinated by the character and the world Ana was starting to create. So I knew the world’s tone and she also said that it was going to be some sort of a cross between Sergio Leone and David Lynch. I just thought that would be a world I would love to get lost in.
The Girl’s incognito. She’s very hard to read. What was she modeled after? How did Ana envision her and what did you want to bring to the character?
Ana had me watch a ton of movies. As you might expect, there was a lot of David Lynch, Sergio Leone, and a lot of vampire stuff. I watched Nosferatu and read Interview with the Vampire. She also had me watch YouTube videos of cobras, cats, tigers and snakes, so I was sort of entering the physicality through the animal research. On my own, I observed my grandmother a lot. The Girl is 187 years old, so to be able to internalize her silence I felt that I had to root that in something real, and that for me was her age. That’s how my grandmother is, she doesn’t talk much. She’s gone through so much in her life and seen so much that nothing really surprises her anymore. I really rooted the silence and the stillness in her.
I also watched a lot of spaghetti westerns like The Good, the Bad and the Ugly and Once Upon a Time in the West. I was thinking about Clint Eastwood a lot and the cowboy in the Girl. The iconic cowboy is also very still and silent. They’re the best shooter in the room, so they don’t really have to speak. They know they’re the most powerful person in the room. I also watched Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid, so I drew a lot from the pacing and the moodiness of the cowboy.
The music is paramount in telling this story. Was the soundtrack written into the script?
It was. Even before we got to set, we already had a playlist of all the songs that were going to make it into the movie. It was meticulously thought through before we actually arrived on set, which was great because I think music changed the tone of the world better than anything else. Ana didn’t have to do much explaining because of it. She would just play a song and say, “This is the song in the scene” and you would immediately understand what your headspace is because that song would put you there. I had a playlist of all the songs that were going to be in the film and another one of the Girl’s own playlist with stuff like Lionel Richie, Prince, Michael Jackson, and The Bee Gees.
White Lies’ “Death” was entirely unexpected. What’s the story behind that particular track?
Ana always had her heart set on that song. I don’t know if it’s because it has this 80s pop feel to it, but I feel like it’s universally resonating with people. It just reminds you of being in high school and having a crush. I knew that song was always going to be in that scene. And there was originally more going on that ended up getting cut, which I think was a brilliant move because, like the rest of the film, the tension exists in the anticipation. There’s something incredible about that.
From what I can recall, the song played all the way through without any dialogue.
How does it go… [Sheila pulls up the lyrics on her iPhone.]
I love the feeling when we lift off
Watching the world so small below
I love the dreaming when I think of
The safety in the clouds out my window
Yeah, it’s the most beautiful love song! I think the song captures the feeling of young love really well. For me, the tone of that scene was all about how, when you have a crush on someone sometimes that’s the best part. It’s those first few moments: the anticipation, wondering what they might think of you, and if it’s going to work. The crush is where all the dopamine is. I think the movie lives in that part of their relationship.
You guys shot this in Taft, just outside of Bakersfield. I haven’t been there in a long time, but it really displaces you. It’s desolate in a way that can make you feel really lonely and sad.
[Laughs] I love Taft! I love the feeling of being in the middle of nowhere, getting off the grid and away from anything that’s familiar. It was really transportive and immersive to be in a place like Taft, and we’re painting a fictional ghost town anyway. I think something about the blandness of that town is perfect for projecting your own reality onto. It’s such a flat, barren landscape that you can sort of impose your own universe on top of it. With this, people know they’re supposed to be somewhere in Iran, but they can kind of see California in it. And that’s sort of the whole film, right? It’s this Iranian/American hybrid. It speaks to Ana’s identity and all of our identities as hybrid Iranians, so I think it’s appropriate in that way.
Did you have any interesting run-ins with the locals?
As far as the locals go, they were all very excited that a movie was shooting there. Everyone was really wonderful. I think they actually cast some of the locals as extras in the movie. There were definitely times where, all of a sudden, a group of ten little kids would show up and try to figure out what we were doing. I can’t imagine what they must’ve thought seeing this girl in a chador flying down the street on a skateboard. [Laughs]
I still can’t get over how beautiful the film looks. You could isolate any number of shots and frame it on the wall.
That’s all Lyle Vincent, our cinematographer.
Now he’s up for the Independent Spirit Award for Best Cinematography. Such a good one.
It’s so amazing. It’s incredible. That’s another thing that drew me to the project and what I like about Ana’s work: she’s an incredibly visual person. She believes that you can tell just as much story through what you see as what you hear. And I think the same goes for sound design. I think the sound is also a character in this film.
I’m sure Ana was very exacting in her approach to get everything just right. For you, as a performer, did things get a bit mechanical in terms of hitting marks and such?
For the stuff where Ana wanted to be really particular compositionally, we rehearsed it a few times in L.A. before going to set. So we weren’t learning the motions on the day of and had some time to get them into our bodies. But to answer your question, yes, it can definitely feel restrictive when things are so meticulously composed. I think that’s what makes an artist. I love the attention to details. I could still find ways within those confines to remain organic and play.
When new offers are proposed, there are so many things to consider such as the director, the story, the character you’d be playing, the genre, etc. What are you looking at?
First and foremost, I’m looking to see if there’s an opportunity to grow. That could obviously mean a million different things. If it’s something that I’d never done before, I’m usually drawn to it. I don’t necessarily seek things out that are out of my comfort zone just for the sake of doing that, but I’m curious by nature and want to keep growing as an actor. I feel like the only way to do that is to push myself to do things that scare me a little bit. And the other things is, I love working with people who create worlds. I think the reason I love acting the most is because it’s an escape for me. I do get to disappear when I’m immersed in a project. So if I’m going to throw myself in it and do that, I want to make sure it’s a world that I want to exist in, whether it’s for three weeks or three months. When I get a script, I’ll almost always ask the filmmaker for movie references. I ask them what their favorite films are and what kind of movies they think their movie will feel like. I want to get a sense of the world. I almost care more about that than the story.
What has your experience been like on a big show like State of Affairs?
It’s a lot of fun being on a TV show! You get to go so deep with your character and the relationships with other people on the show. It’s also nice to have a regular job because it allows me the comfort to do more independent stuff that I just wouldn’t be able to afford to do otherwise. It definitely has its own peaks and valleys. Again, I just want to feel like I’m growing from something. I absolutely feel like I’m growing with State of Affairs.
How far in advance do you get pages on that show?
Things move very fast and there’s a lot of people involved. There are lots of rewrites and you just have to learn how to surf the wave because you’re memorizing a lot of lines and trying to make interesting choices. On the bright side, it really forces you to trust your instincts because you don’t always get time to rehearse different choices or even prepare them. You really have to act on impulse. I feel like I’ve gotten close to my intuition working at this sort of pace.
What is it like to play a character on TV where you don’t necessarily know where you’ll end up? If a show’s abruptly cancelled, you don’t even have an end to that story. Knock on wood.
[Laughs] It is interesting. For me, it’s more important to know where my character comes from than where she’s going. The characters themselves don’t know what’s going to happen in the future, so I don’t really feel that I need to know as an actor. It’s more that I want to know my backstory. I have questions like, “Did this happen between these two characters? Or did that happen?” Stuff like that informs where I’m at today as the character. Where it’s all going to end up is not as much of a concern to me in that respect. And it’s cool that I’m playing an American role on State of Affairs. That’s a pretty big deal for me. As much as I can take on Middle Eastern roles and fulfill my Iranian background, I’m also American. It’s nice to break out of that pigeon hole.
You’ve had your hands in so many different things like music and performance art, so it’s not just about the acting. Would it be safe to assume that you’ll go onto direct a feature of your own at some point?
Absolutely. I really want to make my own stuff. I graduated from UCLA as a theater major with a concentration on acting and directing. I’ve directed theatrical work, but I haven’t directed any films yet. I’m absolutely interested in it. I just like keeping busy. I’m the happiest when I’m creative and that’s why I’ve had my hands in so many things. I don’t know how to process downtime.
Are you constantly jotting down ideas and mulling over potential stories or do you think you’ll eventually set aside the time to just concentrate on doing a feature?
I make my own art as well, so I write things down all the time. I have several things that are in various phases of development, whether its a bunch of notes of an idea or even a fully-formed project that’s ready to go. But they’re more in the realm of video and visual art. I haven’t quite gone deep into making a short or anything like that. I wrote a few scripts a couple years ago. I used to have more time for that and now I’m realizing I have to make the time. If things keep going well, I’ll continue to stay busy. I’m the one who has to say, “No. I’m going to take time off to write.” Actually, that’s my plan at the moment for after we wrap State of Affairs. I’m planning to move to New York during the cold of this time of the year and just hibernate indoors to write. I don’t know what will come of it, but I know that I’ve been on a wild wide for the last couple years. It’s been incredible, but I haven’t really been totally in control of it. I’m excited to take creative agency and make some stuff on my own.
Well, you should definitely head over here. It just started snowing today!
[Laughs] I know! How’s that going?
Not to deter you, but it’s rain turning into snow turning back into rain again. It’s just wet.
That’s kind of the perfect environment for writing because there are no distractions.