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Trying to catch a Tiger by the Tail: Interview with Ana Lily Amirpour

Until we spoke by phone with Ana Lily Amirpour, little did we know how much we were a bunny. Amirpour is writer-director of Kino Lorber’s A Girl Walks Home Alone at Night, which opens January 23rd at the TIFF Bell Lightbox. Interacting with Amirpour is an experience not unlike watching her films: at times, breathtaking, perplexing, awe-inspiring and ultimately, rewarding. Here is our attempt try to challenge a tiger.

I have a theory about physical space and touch in your film. Was this a consideration?

I am definitely aware of physical space. I think that it is part of every moment in time…the physical world around us is just a big part of designing a moment, and a story and a character.

I’m a big fan of Westerns, Sergio Leone, in particular, and there’s always this, I don’t know, tangible empty space around people and a stillness. I feel like all the juice and the tension is in the things that lead up to something, not necessarily in the moment itself, so you know it’s like if you light a fuse, it’s that moment waiting for it to go off.

When I think of those films, I was thinking about it when I was in this film, I feel like every scene can be reduced to the idea that there’s a tiger and a bunny in the room. If you have a tiger and a bunny in a room, there’s all of a sudden a palpable tension, and you know what’s going to happen, but that doesn’t make you wanna not watch it. Like, you’re gonna wanna watch it! You’re gonna be riveted and…I think in the movie, in the movies, in my film at least, it’s kind of like, “Who’s the tiger and who’s the bunny”, and sometimes the tiger thinks he’s the tiger, and she’s the bunny, but she really knows that he’s the bunny, and she’s the tiger, that kind of thing, so I think that’s definitely a really fun, delicious tension.

A tiger will think that the bunny is done for if he’s in the room with the bunny, but maybe that bunny has special poison the tiger’s never experienced, and doesn’t anticipate. So, that’s the other thing about what a bunny is, you know, you would underestimate it and write it off, and then the bunny has the advantage, as a kind of, secret sneak attack.

Are you meticulous in the editing process?

The first assembly of this film was three hours and forty minutes long, so I’m not precious about, contrary to what anyone might think from watching the film, because it has a long kind of deliberate pace, in a way, maybe people would think I didn’t edit brutally, but I actually do edit very brutally, I’m not really precious. I’m the biggest thing the film has to fear, because I’ll edit, I’ll cut things out without mercy.

We just worked at it, we worked at it and cut and cut and then we just did test screenings and it’s an extremely intense process when you’re editing, because the film is, again, almost being made from…the comic book is starting over, and making the film again. You make the film three times: you make it once when you write the script, and once when you’re shooting it, and again when you’re editing it.

Do you think that this film will play well in Canada, given the large amount of Iranians here and people who speak the language?

(Slightly exasperated) Of course, people will understand it differently if they speak the language. I don’t think that it is Iranian cinema because if you’re talking about Iranian cinema made in Iran, with a different set of rules, made by those people, that are living in that situation, that’s very specific cinema, that results because of its time and place. That’s not what it is. I don’t know what it is. It’s very personal to me. It’s a film about what’s inside my brain and how I feel. So, you know, if anyone relates to that, I guess they’re relating to some of the things that I feel, but I don’t think that a lot of those things are locked into a race, or a specific culture or place, or anything like that, I think it’s more universal stuff, like being lonely and feeling isolated, and wanting to find magic and that specific connection, which, everybody has those things.

Did you plan for the film to look and sound this way?

I think every film becomes what it’s becoming as you make it, I mean, you can’t completely control a film, and I’m…extremely meticulous about preparing, I’m extremely detailed and specific about every costume, every single thing in the room, every location, so I know what the location is going to look like, what a place looks like, what a character looks like, to the last detail, so those things are very carefully designed. I guess “the world” is very carefully designed.

The music is something that I have way ahead of time and is part of the construction of the film and, you know, I do camera tests with shoot those lenses, and go with my DP to locations, so we know what everything is going to be looking like, but you know, then you show up on the night, or the day, and if there’s a particular scene…you’re in the world and alive and things are different. Then you never have those people in the location, until you finally put it all together, so, I think it would be very boring for a filmmaker, if you storyboarded it, and had everything planned out, and sort of executed it exactly as you storyboarded it, in a robotic way, then you’re never going to discover something more than that, but it’s extremely carefully planned.

I mean, you have hundreds of people and a ton of money being spent, and a certain amount of time to make a movie, so you have to be organized, and know what you’re doing.

Was it challenging having to rely on a cat?

I had a remarkable…I mean, we did so many rehearsals, so everybody was knew what we were doing when we showed up there. I do lots of rehearsals with my cast and with the cat. The cat is a magnificent gift of a cat. I don’t know how to explain Masuka. He’s like the Brando of cats. He never was a problem (laughing). The cat was the easiest thing to deal with, and he’s like a major player in the movie, so who can explain the magic of Masuka? He’s very special. Sina, that’s my producer, that’s his cat. He was like “I think you should give Masuka a try”. I said, I didn’t like the way Masuka looked, and he was too shy, too (laughing) white, and then he came over to my house, and we did tests, we shot camera tests with him, and I mean, you could light a firecracker next to this cat, and he would just be curious about it. He wouldn’t be alarmed, and when you’re taking a cat to another town, and dragging him around, certain city blocks, I mean, everybody has the cat in their hands, at some point in the story. So, yeah, aesthetics were not my immediate decision making with the cat.