Ana Lily Amirpour is one of the most exciting young directors working in cinema today. Her first feature, the fantastic greyscale Iranian “vampire spaghetti western” A Girl Walks Home Alone At Night, was a huge hit on the indie circuit back in 2015. Her new film, The Bad Batch, hits video on demand services and area theaters like the Coolidge Corner Theatre this weekend, and it’s been one of our most anticipated films of the year.
The film tells the story of Arlen (Suki Waterhouse) who is sent to the containment facility formerly known as Texas, and promptly loses an arm and a leg to some cannibals. Along the way, she meets the mysterious Miami Man (Jason Momoa), and makes her way towards a town called Comfort, where The Dream (Keanu Reeves) awaits her. It’s a beautiful and deeply weird celluloid manifestation of blotter-paper fever dreams, and it’s a perfect summer salve to the multiplex.
Amirpour graciously gave us some of her time to talk to Vanyaland about throwing knives with Jason Momoa, her dislike for fowl food, and her process in the editing suite.
Nick Johnston: How long has this story been with you?
Ana Lily Amirpour: Well, I guess I started writing the script the summer when I was editing Girl Walks Home Alone, which would have been in… ’14? Yeah, that’s right. Like early summer or spring 2014. I was editing, and I always start to go away from the film that I’m on in the edit. It starts to feel like I’m no longer in it as much, and then once it’s done, with sound and everything else… I just feel like it’s someone you used to be in love with. Like, you’re not in love anymore, a past love — it’s a weird thing, and I like to go into a new script then.
So I started writing Bad Batch, and that summer I was going through stuff, personal life changes that were really drastic. You know, the kind of changes that, if you have a broken heart or someone dies and you feel like you’re not who you were, make you like you lost part of yourself. And so I had this image of a girl in the middle of the desert, missing an arm and a leg, bleeding out, but she was alive, and she was going to survive. And that was going to be the beginning of the story. It all started with that moment, by inventing Arlen.
But there’s so many things that go into the rest of it — you know, drawing and building out the story. I wanted to do this big and epic quest, like an Alice in Wonderland or an Alice in the Not-So-Wonderful Wonderland of America. So, yeah, I guess in a way, the film is like my portrait of America.
Did you draw on any elements from other post-apocalyptic fiction in crafting the world of The Bad Batch?
I think the thing for me is that, even though that word has caught on like wildfire about the film being “post-apocalyptic,” I actually feel like it’s present tense. If you look at the world, or get out of a city-island, there are places like that in the America that we live in right now. Like where I shot the film; some parts of the film were shot at the Salton Sea in the desert in Southern California, and it’s very economically depressed. And in [that area], there’s the largest off-the-grid community called Flat City. It’s like 20,000 people in the spring and winter, when it’s cooler, and they just live outside of the system. I just feel like in America there’s a lot of that, and in every city there’s a lot of that. So that’s kind of more terrifying to see it that way [laughs], that I don’t see it as the future, I see it more as an allegorical presentation of where we are now.
When you were working on the script, did you envision certain actors in their parts? Just from watching it, it seemed that things were tailor-made for Jason Momoa here.
Yeah, that’s the one. It was almost like Miami Man came out of Jason Momoa existing. It’s like Momoa was a part of me when I was thinking of that character, as much as the character was a part of him. It came about simultaneously, and there was no Plan B. I remember telling my producers at one of the early meetings about the script and Miami Man, and they were like “Who do you want?” and I said “Momoa,” and they always ask you if you have a backup or any other choice, and I was like “I’m not going to do the movie if he doesn’t do it.” Like, there’s no other — it’s his destiny to be Miami Man [laughs].
And in developing and building the character… what he was on the page when Jason first read the script then grew out of lots and lots of time together talking about him, and working with the script, and rehearsals, and then designing his look and his tattoos and his weapons and his knives. You know the butcher knife that he uses is one of Momoa’s own vintage butcher knives. He’s got a huge knife and sword collection. I mean, he’s like a primeval early man. You know, the first time I met him, after he read the script, I flew to Atlanta where he was doing a TV show, and I was going to meet him there and hang out with him. So I show up to the house where he’s staying at, and it’s like him in the backyard with a bunch of dudes, his friends, who were like a bunch of tough and cool motorcycle guys, and he was just throwing knives. Like, you know the throwing knife he has? Like, the knife on his waist in the movie?
It was one of those throwing knives. And he was there, literally just throwing those knives at a piece of wood. So, that was the first thing I did when I showed up. He taught me how to throw a knife. And so that became a thing. I was always like, “Miami Man can’t have too many weapons and gadgets in The Bad Batch.” Like, everything that exists in this world has to be some very favored item that people kept and held on to in a way that would be realistic to how this world is. And at first, I only wanted him to have one knife, but then he mentioned to me that he could have a butcher knife and a throwing knife. And when I saw him with the throwing knife, he’s just like — it’s masterful. He’s got an incredible precision. So it was fun to get him to do that in the movie.
So did other actors have the same amount of creative input like Momoa had with his character? I guess I’m just trying to figure out if Keanu Reeves dressed himself for this.[laughs] No, I wouldn’t say he did. But I’m the kind of person who, on my first film and on this film, is very into world-building and what [my characters] wear and stuff. So I did have this idea for a few very key things about The Dream, that he’s dressed in white, all white, and I didn’t know exactly what that was going to be, but I knew it had to be all white, and the big shades and the mustache. But I also wanted to hear what he thought. That’s how it was in the script, but then you want to hear what they think, and what they’re kind of vibing off of. I think, for Keanu, this guy looks very very different than anything he’s ever kind of taken on before. So it was cool too, because when that happens, they get to be really different than they’ve ever been before as actors.
So, the Dream is like… oh my god, I just love how he looks [laughs]. He’s a dreamy psychedelic Hugh Hefner, which was one of the things I said to [Keanu] when we were first talking about him.
I think the thing for me is that, even though that word has caught on like wildfire about the film being “post-apocalyptic,” I actually feel like it’s present tense. If you look at the world, or get out of a city-island, there are places like that in the America that we live in right now.
So given all the cannibalism that goes on in the film, I figured I’d ask if you eat meat.
I do eat meat. The only thing I don’t eat, and this is just a weird thing about me, but I don’t eat anything with feathers.
Yeah, I don’t eat fowl of any kind. So I don’t eat birds, chickens, turkeys, duck, pheasant or anything else. I don’t like feathered things to become food. Like, it’s a weird OCD I-don’t-know-what, but it bugs me out. But I like cows and pigs and fish galore. [laughs] Cows and pigs and fish, oh my! [laughs]
I also don’t like things that sound like they could be in a witch’s recipe. Like some of the stuff people order in restaurants — I don’t want to order bone marrow, squid’s ink, eye of newt, you know? Like I’m not from the medieval times, right? I don’t want that. I just want, like, a steak, and some potatoes, and a nice salad, like, I’m ok. You guys can knock yourselves out with the bone marrow or liver kind of stuff. Pate? No thank you. [laughs]
Did this film change for you over the course of production, and if so, how did it change?
Always. It always always does. I think that’s true for every filmmaker, at least everybody I know, at every scale. Editing, writing the script is one thing, and you do the story once in your own mind, and then you make it, and you’re with everyone and it’s a physical world, and you’re telling your story that way, and then when you’re editing, it happens again, and then I feel it happens again, at least for me, in sound mix and in sound editing, because the sound editing is such a big part of everything for me and you really effect things again a fourth time. And because I had VFX in it, I also saw the final wave, of when the visual effects get fine-tuned, refined, and finished, and it was another moment of things changing.
Editing itself, all I can say is this: have you seen Shawshank Redemption?
Yeah, of course.
Okay, good. Making a film for me is like being Andy Dufresne sitting in Shawshank. And writing, casting and shooting it is like the equivalent of him thinking of his escape and then digging the tunnel, however long that takes. You do that, you’ve got it, you have your plan and you’ve thought about it, and now you have a tunnel. Editing is crawling through the tunnel of shit. [laughs]
So at some point when you’re editing, it’s just about [keeping] going. You have made this plan and you know your story and you know your gonna end up coming up above ground and make it to Zihuatanejo, so to speak. So, there’s something about editing that’s like this epic, I don’t know, sheer force of will, like you’re just crawling through shit, and then the story — as long as you know, like in your soul, the questions that I was asking what I felt about all the characters and what I did, I kind of just deeply knew, so you’re gonna get out of it, you know, you’re going to come up above ground at the end. I think the biggest nightmare would be if you didn’t actually know where you were trying to go. I don’t know. I’ve heard some stories about that kind of thing happening. That sounds like hell.
In addition to The Bad Batch, you also made a documentary for the National Geographic Channel’s series Breakthrough that aired back in May. What was it like working with Nat Geo, and how did this project come about? That’s a fascinating departure for you.
I know, it’s crazy for me that I worked on a documentary about cancer research for National Geographic. Like, if you had told me that I was gonna do that like a year ago, I would have just cracked up laughing. [laughs] Like, I love Nat Geo, though. See, I love science-y shit and animal shows, I love the universe, you know? The thing that got me in was how they were about it. They really just wanted to have really creative approaches to these different topics that they were doing their show about. And it was a really cool [subject], these doctors doing t-cell immunotherapy.
They’ve basically figured out ways to get your own body and your immune system to kill off cancer completely. It’s like this new thing, genetic biology, and it’s the future of so many different things in medicine. That totally seduced me, and I was like “I’m not a scientist, I didn’t study all of this stuff. I just understand things like a nine year-old.” And they said, “that’s what we want, we just want you to find the human story in it and tell it in a way that it will connect with people.” So I had the idea of doing animation, because, to me, cancer seems like Godzilla. It seemed like a fun way to personify the character and also show the science in a way. I just learned so much.
Also, I don’t know, cancer is a disease that every one of us has been touched by, and not long after I agreed to do the show, it came into my family, and it became something I was dealing with personally in a way that was really surreal. It was weird, I just felt comforted, like doing the show helped me know more, which helped me [elsewhere]. So, it’s crazy, man. Nat Geo, they were just like, full-on, balls-out, “be creative.” Like, I really think that’s what gets me turned on, when people just want you to do the thing that you’re good at doing — then I can just be exploited. Exploit me! [laughs]
‘The Bad Batch’ is out now; follow Nick Johnston on twitter @onlysaysficus. Featured Ana Lily Amirpour photo by Jason Bedient.