Ana Lily Amirpour‘s films most certainly have fairy tale-like qualities to them, but they are also acutely aware that life is not a fairy tale in reality. A master of using genre as aesthetically escapist, expressive eye candy — brandishing a cinematic skillset bellying a breadth of meaning — critics and cinephiles have an understandable tendency to single out the inimitable writer / director’s stylistic prowess, yet often downplay the deeper sociological layers to be found in her movies as well. “Anyone who doesn’t see reality as a clown convention all day long, I don’t know where they are looking, I don’t know where they are spending their time and what they are paying attention to,” Amirpour says.
Following up her tremendous first two features, “A Girl Walks Home Alone At Night,” and “The Bad Batch,” with the sweaty and balmy, “Mona Lisa and the Blood Moon,” Amirpour continues to make work that is utterly unclassifiable. One can describe her movies using popular soundbites such as “Iranian Vampire Spaghetti Western,” or “Cannibalistic Love Story,” but that’s truly selling the spectrum of her creative visions short.
Starring Jeon Jong-Su from Lee Chang-dong’s “Burning,” as Mona Lisa Lee, a young woman whose dormant powers are unlocked by a crimson-tinged moon on a soon-to-be spontaneously eventful night; oh, after escaping from an abusive mental hospital. Crossing paths with a stripper named Bonnie Belle, played by a frisky and just plain phenomenal Kate Hudson (almost giving off Jennifer Lopez in “Hustlers” vibes, at times), the two become fast friends thanks to Mona Lisa’s psychokinetic abilities and her connection to Bonnie’s young son, Charlie (Evan Whitten), who introduces her to hair banging and heavy metal music.
Like always, the intricacy of details in Amirpour’s film pulsates with imaginative verve and street-wise verisimilitude top to bottom, from the music choices to the set decor — a mix of in your face and hidden in plain sight signs, from an eclipse tie-dye tee that becomes an important prop, to a wall of RAW papers lining a plexiglass wall beside a convenience store register. Actors Craig Robinson and Ed Skrein — as earnest New Orlean’s cop, Officer Harold, and Fuzz, a tatted-up, part-time liquor store dealer — strike a perfect balance between archetypical and fresh, adding layers of both sly humor and emotional complexity to the film.
I was extremely fortunate to have the opportunity to chat with Ana Lily Amirpour about “Mona Lisa and the Blood Moon,” and what was going on in her head while making the film. Obviously, we’re living in politically perilous times, the death of Mahsa Amini sparking a sea of protests. Despite all the horrible things happening around the world, it’s both invigorating and fortifying to see an auteur like Amirpour stand fast behind her artistic convictions.
*This interview briefly references the ending of the film but avoids major plot spoilers*
How are you? I know everything is pretty crazy right now with all the protests in Iran. Wanted to keep this more positive and about the film but are you doing alright?
Yeah, I’m doing ok and it’s a little exhausting but I cant even imagine how exhausted they must be and they’re not letting up, which is really impressive, makes me hopeful, in whatever small ways, but its definitely an all-consuming, weirdly intense moment of… triumph? But at the same time it’s covered in blood. It’s exhausting.
Yeah, absolutely. One of my professors taught “A Girl Walk Home Alone At Night,” in film school, which made me very happy as it’s one of my favorite movies, and its staying power is ever-apparent. To pivot to your new movie, how did “Mona Lisa and the Blood Moon” come about? Had a bunch of ideas been gestating for a while after “The Bad Batch,” or…?
I started writing it when I was editing “The Bad Batch.” I wanted to find a way to do a kind of homegrown, fairytale adventure in New Orleans with this girl who has the essence of a werewolf—that archetype—where the moon would unleash this primal ability inside her, but she’s mismatched to the world, and society. To have a character like that, who’s newborn, and—because she’s been separated from everything, including socialization—you kind of see everything through her baby eyes, and discover the world in an innocent way, looking for some joy against the chaos of reality. That’s where my head was.
I love the way your structures always bring these lost souls together—movies about disparate wanderers from different walks of life coming together and finding unexpected connection and camaraderie. Something I find fascinating is how, almost the flip side of commiseration and that karma coin is comeuppance, consequences, which play a huge part into the character arcs in all your films. The structure of it just feels so natural.
Yes. Yeah, karma is a bitch. I think there’s something inherently real in that—inherently real in thinking about how even the smallest actions can also be big actions. Everything kind of leads you to your next decision, and the next one after that, and after that. It’s kind of: ‘How long do you stay with someone’s choices, to see what the outcome is going to be?” A movie is a manipulation; it really ends at a certain point, but things don’t work that way in real life. You know what I mean? Even with say Bonnie there’s an element of that karma, I guess. But, at the same time, I don’t know what’s going to happen next for Bonnie. I think it’s an ongoing, cyclical thing, with patience in what you do and what the outcome is going to be and how that makes you who you are.
I like that you think about that because that’s a deeper reflection. People can get as deep as they want, if you know what I mean. It’s really up to the person watching a movie. How far do you want to think about things?
Totally. After a screening of “The Bad Batch” at Arclight (RIP), I briefly asked you about the nature of coincidences and similarities in an artist’s work. Your movies all leave us in a place with these self-made, dysfunctional families where a concession or sacrifice has to be made. They’re left in a seemingly happy place but there is also a lot of potential conflict.
Yeah, I think that’s the thing. I notice it now, three movies in, you can see yourself, almost like a psycho-analysis. I would say, in general, that people get very frustrated without having a final, final, conclusive, wrap-it all up, solution, or something—a final judgement at the end of a movie; bad guys are dead, good guys are here. Because I do feel most films clearly do that, but I feel like films should be able to be as complicated as life is, which means that there are no convenient solutions; it just goes on and on and on. But I think the journey is the point, or the experience of the journey. [The characters] are definitely left at a certain point where you feel—or, at least I feel—that [their journey] is still going on. If you see one of my films, you can imagine that somewhere in an alternate universe the film is still continuing.
I don’t know if this was necessarily a creative kernel but it almost feels like a superhero origin story; on a elemental level, it goes from Earth to Air—from the swamp imagery to her flying over Louisiana—and if you take it literally it’s almost like she can go or do whatever she wants now with these powers.
‘Mona Lisa’ actually would be the middle [chapter]. I do have a pretty clear idea of a second movie and obviously it would start with the plane landing in Detroit. Then I think the next section would go back and show her childhood in North Korea. It’s the middle first, then the conclusion, and then go back to the very beginning.
Totally. That’s awesome, and very Tarantino too.
I wondered if you were going to dive deeper into with her backstory when Trump showed up on the news—which reminded me of “Burning,” and made me reflect on how this film was more directly, politically adjacent to society, as opposed to your other two movies, feeling a bit more removed in their own worlds—but then you cut immediately from that scene to the political asylum note in her file which is all we need to know, really, but that beginning chapter is still there.
I feel like even though it’s amplifying its own, extreme behaviors, I would say I see, and always intended, “The Bad Batch” as a now story. I think the film has matured and become even more realistic to how our reality is now, here in America.
Other people applied the word “post-apocalyptic” to “The Bad Batch.” I never used that word myself, other people said: “Dystopian,” “Post-Apocalyptic.” ‘Mona Lisa’ is certainly also about now. The world is a madhouse. Anyone who doesn’t see reality as a clown convention all day long, I don’t know where they are looking, I don’t know where they are spending their time and what they are paying attention to. It sounds like people are good at creating little utopic, safe areas, but… This. World. Is. Fucking. Crazy. All day, every day.
The Trump and North Korea stuff was going on while we shot the movie. All the protests were also happening in the Middle East; they were talking about the nuclear threat with Iran, which is eerie, even now, but it’s an ongoing conversation. I think it’s this weird idea of having this “crazy girl,” and this is the world she’s getting introduced to, so who’s crazy?
Yeah. I thought a lot on the Fifty On Our Foreheads lyric “Caught on the wrong side of morality,” and I absolutely loved the whole, “People, do you like them?” speech that Mona Lisa gives to Officer Harold. I think people are a little too delusionally optimistic sometimes, especially in this day and age, especially with so many struggling with mental health issues. So thank you for that monologue because it’s so refreshing to have someone ask that question: “Do you really think people are good, or are you lying to yourself?”
Yeah… I think that’s a question for everyone. I wonder what your answer is. Do you like people?
Honestly, it takes a lot for me to like someone, if they first do something that gives me pause for concern. If that makes sense?
Right. Yeah. And… then again, on the other hand… people are not always who they first appear to be, and we make a lot of snap judgments, even more and moreso now because of the internet and how it makes us relate. We’re just so quick; quick to assume that we know everything, or that we’re just not going to listen—that we’re going to hate, or accept—and you probably didn’t even get close to the ballpark of knowing who that person is. It’s a weird thing. It’s so easy to hate someone at a distance. Just so easy. It’s crazy.
Definitely. I wasn’t surprised Charlie became such a major character because I know your movies well but it comes as a surprise to both the audiences and Mona Lisa when he just shows up all of a sudden; Bonnie conveniently having forgot to mention him, which makes us then see her very differently, which says a lot about our culture as well—different audience members will be judging her differently in that moment, a moment we’re sharing with Mona Lisa’s character, which I thought was very important and impactful.
Absolutely. That’s exactly the point. You see this woman and you’re immediately going to decide: “I know who that is and how I think of her.” But then you spend a little bit more time together and you realize: “Oh. Everyone is pulling a lot of weight around.” Life isn’t an easy thing, not for anybody – even the people who seem like they have it made, and the people who don’t; everybody is in the grind and in the struggle. So it’s worth getting a closer look. It’s worth it. And then you can still have the same conclusion. You can still be like, “Eh, no. Fuck them.”
[Laughs] “I don’t like you anymore.”
Exactly. [Laughs]. Well, people can come to not serve you any longer. If you think of anybody’s life, think of how many friends you had when you were a kid, when you were younger—these intense friendships, your best friends, people you discover reality with—and then they’re gone. They are just no longer there. It’s a surreal thing, to pass through each other’s lives in this way. You know?
Completely. I wanted to ask you about the casting. Did you have any of these actors specifically in mind? Did you admire Jeon Jong-su’s performance in “Burning,” or?
I loved “Burning.” [Casting] Mona Lisa was obviously critical and it happened in a fated way because I was working with Steven Yeun [on the “Twilight Zone”] when I was writing the script. He told me to see “Burning.” I saw it. Loved the movie. I was just mesmerized with her. She’s supernaturally commanding. So I reached out, I told my agents that I needed to talk to this girl; I needed to find out if she spoke any English because I wanted her to be Mona Lisa. At that time she had only done “Burning.” She was like a completely new, unknown name, but I was certain it had to be her. My producers on the movie were amazing. They were supportive and saw how amazing she is. And then she and I just clicked. Even though there’s a language barrier, that almost made us even closer because there was this other kind of trust—through music and watching movies together. She’s just so instinctive and everything she was doing was somehow always fresh.
Kate [Hudson] was one of the very first ideas I heard and I was immediately like: “Yes! Kate Hudson!” The minute I heard her suggested to me—and she really was one of the first names—that was it. It’s a really specific type of character that can very easily fall into a dark, cliched thing, and with someone like Kate, [she’s] so real and warm in a way that you’ll go anywhere with her. I’ve been a fan of her movies forever, since “200 Cigarettes.” I’m such a huge fan that it’s not even about the movie. I’ve watched every single one of her movies because I like seeing her performances.
When we met she was actually nine months pregnant. I went to her house, wanting her to be this stripper; she opens the door and there’s this baby inside her, a baby that looks like it’s about to come out. She’s like “I really want to do the movie!” And I say, “Well, I really want you to do the damned movie too but what are we going to do about the baby in there?” “Oh, I’ll just have the baby and we’ll do it,” she said. Which was so Bonnie of her, to have that kind of scrappy, “F- it. I’m in! Let’s just do it.” She’s a warrior.
Craig Robinson was kind of the only person [on the list]. I had him in mind when I was writing Officer Harold. So, sort of the same thing as Kate. Ed Skrein was the only [big change]. I had Zac Efron in mind, at one point. Then he left the movie – it was kind of mutually not right. A bunch of new names were coming to me, and then Ed came, which was just like, “Oh…”
It was weird because nobody else really got why I saw him as Fuzz. And I was all, “Guys, trust me.” People responded, “He hasn’t really done anything. Why him?” But there was something about him. I just knew what Fuzz was, in my mind. Then, when everybody saw it, they realized, and said, “Oh, now I know what Fuzz is.” On the page it read, “What is this character?” You couldn’t tell. When you see him and his whole atmosphere, it’s almost like his outfit isn’t just his clothes, it’s like his whole life is his outfit, in a way.
Yes. He was excellent. It was a great casting choice, obviously.
He’s a scene stealer.
Completely. I have to start wrapping up now but you mentioned Steven Yeun before. What was it like making the leap to TV directing, before going back to having complete creative control here? Was that a big process shift?
TV’s great because you get to shoot with less pressure re: the meaning of the universe. You’re not carrying the weight of explaining why you’re making the thing, what it means at the script level, and all that. The TV that I do is really fun genre stuff, and I really am pretty picky when it comes to working with people who are actually creative, and knowing that I’m going to get to do an 8-page knife fight, or explode a couple cars—something that I think is going to be fun to do with people I think are creative and great to be with.
The TV stuff ends up being muscle training. It’s like working out. It’s fun. If you are picking the right stuff. I love it. I love it because it’s just fun.
Totally. “Ovation,” in particular [your second “Twilight Zone” episode] felt very in-tune with your sensibilities. I also thought the Jurnee Smollet connection was another funny casting coincidence because during ‘Mona Lisa’s’ opening, I thought to myself, “Is this going to be her “Eve’s Bayou?” Obviously, it wasn’t but…
That’s interesting… Yeah, yeah, yeah… I didn’t write the script [for ‘Ovation’], to be clear. I don’t write the TV that I do. Although, I will say, the movie I directed for Guillermo del Toro’s [“Cabinet of Curiosities”] anthology series that’s coming out—cause they’re really all like movies—that feels like my movie, cause Guillermo did give me this script but he said, “Do whatever you want to this,” and I changed the ending and made it fully my own, in every single way, really, because I had Guillermo behind me and this Netflix money that allowed me to do whatever I wanted. So I’m really excited about that too, and it’s coming out soon.
I can’t wait. I love Emily Carroll’s work, so I’m stoked to check it out.
Thank you! Great talking with you and see you next time!
“Mona Lisa and the Blood Boon” is currently In Theaters, On Digital, and On-Demand.
Check out the trailer for the film below.