Desiree Akhavan, the Iranian-American film director, first made her name with her debut 2014 film Appropriate Behaviour, before landing roles in HBO’s Girls and Channel 4’s Flowers.
Her new movie The Miseducation of Cameron Post, about a young girl sent to a picturesque conversion therapy center in Montano, won this year’s Sundance Grand Jury Prize. It stars Kick-Ass and Clouds of Sils Maria actress Chloe Grace Moretz and is opens today to strong reviews.
Here, Desiree discusses Cameron Post’s fractious distribution journey, her thoughts on this year’s similarly-themed movie Boy, Erased and her new C4 show, The Bisexual…
How does it feel to see Cameron Post be so well-received?
It’s really hard to gauge a message resonating, I’ll tell you that much.
Well, how do you know? I don’t. I’m trying to survive; I’m in post-production on something right now, so I’m trying to get through my schedule. But anything lovely I hear makes me feel great. I’m really happy. But it’s really hard to measure success in anything. Everyone has this narrative in their head that they’re a failure, so I’m mostly following that narrative!
If I was a director I’d be studying that Rotten Tomatoes score…
I don’t look at it. I don’t even know what it is right now.
How can you not?!
Because my brother told me: ‘That’s bullshit, that you have a 70% rating!’ I was like [gasps]: ‘That’s so low!’ But even before then I didn’t check. I’m not sure how arbitrary it is. In America, some of the reviews were awful. Some of them were great. The New York Times was great. But, like, Rolling Stone was mean.
I read some stuff and was like: ’You’re an asshole!’ Variety was like ‘It’s a Lifetime Movie of the Week…’ It’s always straight, older white men. They see it and think it’s an issues movies that’s flat and not at all nuanced, hitting you over the head with your problem. I just feel like they don’t see it.
But also they’re the men who never saw me in a room, who wouldn’t communicate with me and would look over my shoulder at what was fuckable. So it’s not surprising to me that those men see my work and are like ‘Oh. It’s stupid.’
That’s been a talking point recently – straight, white men reviewing films and driving a lot of the conversation around them and how they’re received. How do you think that problem can be addressed?
It’s interesting because I understand you can’t choose your fans. You can’t choose who reviews your films. But then I see certain films – mainstream films – reviewed, films regurgitating the same bullshit, reviewed by the 1% of men who are eager to keep seeing that narrative because it helps them in life.
Do you know anybody personally in America who underwent conversion therapy?
No. But while researching this film I got to meet people who’d done it. They were young. And growing up in New York, and other cities that were not middle of nowhere.
Were they able to speak about it with the benefit of hindsight?
Were they all right?
They were all right in the sense they survived. But they’d been hospitalised for suicide attempts. It’s a horrible thing to put someone through. Your sexuality is your breath, it’s your skin. It’s so intuitive. To be smashed down to doubt the most natural thing about you is an impossible position to put someone in.
Would you like to see it banned universally?
In your Guardian interview, it’s referenced that you won big at Sundance and yet there were difficulties in the film’s distribution journey. Could you elaborate on that?
We sold instantly in the UK and European territories. In America it took us months to sell the rights to this film. When we did, it was for a very limited release. Traditionally films that win the Sundance Jury Prize open wide in are given huge Oscar campaigns. We are kind of like the little engine that could, or the little movie that could.
I think that has a lot to do with Americans’ fear of female sexuality. We’re OK with watching films of people getting blown up, men raping women, with women giving head forcibly. We’re not cool with the lady getting off. There’s a really allergy to ‘Oh, I don’t want to see a woman enjoy herself, or want to fuck.’
Love, Simon and Call Me By Your Name showed, they had huge campaigns, they did really well at the box office because they were given the promotion. That hasn’t existed for a female queer story. I just think there’s a spinelessness, a fear. If this film, or films like it, were given a platform they would rise to the occasion and audiences would show up.
Do these distributors try and pretend that it’s another reason?
Yeah. They’re like ‘Well, Chloe’s not that big…’
Come on – how many movies has she been in?!
Bullshit reasons. ‘It was a bad climate this year.’ ‘Netflix and Amazon didn’t bid on anything which brought down the whole marketplace.’ But you know, a film called Assassination Nation about hot teen girls with guns sold for $10 million. [£7.72m, €8.59m].
I’m glad you’re in a country where we were supported!
Props on the Channel 4 series you have coming out, The Bisexual…
Thanks. It’s coming out really soon!
I first became aware of you through your work in Girls. Has Lena Dunham seen Cam Post?
I’m seeing her tomorrow! I think she’s seen it but we haven’t spoken about it yet. I’m nervous!
Did she give you any advice?
No. She gave me advice when I was first pitching The Bisexual. We talked about it and she’s just an incredible person and an incredible cheerleader for the makers around her.
Finally, Boy, Erased – are you excited about that movie?
Yeah. I’m really curious to see it. It’s a really different story. It just feels like they’re approaching it from the perspective of the adults in the room. We’re approaching it from the kids’ perspective. Ours is a female-coming-of-age, theirs is a male-coming-of-age. That film, from what I’ve read, the sexuality is very violent, and there’s rape involved. This is a real celebration of the sex Cameron has with the women in the film.
They’re different stories. I’ve met with the writer of the book. He was one of the people I interviewed about his experiences, and he’s lovely. I wish the best for his movie. They’re just very different stories that coincidentally happened to be made at the same time. And we didn’t have an awareness of the other until Sundance I guess. That’s when I heard Focus Features was making this.
They’re the Deep Impact and the Armageddon of 2018!
I’l take it!
The Miseducation of Cameron Post is out in UK cinemas now