Ana Lily Amirpour came to Boston, took a stroll through the venerated campus of Harvard University, basked in the warm, film-fluent energy of the audience in attendance at a screening of her new film, The Bad Batch, at the Coolidge Corner Theatre, and also talked to Paste Magazine about the ways in which her cannibal fairytale reflects the moment of American history we’re living in. Figures that a film about people eating each other to survive in the harsh, unforgiving landscape beyond the border of the country that has summarily given them the boot would serve as allegory for our totally cracked-up social, political, and cultural times.
The Bad Batchcomes to theaters three years after Amirpour garnered attention and raves for her 2014 debut, A Girl Walks Home Alone at Night; the latter is much more straightforward than the former, but that’s not to say categorizing either is easy. With Amirpour, labels only go so far: Vampire flick, Western, cannibal exploitation, post-apocalyptic action, each stitched to the other in both of her movies with a thread of surrealist cool that calls to mind the works of Alejandro Jodorowsky, Jim Jarmusch, and Lance Mungia. If style is the detail holding her movies together as movies, then it’s love, of all things, that binds them as filmography. A Girl Walks Home Alone at Night is, in its fashion, a love story. The same is true of The Bad Batch, though romance is unsurprisingly hard to find in a world whose inhabitants are glad to meet you and gladder to eat you.
Sitting in the Coolidge Corner Theatre’s offices, sheltered from an uncharacteristically scorching Boston day, Amirpour talked with us about the film and the realities it mirrors, both consciously and unconsciously. (She wrote the script in 2014, well before our present national predicament. Call The Bad Batch timely, but don’t take its timeliness as anything more than happy, or unhappy, coincidence.) We chatted about where real change in a society begins, about the effect of the Internet on our collective consciousness, and the systems of conflict that snare us all. (Not mentioned below: Working with Keanu Reeves was, fittingly, appropriately, according to her, “a dream.”)
Paste Magazine: This movie, to me, is about mourning the American dream. I kept thinking of that one extra dressed as the Statue of Liberty, slinging a sign that reads, “Find the dream…” Is the American dream dying? What does that say about Americans?
Ana Lily Amirpour: What a sad conclusion, right? So sad. I think that if people could start to focus on themselves, each, just one single person, even to make one or two better choices, just one or two, just one at time—just start doing it! It doesn’t have to be as devastating as, like, not finding the dream, but you can start to just be better.
Paste: Yeah. It starts with individuals, as opposed to the collective.
Amirpour: We’re in a strange time. People aren’t working on themselves that hard. I don’t know if they ever were, though. The Internet has a lot to do with how things are changing, too, since we’re talking about life and our reality. It’s great that the movie would lead us to that, in such an awful way. No answers. There are no easy answers, right?
Paste: There never are.
Amirpour: The only thing that gives me comfort is that some things in this movie that you go through with these people—it’s a feeling of, like, a chokehold on everybody, in a way. But I do think there’s always a way to find a hole in the wall and just keep going past what you’re giving, and to keep looking for answers beyond. That is truly, for me, what’s great about America—that we still do believe in that, in looking past, in questioning, in maybe not accepting this anymore. I have to believe that.
Paste: Right, because otherwise you have no hope. There’s no optimism. There’s no chance of things changing. You talk about that hole in the wall, which is what Arlen literally ends up running into in the movie…
Amirpour: Yeah, yeah.
Paste: You know, I talked to Trey Edward Shults about his new movie, It Comes at Night...
Amirpour: I haven’t seen it yet.
Paste: It’s pretty good. Really different from The Bad Batch. But both of your movies are surprisingly prescient, even though you both wrote them three years ago.
Amirpour: Is this a spoiler alert? Don’t tell me anything! (laughs)
Paste: No, no, I don’t play like that! I think that speaks to how much time is invested in getting us to this point. In the film, the characters don’t just become cannibals overnight. There are precipitating events that lead to this admittedly pretty repugnant behavior.
Amirpour: But that’s how the world is in my view. I just think people are good at not looking in the direction of something they don’t want to see, and just staying in their bubble of comfort. And that’s fine, I get it. I do that too. We can’t all be bombarded with every system of conflict. It’s all systems, right? It’s systemic. We don’t understand all the politics, all of the religious, all of the cultural, all of the socioeconomic, all of the gender and sexual political systems. We don’t understand how they all got there. Some of them, they just exist. It’s like getting thrown under the gate.
It’s these systems that create extreme conflict, and there are internal ones, too, in each human individual. It’s so complicated. What I’m saying is, everyone has an explanation for their resulting behavior. Everyone’s right. That’s the fucking mindfuck of it all.
Paste: And as awful as Miami Man’s lifestyle choices, his dietary habits, are…
Amirpour: (laughs) I love that!
Paste: (laughs) Okay, I don’t want to sound like I’m endorsing cannibalism, because I’m not. But how do you judge him? He’s literally been thrown into a wasteland with everyone else. Some people are able to make different choices, some people have to make whatever choices they have to, to live.
Amirpour: That’s right.
Paste: I feel like there’s a sense of objectivity to the movie, maybe except when it comes to Keanu Reeves’ character.
Amirpour: I think that’s great. That’s actually very challenging for people, especially because in most movies, and TV shows, part of the escape and the relief is to be given a very clear, distinct sense that this is a good guy, and this is a bad guy and this is the fate that we’re all driving towards. The moral fabric and destiny of Earth and humankind lies in the balance, and someone is going to come and kill the bad guys.
It just doesn’t work that way. So I don’t judge. I’m just trying to look at it all, really, and hope that that dumb girl—because she’s dumb, really, if you think Hawaii and Cuba are the same thing—she’s just a dumb girl who got thrown into this, and she’s a survivor and a fighter, and I admire that part of her, but she’s not a sophisticated person. So she’s totally justified in these really extreme, ugly things that she does. So I hope that something can shift her whole perspective where she would start to make a few different choices.
Paste: What does it take to shift an individual’s perspective?
Amirpour: In the film, it’s LSD, right? That’s a psychedelic experience, but the bigger, kind of mythic point, is that it pulls you out of that cycle of blame, or hate, or whatever, to have outside perspective. It’s empathy. It’s to really, truly put yourself outside your own emotional thing, and see it for what it is. Here we are in this dark corner of the Earth, and we’re afraid of each other. Who can explain that? Look at us people. It seems so illogical when you think of it that way. Fear is really the big question, how we deal with our fear.
Paste: There’s fear everywhere. I got back from London on Memorial Day, and a week later the attack on London bridge happened. That struck fear in me just to think about it. I was nowhere near danger, obviously, but even then I think, “What if?”
Amirpour: And Manchester, too.
Paste: Yeah, that happened while we were away. It’s all over the place. And then the fear spreads faster than information, and I think fear is a really hard thing to combat.
Amirpour: Really hard. It’s the mob, the masses. Again, I’m bringing up the Internet, but I do see this thing where it, almost in a fungus-like way, spreads those emotions. It’s such a powerful tool. It’s so funny, we sit here, right now, and we think we’re so modern and futuristic, but really we’re not. In fifty years, we’re gonna look back and this is gonna seem like the dark ages. That really hit me, and I was a little comforted by it.
Paste: Other female filmmakers I’ve talked to have brought up the Internet when I spoken to them about their movies. That seems to me to be a fear, a source of anxiety, for the women I’ve talked to, more than men.
Amirpour: Oh, I don’t know. I’ve been talking to filmmaker friends of mine that are men a lot about it, lately.
Paste: It’s not a safe place! It’s a terrifying place!
Amirpour: It’s not a safe place! And I was thinking about the kids. I can’t even really imagine it. Imagine what it’s like for eleven-year-olds, sitting there and looking at this construct. It’s like A Clockwork Orange!
Paste: That’s a great comparison.
Amirpour: It’s such a terrible thing to say. I don’t want people who have children to think I’m too grim. I do have to believe that it’s all going to evolve and shift again, you know? I feel like I always try to do that, put things in perspective and not get too melodramatic, but imagine there was an America people lived in where the president, a beloved, beloved president, was assassinated and shot right next to his wife, and people had to live and go on every day with that cloud. That’s pretty bad, too, and we made it through that, and different things happened, and we went on.
Paste: You go on. You endure. You have to.
Amirpour: You have to.
Boston-based critic Andy Crump has been writing about film and television online since 2009, and has been contributing to Paste Magazine since 2013. He writes additional words for The Playlist, Slant Magazine, and Birth. Movies. Death., and is a member of the Online Film Critics Society and the Boston Online Film Critics Association. You can follow him on Twitter and find his collected writing at his personal blog. He is composed of roughly 65% craft beer.