CinePile: Interview - Sheila Vand, A Girl Walks Home Alone At Night
Sheila Vand on playing a vampire with a hijab on a skateboard. Yes, really.
When Californian-Persian actress Sheila Vand was invited to star in Ana Lily Armipour's debut, a black-and-white vampire film noir called A Girl Walks Home Alone at Night, there was no script to speak of - just a richly detailed cinematic world that Vand wanted to get lost in. Vand speaks to Pilerats.com head of the film's premiere in Perth this weekend.
If you're at Pilerats' and VICE's premiere of A Girl Walks Home Alone at Night this Saturday (grab your tickets here) - an achingly cool film that’s been described as "a hipper, younger cousin to Jim Jarmusch’s Only Lovers Left Alive" - you're going to quickly fall in love with waif-like Persian-Californian actress Sheila Vand, who plays the lead role of 'The Girl', a lonely, centuries-old, vampire babe.
While the film will be the first time many of us have encountered Vand, the 29 year-old Palo Alto native is already an accomplished theatre actress whose rapidly building up her screen portfolio, currently playing a CIA analyst opposite Katherine Heigl in NBC show State of Affairs, and with a prior role a housekeeper in Ben Affleck’s Argo. While those roles seem eons apart from her more art-world contribution in A Girl Walks, Vand tells us that its roles like The Girl that are "why I became an actor in the first place. Lily [Armipour, the film’s director] created a world I wanted to get lost in.” Vand made the right decision: A Girl Walks has already made an outstanding mark (a vampire bite, perhaps?) on the international film scene, premiering at the renowned Sundance Film Festival to rapturous applause, winning a Independent Spirit Award for Best First Feature, and gaining a cult following amongst audiences across the States. And rightly so – this is one god damn cool film. Vand agrees: "I always knew the movie had the potential to be a cult classic, but shit, you never know. It’s so cool that people get it.”
A lot of the film’s appeal lies in its style – visually, orally and thematically, A Girl Walks Home Alone at Night is a beautiful pastiche of the history of alternative culture, and loaded with an array of intertextual filmic references that film buffs will delight in – starting with the title of the film itself, which is a nod to the lengthy titles of old American Western Films (The Good, The Bad & The Ugly, Once Upon A Time In The West, etc). The Girl herself looks like something out of a Jean-Luc Godard New Wave film: wearing a Breathless-style stripey French top, along with a traditional Muslim chador used in a way that echoes a classic Victorian Nosferatu-esque cape. She's mostly on her skateboard, riding through the desolate streets of the surrealistic, 'Bad City' - Frank Miller, anyone? Although it was filmed in Bakersfield, California, and Vand “always considered it a fictional town in Iran”, Armipour’s constructed Bad City as visually meticulously as she has The Girl: with an insatiable eye for detail; Bad City is littered with even more cultural references: on the walls are Madonna and Margaret Atwood posters, on the streets are ’57 T-Birds (driven by characters that look like James Dean), in the clubs are early '2000s pimps. The mood too, is spot on: there’s not many movies in recent memory that put so much emphasis on light and dark to tell a story; with the majority of the film’s shooting taking place at night. “I preferred the night shoots because I’m nocturnal,” says Vand of the challenges of shooting in a certain light, “You start to get loopy around 4am in the morning. That's when the good shit happens!”
The film’s incredible, atmospheric soundtrack heightens that mood to no end – rather than a single score, the soundtrack is an eclectic mix of tracks curated by Amirpour - there's the Middle Eastern fusion beats of Bei Ru, the underground Iranian indie rock of Radio Tehran, the spaghetti western-inspired tunes of Portland-based act Federale, the New Wave melodies of White Lies…it’s no surprise a snazzy looking two-part vinyl has been made of the soundtrack (you can buy it here). Local master of darkness Patience has created his own music interpretation of the film that will be played prior to the Pilerats’ film screening on Saturday; listen to his mix below:
Vand says that she immediately clicked with director Armipour, a fellow Persian whom she met in California through a friend six years ago: “We love the same music and films and we both worship dancing. One of the first things I noticed about her was that she was pretty relentless about the kind of films she wanted to make. I think to be an auteur, you have to have some serious balls in this business.” Based on their connection, Armipour actually wrote the part of The Girl with Vand in mind – there wasn’t a script for Vand to work off initially, just Armipour’s invitation to Vand (“I love her style and her vision, so I was onboard right away”) To craft the physicality of the vampire character - who remains virtually silent for the duration of the fil - which would require Vand to rely on physical gestures and nuances of expression to convey The Girl’s character.
“It’s such a privilege to have a part written for you,” shares Vand, “…I felt like I could just slide into the role effortlessly. I still wanted The Girl to be really thoughtful and nuanced even though she doesn’t have many lines. I wanted her to feel real, so I prepared for it as I would any other part. I studied my grandma to get that sense of old age and stillness. I watched a lot of Youtube videos of cats and snakes to craft her physicality. And I thought about the cowboy too: if you watch old Clint Eastwood Westerns, it’s all about his presence. He doesn’t have to say a word to be the deadliest outlaw in town.” Vand also used her costume – the chardor - in rehearsal to influence the way she moved: “It’s like The Girl’s version of Dracula’s cape. It kind of made me feel like a super hero!” laughs Vand. One of the coolest scenes in the film depicts The Girl dancing alone in her bedroom; for this movement Vand called on her Youtube snake watching to create the girl’s dance moves: “I wanted The Girl’s dance moves to seem other-worldly. Not like a human would dance. I modeled it after a snake.” Continues Vand: “Actually, Lily (Armipour) almost cut that scene because we were running out of time. But I was really attached to it so I just started dancing while Lily was talking to our cinematographer and when she looked over she said “Just start filming! Just shoot it!” So I was truly just dancing for myself when they started rolling.”
It’s the visually-striking and sensual scenes like these, along with sweet, sexy moments like when The Girl wheels an ecstasy-addled James Dean look-alike, Arash, to her house on a skateboard and they sit around and listen to 80s New Wave records, or when The Girl’s skating through the inky black streets while 21st century soundtrack kicks into gear, that have critics gushing about Armipour’s debut. Many bring up that the film is a ‘fresh look at a dead genre’ - that being the vampire genre, and the bland pop-horror of say, the Twilight series. Vand, however, was new to vampires when she came onboard; although had an affinity with Swedish indie thriller Let the Right One In, which the film has been favourably compared to, and proceeded to do her research: “The first time I cared about vampires was when I saw the Swedish film Let the Right One In. I love that movie. And then when I was preparing for the role I read Interview with the vampire and watched everything from Park Chan-wook’s Thirst to the original Nosferatu. That’s when I started to realize how much I had in common with vampires.” Indeed, in Armipour’s film, vampires are more misfit-humans than anything; junkies, thugs, drug dealers, prostitutes, street kids… “Bad City is a fucked up purgatory. A place where you can fit in if you have secrets to hide,” offers Vand, whose character The Girl admits to having “done bad things”. “I love the idea of a vampire living in a world that's not full of vampires. I'm fascinated by the outsider, and a vampire is somebody who is by nature a misfit.”
For Vand, growing up Persian in America contributed to a sense of outsiderness, that she’s used to great effect in constructing the role of The Girl in the film: “I definitely felt more American than Persian growing up… I never had the chance to go to Iran and I didn’t really have many Persian friends. But it’s always been confusing. Mostly, I feel like I’m from Mars.” The Girl is an Iranian vampire so it only makes sense that the movie is in Farsi, with subtitles – Vand says that she and Armipour converse in Farsi at times themselves: “We spoke Farsi a lot when we were doing the movie and we’ll speak it if we don’t want someone to know what we’re saying!”
Armipour and Vand’s shared language is not just that of Farsi, but a dialogue of female collaboration, notable of late, given the spotlight that’s been shone in society on the females driving cinema. Last month Boyhood Best Supporting Actress Patricia Arquette made a rousing call for wage equality for women in film at the Oscars, and preceding that in 2014 was Cate Blanchett’s ‘the world is round’ Best Actress speech, in which she used her winning moment to call for more lead roles for women in film and to point out that female-driven narratives are no longer niche, and that audiences do, indeed, want to see them. Here, we have a successful feature written and directed by a female filmmaker, with the most enigmatic presence in the film by a longshot being actress Vand. Also of interest to the wider female empowerment narrative is The Girl’s role as a sort of avenging dark angel who administers her own form of justice – feeding on the bad guys and sparing the ones that she seems to regard as good, or at least having potential.
Although A Girl Walks’ plentiful Western references might suggest The Girl’s actions of punishing ‘bad guys’ is simply a genre convention, it may also stand as female empowerment; her giving agency to the women in the city could be viewed as a reaction against the straightjacket Iranian society can represent for women. The film’s title hints at a woman in a potentially perilous situation - walking home alone at night, subject to the evils of men who attack and thus oppress women - , but she’s ridding the city of those men. In one attempt to sway evil, The Girl even rips off a finger from a man who enjoys having his finger sucked and teased by women, then making him suck his own mangled finger – the ultimate reversal of patriarchal control for a misogynist. We quiz Vand as to her thoughts on the word ‘feminist’ being used to describe this movie in certain reviews, and how the phrase “feminist Iranian vampire movie” pops up a lot – Vand’s reading is more neutral: “I just think it’s great that The Girl’s power doesn’t come from mimicking a man,” offers Vand, “You see that a lot in film. And I never thought of her as an avenger of justice. I think she’s just trying to make the best out of her shitty circumstances. If she’s forced to kill, she might as well kill bad people!”
Join Pilerats.com and VICE as we host the Opening Night of A Girl Walks Home Alone At Night, this Saturday April 4, 6.30pm at Luna Outdoor, 155 Oxford St, Leederville. Tickets onsale now via the Luna website – includes free Sienna's pizza and Wine By Brad, while stocks last (code for: get there at 6.30). Custom-made soundtrack by Pilerats, and pre-show visual content from VICE Films and Pile TV. See you there!