The vampire at the heart of A Girl Walks Home Alone at Night neither sparkles nor sleeps in coffins. She’s a chador-and-jeans-clad vigilante with a love of ‘80s dance pop and a vendetta against the male sinners of Bad City, the spaghetti western-style backdrop for this Iranian vampire love story. She emerges at night to stalk pimps, thieves, and junkies, the cloth of her chador framing her small body like a superhero’s cape. As Sheila Vand, the actress who plays the nameless Girl, says, this vamp is “fucking cool.”
Girl, shot entirely in black and white with Farsi-speaking actors, is writer/director Ana Lily Amirpour’s first feature film. It enamored critics at this year’s Sundance Film Festival with its moody aesthetics and subdued humor, drawing comparisons to David Lynch and Jim Jarmusch. Indeed, the film, which tells the story of the Girl and how she falls for a dopey, tortured young man named Arash (played by Arash Marandi, who happens to looks like an Iranian James Dean), is beautifully shot, with scenes framed like panels from a Frank Miller graphic novel.
The influences Amirpour cites, however, stem from an adolescence spent “binge-gorging” artists of a different kind: Anne Rice, Stephen King, and romance novels. “I read so many romance novels,” she says. “When I see the film now, I’m like, ‘Ahhh, makes sense.’ It’s just a mashup of everything.” She laughs, then pauses for a second. “This is like a breakthrough in therapy or something.”
Amirpour—who resembles a punkier version of her dark-eyed, short-haired heroine—is sitting next to her film’s star inside the offices of Kino Lorber in New York. She says inspiration for the character of the Girl came from her own first time wearing a chador, which she found on the set of a horror short back in 2008.
“It was on an extra [who was] walking in the background, and I put it on and it was like a bat, a creature, a hero,” Amirpour says. “I just felt like a vampire. The fabric of the chador is different somehow. It’s got this weight and it moves gracefully. It’s elegant and slick. You know the sound that the Batman cape makes? Whoosh. It really feels like that.”
A short film followed, featuring a girl, of course, walking home alone at night. A man tracks her back to a building where the girl bares her fangs and devours him, reversing the role of predator. Dissatisfied, however, Amirpour decided to try the project again, this time as a feature-length film with the star she originally wrote the titular role for, Vand, a longtime friend. “She’s young and old somehow,” Amirpour says, citing certain qualities she needed for the Girl. “I can stare at her face in a certain way.”
The film set’s location also takes on a magical quality under Amirpour’s lens: The industrial Californian town of Taft, less than an hour drive from Bakersfield, the director’s hometown. Its thousands of smokestacks and drilling rigs give the city an eerie, “dream-like” feeling, perfect for the film’s hybrid Western-Iranian oil town (Vand enthusiastically recounts seeing tumbleweeds for the first time in Taft). “The speed of things there is different,” says Amirpour. “The tone, the smell, the light. It’s like another world.”
Amirpour cautions, however, that Bad City is only “Iran, Iran” as far as Gotham City is New York. “It’s a stylized type of archetypal Iran of the mind,” she explains. Still, Girl’s 24-day shoot in Taft (of largely nighttime scenes) did almost succeed in turning Vand into a real vampire.
“There was at least a solid week where I don’t think I saw daylight at all,” Vand laughs. “There were these weird signs in our motel room that said ‘day sleepers,’ I think they're for truck drivers or something. I was like, ‘This is so perfect for a vampire movie.’ We’d wrap sometimes at seven in the morning and I’d come home and draw the blinds and try to cover every little bit of light [coming into the room].”
Vand became so immersed in the role that it was hard to let go of the Girl once the time came.
“I kind of got fucked up a little bit when we wrapped,” she says. “I love her so much that I miss her, like, intensely. I’ve never had that with a character…She’s quiet and fucking cool, and rides skateboards. She’s sort of my dream girl a little bit.”
The vampire of Amirpour’s film preys only on men, ostensibly to balance the abuse women suffer at their hands in the film (she once descends on a prostitute but ends up helping her instead, reappearing later to rescue her from a client who forcibly injects heroin into her arm), which has prompted many, perhaps prematurely, to label the film as “feminist.” (The Girl doesn’t necessarily always operate with gender equality in mind. She does kill one homeless man just because she’s hungry.) Amirpour herself calls just one character in the film a feminist: A TV infomercial host who reminds women of their precarious positions in society and implores them to join his network of prostitutes. That is, a TV infomercial pimp.
“Dearest ladies with families,” he begins, sitting in a suit in a well-decorated room. “You care for your households. You care for your children, your husbands. And your husband makes the money. Congratulations. But be prepared, one day everything changes. Your husband leaves you, finds himself a new wife, a younger woman. Or perhaps your husband has a stroke. And dies. These things happen…Don’t count the things you’ve lost. Let’s count what’s left.”
The infomercial, playing on a character’s TV, comes less than five minutes in, setting the tone for the world the film’s women live in. Amirpour sees the pimp as a liberator rather than a predator.
“If there’s one feminist thing in this movie that I would lay claim to, it’s that that pimp is a feminist,” Amirpour says. “He’s just giving these women a chance to still take control of their life by using something that, you know, could be useful. Become an entrepreneur, a small business owner.” Amirpour gestures at Vand. “You’re a small business owner!”
A less ballsy first-timer—Amirpour is nothing if not ballsy—might have balked at the prospect of finding funding for this maybe-feminist, black-and-white Iranian vampire Western. Elijah Wood’s stamp of approval and executive producer credit helped get investors on board to fund Girl, but you get the feeling from talking to Amirpour that this movie would have been made with or without outsiders’ approval.
“If you ever hung out with Doc Brown from Back to the Future, I’m pretty sure he’s not tripping out on what anybody else would think about the idea that he thinks this DeLorean is gonna go back to 1954,” she explains. “He’s just focused on his invention. I feel more like an inventor than anything else. I just want to make this shit.”
She isn’t kidding. Amirpour's next project is one she bills as a “Texas cannibal love story.” Though she brushes off common comparisons to Jarmusch (she’s not much of a Jarmusch fan), she does perk up at the mention of Lynch. “I do get inspired by how wildly free he is to go into whatever it is he’s going into,” she says. “I just want to be as brave to go and explore my own brain caves in that way.”