Director Notes: An Interview with Desiree Akhavan

Cameron Post (Chloë Grace Moretz) is shipped off to a Christian conversion camp after she is discovered kissing a female friend. No sooner there, she realises that almost all the inductees are repressing their true feelings and the notion of a cure is absurd.

The Miseducation of Cameron Post, Desiree Akhavan’s Sundance Grand Jury winner, is an articulate and funny drama that speaks out against the current tide of social conservatism in the US. Leigh Singer talks to Akhavan about her acclaimed second feature.

You’d been aware of Emily Danforth’s novel even before you made Appropriate Behaviour. How did it come to be your follow-up feature?

I read the book in 2012, then gave it to my girlfriend and every lesbian I knew, saying “Please read this, you’ll thank me later”. But I hadn’t made Appropriate Behaviour yet. So I wrote Emily a fan letter. She had seen The Slope, my web series and liked it, so when she came to New York we met up. We got on well, but I told her that I wasn’t in a position to buy the rights then, but keep me posted.

Appropriate Behaviour  (2014)

Appropriate Behaviour (2014)

Then I made Appropriate Behaviour and that’s when I shared [the book] with my co-writer and producer Cecilia Frugiuele. She read it, instantly got the rights and said, “We’re making this”. She’s the boss – I do what she tells me to!

Did you need convincing?

I had talked about wanting to adapt, it but I wasn’t quite sure. I didn’t think it was in my comfort zone – it wasn’t where my talents lie. I was really nervous, but Cecilia said, “Trust me”. It also felt very dramatic and very important and I was thinking I can’t do an ‘important film’. I also thought it could be boring. Some producers read it and said it wasn’t edgy enough and that note really stung – that this was soft and “Young Adult” [fiction] and not cool. But it’s its own beast. It’s not Spring Breakers, it’s not obviously sexy…

For UK viewers, the whole concept of Gay Conversion Camps can feel like either ancient history or some strange dystopian idea . And yet in the US…

…It exists! Everything in the book is real. Before we started shooting, Chloë and I met with a couple of young people in their twenties who had gone through conversion therapy. It’s bonkers! It’s not archaic and all the techniques that are in the book are used. Some we even added to the film that we discovered as we researched. For instance, one guy went to a camp and told us about the first day – what they call either ‘Cannibal Theory’ or ‘The Wizard of Oz Complex’ (which is weird because The Wizard of Oz is usually seen as super-gay!) It’s all about, “Look around the circle, who here is attracted to another person here?” And he wanted to get better, so he raised his hand and had to pull out the other person and list all the things he was attracted to. And they respond by telling him, “Do you think you have those qualities?” When he responds “No”, they say, “Well, don’t you think you want those qualities for yourself?” Basically, you’re not attracted to the other person, you just want to take their qualities on. So that ended up in the film, all these things they tell Cameron about Coley: “You don’t want to be with her, you want to be her.”

The Miseducation of Cameron Post  (2018)

The Miseducation of Cameron Post (2018)

Reading the nearly five hundred-page novel, it seems that you made a smart choice to concentrate on only one part of it, and not end up skimming the entire story. Was that always your plan?

Yes. That was always the idea – to focus on the last two hundred pages. Also, it would have taken us an extra year to write if we had done the whole thing. And the early part of the book is so much about Montana, where Cameron grows up. Up until the last two weeks of prep, we were still going to shoot some exteriors in Montana and then fake the rest. But it just became apparent that we were putting our money in the wrong places. And we would have lost days off our shoot. The first three hundred pages are essential for the novel, but for the gay conversion camp story it isn’t.

The Miseducation of Cameron Post  (2018)

The Miseducation of Cameron Post (2018)

And that’s arguably the most unusual, striking aspect of the whole story.

It was also my personal ‘in’. I spent some time at a rehabilitation centre for eating disorders when I was in my twenties and I always wanted to make a film about those rooms – about group therapy, about giving yourself up wholly to this idea of being ‘better’, but not really knowing where the next step is. And this [book’s] centre completely paralleled my experience – except I had a great experience and I left, knock wood, in recovery and haven’t had a relapse. But it was a positive experience and I wondered afterwards, what would this have been like if I wasn’t able to get better? What if technically I couldn’t, if it was as embedded in me as my sexuality? There’s no brainwashing yourself out of something that innate.

Chloë Grace Moretz is not who many people would imagine as Cameron, and given her track record of big, mainstream films, some people might have been sceptical.

I think a lot of people were. But the girl’s got swagger! I had no reservations. I thought it was a really great opportunity. And how cool, to take this girl who’s been in so many studio films, who you’ve seen play so many teen girls in typical ‘I like the boy, he likes me, we’re both white, straight and single, how are we going to get together?’ teen movies – and doing a great job too – and cast against type.

The Miseducation of Cameron Post  (2018)

The Miseducation of Cameron Post (2018)

So how did her name come up for this?

We found out from her team that they, she and her brother, had read the script and liked it. She had just left a bunch of projects she’d been attached to for a while – I think she was attached to play The Little Mermaid for Fox – and was ready to make that transition. She dropped out of all of them, took a year off and this was her first time back to work. But it wasn’t something I thought of – I never thought she’d be interested. But she’s got such range.

Talk a little about the visual style of the film – it’s a very natural look.

And it’s all handheld and operated on the fly by the DoP, Ashley Conner. I saw and loved her camerawork for Josephine Decker. Ashley talked about how for certain scenes she ended up holding the lens further away from the camera for some of the more intense stuff. And I felt she was someone who understood the emotion of the scene and translating that into something visual, a poetic sensitivity to this film. I showed her Morvern Callar and we looked at a lot of Nan Goldin photographs. I watched Todd Haynes’s Safe and I stole from it a little. Ashley also works very fast, which is good when you’re shooting in twenty-three days. It was a hustle.

The Miseducation of Cameron Post  (2018)

The Miseducation of Cameron Post (2018)

You were shooting during the US Presidential Election. What happened during Election Night?

We had an election night party! One of our producers put balloons everywhere and streamers and had an ice cream sundae bar! We lived where we shot so it was like being at camp, it was the nicest shoot of my life, genuinely idyllic. So, we had this huge celebration and then, around 11pm it slowly became apparent that we were losing and one by one everyone petered off to bed. I went to my room. it was like watching a car crash and everyone was a mess. It felt post-apocalyptic.

So, you had had no sense of what was coming?

That morning, I was in line for breakfast with the producer Michael Clarke and he said, ‘I am just so excited that my little girl is going to grow up with a female president.’ We were so confident. But, we were shooting in upstate New York and all the lawns had Trump signs… It was a joke that this Reality TV star was running, but that everything that he stood for was kind of Voldemort-y… And then when Mike Pence came on, and he had publicly supported gay conversion therapy and had put AIDS financing money towards the cause of gay conversion therapy…

The Miseducation of Cameron Post  (2018)

The Miseducation of Cameron Post (2018)

The film became more relevant than I guess you had ever imagined.

That was what was so crazy when we were trying to finance it. People were telling us, this is not relevant. And I would say, it’s still a great story and it’s still relevant metaphorically, about being better, rehab, self-hatred and homophobia. I never thought that it would be relevant practically. But you know, those things did exist before Trump came into office. The Black Lives Matter movement began when Obama was in office. It just got really ugly, really openly.

Do you think it’s important that a film like Cameron Post is made by a queer filmmaker?

Yes. Right now, I do. Maybe in the future I won’t. But give me a time when most Oscar-winners or studio directors aren’t white, middle-aged men and then I will say, “No, everyone can tell a story”. But when you’re marginalized in every aspect of it, and the story’s about marginalized people, and you find yourself slowly elbowed out of your work, or your opportunities are marginalized… it really pisses me off, because these are interesting stories, that you don’t often hear.

[Words by Leigh Singer]

Desiree Akhavan’s The Miseducation of Cameron Post plays on our screens from Friday 7 September.

Akhavan’s debut film Appropriate Behaviour is available to watch online at Curzon Home Cinema.