A Girl Walks Home Alone at Night
by Ana Lily Amirpour (distributed by VICE and Kino Lorber)
Late last year we caught an early screening of A Girl Walks Home Alone at Night—an independent Iranian vampire film conceived and deftly brought to life by LA-based filmmaker Ana Lily Amirpour. Shot in black and white, with dialogue in Farsi, AGWHAAN centers around Girl—inhabited by the poised Sheila Van—a record-loving vampire who wears Breton stripes and a fluttering, inky chador. She cruises a tumbleweed town on her skateboard and applies her kohl eyeliner heavily, without a mirror, because, hey, she probably hasn’t seen her reflection in thousands of years. The movie is a gorgeously shot, richly romantic tale that hinges on Girl’s encounters with the towns-folk—in particular a drug-dealing pimp who bears a striking resemblance to Ninja from Die Antwoord, a grief-subsumed, middle-aged junkie, and a chiseled-yet-sensitive greaser (played by Arash Marandi)—while also exploring Girl's own isolation. With nods to spaghetti westerns and Harmony Korine’s Gummo, there’s yet another character that stands as the film’s focal point: the soundtrack. The dialogue is sparse with silence allowing each scene space to exhale, but this means that when music does come into play—be it a tune by Iranian indie rockers Radio Tehran or London’s White Lies—these songs communicate volumes.
In particular, White Lies’ track “Death” underlines the emotional gravitas in a magnetic key scene between Girl and her prospective lover. We contacted White Lies bassist and songwriter Charles Cave directly after he watched the film for the first time and he had this to say about its inclusion.
"I'm so proud to have had a song feature so significantly in this particular film. This is a really unique, poetic piece of visual art that I think will make a significant dent in contemporary art-cinema. It has the grace and delicacy of Bella Tarr, but with the muscle of Rumble Fish and a totally believable young-love sentiment.”
He added: “The script is outstanding actually, the photography truly memorable and iconic, the acting delicious and the sound utterly tasteful. I would never have imagined our song to be married with something like this and something of such quality. I'll be showing this film to somebody's kids one day, and probably being told off for them being too young to watch it.”
Such is the importance of the music in AGWHAAN that its soundtrack is getting a proper release (via Mondo & Death Waltz Recording Company) this April, but ahead of this the label will launch an exclusive double LP vinyl variant of the soundtrack limited to only 500 copies, plus, in celebration, they'll throw a party at SXSW next week. The Audyssey pop-up record store at The Highball will feature Mondo, Death Waltz Recording Company and many record labels from around the world. There will be a performance by Federale featuring their spaghetti Western-inspired sounds from the film's soundtrack, followed by a DJ set by Elijah Wood and Zach Cowie—under the moniker Wooden Wisdom. (Mondo will also premiere an additional version of their soundtrack to Scanners/The Brood pressed on a half and half split vinyl, limited to 150 copies.)
We’d recommend going to see this movie at the earliest opportunity and if you’re in Austin for SXSW make sure to RSVP and stop by (music! free beer!). Additionally we spoke with director Amirpour about the importance of music in both the movie and in helping the actors develop and fully embody their characters.
Noisey: I loved that you made playlists for each of the actors to get help get them in the mindset of the character. I know you’ve long since deleted those playlists, but can you remember any songs that you felt aligned with any of the characters in the film and is this something you tend to do with actors you direct or was this the first time?
Ana Lily Ampour: Music is everything to me, and for most people tells so much about who they are and what they need and what type of twist is in their step. So much of what I do starts from music—a song or artist will have the feel of a place, or a mood, or a personality or a moment. I always use music when I'm writing, with my cast, and with everyone really. When we drive on scouts and camera tests, I play the songs and describe the moments of the film they convey. It's great to do that while you're out in the actual locations. It starts to give life to the films personality.
In Girl… I gave Sheila, music that had a nostalgia for me from the past; Michael Jackson, Madonna, and The Bee Gees, Elvis, and then of course some newer pop, like White Lies, which also feels so nostalgic—like the perfect music to put makeup on and dance alone in your room to. For Arash, the entire album of Radio Tehran, 88, was his vibe. There are four songs in the film, but if I could have I would have used them all. That album is so beautiful beginning to end- one of those you can listen to the whole album like it's one long song. I felt like they were the Iranian version of the Pixies or The Cure.
Then for The Pimp, it was a lot of dirty techno, I just pictured him doing tons of blow in his apartment and listening to techno and doing sit-ups and playing Duck Hunt. I listen to a lot of techno myself, so that was a really long playlist of stuff, but the track he puts on in the scene, came from my German friend Daniel Brandt, of Brandt Brauer Frick. He made the song “Bashy” from his first electronic group The Free Electric Band, and there were several tracks from them that I gave to Dominic. Daniel thought it was funny that I wanted to use that lo-fi old music when his newer stuff with (BBF) is really elegant orchestral techno, but The Free Electric Band was exactly the vibe of the pimp.
The older junkie played by Marshall Manesh was more vintage, 70s pre-revolution Iranian rock, so it was Dariush, Googoosh, and also lots of Kourosh Yaghmai, who's double box set compilation, Return from The Brink, is an insane collection of music. In the first longer assembly of the film I was trying to get Kourosh in there because his music is so insane, but in the end it wasn't going to fit a film that's 90 minutes long. Seriously it's like the Persian version of The Who, but better.
I also gave all the actors all the crew all of the soundtrack as a whole to listen to, the music of Federale was like the musical spine of the film, and was really the sound of the town itself. Collin Hegna of Federale is another artist whose music works and combines with the type of cinema I like to make. His music is so cinematic and often feels like a scene from a film that has yet to exist. It's fun to be the one to get to create the move that music can exist in.
White Lies’ song “Death” plays over such a key scene—what was it about that song that spoke to you for that moment?
That song was always the one for that scene. I have loved it since I first heard it in a way that a few songs can do this thing where it captures this sweet and chaotic feeling of falling in love and getting pulled into someone. And then the lyrics! It was like a totally epiphany how the lyrics meant so much for a Vampire. It's called “Death” and the lyrics are so poetic and mirror the story and character in a next-level way. This is what happens when you're making art sometimes, this perfect chemical combination of the sound and story. I feel that it's really magic. And I always knew this minimal approach to how I constructed that moment would have to really let the song be the electricity that steers that moment.
There’s so much silence in the film that when you decide to apply music its impact hits that much harder. Was it difficult for you to select the songs? Were there any moments you really struggled to find the right music for?
I had all the music in advance, so I was never struggling to find music. Nothing was chosen afterwards. But there was about three times as much music in the first three hour, 20 minute assembly of the film. It had to be pared down and me and my editor Alex O Flinn labored over it. We're both so into the music, so each time a song had to be removed, we would suffer, but the film would be better for it. Silence is a sound too. It's cool about filmmaking because it's all about juxtapositions: Putting things next to each other, building moments against each other—it's like a chemical thing. And sound design is also very important for me and some moments just want a soundscape that will create a certain feeling.
The union of music and visuals is so important in cinema in general and can really help elevate a scene—just thinking of Simple Minds in The Breakfast Club, or Tears for Fears in Donnie Darko, or pretty much any moment during The Graduate. Do you have any favorite moments in cinema with music and if so what are they and why?
That's fun but also difficult because there's too much to think about. I love when Nicholas Cage sings Elvis “Treat Me Like a Fool” in Wild at Hear. Bowie's “Modern Love” playing when Denis Lavant runs through the streets in Mauvais Sang. I love when Peaches “Fuck the Pain Away” plays when Bill Murray is in the Japanese strip club in Lost In Translation; Steelers Wheel’s “Stuck in the Middle” when Michael Madsen cuts off an ear in Reservoir Dogs; The Rules of Attraction is truly an ecstatic marriage of music and cinema. My vote for most joyous score is Back to the Future, I can hum it and be transported to a feeling of childhood magic. And then Requiem for A Dream… so insane how deep it cuts in such a simple way. Same thing in Eyes Wide Shut… the icy chill and mood of that film is so complete in the music of the theme. I'm sure I could sit here and do this all day…
The drug dealer Saeed has clear nods to Ninja—was that your vision or more the actor’s interpretation?
Totally. That was a very conscious homage to Ninja—who I love. Dominic didn't know him before he did the film. I showed him pictures and YouTube videos saying, “This is who Saeed thinks looks cool, and who he want to have the vibe of.” Also, it made the pimp affectionate for me. When someone is a pimp, and has that gangster power, it can easily become too alpha and tough, but what I love about NInja is he looks like that, all tatted and everything, but he's got such humor and intelligence. I wanted my pimp to be a fun-loving pimp.
And finally—what are you working on currently?
My next film is The Bad Batch, a Texas-set psychedelic western. Soundtrack is already pretty much in place. It's really so tasty. We shoot in a few weeks, so I'm in full blown yee-haw cowboy mode.
Kim Taylor Bennett is an editor at Noisey and she's on Twitter.