As her long-awaited new sci-fi comedy Mona Lisa and the Blood Moon hits the UK, the director tells us about its inspirations, her high school experiences and how she feels about her projects being described as “female-led”
Ana Lily Amirpour’s new sci-fi comedy starts where Brian De Palma’s Carrie ends. In the first scene of Mona Lisa and the Blood Moon, a North Korean woman, Mona Lisa (Jeon Jong-seo from Burning), escapes from an asylum by exhibiting Carrie-style, telekinetic powers, then proceeds on a snack-fuelled rampage around a trippy, kaleidoscopic version of New Orleans. With such a zany, inexplicable opening, Mona Lisa and the Blood Moon could truly go anywhere.
After all, Amirpour is known for blending disparate genres into wildly original capers. In 2014, the Iranian filmmaker wrote and directed A Girl Walks Home Alone at Night, an ultra-cool, black-and-white horror about a skateboarding vampire who wears a chador. In 2016, she followed it with The Bad Batch, a cannibal-thriller with a bizarre premise and an even more bizarre cast: Jim Carrey, Keanu Reeves, and – missing an arm and leg – Suki Waterhouse. Does she see a parallel between Mona Lisa’s telekinesis and her being an auteur controlling a film set?
“Certainly I’m an observer,” says Amirpour, 41, in the Mayfair Hotel during the 2021 London Film Festival. “I like to take part, too, in this game of life. When I say ‘take part’, I’m not saying having a job or family. Everybody has things that make up our social order. But what are we searching for? What’s the buzz? There’s a lot of numbing and distracting.” She pauses. “I feel like Mona Lisa is looking for – even if it’s brief – an encounter. Even if it’s negative or positive. Just something that confronts the human experience in some way.”
The origins of Mona Lisa’s powers are irrelevant. What matters is they exist in her fingertips – should she wish to use them. Eyewitnesses include a police officer who turns detective (Craig Robinson); a dopey, dope-dealing DJ (Ed Skrein); and an opportunistic stripper, Bonnie (Kate Hudson). Throughout the hijinks, Jeon remains mysterious and enigmatic, like her character in Burning.
When Amirpour directed an episode of The Twilight Zone, she mentioned to Steven Yeun that she’d written a script with a North Korean character. In response, Yeun asked her to watch Burning and consider Jeon. “There’s something about her presence (in Burning),” Amirpour says. “You can’t explain it. And when she’s gone, you feel her absence so much. It’s almost maddening.”
After a Skype session, Jeon flew to LA and spent a week with Amirpour. “I bombarded her with pop culture from the 90s that she hadn’t been exposed to. We had movie and music marathons. I drove her around LA. I just wanted her to do things the way she does things. I told her, ‘There’s something about you, and you are just it. I’m not questioning it. How you do things is so specifically you, that’s what makes it magical.”
Contrary to my Carrie comparison, Amirpour calls her film a spiritual sibling to Edward Scissorhands and Splash: “They’re outsider stories.” The equivalent of Tom Hanks in Splash is Bonnie, a garrulous go-getter who speaks faster than she thinks. “Bonnie’s a hero to me. She’s scrappy, and doesn’t take shit. I feel the same way about Kate, too. Kate’s deeply honest.”
Mona Lisa also forms a close friendship with Bonnie’s son, Charlie (Evan Whitten), which Amirpour based on her relationship with a cousin who passed away at an early age. “Just think of how many people were your best, best, best friends in your younger years,” she sighs. “You define each other, and they disappear completely from your life. Cousin friendships were a whole other flex. That person was my best friend.”
The pounding, EDM-heavy soundtrack is matched by the gorgeous, vivid colours lensed by Pawel Pogorzelski, who was the cinematographer of Hereditary and Midsommar. However, Amirpour considers herself primarily a screenwriter. Her industry breakthrough was through winning the BlueCat Screenplay Competition in 2007 for The Stones. “Gordy Hoffman (who runs BlueCat) took me under his wing when I moved to LA,” she says. “I’d be so happy if his name is in the article – I’ll send it to him.”
The Stones, while still unproduced, gained industry recognition as a coming-of-age drama set in Tehran. Though her parents lived in Iran before she was born, Amirpour grew up in Margate, Miami, then eventually California. “At high school, everyone looked and talked differently than me. I never had a feeling that I was of the place that I was in. Never. Even what girls would do, it never appealed to me. I thought boys had it better. They didn’t wear uncomfortable clothes. I wanted to sit in the mud. I never felt invited into any social thing. I think outsiders can be extremely powerful for that reason. It means you never rely on groupthink. You rely on yourself, and judge everything independently. Groupthink is the poison of humanity.”
Amirpour describes to me her plan for a Mona Lisa sequel (“We’ll be on the plane, landing in Detroit, and we’ll go from there”), but her next project is Cliffhanger, a remake that was widely reported in the trades with headlines specifying the gender of its leads. When Mona Lisa premiered at the Venice Film Festival, she fired back at reporters for their descriptions of her work. Without me mentioning Cliffhanger, she sips her coffee and takes a lengthy pause. “I’m a little beaten down right now. Everyone is getting so upset about categorisation and labels. ‘I’m this, I’m not that, I’m this, you’re that.’”
Is she referring to questions about Cliffhanger? She nods her head. “I’m tired of the ‘female-led’ phrase,” she says. “I’m tired of lazy journalism. I feel like the people who talk to artists, and are talking about art, should work harder and do better to figure out why they love cinema, and have respect for the artists that they sit down and talk to. Because no one tells you how to talk about your work. It’s a very, very weird thing. You make a film for people to look at the film. At no point did I ever want to talk about it.”
A few months before our interview, Naomi Osaka pulled out of the French Open, citing anxiety over media duties. “It was empowering,” Amirpour says. “I realised we can control our own narrative. The people that aren’t on the court playing, will never be on the court playing. They should have respect for the people that are on the court playing.” She pauses. “I do want to have conversations with people like you. I mean, Dazed, I respect the shit out of. There are certain things I look forward to. It doesn’t always turn out good, but I look forward to them. But now I’ve come to a point where I’m like: ‘No.’
“I’m in a position where it’s my third film and I’ve been around. There are people that want to hear what I have to say. There are young kids that might Google me ten years from now and find this article. Maybe something in there will give them something good to think about that’s different from the same repeated kind of terminology that doesn’t mean anything. I’m not just a female filmmaker – I’m a weirdo artist.”
Mona Lisa and the Blood Moon is out now in the UK on Sky Cinema and Now TV. In the US, it’s out in theatres and on VOD from September 30