'The Bad Batch': Ana Lily Amirpour and Suki Waterhouse on Why Making Movies is 'Traumatizing'
Ana Lily Amirpour's follow-up to A Girl Walks Home Alone at Night, starring Jim Carrey, Suki Waterhouse, Jason Momoa, and Keanu Reeves, is a striking post-apocalyptic cannibal story shot in "insane" locations.
Two years ago, Ana Lily Amirpour took the indie world by storm with her distinctive A Girl Walks Home Alone at Night, a feminist vampire tale shot in black-and-white and featuring a killer soundtrack. That confident debut was picked up by VICE Films and earned Amirpour a producing partnership with Megan Ellison's Annapurna Pictures for her sophomore effort, The Bad Batch, which had its North American premiere at TIFF 2016 earlier this week.
Set in a Mad Max-esque dystopian future of desert wastelands with roving cannibals, The Bad Batch follows Arlen (Suki Waterhouse), a rebellious teenager who's been exiled from the US to lawless Mexico as part of an ongoing initiative to purge society of its wayward characters. Within the first five minutes of the film, a bloodbath ensues; Arlen must fight for her life lest she become someone else's food.
There is very little dialogue in The Bad Batch: Arlen doesn't speak for at least the first 15 minutes, and we don't learn her name until 30 minutes in. At the film's premiere, Amirpour defended this decision: "Just because people aren't talking all the time doesn't mean there isn't a story."
"Writing is like a personal torture," she added.
In lieu of dialogue or a fleshed-out story (pun intended), the film boasts striking visuals and eccentric characters, such as Jim Carrey as an unrecognizable mute hermit and Keanu Reeves as the peaceable warlord of an acid-fueled desert community. As has become Amirpour's trademark, The Bad Batch features a strong soundtrack. "Sometimes I feel like cinema is an opportunity for a song to exist in a movie," Amirpour said at the premiere. "Nothing is better than music. Except maybe sex. But at least music you can control."
No Film School caught up with Amirpour and star Suki Waterhouse at TIFF 2016 to discuss how "making a movie is like climbing Everest" and more.
"Making a movie is so traumatizing. It ravages you. It's like going up Everest: not that many people do it, and you have to be kind of stupid or insane to want to do it."
NFS: You both most be exhausted after the premiere last night.
Ana Lily Amirpour: You get reduced into your pure, primal, instinctive self. It is a good state.
Suki Waterhouse: Yeah, it's kind of numbed down.
Amirpour: I don't know how good it is for mating. You know what I mean? But it's good for having a conversation.
NFS: Well, luckily we're having a conversation rather than mating! What was the first image you had in conceiving this film, so to speak?
Amirpour: When I started writing it, I was feeling like this girl in the desert, missing an arm and a leg and being eaten alive, dragging on. But she was going to live. That's how I felt in my life at the time when I started writing it. Then, I was like, "Okay, so what's the fairy tale that this scene exists in?" And I thought of the whole story and the world around that girl.
NFS: Suki, what was your first thought when you read the script?
Waterhouse: I can't really remember reading the script. I don't think I got a script until for a while. I remember getting some sides... they were kind of quite difficult to get my head around. Then I watched Lily's first movie [A Girl Walks Home Alone at Night] and that's kind of what made me understand the world that she was going for.
Amirpour: Do you remember when you came over and I did the movie for you?
Waterhouse: Yes. She acted out the entire thing—
Amirpour: With props and music playing.
Waterhouse: She did the monkey show.
Amirpour: I was like, you're going to come over and I'm going to do the monkey show.
Waterhouse: Every single voice!
"It's such a crazy kind of storytelling—it's extreme and stylized—so it helps to give some context. Because you're like, 'Wait, what? Then he's eating her?'"
NFS: Why did it help to act out the story in order to get Suki on board?
Amirpour: It's such a crazy kind of storytelling—it's extreme and stylized—so it helps to give some context. Because you're like, "Wait, what? Then he's eating her?" Then if you hear the music and you see it [acted out], you can imagine. But, of course, you can never know what it's going to be before you shoot it. Like an acid trip, for example. So [the monkey show] was just a starting point.
NFS: How did you find and set up at each of the remote, off-the-grid desert locations?
Amirpour: I write with the locations in mind. I did that with my first film; the location was totally a character like any other character in the film. I knew I wanted to shoot in the desert on a dry lake and then I knew about the airplane bone yard. I was like, "Why hasn't someone shot a movie here?" It's an epic place.
NFS: I thought that you'd created that for the film.
Waterhouse: It's insane. Everyone thought we had created that.
Amirpour: Brandon [Tonner-Connolly, the film's production designer] will get mad props for that.
Waterhouse: What's the story behind that place? It's just a guy that loves collecting?
Amirpour: Bill, he's this old dude who's been collecting airplane parts for 25 years. He's just storing them out in this land in the desert and over time movies started renting it out from him to do plane crashes. He stockpiles the wreckages. There's one area that's just tires from airplanes—it's the size of this whole room. It's the same with Comfort [the film's main location], Bombay Beach, and the Salton Sea. Really crazy places.
Waterhouse: There are the most insane empty houses that just got abandoned. You walk in and there's fossilized cats on the floor. Everything's just been just left. You can go through people's stuff.
Amirpour: Slab City is an off-the-grid community, one of the largest in America of these people, that live in the desert. What's funny to me is when people say, "Oh, it's post-apocalyptic." I'm like, no, it's there right now. People live there. But I don't think there's any future.
Waterhouse: Yeah they have a whole thing, they have a library. They have a karaoke night that a few people went to.
Amirpour: They screen movies.
Waterhouse: Do they?
Amirpour: Yeah, they want to screen Bad Batch out there. How epic would that be? All those people are in the movie—all of the party scenes are local extras.
NFS: How did the rest of the cast come together?
Amirpour: Suki came early on, but it was [Jason] Momoa first because I had written and conceived of my man with him in mind. He was the one; there was no one else that could be Miami Man. Then Diego [Luna], who had a much larger part but didn't end up in the final movie, and then Keanu [Reeves] and Jim [Carrey]. With all the other parts, I knew the actors, but I wanted to find Arlen [Suki's character].
NFS: Arlen is impenetrable and elusive. We don't learn much about her at all. What kinds of conversations, if any, did you two have about the character?
Waterhouse: It started when I did the audition with a documentary about a girl, Cyntoia Brown, who had been incarcerated at age 16 for killing her pimp, a guy that she was prostituting herself for. That became the essence of her. She's so traumatized and kind of numbed out. That was the soul of the character that we started with.
NFS: Similarly to your last film, the music in Bad Batch is very evocative. What's your process of pairing down a soundtrack?
Amirpour: It's kind of like with the writing; it's a thing and a feeling. I start stockpiling. I go on wormhole explorations with music. Like following a certain DJ to a certain label, to a certain track, to another one to another one. I just will be like, "This song feels like the movie," or "This song feels like Arlen," or "This song feels like Miami Man." It's in the script and then it'll get fine-tuned.
NFS: Do you think that movies would benefit from more deliberate music choices?
Amirpour: I don't think there are any rules with movies. I think that's so great about movies: anyone can do whatever gets their rocks off. You do you, I'll be me, we'll all be ourselves. For me, I'm like, I love music. It's so fucking important and I want the movie to earn getting the music to be in it.
"It's all [Ana Lily Amirpour's] ideas. She's not into other people's ideas, really. It's very much her vision."
NFS: Can you think of a scene that was particularly challenging to shoot?
[Amirpour and Waterhouse laugh]
Amirpour: All of them.
Waterhouse: The first one was pretty insane.
Amirpour: The first day of shooting was Arlen covered in shit, missing an arm and a leg, crawling the fuck out of there.
Waterhouse: You know what's quite hard is getting the arms sawed, because she kind of sawed me! I had a scar for a while. She actually was sawing [my arm].
Amirpour: It was really intensely physical. And technical. It's complicated with prosthetics, where you have the fake arm and the real one. It's time-consuming.
Waterhouse: In that first scene, I had my leg buried in the sand.
Amirpour: It was a real operation and it was the first day. Normally it is a couple days of shooting, and everyone settles in. But it was really perfect for Bad Batch, because we were like, "All right, fucking cover her in shit, let's go, let's do this." All the violence came first. We almost shot chronologically, too. Because normally when you do a movie, it's chopped up and all over the place. It was like all this savagery and violence and then you make your way out into this desert. It was nice when we finally got out on the peaceful desert.
During shooting on A Girl Walks Home Alone at Night, I'd bring movies and I'd stay in a confined hole during shooting. I don't like to leave the head space and during the first film, I watched all these movies. I brought all these movies I watched during Bad Batch, but I only watched the Neverending Story. I felt like making the movie was an epic adventure quest. The actual making of it: full moon out in the desert, shooting all night with the fire.
Waterhouse: The last scene of the movie was an epic time as well. It just catching the sun come down, that was one of those moments you just remember forever. The music playing....
Amirpour: I just got goosebumps.
Waterhouse: Lily trying to make the girl cry, just as the sun's coming down, we've got Jim, he's not in the last scene, but he's like walking in the background as a hermit, it's just absolutely epic. Moments that just make you speechless.
NFS: Whose idea was it to keep Jim Carrey's character essentially in disguise throughout the film (and also in the marketing)?
Amirpour: Oh, yeah... I guess my idea.
Waterhouse: She has all the ideas. By the way, she doesn't—it's all her ideas. She's not into other people's ideas, really. It's very much her vision.
Amirpour: Jim has been doing Jim Carrey movies for a long time, you know, and he really wants to do something different. It was instantaneous and he loved the idea of playing this. For me, it was like this dirty homeless man that you ignored on every street corner is the hero of the movie, and he's quiet, thankless... he's not doing it for any ulterior motives. One human being—a forgotten human being—would be responsible for saving these people's lives.
"I'm not really into naturalism; I'm into a show."
Amirpour: He brings it to life. You think he doesn't say anything in the movie, but he actually does say a lot. Words are something that a lot of people are obsessed with. Sometimes you don't need them.
NFS: What about the visuals? How did you communicate with your cinematographer?
Amirpour: [Screams] "Lyle!"
Amirpour: "Get the 55!" She just got PTSD. "Get me the 50 on the stick!"
No, he shot my first film. We have shared cinematic mind space. We both love like shooting anamorphic, both love like the glossy, punchy look of the Hollywood movies from the '80s and '90s: Back to the Future, Die Hard, Sergio Leone. I'm not really into naturalism; I'm into a show.
[Lyle] trusts me completely. I definitely demand a lot from him and Scottie D, my Steadicam operator. There's a trifecta with the camera.
Waterhouse: I'm getting flashbacks of your outfits now. [The camera team] and Lily would have really strong outfits every day.
Amirpour: Like a lunatic.
Waterhouse: Yeah, like insane. It'd be pizza onesies.
Amirpour: It helps set the tone of the madness. Like, that's who's in charge.
Waterhouse: I actually just remembered a really difficult scene that we did. I think the most scared I was, was when I was on the motorbike that one time—
Amirpour: The guy that shoots Miami Man, he didn't know how to ride a scooter and kind of hesitated to let anyone know that until we were shooting and actually lost control of the scooter. She's on it and she could have been maimed. It went towards Lyle. It went towards the camera—
Waterhouse: No, I think it hit him—
Amirpour: It did, but he protected the lenses... the camera parts were there.
Waterhouse: Basically a motorbike went out of control towards the camera. That was a real Bad Batch.
NFS: I like how everything that happened on set is reflective of the ethos of the movie.
Amirpour: Yeah, it should be!
"I would do Bond. It's the only studio thing [I would do]."
NFS: A lot of up-and-coming filmmakers have a hard time trusting their own vision and don't think they can work outside of the system when making their first film. You're clearly the example of someone who went off, did their own thing, and succeeded. What advice would you have for a filmmaker that wants to stick to their guns?
Amirpour: What really turns you on should be what motivates you. But I think it's very easy to fake if you're turned on. We all do it. I do it, everybody does it. Not just about making movies, but like in life. Just don't fucking fake it. Be. Mean it. What do you really like?
Waterhouse: Yeah, but it's the most difficult thing, isn't it? To really figure out what you like.
Amirpour: I always use sex as a metaphor for that. I feel like it's the same in sex—you can fake it. Even just a little, you know [laughter]. You're like yeah, mm-hmm, like a performance. And suddenly you're like, "What am I really getting out of this?"
Waterhouse: When you're telling your friends about it, you're like, "Oh, it's great." Then you break up with him and you're like—
NFS: He was terrible.
Amirpour: Exactly, exactly. For filmmakers.... A lot of people feel that just doing something is better [than nothing]. So the metaphor for sex would be, "At least I have a boyfriend." But is it really the best use of your time? You could masturbate yourself, have a nice time. Try to avoid that numbness. Look for—
Waterhouse: The soul matter. The greasy, deep soul.
NFS: Do you think you'll ever take a big project from a studio, or will you always want to work independently?
Amirpour: I would do whatever if I felt like I was supported to do the work that I'm good at doing. I think if I got in a situation where people wanted to exploit me in a way that I can't deliver—because I want to deliver—I wouldn't take it. If somebody wants [me to], I'll do what I say I'm going to do. Sometimes maybe I'm not the right one for whatever it is.
There's one studio-ish thing I would do. It's a big thing that has crossed my mind: if I could be really supported to do it the way I would do it, I would do Bond. It's the only one.
NFS: What was the most surprising thing that you learned about filmmaking or about your own process as an artist through making this film?
Waterhouse: Watching yourself... I don't know I've ever seen myself entirely, watched myself through a movie. You don't realize it, but your presence... you are it. Sometimes some of the best moments were when I was not trying to do anything. It's just making me really hungry to get back in the ring.
Amirpour: What was the question again? Because it's a psychedelic question, so I lost all space and time.
NFS: What did you learn about your artistic process or yourself as an artist while making this film?
Amirpour: When making a film, I have to have this volcanic outpour of effort for like two years, three years straight. It's so traumatizing and ravages you. It's like going up Everest: not that many people do it, and you have to be kind of stupid or insane to want to do it. You start and you have all your equipment, it's all new, your team, and then you get to base camp one and you're a little more worn out, then you get to base camp two and you've lost a couple people, and then you keep going and a storm comes, you get frostbite, you've lost a toe, now you're dehydrated, and you run out of food, and you're summiting and then you see the final thing.
By the time you get to the top, which is finishing a movie— here [in Toronto]— you're at the top of Everest. You can't process that you're here. You have no oxygen and it's surreal. Someone else has to take a picture so that a month later, it'll be like, "Look, you were there." With A Girl Walks Home Alone at Night, it was a year after that I was like, "Okay, I see the movie" A year went by.
Waterhouse: You're watching yourself a year and a half ago. I'm watching a girl that doesn't know what the fuck she's doing and is terrified.
NFS: Like a strange time capsule of you.
Amirpour: It is.
Waterhouse: Last night, after watching [the premiere], I found it hard to be around people. I wanted to go for a long walk and just shake it off. It's traumatizing watching it.
Amirpour: That's what I'm saying, it's traumatizing and when you get to the top of Everest. The hardest, most fucked up thing about it is that you have to go back down. It's almost too close to talk about what it is or what you learned.
Waterhouse: I was definitely numb as fuck afterward. I went home and was like, "What just happened?"
Amirpour: When you pour out so much of yourself, you whip yourself open...
Waterhouse: I've done stuff since and [realized] this was a unique experience. Not every project has someone at the head of it [who has] an intense focus. With Bad Batch it was like, "This is my fucking world that you're creating." It's not like that on every project. But that's what you hope to do: get ripped open, like you're a new person. You don't recognize the person you were before. That's exciting.