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Ana Lily Amirpour on romance in the desert and the racial controversy over her new film, The Bad Batch

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Amirpour’s follow-up to A Girl Walks Home Alone At Night isn’t for everyone, but she says that’s none of her business

Image: Neon

Ana Lily Amirpour’s The Bad Batch, the follow-up to her acclaimed 2014 vampire love story A Girl Walks Home Alone at Night, is set in a world that feels like a Lana Del Rey song made flesh. In a dystopian version of the Texas desert, one-armed, one-legged gunslinger Arlen (model Suki Waterhouse) tries to find a home for herself on the edge of civilization. Arlen’s world is full of broken TVs, giant boomboxes, AK-47s, booty shorts, crinkled July Fourth decorations, ceaseless ecstasy-fueled raves, and Statue of Liberty Halloween costumes — all the detritus of Americana. Also, there are cannibals.

Arlen is alone in this hellscape, and the film moves slowly, taking almost all of its narrative intrigue from the audience’s struggle to understand who this woman is, what she believes in, and what she wants. That’s a trait it shares with the otherwise completely unrelated A Girl Walks Home Alone at Night.

[LIGHT SPOILERS FOR THE BAD BATCH BELOW]

Like any movie, The Bad Batch isn’t for everyone, but Amirpour ended up at the center of a small controversy a few weeks ago when an audience member at a Q&A in Chicago asked her a pointed question: “What was the message you were trying to convey with having this white woman kill a black mother in front of her child and then have her assume to be the mother figure for the little black girl?” Amirpour awkwardly brushed the question off, saying “I don’t make a film to tell you a message.” While she later apologized for not engaging in conversation with the young woman, she also doubled down by saying she felt “attacked.”

While the blogosphere’s reaction to this face-off was a little strong, the question is fair. This film is centered on a society made up entirely of things and people that the United States got tired of, and dumped into a no-man’s-land. Amirpour had to choose what music, clothes, technology, food, knickknacks, people, and cultural rituals would fit that description, and asking her to engage with the way some of the choices read is totally on the table at a film Q&A. Plus, the movie is interesting enough to make analyzing it feel worth the time.

So I recently sat down for a brief conversation with Amirpour about how she came up with the world of The Bad Batch, how a cannibal movie could possibly be romantic, and what obligation, if any, she has to explain her movie’s intentions.

This interview has been edited for clarity and length.

How did the world of this movie come to you? The production design is beautiful.

You mean the look, the physical world of The Bad Batch, like this magical, desert-fairytale badland? There’s the airplane junkyard, the [building-sized] boombox, all those things. It was fun. World-creating, world-building is definitely one of my deep, deep joys, and it’s the centerpiece of the kind of cinema I want to make, where you feel immersed and transported into this whole other world. But somehow… I like it when it’s familiar, also. So it’s almost a dream reality. I’m really into the desert in general. I had puberty there. You get attached to the places where you had your first period. I had mine in the desert in California.

“The bad batch,” they were going to be in this roped-off, empty, barren desert, but then I had this idea that there would be weird, leftover parts of America from the ‘80s and ‘90s, just left to waste. I was looking at all this ruin-porn, and there’s this amazing airplane graveyard in Lancaster, [California], in the desert. This guy’s been collecting airplane wrecks for 25 years, it’s just this amazing place. So that’s where the cannibal village was. I saw the boombox at Burning Man, and I just was like, “put Keanu Reeves on that.” So I talked to them, and got that for the movie.

Keanu Reeves in The Bad Batch.
Image: Neon

In the movie, where there’s a skatepark and all this graffiti, and [the village of] Comfort, that’s in the Salton Sea, in the desert over there in California. There’s 10,000 to 20,000 people living off the grid. They just live there, in the desert, outside of the system. So I started going there about a year before making the movie, and made friends with them. A lot of them don’t have the internet and don’t come to casting calls or anything. So I said, “I’m going to be making a movie, and there’s going to be a party scene, so I would love if you would come to the party.” It’s weird, you get to build this world, and it’s amplified surreal shit, but it’s the real DNA of stuff that’s here.

So if this community is discarded people and discarded objects, are they related in some way?

That’s great. I think that sounds like an incredibly astute way of putting it. I think that’s very interesting.

You’ve said the movie is like Road Warrior meets Pretty in Pink. Could you unpack that a little?

A long time ago, I said that, yeah. I would say, I love those movies. I love the original Road Warrior. It was never about Fury Road for me, just to be clear. I think honestly, it’s more the hybrid of cinema, those were things that were really inspiring me. I don’t know if you’ve seen a film called El Topo. It’s Jodorowsky’s psychedelic Western that he made in the ‘70s, that he also stars in. It’s really weird, violent. It’s the story of the quest of man, to understand man. It starts with a man, and then he has a child, and the child becomes an adult. It goes through all the stages of lust and sin and domination and all these things. It’s a very male vibe on it, but I really loved the story and the quest. So it was kind of taking that feeling of an epic quest movie, but then making it more like Alice in Wonderland. So it’s this girl that’s thrown into this crazy world with systems that pit people against each other, and she’s just trying to figure out who she is, constantly.

You’ve also said it’s meant to be a romantic film.

I think it depends on you. I don’t know that there’s one finite — did you feel that it was romantic?

Most of the movie was too tense for me to experience it as romantic, but the ending has some romance.

You felt tense throughout, and then kind of relaxed at the end. It’s crazy like, whatever human connection is, if you’re in extreme circumstances, you can’t relax. It’s not like you’re going to meet somebody for coffee. I do feel like it’s about connection. It doesn’t necessarily have to be sexual. Any kind of connection feels like a relief in life. For a second you’re like, “Oh wow, not all people are awful.”

Ana Lily Amirpour on the set of The Bad Batch
Photo: Neon

You were asked whether there’s a statement on race in the film, in that Arlen and Jason Momoa’s character become a family, but she’s killed his wife, who is black. The conversation was tense the first time. Do you want to comment on that?

There are two separate things. One is the conversation about the movie and asking that question. And the other is, you’ll be at a Q&A and a person asks a question, and then this whole other thing happens on this crazy little thing called the internet. That’s new. I feel like it’s weird. I’m an artist. I do and say and create all from my feelings, all from my perceptions. How sad would the world be if you didn’t feel free to do that? I’m a good person coming from a good place. I get a little confused by it. I made a film about how it’s in our nature to tear each other to pieces, and then I kind of see it in the world. It’s a trip.

I’m happy to have interesting conversations, but I don’t feel the need to stand there against a corner and get attacked or called stuff. It feels mean.

With future dystopias, since everything has to be deliberately chosen to be there, the question of intentionality does come up, more than with another type of movie.

Everything is deliberate in the film, yeah. And the thing is, I really don’t get to say. She can be upset by the film, that’s her right. Once the film exists… cinema exists for everybody to engage with; it becomes theirs. I don’t get to say “You can’t think that.” I get that.

But I also think that, you know, as far as me, and what I’m doing, I’m asking questions about human nature, and about if one violent action justifies another. That’s the deep moral fiber of what I’m thinking about in this world called The Bad Batch. Are people inherently good or bad? The system makes us into these things. Everybody in that film, every character has a fucked-up reality. It’s safe to say that. Everybody in our world has a story and a reality and a justification for how they feel, and has gone through some fucked-up shit. So I don’t know. I don’t even know what the question is. I don’t even know what we’re talking about.

Correction: A previous version of this article misspelled “Salton Sea.”