When we asked Desiree Akhavan how to get a film made, she answered with a few questions, “What's more important to you? Is it working at the budget you want to make it at? Is it doing it quickly? Is it having creative freedom?”
The NY-based director’s advice isn’t how to find producing or financial partnerships, it’s knowing “how much you're willing to bend…. and what to bend on.”
Her debut feature, Appropriate Behavior, opened up to rave reviews, while her second film The Miseducation of Cameron Post was awarded the 2018 Sundance Grand Jury Prize. We spoke to the budding director about how she found her collaborators, why you can’t wait for other people to praise you, and what it took to get her ideas on the screen.
This interview took place over the phone between Tate in Los Angeles and Desiree in Brooklyn.
TVPS: Starting off, how did you get to a place where you could get the right people and financing to make The Miseducation of Cameron Post?
DA: Well, a lot of compromises; it was my second film. I had made Appropriate Behavior, and after that premiered, I signed with an agent. Around that time, I shared this book, The Miseducation of Cameron Post, with my producer. She liked it, but I think it was my then-girlfriend that said, “this should be your next film.” I was like, “I don't know. I think it's a good 3rd or 4th film.”
It felt a little ambitious to me, especially the fact that the actors were all teenagers and it was dealing with such serious subject matter. It was about Evangelical Christians, and I wasn't raised religious, so all of that felt really intimidating to me. But when I shared it with my producing partner, she got the rights and said, “you know, I think we should make this next.” While we developed it, I wrote the pilot for The Bisexual, so sort of everything at once. I think a lot of being a filmmaker is hustling, and having like three to five different things going on.
At times, it felt like the TV show would move forward first, but it ended up being Cameron Post. I pitched it all over Los Angeles, all over the Hollywood players, and nobody bid. I had a lot of doors slammed in my face, and it didn't deter us. It didn't feel like, “Okay, this isn't going to be made, or this shouldn't be made.” It was just like, “Oh, that's not the avenue it's going to get made in.”
After that first round of pitching in LA, no one wanted to help us get the rights to the book or pay us to write it, so I was like, “Alright, we're just not going to make this a big Hollywood player. This isn't quite commercial enough, and our point of view isn't commercial enough on it. So we're just gonna do it our own way.”
Also, we hadn’t proven ourselves, and I think that's another thing that I keep thinking.
With each project you do, you prove yourself a little more, but you're never going to feel—or at least I haven't yet felt— like I've proven myself to the many powers that be, so you keep finding different ways to. I think in some ways it's painful, but in other ways, it's motivating. Sometimes I see these directors who've been at it for decades and are so celebrated. I think you can tell watching their work now that they're not hungry, they're not proving anything to anybody, they’re kind of phoning it in, and it's a regurgitated version of the shit they did 10, 15, 20 years ago.
So we ended up writing it on spec —which means we did it without getting paid to write it. That was scary because everybody has rent to pay, and so I just pulled in a lot of favors. I slept on my co-writers’ couch for a couple of months; we did whatever we could to get by during that period while we were writing the script for Cameron Post. Eventually, I got paid to write The Bisexual, and then that's what I lived off of.
What was that process like?
Let's see, there were a bunch of drafts. A lot of them were shitty, some of them were okay. We went through a lot of different iterations. But when we were finally ready to make it, we sent the script to three different companies that we had met with and that I had really liked. Only one of them wanted to do it, and they wanted to do it at a fourth of the budget that I had planned when I was writing it.
I thought I could take another year to pitch this again, to rework the script, to go out to LA and see what people want and to try to give it to them—or, I could cut some corners and make it for like a fourth of the budget that we had anticipated, but I’d be back on set.
How did you deal with that compromise?
It was sort of this idea of what's more important to you? Is it working at the budget you want to make it at? Is it doing it quickly? Is it having creative freedom? Because those are three very different things and I think you can pick maybe two of them. I chose quickly and with artistic freedom, and that meant with no money at all. I mean, that’s basically the whole story—good, fast, and cheap, to be honest.
One thing I just want to say about the whole making your film thing is that I don't think it's impossible to find a producing partner or a financial partner. The question is, "How much are you willing to bend, and do you know what you're willing to bend on?" I think a lot of directing is knowing when to stand your ground, and what battles you're willing to fight for—what are the most important in terms of the quality of the film?
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What did that look like for you?
Well, I think for us it was working at a lower budget level. It was shooting in New York State because of the tax incentives as opposed to Montana, which was where the book was based.
It wasn't until a couple of weeks before production started that we decided that we wouldn't do anything in Montana. That was a huge expense and a huge creative choice that at the end of the day, didn't make a difference at all, but we were holding onto it for so long, and it really wasn't necessary.
What was the process of pitching the film like for you?
My agent set up a few meetings—a lot of companies had seen my first film and were interested in getting to know what I wanted to do next, so they came about as a result of having made a feature film that sort of spoke for my taste. I could've organized them on the merit of the first film, but it doesn't necessarily mean that they're going to hire you to do anything or indulge in the film you want to make next.
How did you find Ashley Connor, your DP?
Ashley and I had met at the Maryland Film Festival. She was there with Josephine Decker's film, Thou Wast Mild & Lovely, and I was there with Appropriate Behavior. I just really liked her, and I loved her work.
I saw Josephine's film there, and I got really excited about the way it was filmed and also listening to Ashley talk about how she works. It ended up being one of the handful of artistic relationships in my life that has been most gratifying. Her, Cecilia Frugiuele, my co-writer and producer, and my editor Sara Shaw—I feel fiercely protective of those relationships and really grateful for them.
So before The Miseducation of Cameron Post, you teamed up with GLAAD and The Trevor Project to hear survivors stories, were there any aspects of those conversations that you took into the film?
Well, I always knew we wanted to meet with some survivors of gay conversion therapy. Before going into production, the lead actor, Chloë [Grace Moretz,] and I met with a couple of people and heard their stories. I don't think it changed the script at all. If anything, it confirmed a couple of things that were in the script and made me feel good about those choices. It was more for Chloë to get a sense of what was going on and the choices she was going to make with her performance, and where her character Cameron was at with her self doubt.
That project was filmed in 23 days; when did you first feel that you found your groove?
Well, I mean first takes are tough. I wasn’t in the driver's seat that first week; we were all figuring out our footing and there were just a lot of technical problems too. It was October and it snowed in the middle of the week, and we were supposed to be shooting Summer bike riding.
It wasn't until the very last set up of the first week—I had them rehearse on their own, then my AD brought me to set and was like, “Okay, here's your monitor.” It was a foot away from the car, and the whole crew was just standing over it. It just felt counterintuitive to what we were shooting. I moved everybody to the closest building and gave Chloë, Quinn [Shephard,] and Ashley, the entire parking lot to themselves.
I feel like it was that instinct of giving space and giving people a sense of autonomy. That's how I like to work, but also what worked on this shoot. I'm sure there are other shoots where the opposite would be true. I think being a director is a little bit like being a conductor meets mom. It’s anticipating people's needs, understanding what they need at that moment—sometimes that's handholding and sometimes that's getting the fuck out of their way. The job of a director is always changing, and that's something I really love about it.
So for that scene, I just stepped back. I didn't watch a rehearsal. I just sort of let them do their thing. It gave them the opportunity to almost audition something for me, and then when it doesn't work, I'll step in and redirect. And actually, it was perfect as was, and it was one of those rare moments of life where you're like, “Oh, okay, great, perfect. That was exactly what I needed to do.”
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Found this video of Desi and I on our last day of #TheMiseducationOfCameronPost!! We are all so proud to be here with this incredibly poignant and important film. And cannot wait for all of you to see it. #sundance2018 #DesireeAkhavan @forrestgoodluck @sashablane @ehle_jennifer @johngallagherjunior @kerrybutler1 @quinnshephardofficial @mccabeslye @daltonharrod #melanieehrlich #owencampbell
I know a lot of the film’s arch came out in post, what did that process look like for you?
I was ready for it because with Appropriate Behavior, I learned a lot about the process of throwing away any expectation I had going in and rewriting in the editing room. That film changed a lot, and I was living with a very shitty version of it up until we locked picture.
I think when we were making Cameron Post, I was just so happy. I was so aware of the fact that it was going to constantly change, and I had a really positive attitude. I also think it's probably just where I was in my life at that time—that I believed in the inevitability of that film finding its cut, even though it took a lot of reconfiguring. It definitely did a lot more growth in post than Appropriate Behavior did for sure, but I wasn’t worried about that.
I think once you edit multiple projects, you realize that you have to divorce yourself from your expectations and that you're no longer attached to this very specific idea you had going into production. Production is such a beast. It takes on its own shape and form, and you couldn't possibly strong-arm one version of the film. Also, you wouldn't want to because what ends up coming from it is so much richer than anything you could have anticipated.
I feel like this film is the epitome of the harder you work, the luckier you get. It’s really a testament to you guys pounding every single door down until you could get this film made.
Thanks. That's actually really true, though. I think a lot of things in my career so far have just been like, “Don't give up, and something will happen. Just keep chasing it.” But you can't anticipate what it'll be, what it'll look like, what it will taste like.
I think there are some filmmakers out there who have a very meticulous point of view; they know exactly what they want within an inch of its life, and I'm not like that. I like finding it in the space much more, but that's my talent. I think a lot of filmmaking is learning what it is that you do extraordinarily well—what’s the language that you speak? And then creating a world around it and curating the right collaborators to emphasize that. And that's what happened with this film.
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Desi and I first met doing karaoke at a house in Baltimore during @marylandfilmfestival and I couldn’t have asked for a better introduction to her multitude of talents. Making films is hard but when you get to do it with a group like the Cam Post team, magic things happen. From top to bottom the set was run with extreme amounts of love and care. The actors were superb, the crew worked tirelessly and every Saturday night we’d have wild dance parties - every once in a while ⚡️strikes. Congrats to the whole Miseducation of Cameron Post team on winning the Grand Jury Prize at Sundance. 🌈❤️ I love you alllll!
Speaking of curating the right collaborators, I know your team pushed you to work with a composer, and that ended up being Julian Wass—how did that go?
It was a great process because Julian is a wonderful guy and a very talented composer.
I didn't think we needed score because in general, I don't like score. There are like 5 composers in the world who… oh god, I didn’t realize that Max Richter did the My Brilliant Friend score until I watched it the other day, and it was so beautiful, I was like, “oh my god what is this score?”
I'm also changing my tune. I think that was a bias I had before, and it’s changed. I think for the right film, a score is really necessary. But for a Brooklyn-based comedy, or for my TV show score didn't work, but those are very different.
I think for this film it needed score and working with Julian was lovely. He was patient with me because I don't have a great language when it comes to music. Still, I have very strong opinions—so he helped me find the words to describe what I actually wanted and why I was not liking or gravitating towards certain sounds or certain beats. That was the journey that he had to take with me, and he was there for it. I'm really happy with what he delivered.
Do you have any advice for any future directors out there?
Yeah, I always give the same advice which is to not wait for other people to enable you. I was a person who was rejected from everything—I applied for all the grants, I was rejected from all the contests. Even in film school, I didn't look good on paper, I wasn't a sexy option. But for some reason, I kept pushing and trying and building a body of work to say, “Actually no wait up, I have something to say.” I am really grateful that I didn't look around for other people to say, “Wow, you're the best.” Because they didn't, it wouldn't have happened, and I never would've been able to do this work if I was relying on other people's opinions.
One book that I found really inspiring is My First Movie: Twenty Celebrated Directors Talk about Their First Film, and it’s interviews with celebrated directors about their first movies. It was originally published in 2000, so it has really inspiring and in-depth interviews with directors like Mira Nair, P.J. Hogan, and the Coen Brothers. That's the book I read and re-read before film school, and then again while I was making my first movie. It brought me so much comfort; filmmakers are dorky losers who are just hustling. And if there's no secret, you just keep trying and get better and better.