When director Ana Lily Amirpour wanted to make a vampire western noir romance crime movie set in Iran, she knew that she couldn’t actually film it there. Fortunately she had the perfect setting in mind. “I grew up in Bakersfield,” she says. “I went to high school there, so I knew of all those shitty little oil towns in the California desert. That’s how we got Taft.” Located on the edge of the San Joaquin Valley about 30 miles southwest of Bakersfield, Taft stands in for Bad City, Iran, the setting of A Girl Walks Home Alone at Night, Amirpour’s first feature. The offbeat film has drawn accolades since it premiered at Sundance this year; it opens theatrically this weekend.
The Iran of the film isn’t meant to resemble the “Iran Iran,” Amirpour explains. “I think of it as a fairytale Iranian town. Like how Gotham is a New York of the mind. It’s a comic book kind of Iran.” The cast of characters also fits into that mold, starting with its title character. The eponymous “girl” (played by Sheila Vand) is in fact a vampire who skateboards along the streets of Bad City searching for victims while sporting a billowing chador that, as Amirpour puts it, makes her look “like Batman, like a stingray, like a creature of the night.”
Vampires have been enjoying a major pop culture moment for the past couple of years, but Amirpour doesn’t think of Girl as a vampire film: “I think of it as a film with a vampire in it. This movie is more of a dream.”
Besides a skateboarding vampire girl, Bad City is also home to a young man trying to manage his father’s debts, a “super gangster” ruling the roost, a middle-aged prostitute trying to make her way, and many other fascinating characters. “You know how your dreams make sense to you, even though if you were to describe them to other people, they’d be all over the place?” Amirpour says, “It’s like that. These characters all fit into this stylized, archetypal world. If I really liked a certain thing, I’d just chuck it in this stew.”
Adding to the dreamlike atmosphere is the film’s black and white color scheme. Amirpour actually doesn’t fixate on vintage black and white movies the way many cinephiles do. “But when I first had the chador,” she explains, “I saw its black shape against a white wall. I was into the idea that the film could look like Rumble Fish. The town itself has this starkness to it: the oil rigs with the black oil and black structures with white sand and white smoke. [Black and white] just fit.”
Reversing the usual trend of comic-to-film adaptations, Amirpour is currently expanding on the film with a comic book series that lays out the backstory of her bloodsucking protagonist. That’s in addition to traveling at home and abroad to promote the movie. She doesn’t know what elements she’ll be tossing into her next stew, but the result will likely be well worth checking out.