Desiree Akhavan on The Miseducation of Cameron Post
Female sexuality and desire is at the centre of Desiree Akhavan's The Miseducation of Cameron Post. We speak to the Appropriate Behaviour director about her sharp and witty second feature
Desiree Akhavan hates the sex in Blue is the Warmest Colour. “I feel like that film is a thesis statement to finally answer the question that straight men have been wondering: how do women have sex?” Speaking to The Skinny in-between editing The Bisexual, her new Channel 4 sitcom, the Iranian-American writer-director of The Miseducation of Cameron Post is not holding back. “To me, a sex scene is a place to be subjective – you want your audience to be in it with them. You want them to lose themselves in it and to come away taking something away about the characters’ relationship with them. When you have a nine-minute-long sex scene in a wide shot that doesn’t move, that’s not a journey – that’s a check list of positions.”
Never mind queer women’s sexuality, films about female sexuality full stop are few and far between. While there’s been a recent influx of films centring on young gay men coming to terms with their sexuality – Call Me by Your Name, God’s Own Country and Love, Simon spring to mind – how many recent and wide-release films can you think of about young queer women figuring themselves out?
The Miseducation of Cameron Post is a rectification of Hollywood’s embarrassment around female desire. Based on the 2012 book by Emily M Danforth, the film is about Cameron Post (played by Chloë Grace Moretz), a teenage girl who is sent to a gay conversion camp when her guardian learns she’s having sex with another girl. Although the film is set in the early 90s, during filming the cast and crew realised they were making a far more relevant film than they had initially thought.
“We were shooting during the US election,” says Akhavan. “It was a real shock to everybody. When we were writing the film, the gay conversion therapy was a metaphor. It was such a great metaphor for what it’s like to be a teenager because, no matter if you’re queer or not, all of us get it in the head that we’re diseased. That there’s something deeply wrong with you. In your 20s you can kind of de-brainwash yourself out of it but as a teenager you get increasingly brainwashed that anything about you that’s against the status quo is wrong and you need to change.” The election of Donald Trump and his right-hand-man Mike Pence, a person who believes in gay conversion therapy, turned the metaphor into a very literal reality. “It was supposed to be a metaphor,” sighs Akhavan, “I was being naïve.”
Cameron Post has been six years in the making. “I read the book when it first came out and gave it [to] my girlfriend at the time,” explains Akhavan. “Instantly she said, ‘you have to make this into a movie.’ I thought it was a really good idea but that I was not at all up to the task of doing it. It felt way too intimating and way more emotionally complicated than what I’d attempted before.” Akhavan went on to make her debut feature Appropriate Behaviour, and while her and her writing partner Cecilia Frugiuele were travelling with it to film festivals, they started plotting their next project. “I told her that there’s this book that I love so much but we could never do it next, maybe later in our careers when we have more experience. But I told her to just read it. So she read the book and told me we were doing it next. I listen to her about everything – she’s my guiding light – so I said OK. She optioned the book and next thing I knew we were writing it.”
In the film industry, there’s a (not-so-secret) secret that independent female filmmakers who make successful debuts often struggle to make follow-ups. When asked if she experienced this, Akhavan is emphatic: “The opportunities are not there. We wrote this film to cost three or four times as much as it did. We had one opportunity to finance it because only one of the companies we sent it to was interested in engaging with us. So, we took it, even though it was a tiny percentage of what we needed to make the film. We rewrote the film for the budget. It was compromising left and right and deciding what compromises we would make and what ones we would never make.”
Even with Moretz as the film’s lead, Cameron Post still hasn’t seen a wide release in the US. “We have great releases in the UK and in France. In the US, we’re just releasing it in a handful of theatres, even with Chloë involved. Chloë is a Hollywood star, she’s someone who attracts an international audience. And even with her attached, America is still afraid of putting female sexuality in the limelight. A film about female sexuality is something people shy away from and I don’t think distributors were confident putting their money and their brand behind a film like this, even with Chloë attached and even though it won the Sundance Grand Jury Prize.”
Despite the film’s limited release in the US, Akhavan hopes that young people will still be able to seek it out. “I hope teenagers are the ones who watch it because it’s so much about sex. The sex teenagers are exposed to is porn on the internet and I’d rather a teenager watched sex that is realistic. We’re coded to be fucked up about our bodies and our fucking through porn. And I love porn actually. I would love to make it because I wish porn reflected the way people actually fuck. There should be much more conversation around sex and the different kinds of sex that people have.”
Akhavan was cautious approaching the sex scenes and our conversation returns to Blue is the Warmest Colour and how men film women having sex. “It’s such a huge difference between how male and female sexuality is depicted on screen. You can watch a girl giving head till the cows come home but if a girl gets head, suddenly it’s disgusting.
“So few films about female sexuality are given wide theatrical release,” she continues. “The only two recent films given that in America both had male directors: Carol and Blue is the Warmest Colour.” Akhavan wanted the sex scenes to be as realistic and naturalistic as possible, something the audience would be in rather than voyeuristically watching. “I gave the girls space. I hid all of the crew and told the girls what I wanted but didn’t choreograph it, which I usually do. I wanted them to experience it and for them to feel empowered. I left them in the car with the cinematographer and the focus-puller hid under the car and that was it. We did a take and it was magic! The girls lost themselves in that moment. It felt personal and vulnerable and as long as it looked like they knew what they were doing I was happy.”
Our conversation comes to an end with a discussion of the recent headlines about the lack of diversity in film criticism, something that Akhavan says has affected her films directly. When Appropriate Behaviour premiered at Sundance, the Hollywood Reporter was the first to publish a review. “It was really negative,” remembers Akhavan. “It was written by someone who admitted in the review that this was not his type of film. When I read that I was like, 'then why are you reviewing this?' That review hurt me and hurt my prospect for sales because it was the first thing that was released about the film. I remember thinking, why is that man reviewing this? I would hope someone reviewing would know that genre.”
Cameron Post suffered a similar fate this year, this time from Variety. “The review said it was like a Lifetime film and it made me think, no women would ever say that. The entire point of this film was to take the subject matter that was like a Lifetime film and turn it on its head. He also wrote that The Tale was like a Lifetime film. So because these films are about women and directed by women, they’re suddenly subjugated to the ghetto of movies for women.
“I use those anecdotes because I feel very strongly that those were experiences of middle-aged, straight, white men who aren’t my audience judging my work and being put in a very powerful position to judge it and affect my sales. However, I also think you can enjoy anything. Other straight white men have loved the work and I’ve had great conversations with them. At the end of the day, the dialogue we have around films and consuming film is really powerful.”
The Miseducation of Cameron Post is released 7 Sep by Vertigo