Director Desiree Akhavan on ‘The Miseducation of Cameron Post’

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Adam, Jane, and Cameron from The Miseducation of Cameron Post

The Miseducation of Cameron Post, a film about a girl who gets outed at her Junior prom and subsequently shipped off to Christian conversion therapy camp, won the Grand Jury Prize at Sundance 2018. It’s coming to theaters August 10. AfterEllen spoke with the director, Desiree Akhavan by phone.

AfterEllen: I’m so excited to get to talk to you today! One of the first shots of the movie is of the neon paperback Bible and when I saw that I knew this movie was about me.

Desiree Akhaven: Oh that means so much to me! For real, you had a Teen Bible?

AE: Oh yeah I grew up totally fundamentalist evangelical and closeted.

DA: I’m so sad for you and happy for me that I made a movie that spoke to your experience.

AE: How did you first hear about the book and did you option it?

DA: Actually my writing partner did. I read it in 2012 when it came out. I gave it to my girlfriend at the time and she’s the one who said ‘You need to make this a movie.’ I was really intimidated because I thought the tone of the book was so sophisticated and that it would take a really talented director to do it, and I was nervous because I was into comedy, I was only doing slapstick comedy then and this was a really mature film.

I put it in the back of my mind and years later when I was touring the festival circuit with Appropriate Behavior in 2014 I told my writing/producing partner about the book and she loved it, and she optioned it and said, ‘this is what we’re doing next.’ We do everything together, so I said okay.

A Coming of Age Story

AE: Is this for a YA audience?

DA: It’s pushing the boundary, which I think the film is too. It’s a teen film but it’s a teen film for adults. It’s appropriate for 17 year olds, but adults love it too.

AE: Sometimes as adults we see things that can heal things that happened to us as kids.

DA: People keep asking me, ‘what’s the takeaway?’ and especially not-queer reviewers ask me, ‘what’s the moral?’ They want me to have some kind of heavy message about conversion therapy, but I want people to leave feeling less alone in the world. I go to movies to feel less alone; I make movies to feel less alone, and it was less about gay conversion therapy and more about making a story that reflected my experience. A coming-of-age story of being young, queer, and female.

Lesbian Sex Scenes  and Letting the Actors Take Control

AE: The portrayal of sex in the movie, starting from the scene in the car, it was cute and a little bit sexy but not in a pedophilic way and not male-fantasy driven. I was wondering if you could speak a little to your vision in scripting and directing these scenes.

DA: I just wanted them to feel really honest. Very little of the sex I see on film reflects my experience. You know, I was raised on television; everything I learned about sex I learned on screen. My parents didn’t talk to me about it. Once I became an adult I saw the huge discrepancy between what I thought and what I’d learned and what the truth of it was. For this film, it was about communicating Cameron and Coley and their story. Cameron loses her virginity in the back of that car so it’s exciting and it’s shameful and it was supposed to feel authentic.

When we were writing it was about capturing what teen sex looks like, and when we were shooting it, it was about putting it in the hands of Chloe [Grace Moretz] and Quinn [Shepherd] and letting them take the reigns. Whenever I direct a sex scene, I want to take the temperature and see what are the tools at my disposal. And by that point I felt like Chloe didn’t want backseat driving, she didn’t need someone to hold her hand through this.

For that scene specifically, I didn’t choreograph it like I usually do; I let her take control. She knew from the script what beats to hit, and I let her rehearse with Quinn alone, and then I hid myself and the rest of the crew in the closest building. It was just Chloe, Quinn, and Ashley Connor, the cinematographer, and that was it: the three of them in the car.

The focus puller hid underneath the car. I just watched the monitor nearby and I felt like if I need to step in, if something isn’t going right, I’ll step in, but that moment never came. They really impressed me, I could feel every moment, I was in it. One thing I realized was that sex scenes I’d seen, especially lesbian sex in movies, was always directed by men and was always very objective: a wide shot that just got all the information in there and was at arms length. It was saying ‘Okay, this film is going to answer the question of how do lesbians fuck,‘ but when I shot this, I wanted it to be subjective, I wanted you to be with Cameron, I wanted you to experience the loss of her virginity as she was experiencing it and be lost in the moment with them so that when that door opens you’re just as shocked as she is.

AE: How did you feel about the sex scene in Disobedience?

DA: I haven’t seen it! When did it come out?

AE: I think it just left theaters.

DA: I live in the UK. I’m really excited to see it! I know Naomi Alderman and she’s phenomenal and totally authentic and queer. I’m a really big fan of her book The Power, but I haven’t read Disobedience yet. I’m a big fan of the director [Sebastián Lelio]. I loved Gloria, but I’ve heard a lot of mixed opinions about Disobedience and I’m excited to see it.

(mutual fangirling about Naomi Alderman’s The Power)

AE: The sex scene in Disobedience was done very differently from any other sex scene I’ve seen on screen.

DA: I’ve heard there was spitting. Is that the most controversial element?

AE: nervous giggling I thought that was hot. That was super hot. I think I’m going to show it to the woman I’m seeing and be like ‘is this okay?’ (eds. note there’s a scene in Cameron Post where Cameron shows her girlfriend Desert Hearts to see her reaction)

DA: (laughing) I can’t wait to tell Naomi Alderman that.

AE: It was hot because it was not super objectifying. I was interested in what you just said about wide shots and showing the full picture because that is so true about the typical mise-en-scène and the shots in Disobedience were very different. There were a lot of tight shots on their faces and there weren’t a lot of objectifying shots of body parts, just like a lot of emotions, a lot of faces. I’m sure you’ll have lots of feelings about it as an artist and a director. But back to the film.

Finding Empathy in the Portrayal of Conversion Therapists

So one of the things I wanted to talk to you about was that this portrayal of conversion therapy is different than things that pop up in the cultural conversation about conversion therapy, such as aversion therapy or general abuse. One of the things that Cameron points out is that the “therapists” aren’t abusing them, but they are programming them to hate themselves. I was wondering how you and Cecilia Frugiuele scripted it so it’s three-dimensional for the camp leaders and true believers and yet showing that there is nothing benign about programming someone to hate themselves.

DA: Well, we saw it from everyone’s perspective. We did a pass of the script from Rick’s perspective, we did a pass of the script from Lydia’s perspective. We thought if we did our job really well you’d leave feeling empathy and understanding for where the abusers are coming from. That’s good filmmaking, if I can leave feeling empathy for Lydia and Rick, I’ve done my job well.

We based Rick and Lydia on people we’d read about. We added scenes where we got to know his own come-to-Jesus moment that wasn’t in the book. It was important to us that we got a sense of: these people had devoted their lives to children and helping children and in their minds helping children from living as second class citizens. But at the same time it’s factual; what they’re doing is disgusting and you can show the ramifications of the work they’re doing. I think it’s about empathy and making sure every character is fully drawn and not one-sided. I like to think we did that with all the characters — some other kids start off as stereotypes or jokes, and by the end you see a deeper perspective.

Rick and Cameron

AE: There’s a national conversation about conversion therapy bans, and the Ninth Circuit just affirmed the right to practice conversion therapy based on freedom of speech and not only that but we are in a country that values freedom of religion, even to the extent of protecting these cults. So how do we legislate this? How do we protect kids?

DA: Oh god, if I knew that I wouldn’t be doing this stuff, I’d be doing far more important work. (laughs) No, but Matthew Shurka, I’ve been doing a lot of work with him, he’s a survivor of gay conversion therapy and he started the Born Perfect campaign to end conversion therapy. Right now they are taking the angle of consumer fraud. Because curing someone of homosexuality is a result you could never deliver on, so therefore it’s fraud. I think from that angle it’s been helpful, but honestly, it’s disgusting to me that it’s an ongoing problem, and I know that people have devoted their lives to stopping it.

The Misconception Of Conflating Gender Identity with Sexual Orientation

AE: Another thing that stuck out to me was the use of the word gender identity a few times. At the time of the movie, 1993, that word had not entered the lexicon in the way it has now exploded. One of the things that stuck out to me was the way that the parents and leaders viewed gender as synonymous with sex and that there’s only one way to be a woman and that’s to be feminine and there’s one way to be a man and that’s masculine. Things have changed since the 90s but I was wondering if you could speak to that core belief that there’s only one way to be a woman and that unfemininity is equivalent to homosexuality or something like that.

DA: I don’t have anything new to say: it’s bullshit. It seems like the younger generation people who’ve grown up with the internet are interpreting gender however the fuck they want to, which is great. But yeah, if you look at the arguments of gay conversion therapy, it’s very simplistic, ‘If you’re a homosexual man you haven’t bonded enough with your father you haven’t had enough masculine influences and you’ve been too influenced by femininity and the women in your life. Matt Shurka the survivor I mentioned was not allowed to speak to his mother or sister for two years, and during those two years he was living with them and he wasn’t allowed to interact with them.

On Aesthetics and Inspiration

AE: I loved the aesthetic of the film and the music and editing, it was amazing. I was wondering if you can tell us a little about your influences and inspiration and where your filmmaking style comes from.

DA: That’s very much a result of the work of my collaborators. I worked with incredible women making this film. My editor is an out lesbian and her name is Sarah Shaw and she sculpted this film — we edited for twice as long as we thought we’d need to, because it was a beast. We cut an hour of footage, our first cut was an hour longer and we reappropriated a lot of the footage into flashbacks that were not scripted. That was Sarah’s work. She’s the reason the film has a gut punch. She’s the one who sculpted the intercutting of the scenes during the emotional climax. Sarah used to be a musician, so she helped me figure out the music.

Ashly Connor, who’s also a queer woman, shot the film. She’s the best handheld I’ve ever seen. She works lightning fast. We had very little time and very little money. We had 23 days to shoot this film. She lit it very quickly with natural light mostly and operated the entire thing and she’s very poetic with her camera, she made a lot of those decisions. Beforehand I showed both of them Morvern Callar by Lynn Ramsay. That’s one of my fave films. I love all of Lynn Ramsay’s work. We also watched Safe by Todd Haynes. I really love Todd Haynes.

In Safe, Julianne Moore checks herself into a rehabilitation center. One of our scenes, the scene on the grass, that shot was lifted from Safe. I listened to a lot of Radiohead and Boards of Canada to get back into the 90s vibe. I co-wrote with Cecilia Frugiuele who’s one of my producers as well and we are longtime collaborators. I mean this was a film made by women, primarily queer women. And I didn’t do this alone, everything I love in this film is something another person gave to the project. Everyone was fully committed, and we were all on the same page as far as our taste level and that’s part of my job as director. To cast my collaborators well and then let them do their job and get out of their way. All of them brought it to the table but we were on the same page about the taste level and that’s how you make a good film I think.

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=VEdngvMGjg0