Ana Lily Amirpour doesn’t want you to call her movies “female-led.” It’s true that all of them to date have been centered around strong female protagonists, including her Venice competition title “Mona Lisa and the Blood Moon,” but they’re much more than that, she says.
The Iranian-American director recalls early reports describing her next project, “Cliffhanger,” a reboot of the 1993 Sylvester Stallone action thriller, as merely a “female-fronted” project and instantly recoils.
“It’s this very boring, uninformed way of talking about things now,” Amirpour tells Variety at the Venice Film Festival. “It’s just ‘the female-driven thing.’ But it’s not just that. Someone could say ‘Mona Lisa and the Blood Moon’ is a female-driven movie. But it’s not. How could you explain it? You have to see it.”
And, certainly, “Mona Lisa” defies a pat classification. The movie is Amirpour’s third feature following the acclaimed “A Girl Walks Home Alone at Night” (2014) and “The Bad Batch” (2016). It came, she says, from a place of needing to find some joy after the “nightmare-scape type of fairy tale” that was the edgy Suki Waterhouse-led “Bad Batch,” about a woman exiled to a desert inhabited by cannibals.
“I really felt the need to go towards a joyful adventure in this chaotic world and find the humanity and the things that make us feel free and whole, even if only temporarily,” says the 40-year-old helmer.
“Mona Lisa and the Blood Moon,” described by Variety critic Owen Gleiberman as “full of indie ‘tude, but stylishly well-executed,” is centered on a North Korean asylum seeker named Mona Lisa who has spent the last 12 years in a catatonic state at a New Orleans mental institution, only to suddenly wake up.
Using her telekinetic powers, she escapes and finds her way to the city, where she meets stripper Bonnie Belle (Kate Hudson), who takes her under her wing after she realizes the potentially lucrative nature of Mona Lisa’s special powers. But with the police on her tail and uneasy allegiances in play, Mona Lisa quickly realizes she has to take her freedom in her own hands.
Amirpour finished the script in 2018 and the movie was shot in 2019. “We were hoping to be here last summer, and then, of course, that’s not how it went down,” says Amirpour. “But you just surrender, you have no choice.”
Hudson playing the straight-talking Bonnie Belle was Amirpour’s first choice — “I’ve been a fan of her since I was a kid,” she gushes — while, in her search for a Korean actor for the Mona Lisa part, she was introduced to Korean actor Jeon Jong-seo through “Minari” star Steven Yeun. Jeon, who wasn’t in Venice because she’s shooting a Netflix project in Korea that wouldn’t release her for travel, paid her own way to come to Los Angeles to meet Amirpour and the pair spent a week together, watching movies and driving around listening to house music.
“She’s an astonishing, beautiful, powerful, quiet, wise soul,” says Amirpour. “It was a joy to have this relationship with someone. It feels like a flotation device in the water, it lifts you up. I just loved it and I completely trusted her and her instincts.”
While one could read a wider political commentary into the movie and its depiction of an Asian woman on the run from the law amid a troubling period for Asian Americans in the U.S. during COVID, Amirpour makes clear this wasn’t her intention — though she is open to audience interpretation.
“I just see her as a cool, weird, powerful young girl who is out for adventure and hungry for life and curious and doesn’t have the limits of fear an average girl has. Because of that, she can really go towards anything that interests her because she’s always in control,” says Amirpour. “I hope she can become a new hero for people who are bored with the heroes they’re seeing.”
While the COVID crisis has shifted timelines for the director, she describes her next project, “Cliffhanger” — announced back in 2019 — as “really cool and different from the original, but fun and epic.”
Some in Venice, after seeing the ambitious and pulsating “Mona Lisa,” wager that Amirpour is well on her way to graduating from the indie arena and directing studio fare. “I want a bigger budget,” she admits, “but it all depends what you’re trying to do. It’s nice to have resources, but it’s also nice to have creative license.”
Streaming services like Netflix pride themselves on providing exactly this scenario. Could Amirpour create something for the SVOD world? Turns out, she already has, having made a short film for her friend Pablo Larraín’s COVID-19 film anthology, “Homemade,” for Netflix last year.
“I don’t have a team,” says Amirpour. “I’m just on the side of being an artist and using whatever tools are there and available for you to do it, and work in a way that feels free and bold and authentic — that’s all I’m trying to do. Making a movie takes three to five years of your life, which I only have so many of, so whoever it’s with, I just want to make something good.”