The up-and-coming director of A Girl Walks Home Alone at Night has followed up that acclaimed horror-Western hybrid with something equally strange.
In The Bad Batch, filmmaker Ana Lily Amirpour mixes one part Mad Max Beyond Thunderdome and one part El Topo, shakes them up vigorously and creates a surreal, psychedelic and often nightmarish excursion into a near-future America that -- as weird as it is -- doesn't feel too far off from reality.
"America," says Amirpour when asked what inspired the setting, as SYFY WIRE sits down to talk with her and star Suki Waterhouse at a Los Angeles hotel. "I think that's the answer ... you don't have to drive that far to get to parts of the country that are considerably different."
The story takes place in a barren, remote desert area of Texas that has been fenced off and proclaimed "Not America." It is this godforsaken region to which the U.S. government sends its undesirables to fend for themselves, although what constitutes an "undesirable" is left open to one's imagination.
Amirpour came to the attention of the film world with 2014's A Girl Walks Home Alone at Night, an "Iranian vampire spaghetti Western" that she crowdfunded on Indiegogo to the tune of $57,000. A festival hit and instant cult attraction, the movie opened the door for Amirpour to strike a deal with Annapurna Pictures to back The Bad Batch with a substantially larger budget of $6 million.
We ask Amirpour if doing a color film set in a vast desert expanse was a reaction to making a first picture in black and white that was set in a small town. "I think [there was] probably a little bit of that, but also, that's just what the story was," she says. "The canvas for that story was the desert, and then it was this kind of psychedelic Western, so the night stuff got to be really visually fun ... visually, it's definitely a whole 'nother alien landscape."
This landscape is where we meet Arlen, played by Waterhouse (Pride and Prejudice and Zombies), who is dropped off in the region and immediately becomes the victim of a local cadre of cannibals led by the enigmatic Miami Man (Jason Momoa, the DCEU's Aquaman). Losing two limbs, Arlen nevertheless manages to escape and finds her way to comfort, an oasis of relative "civilization" run by The Dream (Keanu Reeves).
The Western aesthetic is a deliberate homage to the work of directors like Sergio Leone, who defined the spaghetti Western with movies like A Fistful of Dollars and The Good, the Bad and the Ugly, while the surrealism comes from Alejandro Jodorowsky's 1970 El Topo, which used the Western genre as means to explore the avant-garde and allegorical.
"It's also a bit like a fairy tale, like Alice in Wonderland," muses Amirpour, although this may be the first fairy tale in which the lead character loses an arm and a leg in viscerally gruesome detail. "Maybe an inbred Alice in Wonderland. It's also like an epic quest adventure and survival movie. But El Topo was in the DNA. I found it very exciting that it was a Western, but then there was other stuff happening."
For her part, Waterhouse watched El Topo and Leone's Once Upon a Time in the West with Amirpour to get a feel for the kind of movie she was making, along with the entire Back to the Future trilogy. After using unknowns for A Girl Walks Home Alone at Night, Amirpour relished the chance to work with rising talents like Waterhouse and Momoa as well as veterans such as Reeves and Jim Carrey, who's unrecognizable as a desert hermit.
"I think it all really is just like creative intercourse," says Amirpour. "So it's about who you want to bone. Literally every single person that was involved in this movie got turned on by the idea, and the world, and the music, and we understood each other in a way that you want to creatively bump uglies."
Waterhouse says she knew she wanted to work with Amirpour as soon as the project came onto her radar. "The first time I saw her just talking on YouTube, I was just like, 'Ahh.' And then I kind of walked in her house, and we sort of looked at each other, and I was like, 'Oh, I hope you're feeling the way I'm feeling.' Then she took me to a dark Mexican bar and told me that she was going to take my life over, and that I had to surrender, and I accepted."
"And that it would hurt," adds Amirpour. "When she came into my house, it was like I kind of fell in love with her ... this light, beautiful, brave angel." Amirpour says she knew she had found her Arlen as soon as she saw Waterhouse's audition tape. "I didn't even say anything, really much. I said to my producer, 'Can I just like take her to the bar right now and tell her?'"
Amirpour adds, "You could never understand what the actor that played Arlen physically would have to go through to make Bad Batch, because it is an incredibly difficult, technical, physical film ... it's just like you're on one arm and leg, like crawling through hot desert sand covered in s**t on day one."
Waterhouse says that it helped her get more immersed in the story by shooting out in remote locations near tiny California towns like Niland and Bombay Beach. Amirpour, meanwhile, recruited locals from the off-the-grid community of Slab City (a collection of snowbirds, artists and itinerants who live at the site of an abandoned Marine Corps barracks) to play the residents of Comfort.
"We were in this plaza at night with a giant boombox with Keanu Reeves on it," recalls Amirpour. "It was all that was happening. How can you not be taken over? It was like a really otherworldly physical place to be in. It was kind of surreal."
"Yeah," agrees Waterhouse. "I felt like I left the world. There were some crazy moments there -- moments where you're like, 'I'm never gonna forget this for the rest of my life.' They felt transcendent or something."
Despite the exhilaration of filming The Bad Batch with denizens of places like Slab City, Amirpour says that the movie does not take the question of expelling people from the country -- especially in the current political climate -- lightly. "I was spending a lot of time in Skid Row in downtown Los Angeles, and it's a massive community of homeless people, and I'm very very sentient of them," says the filmmaker. "So I'm just asking a question about how does this work and what do we do, and what are the solutions?"
She continues, "I always think movies, especially epic fairy tale adventure movies, are often asking big questions about humanity. Like what's good and evil? What's our moral fabric made of? In Lord of the Rings, there's a sickness through the land and there are a few good people with good hearts that have to fight for goodness. But people don't look like orcs, so it makes it very easy for you to be like, 'Those are good guys. These are bad guys.' In reality, I don't think it's that easy."
With The Bad Batch coming out and Amirpour again challenging conventional ideas about what constitutes genre filmmaking, we ask her what the conditions would have to be for her to get behind the camera on a $150 million sci-fi blockbuster or superhero movie. "The studio thing is just such a different business mechanism," she muses. "I know that once you go into that world, it's a matter of many, many compromises that know you would have to make. So it would just have to be, 'I want to do that. I can bring something to it and I care about it.' Otherwise I don't really care about doing a studio picture."
She adds, "I need to be talking about something specifically. Do I have an interest in remaking something? I don't, really. I just want to have the life and time I spend mean something, and care about it and be excited and fascinated and inspired and be around people that feel that way. Making a movie takes like three years of your life, so whether it's good or bad or makes money or whatever it costs, at the end of the day that's my three years."
The Bad Batch is out in theaters on Friday (June 23).