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How Desiree Akhavan Made A Gay Conversion Therapy Movie For Everyone

“I think being a teen, no matter who you are, means feeling diseased and like something is wrong with you”

Brooklynite Desiree Akhavan knows a thing or two about how to make a smart, twisted comedy. The American-Iranian director’s 2014 feature film Appropriate Behavior—which she also starred in and produced—has fart jokes, spilled drinks, and lost dildos. So, when Akhavan decided to tackle Emily Danforth’s novel about teenagers forced to attend gay conversion therapy, The Miseducation of Cameron Post, she questioned whether or not her sensibility was the right one for the job.

Set in 1993, the film centers around Cameron, portrayed by Chloë Grace Moretz, who is found hooking up with her best friend in the back seat of her boyfriend’s car. The orphaned Cameron is sent by her aunt to a gay conversion therapy camp named God’s Promise, where she meets other kids who are struggling with issues both similar and altogether different from her own. Akhavan’s rebellious and outsider sense of humor brings light to the narrative, and the while the film shows the very specific horrors of trying to make people feel shame for who they are, it also reveals the universal teenage struggle of grappling with identity–an issue about which Akhavan says: “To me, this [film] is about identity–the way we build ourselves as teens, and how much pressure you feel to have a strong sense of identity at that age. You’re really just blindly moving forward and fucking around.” It’s no wonder the film won the Grand Jury Prize at Sundance.

Below, Akhavan talks with us about her muse John Hughes, her own struggle in rehab therapy, and the reality of adults being absolutely fucking clueless. 

What drew you to adapt Emily Danforth's book and turn it into a film? 

When I first read it, I immediately loved it. I loved it so much that whenever a friend had a birthday or a party, I would bring the book as my gift. It was my girlfriend at the time who said, "You need to make this into a movie." I had never even made that connection before. My first film, [Appropriate Behavior], is 80 percent fart jokes. I'm a comedian. But, this subject matter, it's not just that it was heavy, it's that I loved the tone. The tone of the book perfectly captured what it was like to be a teenager, which is when the stakes are as high as they can be, but the absurdity, and the humor, is also as high as it can be. I met Emily after I wrote her a fan letter. She wrote me back, and we just really liked each other and hung out a few times. I gave Cecilia Frugiuele, who is my partner in all things work, the book and told her to read it. I said, "I really love this. One day when we're old enough, smart enough, and talented enough we should adapt this." She read it and immediately said, "This is our next movie," and she got the rights.

Wow. I love how the women in your life pushed you to do this.

Totally. But, it also seemed too good for me. The women in my life encouraged me to do it. I loved it, but I never thought that I could tackle something so delicately nuanced. Other people who are smarter than me said to do it, and I listened to them.

How much of the book did you use for the film?

I took what was important. From the get-go, I knew I wasn't going to tackle the whole book. It's 500 pages long. I knew that was more than I could chew, especially for a 90-minute narrative. I knew I was going to focus on the last 200 pages, which is when Cameron is in the conversion therapy center. The first draft was extremely loyal to the book. Each subsequent draft over the course of the next year—there were like 25 drafts—went further and further away from the book. But, what we kept coming back to with each incarnation of the script was what made us want to make this film in the first place: the tone. So, it became about changing the details to make the tone work in a different form. A lot of scenes are fabricated, but it was all in service of delivering the same punch that we felt was in the book.

Did you use any of your own personal experiences to convey the raw emotion that really comes through in the film?

Oh yeah! It was really personal. I didn't realize until we were writing the script how much I related to these kids. I think it became my movie about rehab. I spent some time at a rehabilitation center for eating disorders in my 20s. A lot of the practices reminded me of my time at the center that I went to. I always wanted to make a film about the experience of group therapy, and how everybody was chasing this idea of "better," and putting their faith in each other and the counselors. There were so many times that my eating disorder felt as ingrained in me as my homosexuality. I thought, What if I was trying to kill that voice in my head that was as ingrained in me as my sexuality? It's funny, when you enter group therapy–or rehab, in particular–you look around and think, Every single one of these people are complete idiots and I don't belong here. Then, slowly, over the course of the weeks, you realize you're staring at 15 versions of yourself. Everything they're saying is exactly what you're saying in your head. When you come to terms with their struggle, you slowly start to come to terms with your own. It's a really shitty process.

Speaking of the other people, I loved how there was an emphasis on the relationships between Cameron and the other kids at the camp. Why did you choose to highlight that?

What was always interesting about gay conversion therapy centers was the fact that it exposed gay kids to each other. These kids are completely isolated in their own communities and then came to a place that is specifically engineered to attract other gay kids. It develops a community and support system between each other. A lot of my motivation was how much I love films—especially John Hughes' films. I wanted to make a teen film that spoke to adults, as well as the teens, and felt reminiscent of the stuff that I grew up on. I'm not seeing that in films made today. That to me, the building of family amongst the people around you and meeting like-minded kids for the first time in your life is the pinnacle of the teen movie genre—that, and realizing that the adults in your life don't have all the answers, and you have to blindly move forward and follow your own instincts. So, it's not black and white. It's somewhere in the gray area. 

There’s are a few really interesting moments where we see the kids and adults switch roles—like when Rick breaks down crying and admits to Cameron he doesn’t have all of the answers.

Rick's breakdown was straight from the book, and it was one of the most powerful moments in the book. It was one of the moments that became the launchpad for writing the film. It was, to me, about the revelation as a teenager, realizing there is no right and wrong and that the adults in charge of you are kind of winging it. The most heightened interpretation of it is putting your kid in a gay conversion therapy center. 

What about the scene where Cameron says she doesn’t identify with anything, let alone homosexuality? I think every teen can relate to the question of identity. I definitely did when watching the film.

It's funny. Several people have asked about that scene. I don't remember writing it. To me, this [film] is about identity—the way we build ourselves as teens and how much pressure you feel to have a strong sense of identity at that age. You’re really just blindly moving forward and fucking around. You don't really know who you are, or what you want. So that was a scene that we felt was necessary. It was them kind of pushing something onto Cameron, which came from our research. Everything we learned about gay conversion therapy was from knocking it out of these kids who had been through it. They were told being gay wasn't an identity. Homosexuality wasn't actually a thing, it was a fabrication and should be looked at like any addiction—like drug and alcohol abuse, or an eating disorder. 

What was it like speaking with these kids who had actually gone through gay conversion camps? Did you feel a certain responsibility to tell their stories?

Definitely. It was incredibly sad talking to them. But, on a selfish level, I felt like we had done the script the right way by doing so. I was really pleased to hear that the research we had done and script we wrote reflected the experiences of these boys—but also horrified to shoot that. The realities of these boys’ lives were more horrifying than the script actually. But, I didn't want to make a horror film. One boy, as a teen, was prescribed Viagra to get him to sleep with girls—as a teenage boy.

That's insane.

He was not allowed to speak to his mother or his sisters for two years, even though they shared a home together. To me, that's incredibly violent, and I didn't want to make a film that reflected all of the horrors. I do think it reflects the horrors, but it's a much more subtle entry level view. Yes, talking to them made me terribly sad, but also motivated to keep moving forward. I didn't make this film with the agenda of shining a light on gay conversion therapy. It was part of it. It was definitely a motivating factor once we got into it. But what attracted me was the story, the characters, and the incredible metaphor it was for being a teenager—any teenager. I don't think you need to be gay to feel diseased. I think being a teen, no matter who you are, means feeling diseased and like something is wrong with you. This setting was the perfect metaphor for something actually quite banal and universal—which is growing into your body while the adults around you are confusing the fuck out of you. The further I got into this world, the more I realized that it was a prevalent problem and the reality of it started to tug at my heart.

I know your specialty is comedy, but what was it like combining your sense of humor with this type of drama?

It was tricky. The drama was something that was reflected so well in the book. Once we were in the editing room, it was a real journey of trying to figure out how to balance the humor and drama. I mean, editing a film and putting together a narrative arc in 90 minutes is a sleight of hand and a craft, and I learned a lot by making this film. Jokes come very naturally to me and I have an eye for drama, but balancing those two is like making a soufflé. It's really easy for it to fall flat. A lot of it had to do with my editor and my producers. It was a real team effort and at the end of the day, the tone of it came together in post-production.

Were there any scenes that were particularly hard to film?

The hardest scene to film was Chloë dancing on the table singing "What's Up" by 4 Non Blondes—and it wasn't because of the scene, it was because Trump had just been elected. We had an election party the night before and slowly everyone started to realize the reality of what was happening. It just hit everyone, and we had to take a break. It was one of the saddest experiences I've ever had. The next day the cast and the crew came to set just so distraught. It felt like we had all lost a family member. We took a break in the middle of the scene to watch the concession speech, and the spirits were just so low—I was terrified. But Chloë really brought it. Every take, like a champ, she jumped on that table and brought the joy. I think it was a really surreal time for me because I was in charge of this group of incredibly sad people. Usually being a director, as the boss and at the helm of a ship, you have a lot of support, and there's infrastructure there. That was the only time I had ever found myself alone. My producers, my cinematographer, everybody was just gone. It hit me how grateful I was to share that moment with these people in this film. I told them all that, and we pulled it together, and I'm really proud of that scene. I'm really proud to be American. My parents are immigrants from Iran. If I were based there, I don't think I would be in a position to be openly gay. I definitely wouldn't be, because it's punishable by death there. And, I wouldn't be in a position to making a film that criticizes the elected government. I'd rather be on set making a film that questions that perspective than anywhere else in the world.

The ending doesn't wrap up anything neatly—it offers a sense of the unknown. Why did you decide to end the movie in this way?

I wanted to end it in a way that felt both triumphant and terrifying. They don't know what's coming next. It's like every accomplishment in life. It's so much better to achieve the goal, but once you achieve it, you're like, "What the fuck comes next?" Also, Cecilia, my co-writer and producer, and I kept saying that the camp didn’t dehumanize their lives. This whole center is about dehumanizing them, making them sexual perverts. But they're just kids. We wanted the ending of the film to show them fooling around and having the opportunity to be kids and just alive. I wanted to get them to a place of ambiguity—and it’s very directly ambiguous. The future is completely unknown, and they're scared shitless. They’ve accomplished something, but then what next? Primarily, it was about showing their youth and their innocence. The whole movie, they needed someone else to give them permission to be kids and then, at the end, they give themselves permission.

What do you want young teens to take away from the film?

My dream of this film would be to communicate that there's no wrong or right. I want kids to question things and to follow their guts. I think you're raised with this idea that the world is divided between goodie and baddies. Really, you have to decide for yourself. It’s really easy to blindly follow the people you love and trust, but I wish I had trusted my own instincts more. It's okay to believe the voice in your head and question things around you. It's okay to do something "bad” and to not swallow what's spoon-fed to you.

The Miseducation of Cameron Post comes out today, August 3.