featured Interview

Director Desiree Akhavan Talks ‘The Miseducation of Cameron Post’

August 9, 2018Ben MK

Coming-of-age films have long been a fixture of the cinema landscape, whether it's The Breakfast Club, American Pie or The Perks of Being a Wallflower. But in The Miseducation of Cameron Post, director Desiree Akhavan takes the coming-of-age movie into territory few have treaded before.

An adaptation of the bestselling novel by Emily M. Danforth, The Miseducation of Cameron Post follows its titular character (Chloë Grace Moretz), a regular high school student — that is, until the night of her prom, when she’s caught making out with her best friend (Quinn Shephard) in the school parking lot. As a result, Cameron finds herself shipped off to God's Promise, a camp where its two counselors — Reverend Rick (John Gallagher Jr.) and his sister, Dr. Lydia Marsh (Jennifer Ehle) — have made it their mission to "de-gay" each and every young persons in their care. But while Cameron encounters plenty at God's Promise to make her question her sexual identity, she also finds a pair of unlikely new friends — Jane (Sasha Lane) and Adam (Forrest Goodluck) — who support her exactly because of who she is.

I caught up with Desiree Akhavan to discuss the film, and to find out why viewers shouldn't compare it to Love, Simon or other gay coming-of-age stories.

How did Emily Danforth's novel, on which your film is based, first come to your attention, and what made you want to tell this story?

Akhavan: I read the novel when it first came out. And I gave it to my girlfriend at the time, and we both just loved it. We really, really loved it. And she's the one who told me, "You should make this into a movie." And I thought, "No way. This book is so good." You know, I would just f*** it up. And this was in 2012, and I hadn't made my first film yet. But the dream was there, so it planted this kernel of desire in me. And I would play in my head — if I could adapt it, what would that look like?

And then it wasn't until after I made Appropriate Behavior that my producing partner and I were traveling to festivals and talking about what to do next, and I gave her this book and told her to read it. And the minute she finished it she said, "We're doing this next." And it was her confidence that made me realize I could do it, cuz I was scared. It's a really ambitious story to tell; it's very delicately done, this book. And I didn't want to disappoint the fans, and I didn't want to disappoint myself, as a fan.

So because the two smartest women in my life told me I could do it, that's why I did it.

In addition to directing this film, you also co-wrote the screenplay. Compared to writing the original screenplay for your previous movie, Appropriate Behavior, how did you find the experience of adapting someone else's work?

Akhavan: At first, I thought it would be easier, and it was actually, I think, harder. I co-wrote the adaptation with Cecilia Frugiuele, who's my producing partner. And when I first started, I thought that I'd be able to just write the scenes into script format and call it a day. And that didn't work; it made for a very boring screenplay. And we were wondering for months what isn't working, and then we realized we haven't communicated the tone. And that was the one thing that attracted us to the book in the first place.

And so it ended up being a process of throwing out the source material and figuring out, between the two of us, how can we communicate the tone from the book — between the drama and the humor and the malady of being a teenager. So then it was about making creative choices — What would they do at the center? How would they spend their time? What should we learn about Rick? What's his coming-out story?

It became about fabricating and figuring out that dance between what do we fabricate and what do we keep loyal to the book. And that was a challenge.

You touched on the struggle to figure out the tone of the movie, and when you introduced the film at Sundance, you mentioned John Hughes. What are your influences as a director and as a writer?

Akhavan: I really love honest, frank depictions of sex. I think that they're quite rare, so I really love Catherine Breillat; she made the film Fat Girl, which is my all-time, favorite film. I love comedy by Mel Brooks. Recently, I've become obsessed with Ruben Östlund, who did Force Majeure and The Square. And the other director recently that's my idol is the director of The Lobster, Yorgos Lanthimos. But growing up, I was obsessed with anything Charlie Kaufman wrote. John Hughes' films, I think I've said. And just comedy — Tracy Ullman, Lisa Kudrow's The Comeback. I like work that dances between comedy and tragedy.

Can you tell me about working with the cast, especially Chloë Grace Moretz?

Akhavan: They were all great! [laughs] Working with them was great, everybody was fantastic. I was very lucky. Chloë had just dropped out of a bunch of projects. She was sort of figuring out what she wanted to make and what her taste as a filmmaker is. And so she had a bunch of studio projects, she dropped out of them, and she took some serious time off and was considering what she wanted to do next. So [her team] reached out and they read the script and liked it, and wanted to meet.

And I was really excited, because I hadn't thought of Chloë at all, but once I did, I thought she was the perfect person for this. Because she's so not at all what you would think. She's such a juxtaposition to her persona, which is as an ingénue.

Last but not least, how do you hope that The Miseducation of Cameron Post will connect with young people who are conflicted about their own sexuality, say, compared to a film like Love, Simon?

Akhavan: I can't speak to other gay films, and also, I don't think that gay films should be pitted against each other. I hope that this film makes people feel less alone in the world. I hope it makes them laugh, I hope it makes them cry, in a cathartic way, and realize that everyone feels diseased as a teenager. It's something that unites us all — gay or straight, or whatever ethnicity.

The Miseducation of Cameron Post opens in most major Canadian cities August 10th, 2018. Image above courtesy of FilmRise/Beachside Films.

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