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An Unquenchable Thirst for Freedom: An Interview with ‘Mona Lisa and the Blood Moon’ Writer-Director Ana Lily Amirpour

Ana Lily Amirpour speaks with Script about how she approaches character development, world-building, her collaboration with her cinematographer and why she makes films, and so much more.

Kate Hudson and Jun Jong Seo star in this mind-bending thriller from visionary director Ana LilyAmirpour (A Girl Walks Home At Night). When a struggling single-mother (Hudson) befriends a mysterious mental institute escapee with supernatural powers (JongSeo), she sees a lucrative opportunity to make some fast cash. But when they draw the attention of a detective (Craig Robinson), their luck starts to run out as the cops close in on their crime-spree.

There is a child like wonder in filmmaker Ana Lily Amirpour's filmmaking and storytelling. Her approach to her character's point of view and how they fit in the world stems from her own approach to how she fits in the world and her quest and practice of freedom. And you certainly see all of that at the forefront of her latest work, Mona Lisa and the Blood Moon. It's a fun, uncertain and fantastical world she's created and the journey is very rewarding. 

I had the absolute honor of speaking with Amirpour about character development, world-building, her collaboration with her cinematographer and why she makes films, and so much more.

This interview has been edited for content and clarity.

Jeon Jong-seo as Mona Lisa in Mona Lisa and the Blood Moon. Courtesy Saban Films.

Jeon Jong-seo as Mona Lisa in Mona Lisa and the Blood Moon. Courtesy Saban Films.

Sadie Dean: How did this story first come to be? Was it the lore that is New Orleans, the characters, or any of that?

Ana Lily Amirpour: It was definitely New Orleans. At the time I was editing The Bad Batch, I started getting the ideas for it. And I think what I really wanted and needed personally, I wanted to do a dirty, homegrown fairy tale that was set in New Orleans with this character at the center. Something about the werewolf archetype was in it for me, and this primal connection to the moon and to something inside of you that makes you this super powerful version of yourself. Of course, there's a backstory to Mona Lisa and there's a reason why she can do what she can do. So then, I started thinking of her and also just like this really isolated, separated type of character that really just doesn't fit in any way, never has fit in any way and been welcomed in any way. And so, putting her in there in a way to give myself newborn baby eyes, so that I could then rediscover the world in a more playful and optimistic way, I needed a way to look for joy amidst this chaos in a way that felt sincere to me - I wanted to feel joy. In the adventure of all this friggin’ carnival life madness, that's kind of where it all started. And then I just started building the world.

Sadie: When you were writing this, did you set up rules of when her powers come into play, how she’s able to manipulate other, or was it more organic during the process?

Ana Lily Amirpour: There were no rules, but certainly I knew at the middle she was going to meet Charlie and it was like the thing that kind of flips, and you realize it's actually about something else. The purpose of the movie is to get her to him and then, get her on a plane at the end. In some ways, it does have this really kind of concrete spine. When you do a cop chase movie, which essentially this is, even if it's a mutated form of that, it does have that. It’s like you escape at the beginning, you either get caught at the end or not.

Ana Lily Amirpour

Ana Lily Amirpour

For me, it's not really about getting to some end conclusion. More and more as I do it, I realize it always changes and I don't know what I would do, what I would be interested in doing, I think it's always like an open field, but it feels more true to life to me that it's about the journey. And that there are no final conclusions, because it's a manipulation to think everything can be summed up in two hours if it's like an experiential story like this, you know what I mean? I feel like with my movies and thinking about them, it's like, all of them could actually be, right now, ongoing in some alternate universe.

Sadie: Oh yeah, totally.

Ana Lily Amirpour: They're still happening. Like, is Arlen still out there? [laughs]

Sadie: The answer is yes. [laughs]

Ana Lily Amirpour: [laughs] Yeah, exactly.I do have an idea for a sequel, a very clear idea for a sequel that would be really fun to be able to make, and actually a third one already.

Sadie: How do we make this happen? Money obviously.

Ana Lily Amirpour: [laughs] Yean and awesome people. Yeah, and Charlie, he's out there somewhere right now - he seems like he's gonna turn out all right. Maybe. [laughs]

Sadie: Maybe, we hope! [laughs]

Ana Lily Amirpour: Maybe not, yeah. [laughs]

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Sadie: Did you set out with a thematic anchor during the writing process?

Ana Lily Amirpour: When I see a character like Bonnie, for example, and this was a conscious thing, she's like a shark. A shark is a creature that never rests. It's always moving. It's always kind of predatorial. But it doesn't need to be villainized, it's just its nature. It's how it survives and adapts. And yeah, it can definitely do what it needs to do. I feel like a stripper character, this hard-working, hustling single mom, female type of character, generally, there's a judgment that gets forced on these characters in movies that they have to learn a lesson about it or that they're really sad about their life, you know what I mean? Teach everybody a lesson; feel bad for her. And it's like, no, I don't think so - she's hustling, she's working. That's her job. It's an honest job. She takes hits, always gets back up, doesn't look for anyone else to rescue her, and is always looking for the take. It's interesting too. I knew what she would do in any situation, how she would talk shit and respond to all this stuff constantly coming at her and I love how she unapologetically just deals with everything in this kind of matter of fact in that way.

Kate Hudson as Bonnie in Mona Lisa and the Blood Moon. Courtesy Saban Films.

Kate Hudson as Bonnie in Mona Lisa and the Blood Moon. Courtesy Saban Films.

And then Harold is I think in some ways almost like a biblically straightforward type of character because he legitimately believes in protecting people and the power of order. I just think he's a man confronted with the limits of logic. I think at the end of the movie, it would be the beginning of Harold's, he would have a midlife crisis after this, he would never see the world the same. [laughs] In the sequel, the first scene of him, he no longer has a job, he's in a dirty wife beater watching TV, eating junk food with stains on his shirt, just trying to figure out what he's going to do now. [laughs]

And then Fuzz - I think a lot about the Buddha but translated into this modern-day form. You never know where you might run into the Buddha, because he's very, he's special. He's that character that isn't doing anything, because he wants something, some end result - he does everything he does, because that's what he wants to do. You know what I mean?

Sadie: Yeah. And it’s the compassion. The fact that he literally gives his shirt off his back and gives it to her and helps her escape and he welcomes Charlie - a lot of love there.

Ana Lily Amirpour: There's so many times in so many movies where if there's a main character, that's a guy in any genre, like it can be a CIA spy movie, and then he goes and hooks up with a girl at some point in the movie and then continues on with his CIA mission. If a guy has an affair with a girl in a movie, it's not like anybody will pay interest about the affair or expect them to end up together. If you have a movie with a girl going on an adventure, usually if there's a guy - that becomes the whole movie. And I just think there's plenty of times where you meet a cool guy and have a cool little thing and it doesn't have to be that. I think the thing that's the most special about Fuzz is that he genuinely wants her to go on, he's not trying to make this a thing, which is probably why you want it even more.

[L-R] Jeon Jong-seo as Mona Lisa, Evan Whitten as Charlie, and Ed Skrein as Fuzz in Mona Lisa and the Blood Moon. Courtesy Saban Films.

[L-R] Jeon Jong-seo as Mona Lisa, Evan Whitten as Charlie, and Ed Skrein as Fuzz in Mona Lisa and the Blood Moon. Courtesy Saban Films.

Sadie: Right. And she doesn't have to do any mind manipulation with him.

Ana Lily Amirpour: Yeah.

Sadie: All of these characters are so rich. What I liked about your approach to Bonnie is that you don’t play the victim card with her.

Ana Lily Amirpour: Yeah. It’s really not a typical thing. People aren't used to it. They don't want that. They want to be to feel bad for her.

Sadie: Are there certain themes or stories that you're just drawn to tackling or exploring through your work?

Ana Lily Amirpour: I certainly would say that everything is in some way, a manifestation of thinking about freedom. And in order to think about freedom, I do think you have to analyze whatever is stopping freedom. I feel like I'm often looking at the system and the world around people and the characters and how it determines how you relate and how you see people and view people. It does feel like a lot of the time the bigger antagonist is the world and the reality that people find themselves in. Because that is such a big determining factor in how things will play out.

I also think it does make it for this open-ended thing if you know that that world is the world and continues to exist. And it's like, these trials and tribulations continue to exist, but freedom, an unquenchable thirst for freedom is at the core and at the heart of everything. There's no pursuit I'm more interested in and I think it's a personal freedom and individual freedom and being able to define yourself, being able to be free to try different things, to try on different experiences, to reject things. Forget what you know, for Harold, for example, it's just like for everybody, really, you have to do that to find something new, you have to put aside something old. So, I'm very much all about freedom.

Sadie: Yeah. And I love how you explore that through all of your work. It's very apparent.

Ana Lily Amirpour: Freedom and she's in a straitjacket! [laughs]


Sadie: [laughs] You’re also tackling it visually. What was the collaborative process like working with your DP Pawel Pogorzelski? Did you come in with a shot list and storyboard?

Ana Lily Amirpour: I storyboard with an incredible artist called Vincent Lucido, who lives in Los Angeles, I met him on Legion and I just loved working with him because of the way he translates the images so fast and he can get the camera angles and stuff I'm looking for. I'm super intimate with my locations. I spend a lot of time looking and being in the place before shooting just with my own self so that I can think about how I might like to show the world because it is the first character I cast.

With Pawel, he was a very strong and connected collaborator. The lenses - now I'm in New Orleans and these trees, the geography of the place is very upwards, and so I went to really wide lenses: 15 millimeters, 10 millimeters, sometimes this amplified, slightly distorted Terry Gilliam. I'll always do this with everybody, show the movies - like The Fisher King, 12 Monkeys, and Edward Scissorhands, and start getting these ideas of some of the kind of vibes it would have. And then once you're there and in the place, and on the day, you start finding the rhythm of what the movie is and the movie comes alive and starts there. Because even if I have something ordered, and I think it's going to be a certain way, sometimes it'll be exactly like that, and sometimes we'll do this or kind of tweak around and do that. And that's one of the most exciting things.

Sadie: Yeah, being in the moment.

Ana Lily Amirpour: Yeah, exactly.

Sadie: How long was the shooting schedule in New Orleans?

Ana Lily Amirpour: It was an incredibly tight schedule. And it's a monstrous undertaking to do a film like this in the number of days I had. I shot this in 25 days, which is like, almost inhuman. That's why with storyboards and prep and being so tight and in the pocket, because you probably have 1 to 3 takes and I'm used to being so starved on my production schedules, because 35 days is what I need. And it's what everybody else gets. One thing I did for Guillermo del Toro - he has an anthology series at Netflix - and it really is like a movie. I made the script totally my own and Guillermo was like, 'Do whatever you want, ' really supportive and spending that incredibly plush Netflix money. I actually saw what the pace it’s supposed to be. And then I was just like, 'Oh, OK, yeah, I'm ready for this.’ And so that was 17 days for an hour. So, it would be 34 days would be the right amount of days on a movie. But with that said, it is what it is. It's like you either make it or you don't. You could be like, ‘I'm not going to do it.’ But I’m like, ’You know what, I think we can do it.’ And I'm really happy with the movie.

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Sadie: What inspired you initially just to become a visual storyteller?

Ana Lily Amirpour: I started making films so young - I do feel like I have been doing this since I was 12 years old, because that's when I started making films. And in some way, it is kind of exactly the same thing - I would make plays and haunted houses before that. And maybe it has to do with coming from another country, speaking another language, and never really being welcomed into like a warm embrace and society as a kid. And so, I just went full bore into fantasyland. I was always creating fantastical games to play with my cousins and putting on plays and Greek tragedies and making horror movies and stuff. I just think, to create your own world that's fun to be in and exist in and it's still exactly the same agenda. [laughs] You know, I'm like, ‘OK, life is a little intense. Let's do this.’

Mona Lisa and the Blood Moon is now available in Theaters, On Digital and On Demand.

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