In The Bad Batch, writer/director Ana Lily Amirpour tells the story of an outcast, Arlen (Suki Waterhouse), struggling to make her way in a dystopian near-future. Along the way, she finds herself at odds with a group of cannibals who inhabit an airplane graveyard. Known as The Bridge, they’re led by the Miami Man (Jason Momoa), a character whose path becomes increasingly intertwined with Arlen’s as the story progresses.
In anticipation of the film’s release on Friday, Austin’s Alamo Drafthouse held an advance screening on Father’s Day, held at the Stunt Ranch, a 22-acre experiential event center 20 minutes west of town. Before the movie started, attendees threw hatchets at wooden targets, rode zip lines between the trees, and practiced their trapeze skills in the safety of a harness above a net stretched out 10 feet above the ground.
Add in the whole pigs roasting over an open pit, the pulsating DJ set, and the sweltering Texas heat, it was easy to compare it to Comfort, another makeshift community featured in The Bad Batch. Unlike The Bridge, Comfort is a shantytown full of outcasts who use psychedelics as currency while living under the guidance of their cult-like leader, The Dream (Keanu Reeves). Earlier that day, in the comfort of an air conditioned room, we got the chance to talk to Amirpour about what inspired The Bad Batch, how she found the film’s locations, and the pre-set rules that exist when making a dystopian movie.
For a movie that’s sparse with its dialogue, there’s a lot going on here. What was the initial inspiration?
The idea, I guess, is a couple of things together. I think at the time when I first started writing The Bad Batch I had this feeling from life, my own life. Personal life, not work stuff. Personal, broken heart kind of stuff and I really did feel like I was chopped up and had lost some part of myself and was bleeding. So I had this image of this girl in the desert bleeding in the middle of nowhere, but just dragging herself on. She was going to fucking live. And that was the beginning of the story, and then she’d re-acclimate to her new kind of self in this crazy place called America.
It’s a love letter to America. Not post-apocalyptic America, either. That’s a term that other people I think put on the film because maybe it’s freaky to contemplate that this is actually what America’s like. That [this is] what I think it is.
It is referred to a lot as a post-apocalyptic movie, but I didn’t really see that. There are clearly some dystopian elements here.
A lot! But that is what reality is. What’s utopia?
Well, there’s a definite dystopian sense to it, but it’s not really that fantastic or over-the-top. There’s some storytelling embellishments, but it’s strikes me as a really contemporary story.
I think a lot of people have gotten that, too, so that’s cool. I think it’s interesting to see because I think it’s the survival instinct to categorize a film and not like “That’s not what we are.” You know, that can’t be how it is, because [of] the horror of that.
Well, and there’s a certain safety to labeling and classifying films. But with yours…
It’s the opposite, if anything.
Do you set out to make films that defy categorization?
No, it’s just my feeling about the world. I feel like each individual person has a great propensity towards good or bad behavior depending on the system that they are a product of and that’s just how I see it. And I can’t escape that sometimes. In this film, I couldn’t escape that I really did feel that you get spit into this system and [that’s] how it is in life.
It feels like I’m so hyper-aware of homeless people and people that live on the streets in every city, everywhere I go, not with judgment, but there are so many people that don’t fit nicely into society. Not just homeless people, a lot of people. And there’s something about it. And what’s the conclusion? I don’t know. “Get off the government’s dime” or “These are people they need empathy!” There’s both feelings. Really it’s more a film about this individual, this dumb girl, but who’s going to survive and she’s a product of [this] system.
These characters don’t really fit into neat little boxes either. You see them all committing acts of compassion, and acts of violence, in ways that collide with one another in the same moment.
It was interesting because I did that in my first film, [A Girl Walks Home Alone At Night]. It’s just a little different when you have vampire mythology [and] you have certain rules built in. Everyone knows the rules, that’s your getting off the hook. It’s like saying it’s a post-apocalyptic movie and you’re off the hook in a way. Like, “It’s not now, I don’t have to worry about it.” [A] vampire is the same thing. We know vampires, they’re kind of sexy, they have to kill, so you’re off the hook for any killing you do.
But I feel like thinking about Miami Man, and thinking about Arlen, and thinking about Maria (Yolonda Ross) it was like the dream everybody is doing these things in their life. I just really wanted to think of it in terms of this: every human being on earth is the star of their own movie. And when I’m making a film, I’m thinking of all the characters in that way, too. So if you tell a story in that way where everyone is a star of their own movie, and sometimes these two movies are overlapping. Our two movies are overlapping right now and you’re the star of your movie. So that’s the thing. If everybody in the film got their moment of it being their own film, you would never be able to easily conclude anything about anyone, right?
So, knowing how you create these characters, how do you go about finding these locations to put them in?
Oh my God, I love looking for locations. I love locations and I love what you get to discover. I had heard about this massive airplane wreck yard in Lancaster in the desert in California. This guy Bill has been [dealing in] airplane wrecks for 25 years. It’s five square miles and it’s just airplane wrecks. Massive. They’re massive. So, it’s just a field of helicopters wrecked or the wheels on a plane, which are huge. It’s as big as this room, and just a mountain of them. And he rents them to movies. That’s his bread and butter, and has been for two decades. If a movie needed an airplane wreck, they rent them from Bill and then take them off site, but nobody had ever shot there. I think he had done a few music videos, but yeah I was just like “This place is the cannibal gorge.”
And imagining it in real time. Imagining if this all did come to pass and they just walled off a part of the desert and this airplane junkyard was there. It would be a really cool place to make an encampment because just imagining all this stuff that they had and where they live. Anything that is left in overhead compartments or you know all the little food stuff in an airplane, like little bottles of booze and rationing out whatever you would find. It was just fun to do all those details. And then Slab City was another place I spent a lot of time in.
Is that out in the LA area?
Salton Sea. It’s three hours away from LA. It’s crazy. It’s a trip. It’s a man-made lake. They made it the ’40s. They built this man-made lake and it was going to be the new Hollywood elite vacation spot. Frank Sinatra bought lakeside property there, and suddenly the salt level in the lake went haywire and though the roof and they couldn’t control it. All the fish died and all the fish bones washed up on the shore of the lake and there’s a funky [smell]. Now it’s 50-60 years later, it’s below sea level there, it’s really hot and the smell of the air is unreal. And so Frank and Marilyn and all of them they just cut their losses. They’re millionaires, it doesn’t matter for them, but the people that lived around that lake they’re just…
They were stuck?
The people that live there got stuck. That whole area got economically stuck in a certain literal funk, so to speak. So it was like a fantastical cinematic landscape if you’re trying to show the crusty cracks. And Slab City is near there. It’s this massive off-the-grid community. I think there’s like 20,000 to 30,000 people in the winter. In the summer, it gets too hot to stay there, so they migrate to different places, but they’re [all] living off the grid. There’s everything from older timers like vets who have Airstreams [with] actual solar panels and a pimped out set up, but they’re like hundreds or thousands of young kids that seem like they’re a little bit detoured. Lots of drugs, definitely. All different kinds too. It’s everything from meth and tweakers to the psychedelic hippie kids.
So those people in that area was part of landscape for The Bad Batch and I also was hanging out with them for a year before shooting the movie and that party scene is 80% Slab City locals.
What do you hope people take away from this film once the credits roll?
I’m always looking forward to hearing what they take away or what questions come up and that’s one of the joys of doing it is that there’s no one thing. And it’s more like I get to see things about people after seeing the film based on what they’re saying [and] what they’re thinking about. I really look forward to that. It’s funny. I just want to know what people feel from it. I bet it would be a myriad mix, [a] bunch of many things. Because I had people tell me the movie comforted them, and I’ve had people tell me the movie really disturbed them.
The Bad Batch opens in theaters on June 23rd.