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Cameron Post director Desiree Akhavan talks casting Chloe Moretz and the cool kids at Sundance 2018

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Based the last portion of the novel by Emily Danforth, The Miseducation of Cameron Post tells the story of gay teen Cameron (Chloë Grace Moretz) as she’s sent to a Christian conversion centre by her orthodox family in the 90s.

Here's what director and co-writer Desiree Akhavan had to say about the creative process behind this nuanced and emotional film.

 Let’s talk about Chloe Moretz - she hasn’t always had the opportunity to take on this kind of role. At what point did you think of her, or did you have her in mind for the part?

I didn’t have Chloe in mind actually. I always thought we weren’t doing a Chloe Moretz film - the implication being we don’t have that kind of budget, and Chloe does big Hollywood movies and I didn’t think she’d be interested in something like this. But she let go of a lot of projects and realised she wanted to go in a different direction — she was nineteen and feeling like her work didn’t represent her. So when I found out that they had read the script and liked it, I though ‘Oh shit, this should be a Chloe Moretz film!’ I think the fear everyone had going in was would Chloe have swagger, like a dyke? Would it be convincing, and why are you casting this girl for that role? And from the minute I met her I knew she could do it. I just saw a little business woman in her - I met her in Soho House in New York, and I was like ‘Oh shit, this girl knows what she wants.’ 

In terms of adapting the novel, which is so long and dense, how did you decide what parts you were going to focus on?

Then over is 500 pages long, and it covers this girl’s life from 11 to 17. I’ve lived with this book since 2012, and then it was always in the back of my head, like ‘Oh, that would be such a good movie,’ and I always played the game of ‘What kind of movie would it be?’ Well, I’d only do the last 200 pages, I only wanted to focus on her at the centre — I thought that would be the best way to adapt it, and it would deb its own beast, because the book covers so much. I think an adaptation doesn’t try to be the other medium — each medium has its own place, and it really pisses me off when a movie tries to cover an entire person’s life. You can’t do that in 90 minutes unless it’s all really watered down. So I always knew I’d focus on that centre, and then it became the story of, alright, well what can we stay faithful to, and what do we need to lose? What’s going to service the story of: girl gets put in gay conversion therapy centre, learns lessons, leaves? And so every scene that was added was like ‘Well, let’s drive the plot that way.’ 

At first, the first draft of the script was all from the book, and then slowly it became its own beast, but it took me years, and it was shitty for so long. It was such a bad script for such a long period of time! And you just have faith that you’ll carve out the things you don’t need and keep the stuff that’s good. And then it was in the last pass that a couple of my favourite scenes got added — we needed to feel the place more, and we needed to feel the friends, so that’s where we added Art Therapy and the scene on the grass, because we through our research of gay conversion therapy had found all these techniques. There’s one called the Wizard of Oz theory, where they say you project on to someone, you think you’re in love with them, but you just want to be them. 

Could you talk a little bit about casting the other roles - especially the other two in the cool kids trio?

We were really lucky. Chloe was the first person to sign on, and then after Chloe came on board, it was a question of who to put around her. For Forrest [Goodluck], I knew I wanted Adam to be played by a Native American actor, so that limited my choices hugely. It was like ‘Ok, of the two or three Native actors, which one of them fits this particular role?’ And he did, and it ended up working really well - that part became a little drier, a little more sarcastic, and that was a very easy choice to make. 

For Jane, it was a journey, actually, because we had auditioned a bunch of girls and were looking at people, and there was one girl I really loved — I hadn’t even thought of Sasha [Lane]. I hadn’t seen American Honey — it came out when we were casting, so we had this girl we offered it to, who is an amazing actress, but now I’m so happy that Jane’s character is biracial. It adds an element to the film that it needs. And if she weren’t, if she were just another white girl, it’d be like ‘Ugh, so many white people.’ It’s just so exciting that Jane and Adam are both people of colour, and it really changes a lot about the film, to me watching it, because Chloe’s so white. I felt like when we were making the film, we were making an anti-white propaganda film — the only cool people are people of colour! Cam may be the lead, but she’s not as cool as the darker people! 

So we had this girl that I wanted to attach, but she was shooting this TV show and we couldn’t make it work, and then someone said Sasha Lane’s available, let’s offer it to Sasha Lane. And I was like ‘I don’t know who Sasha Lane is!’ I remember I was doing rewrites, I was scouting locations, I was in New York and it was really stressful, and they were like ‘Just go see American Honey,’ and I was like ‘I don’t want to go to the cinema - it’s three hours long and I’m really stressed out!’ So I went to a matinee, and midway through the movie I texted the casting director and I said ‘Make the offer! Make the offer!’ I was blown away. I was like, ‘Fuck yes, that’s the girl!’ And working with her was a fucking delight.

Finally I wanted to ask about balancing the humour with the very serious aspects of the film.

It was really important throughout for it to be a funny film. I wanted to make something that felt like John Hughes - the kind of John Hughes film I wanted to see. I wanted that extreme abuse mixed with love and humour — that’s what abuse always felt like to me — coming from the people I loved the most or felt safest around. Otherwise, you know, I would have run away. I hate it when films have Abuse with a capital A, where it’s so unrelenting — that’s not my experience of it, and I think that exists, but I wanted Bastard out of Carolina meets Pretty in Pink. So, that’s where that comes from. It was always important to us throughout that we have a sense of humour about it. 

I was really intimidated by the subject matter, and I talked myself out of it a lot. I wanted to do it because my ex-girlfriend told me to do it at first. I loved the book, I gave it to her, she loved the book, and she said ‘You’ve got to make it a movie.’ And I thought it’d be a brilliant movie, but that it should go to a real director, and we argued about that for a while, and then after Appropriate Behaviour came out, I was working on a script and it just was never really coming together, and it was time to let that die. I had mentioned the book to my writing and producing partner, Cecilia Frugiuele, and she read it and said ‘We’re doing this next.’ Before we got on set I was really scared, I didn’t think I had the depth to do this. I spent some time in a rehabilitation centre for an eating disorder in my mid-twenties, and we were all really blindly chasing ‘being better,’ and I always wanted to make a film about that time, but other than Life is Sweet, I’ve never seen a good depiction of eating disorders — it’s a really tricky subject matter.

I’m not good enough for that yet, but I was good enough for this. And this rehab centre reminded me so much of the experiences of being in those rooms and blindly wanting to get better, so it felt very personal to me. I wanted to walk about therapy, I wanted to talk about being ill, but in your head. And what if you couldn’t get better. What if getting better meant changing your DNA? And that’s what it was — it felt so real and personal, I was just intimidated, so it was my friends and collaborators that helped. 

The Miseducation of Cameron Post is released in cinemas on August 31st, distributed by Vertigo Releasing.

Images courtesy of Sundance Institute.

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