Imitation Girl writer-director Natasha Kermani on her stunning sci-fi debut, optimism and Star Trek

We talk to Natasha Kermani about her brilliant SF debut Imitation Girl

What would you do if you met yourself? What would you think? Would you see the best parts of you, or the worst? In Natasha Kermani’s superb debut Imitation Girl, a mysterious young woman (played by genre favourite Lauren Ashley Carter) arrives in the desert, appearing to discover the earth and humanity for the very first time. Meanwhile, in New York, her doppelgänger is working as an adult film actress and is in the middle of a crisis. When the Imitation Girl realises that she has a mirror, she sets out to find her.

“I think it is a fairly straightforward concept, that there’s two sides to every coin, and I think everybody can relate to that,” Kermani told us when we spoke to her earlier this year. “There are some days where you wake up and you’re this person and other days where you wake up and you’re someone else but we’re kind of stuck in the same body! And I think it’s something that anyone can project their own map onto, the idea of the alien character is something that a lot of people feel that they see in their own past. It’s so fun to see people bring their own experience to the film. That’s incredibly gratifying.”

How long ago did you start thinking about Imitation Girl?

This was probably 2014, about four years ago. It actually started out as part of a series of three science fiction short films that had to do with different ways that women look at ourselves. This idea of reflection in different ways, and each segment was a different sci-fi trope. So, one was a doppelgänger, one was a robot version of a person, one was a rag doll version. We shot a version of it with Lauren Ashley Carter and we liked it and kept developing it, so it sort of grew out of that initial interest. We never made the shorts! It’s obviously evolved a lot since then.

So Lauren was involved right from the start?

Yes, from the beginning, definitely. We had been working together on a bunch of short stuff. We did a webseries together and we were spending a lot of time together and talking about work. I was eager to do a feature film, and she was always involved from the very beginning.

Was the film an easy sell to investors or was it a tricky pitch?

It’s never an easy sell, I think for a first-time filmmaker it’s actually impossible! There’s no such thing. You’re just making it despite everybody telling you not to and that you can’t. So, it’s just sheer force of will to basically beg, lie, steal, whatever you have to do to burn some tape on this thing!

I think this project is a special one because we didn’t know how the business worked and we were just diving in headfirst. It is unique because it’s something that has no outside influence. It’s something that we put together, it was a totally creative process, it was done extremely low-budget, all those things, so there’s no outside influence coming in saying “You should straighten this part out” or whatever. Part of learning and growing as a filmmaker is learning how to deal with that but this was a very pure experience and it was great for us as our first film to be able to do something that was just “Let’s make it reality!”

But I always knew that it was going to be a science fiction piece. My short films have all been science fiction for the most part, most of what I write is science fiction, so the only reason it’s not totally out there sci-fi is just money. We just needed to something that was grounded, so it’s almost like a drama with a sci-fi element that’s put in. And asking the big questions that sci-fi usually asks.

There’s darkness in the film but there’s such light and hope to it too, more than we often see in films with visitors from other worlds. Was it important to have that optimism?

I don’t think it was a conscious choice, I just don’t really see the point and I’m not creatively drawn to stories that have no purpose or no message, nothing that people can walk away with except just…emptiness! I think life is incredibly bleak and while it’s ok to show the bleakness that is real, you have to bring something more to it. A suggestion, maybe, especially with science fiction, some sort of solution or a way to look at a problem from a different angle. I think that’s part of our job as creators is to be problem solvers in a way. To say “OK, here’s this problem, here’s this bleak situation, if you look at it from this side, maybe there’s a way out or a way to deal with it or a way to get through the problem.” And of course, not all creators feel that way, some of them are there to create something dark and that’s fine, but for me it just it seems a little pointless.

I think the point of the movie is that there is beauty in sadness or darkness or any of those things because if that weren’t the case we would all just fucking kill ourselves, right? There has to be another way out, so that’s the world that I see. You’re writing what you see and what you feel, and that’s how I see it. I see a lot of bad situations but then I see a lot of people trying to work through it, to find a solution. I think a lot of those of us who love science fiction, we’re futurists in a lot of ways which inherently means you believe that there is a future to look forward to or to warn about. And that in itself is a very optimistic viewpoint, right? So that is inherent. I don’t know, movies that are just trying to beat you down as an audience member, I’ve got the news for that. I’ll just turn on the radio if I want to hear horrible stuff.

What was the process like of developing the characters with Lauren?

The alien I wrote first, and she was very clear. The real girl was way more influenced from her. The alien character was kind of straightforward for us whereas the real girl, Lauren was able to deep dive into that character. Obviously, there’s just more there, the other one is like a sponge that’s just sort of experiencing. I think she was drawn to a lot of things about the character, so it was great, we definitely talked about it a lot and she had suggestions here and there. But for the most part the plot and all that was written already.

Lauren is a writer in her own right but as an actor I think she’s more about filling what’s already on the page. So, I wouldn’t say that she necessarily changed what was already on the page, but she was able to fill it in a really beautiful way from what she was bringing to the table. But we had a lot of discussions about the adult film world. It was a delicate thing that we wanted to portray without damning it but also not sugar-coating it either. So, there was a lot of conversations with that, but it was more about the minute details, like she did her own nails, stuff like that. She’s incredibly detail oriented, so all those little things are things she brought to the role herself.

She is amazing in it!

She is, I think it’s fun to see her because she has incredible range, she’s a trained actor, and while she loves horror and she’s very good in horror movies, I think it’s fun to see her stretch her wings in a different way and we get to see her in a slightly more grounded role maybe! With a little bit more intricacy, and she just does it effortlessly, she’s able to come in and fill it. And then to see her switching between the roles was also very, very cool to see.

How did you find the response at FrightFest last year?

I think genre fans are the best audience you could ask for because they’re there to see something they haven’t seen before, and that could be anything! We’re really grateful, FrightFest was by far one of our most fun experiences and it was great talking to people. I think also a European perspective is great for this film, sort of a little bit more open, sitting with it, letting it breathe. The horror fans were amazing.

And there’s also a lot of women who go to FrightFest and that was surprising and amazing, because women don’t get as much genre content as we should because we’re buying tickets, we’re going to the conventions, we’re doing all these things but there’s no creators really to create the content. And so, we watch all this stuff, we watch Firefly and whatever, but we’re not getting as much from female content creators as we should be getting. So that was the other great part about FrightFest, was getting the response from the women who were attending, it was really fun.

It does feel like we’re getting to see more genre films made by women but it’s sometimes hard to tell what the progress is from the outside when you just see an article about it every now and again…

Yeah, it’s about optics, right? One article about a woman filmmaker feels like “Oh well that satisfies it for the year, well we’re fine, we’re great.” But 90% of what we’re reading about is dudes and we’re not even thinking twice about it. So, the closer we can get to half and half the better, because it is a business and if the room is half male and half female or whatever you want to call yourself, it should satisfy that. We should be catering to the people who are buying tickets, so I think it’s an exciting thing to see the response and every tiny mini-success that we have just amplifies and makes more opportunities for women and minorities to get a hearing and tell their stories.

What were some of the most important genre movies or shows to you growing up?

My father is Iranian and he grew up watching the dubbed versions of all these American shows, so he was a huge Star Trek fan and Doctor Who and all that stuff. So, when I was growing up we’d watch a lot of the same shows. Star Trek was huge for me, I think it shaped my philosophy of life and government and how to interact in a lot of ways ! It was hugely formative, less the filmmaking aspect and more just general how to move through life. Like what we were saying before, you have to be optimistic, you have to have something to work towards, and that shining city on the hill that Star Trek represented was very exciting to me from an early age. And of course, the diversity on the show is great because from the very beginning it was “of course the future includes people of all different colours and races and languages, of course.” The Star Wars universe was never the universe, it always Star Trek for me.

Obviously 2001: A Space Odyssey is massive, you can see it in the film, I won’t even pretend that it’s not something that I rip off constantly. I think it’s in many ways a perfect movie. I saw it at a very early age as well, I had no idea what’s happening but I was totally glued to the screen. I think it was just the shapes and the colours and the mystery of it, and the way that it was just so real, everything about it and it was so understated. It was never “Look at this crazy spaceship!” It’s just “I’m walking through my spaceship now.” And that was just “Whoa, holy shit I want to be in that world all the time!” Of course, Kubrick is the master.

I would say also Tarkovsky’s Solaris is huge, it is just so gorgeous, it was singing to me. Putting that kind of poetry and romance into that sci-fi context was huge. And then the last one I would say is Terminator 1, the James Cameron original. That is also a perfect science fiction movie where it’s a completely insane plot, the plot makes no sense at all but you’re there for it, you’re completely on board, because it’s grounded ultimately in a love story. And it’s ultimately grounded with something that’s so real and so tangible and it has this incredible female lead who at the end couldn’t be further away from the person she started as. So, all of those were huge turnabout points where you see it, and nothing is the same afterwards. [pause] The Matrix, you have to mention The Matrix. It’s massive, it’s like BC/AD, before The Matrix and after The Matrix. It was a total game changer.

I also was a voracious reader growing up, so I would say the science fiction books were almost more of an influence. I was obsessed with Dune for ages. I read it as a little kid and I still will go back and read chapters when I’m feeling low. Again, going back to that grounded story where it’s set in this crazy world, but it’s got to be something we can attach ourselves to emotionally. I’m also a huge cyberpunk person so I grew up reading a lot of William Gibson, so I think I’ve always been drawn to the slightly more tech-y near future stuff rather than the slightly more out there stuff, which is a lot of fun too, but I think I like the groundedness of the William Gibson cyberpunk thing.

That’s kind of a lot of answers! But I guess Star Trek is the one.

Do you think that’s where your interests lie as a filmmaker, having that grounded element while exploring these genre ideas?

Yeah, absolutely. I mean, think it has to start with a question for me, I think every film that I’m interested in writing and working on proposes a question and even if you don’t have a solid answer by the end you need to explore the question fully. If Imitation Girl is the question do you ever really know yourself, can you meet yourself, how do you see yourself, how do you see the other side of the coin, and I don’t think it’s explicitly answered but it’s a question that’s got to be there.

And again, I think that’s what good science fiction does, it’s “Let’s look at this now from a bunch of different perspectives and turn it on its head and put it in a new context.” There’s a few really essential questions to ask and that to me is where it all starts. And then I think the world building has to also be contextualised in the world that we’re living in. I’m always working on new scripts and as the world around us is changing I think as creators we have to stay prescient and seeing what’s going on around us and not living in some stupid world like Disneyworld that is 20 years old at this point.

The world around us is changing and the stories that we’re writing have to reflect that even if it is horror or science fiction or fantasy or whatever, it has to be in the context of what we’re dealing with today.

And you’re working on a horror movie next?

Yes! I wrote it after Donald Trump was elected, so it’s a horror movie set in the Dark Ages! We’re really excited about it, it’s basically a coming of age story set in Cornwall and the story follows two peasant women who are living on the edges of society in medieval England during wartime and the movie is really about discovering free will and choosing to use it or to live in blissful ignorance. She is basically trapped between two other characters who are each trying to use her for their own purposes and by the end of the film the question is whether she can find her own path.

I think the thing that I was thinking about is that it is difficult to make your own decisions and claim responsibility for your own life and your own decisions. In a lot of ways it’s easier to be a sheep and follow what the news is telling you and the government or the church or whatever it is. That’s hard, and I think we should acknowledge that. It is difficult to be your own person. It’s much easier to just do what you’re told, so I think that’s really what I wanted to think about and talk about with this movie and hopefully we can execute it in the next year.

Has it been a very different process setting out to make a film in a different country?

It’s completely different because with our first film we knew that we would have very limited resources, so we knew that the whole project was designed to take advantage of what was on our doorstep. So, from the locations to the characters, all of the things we were using to tell our story, all of those things had to be accessible in some way. Which makes the film very personal, but I think that there’s only so many times that you want to do that. But we love it, we’re so lucky that this is what we do because we get to see people and places and cultures not as a tourist but up close and with locals by our side, so we are really lucky we get to be little spies and go into different cultures and nations and deep dive into all these places.

It is the polar opposite, and I think no two films should be the same. So, I think as creators I’m always interested in doing something different and I think if you’re too comfortable you’re doing something wrong. So, we try to keep ourselves uncomfortable!

Imitation Girl is available to watch on Amazon Prime now. Read our review here.