Olly Blackburn’s debut feature, Donkey Punch, recently had its UK premiere at the 2008 Edinburgh International Film Festival. Shown alongside other British films such as the trite, sentimental and miscast period drama The Edge of Love, Shane Meadows’s gritty black & white Somers Town, and Steven Sheil’s schlocky Mum and Dad, Donkey Punch stood well above the rest for its slick production values, witty intelligence and its finely-tuned ensemble cast of young, virtually unknown talent.
In the film co-written by Blackburn and David Bloom, a budget holiday in Mallorca goes horribly wrong when a drug, sex and ego-fuelled party on board a luxury yacht ends in the violent death of one of the girls. Still tripping, and grappling with the brutal reality of the shocking accident, the young, male crew must decide how far they’ll go to protect their precarious futures.
Olly Blackburn talked to Electric Sheep‘s Sarah Cronin at the Edinburgh Festival about genre cinema and the making of a British thriller. Sarah also caught up with actors Jay Taylor and Rob Boulter to ask them about the characters they play in the film and the moral dilemmas they face.
Sarah Cronin: Talk about your motivation and the inspiration behind this film.
Olly Blackburn: Well, I really like genre film, and that’s what I wanted to make. It’s very hard to make a first movie, and I thought it would be good to try and figure out a genre film with a small group of characters that was set in a confined space, because you can shoot that for very little money. My co-writer and friend David Bloom was on holiday in the south of France, and he had seen that all of the luxury yachts in the marina there were crewed by very young guys from England, so he called me up because he thought this could make a really great story. We met up and we sort of mind-melded and came up with this idea for the film. It flowed very rapidly, and the more we did research on crews on these boats, the more it fitted in with what we wanted to do. So that was the inspiration for the film. I also just really like films like Alien or Knife in the Water, where you have people in isolated spaces and they have to get out of a terrible situation, but there isn’t any help available. That’s what this story offered up.
SC: There’s a sub-genre of disaster-at-sea movies and the confined space of the ship really works to your advantage.
OB: You’re right. We wanted this boat to be as isolated as possible and just be lost out at sea. We researched communications on those yachts, how easy or hard it would be to get help, how easy or hard it would be to actually pilot the boat. It was all geared to the idea that these people are just stuck, that they might as well be out in space.
SC: What was it like working with Warp X and their low-budget initiative?
OB: Brilliant. I think what Warp X is doing is really exciting for British cinema, because they’re allowing people like me and Chris Waitt (A Complete History of My Sexual Failures) to make quite edgy, challenging films and they’re doing it in two ways. The first is because they’re low-budget, it means that they can raise the funding very fast and just motor these projects through. Also, because they are really skilled, tasteful producers, and they really do everything they can to make the project work, both in terms of what the filmmaker is trying to do, and in terms of reaching an audience. We all agreed that the film should be able to show next to American films, but with the budget the question was, how could we make something that would stand up and punch above its weight and not embarrass us all. They were very keen that we achieved those production values.
SC: I think that your experience in music and commercial directing really influences the film. It does look very slick and quite commercial, very American – it doesn’t look low-budget.
OB: The biggest thing about making commercials and music videos is that they’re focused on image, on making things look good, and you learn very quickly that you don’t need that much money to do that. Technology is really great these days, things like grading; so if you’ve got a very good camerawoman, in my case, it’s actually quite easy to achieve something on a very low budget. It’s about having the experience. I would recommend that all young filmmakers learn about that kind of stuff.
SC: There’s a very luminous feel to the beginning of the film when they’re in Mallorca, and you seem to have used that to help build up the tension as things become darker and darker.
OB: Well, that was a very big thing for me. I really wanted the story to start off very naturally, and suck the audience in, the same way that the characters get sucked into this ever darker situation. And obviously that is reflected in the fact that the film starts in daylight, goes through to sunset and ends at night. When we were writing the script there were lots of sparks happening between me and David, and a lot of stuff was very instinctive and that was just one of those things. It just seemed natural.
SC: Talk about the nature of power on board the ship between the characters, and the power that the male characters try to exert.
OB: We love Neil LaBute, and his films In the Company of Men and Your Friends and Neighbours, because he’s very good at tapping into a particular side of the male psyche, a dark side, which people don’t like, maybe because it’s very accurate. And I think when we were writing a group of young guys who are kind of on the prowl, and then get into a situation with these girls, it just made us think of Neil LaBute. And the other thing was all this stuff in the press, this kind of culture where footballers were picking up these girls and going to hotel rooms. What was interesting to us was this very LaBute-ian scenario, where you have five naked men in a room and they’re all commenting on each other’s performances, and it’s more about them than the girl. That’s kind of the movie in a nutshell.
SC: Josh, who’s responsible for the girl’s death, really retains an aura of innocence, even as he gets nasty and violent. I think that’s very effective, so how integral was that to the film?
OB: The whole thing about the film is that these are normal people, so how far do you need to push things for them to do really abnormal, crazy things? Now that’s going to divide the audience, I’m sure a lot of people will watch the film and say ‘oh, that’s nonsense’. But that’s the purpose of making a film, you want to push people and see how they respond. A big part of the film is that the characters get pushed, they do something that has really bad repercussions and then things get even worse, and they have to make an even more difficult set of decisions with even worse outcomes and it just keeps escalating. That is something that I really wanted to explore in the film. It starts off psychological and then becomes physical and then even more physical.
SC: The film straddles different genres, from horror to thriller and slasher films, but it’s also quite funny. The humour provides some relief.
OB: The humour is definitely intentional. I have enough respect for the genre to be able to screw around with it and do a few different things. First of all there are no rules. For example, the biggest laugh line comes towards the end, at about the most disturbing point of the film. I felt that we should keep the line in there because it’s almost like a release. Likewise, just speaking as a punter, I like to go see films where I’m surprised, where you can’t see what’s happening, or you are kind of shocked, and I just wanted to do that, because there’s no better gauge than to try and do something that you would want to see yourself. There’s this theory about horror films that they’re actually a great way for releasing our worst nightmares, because you’ve got them in a safe space, up on a screen, with a group of people, and you can share in them and then walk away from them. That’s kind of, I hope, what that second part of Donkey Punch does, just throws things at people, and, like you said, at the end there’s this kind of relief, ‘I got through that one’.
Jay Taylor and Rob Boulter play two of the young crew members on board the yacht. Rob, who plays Sean, is the sensible, level-headed guy, who also has the misfortune of being Josh’s brother. Marcus, played by Jay, is the ship’s skipper, in charge of the yacht and the ultimate decision-maker. Embroiled in the sexual act that causes Lisa’s death (played by Sian Breckin), Marcus has too much to lose to allow her death to get in the way of his future.
SC: Your characters in the film provide quite different functions, they play off each other. Talk about your roles.
Jay Taylor: Our characters have quite an important relationship because if the situation was different, they could have made quite good allies. It becomes the downfall of the whole lot. Marcus is the leader of the pack, has this authoritarian quality and Sean has a real sense of diplomacy and what’s right and what’s wrong. That could have really worked but it doesn’t because Marcus is involved in what happens. And Bluey (the on-board DJ and drug dealer, and instigator of the violence) is a good mate of his.
Rob Boulter: That’s the thing really, Bluey is the little devil on his shoulder.
JT: It’s almost a case of good versus evil, and Marcus doesn’t really have this huge decision to make. The big moral dilemma is Sean’s, what to do, the right thing by his brother or do the right thing essentially. Those are the stakes.
RB: Sean’s whole life, his dreams, everything he’s worked for – he wants to crew boats and he wants to own his own boat and live honestly. That’s the life for him.
JT: All the characters have their own idea of the way they see their future, certainly the boys anyway. Josh is off to law school, Bluey maybe less so, but he’s just intent on living the life, being a DJ.
SC: He seems like the one unredeemable character.
JT: There doesn’t seem to be a moral conscience on his part, he’s obviously come from this fairly twisted place, a fairly disturbed upbringing.
RB: He’s just a bit of an asshole, and Marcus is supposed to be mates with him. He brings him along.
JT: Yeah, that’s the thing, Marcus has brought him along for the ride, it’s all his fault almost. Yes, Josh is the one who commits the title act, but it’s more about the way that Bluey takes the situation and develops it all and coerces and manipulates people. He’s obviously the most destructive element on the boat.
RB: He’s a provoker as well, isn’t he. The whole thing happens off of questionable human decisions, and faced with huge life-changing consequences, the chance to brush it all aside and get on with your life is so tempting. They don’t have the perspective to think it through and see that they’ll have to deal with this for the rest of their life. At that time they might find it the lesser of two evils, but obviously they make very wayward decisions. But I totally buy those decisions, they’re very human. It’s what makes the film exciting.
SC: I think there’s a sense that the men have more valuable lives than the women. The girls are down there partying, whereas Marcus is about to join the military, for example. Does that impact their decision-making?
JT: I think the boys certainly regard the girls in that way, or sorry, disregard them in that way. They don’t hold them in very high esteem. It’s a typical kind of macho bullshit male attitude. When they were trying to get lucky with them, they were treating them like princesses, showing them the boat, telling them what they wanted to hear, and then suddenly when their presence becomes a problem they’re cast aside, and they’re suddenly nothing. It’s all about the boys and you see the interesting side of Rob’s character, Sean, because he doesn’t do that, he still sees the girls as people. I also think Nicola is the only one to come through, she’s definitely the strongest character in it in terms of her perseverance. The guys outnumber the girls as well, four to two in the end, and that’s a hell of a thing for anyone to deal with.
SC: Psychologically how difficult was it for you to be a part of the violence?
JT: Well, there is some pretty extreme stuff, sex and violence. Even though Rob’s character is not involved in the sex, he has his fair deal of the violence and the emotional trauma. But to talk about the actual sex scene, it’s a very strange thing to be asked to do, and it’s quite a challenging thing for actors, and I guess relatively inexperienced actors. I don’t think any of us had ever done anything quite like that. It was treated with absolute respect and Olly made it quite clear that we wouldn’t have to do anything we weren’t comfortable with, and I think the proof is in the pudding. I think it’s a really great scene, and I think it looks pretty sexy, to be honest with you.
SC: It is very explicit, I think more so than in other mainstream, commercial films. It had to contribute to the realism of the film.
JT: And it is a realistic film. When you see a lot of sex scenes they’re in this beautiful setting, on a Greek island, with the curtains blowing in the wind, and that’s not what it’s about, especially for characters our age who go on holiday. This is what happens, and maybe it’s a heightened realism, they’re on this amazing boat and there’re more of them involved than just a couple in a room, it’s a group scene, but it’s quite realistic, I think.
SC: How did you find filming in such a confined space and out to sea?
RB: That just contributed to the film and the psychology of it. It’s very much an ensemble piece, and we all got on really well. It got very intense because it was a very short shoot. But we did it in sequence, which helped a lot.
JT: It was quite a small area to work in, you could go a little stir-crazy at times. But being on that boat and being a part of that was quite conducive to creating a really fantastic atmosphere in the film. We all got in the zone, as they say.
Interview by Sarah Cronin