Category Archives: Interviews

Nekromantik 2: Interview with Jörg Buttgereit

Nekromantik 2

Format: Dual Format (DVD + Blu-Ray)

Release date: 3 July 2017

A new special edition release, includes the director’s short films and music videos, and a director approved High Definition transfer

Distributor: Arrow Video

Director: Jörg Buttgereit

Writers: Jörg Buttgereit, Franz Rodenkirchen

Cast: Monika M., Mark Reeder, Lena Braun

Germany 1991

102 mins

The German filmmaker talks about women aggressor characters, the banning of his film in Germany, realism and truth.

After last year’s groundbreaking DVD release of Jörg Buttgereit’s punk-art bombshell Nekromantik, Arrow Video is making its 1991 sequel, Nekromantik 2, available on home video for the first time in the UK. Banned in Germany at the time, Nekromantik 2 is the female pendant to the original film, starring the disarmingly sweet Monika M. as a necrophile torn between a dead and a living lover. Slicker and more melancholy, although still punctuated by moments of hilariously incongruous humour, the second instalment of corpse love mixes pop art and gore to probe the limits of the normal and the abnormal.

Virginie Sélavy talks to Jörg Buttgereit about women aggressor characters, the banning of the film in Germany, realism and truth.

Virginie Sélavy: After Nekromantik, you initially refused to make the sequel people were demanding. What prompted you to make a Nekromantik sequel after making Der Todesking in 1990?

Jörg Buttgereit: I was always playing with the expectations of the audience, so when I made Der Todesking after Nekromantik people were surprised. I was trying to get more freedom to do what I wanted to do. After I had that freedom with Der Todesking I wasn’t afraid to do a sequel anymore because I knew I could do something different, I didn’t have to do the same thing all over again. The fact that the Wall came down in between the first and the second Nekromantik was a good way of having a different point of view on the topic. And of course this time the film was made from a woman’s point of view, which is something I felt was necessary, because all the movies I made before had a male audience.

Did you always want to make the film from a female perspective?

Yes, I think so. The idea might have come to our minds when we did one of the episodes for Der Todesking, the ‘ego-shooter’ woman. That was also a female take on the male character from Taxi Driver. That was something we explored more accurately in Nekromantik 2. And in the first Nekromantik we had Beatriz, who was also a very strong woman, so it was just taking it a step further.

So you were interested in depicting a woman aggressor rather than a woman victim.

Yeah, which is something that from today’s point of view may not look too exciting, but 25 years ago it was still necessary. And it worked out in a way, because one of the first festivals the film was invited to was a feminist film festival in Vienna. It was a film festival that only showed films with women aggressors. But I wasn’t allowed to go because I was a man. That was a little depressing! They screened films like Empire of the Senses and Ms 45. They made a hardcover catalogue for the festival. I think it was the first film book that Nekromantik 2 was in. They told me that afterwards they had a shooting lesson for women. The festival was called Mörderinnen.

You have said that the film was liked more by women than by men. Do you think that’s still the case?

Maybe that was the case when the film came out. But the fact that the film got banned in Germany made it very attractive to people who didn’t like it in the first place, which didn’t do any good for me because I wasn’t allowed to distribute the film for two years. But for me it was very satisfying that there was a female audience at all for a horror film. That wasn’t very normal in those days. We’ve just been to some festivals with German Angst in Austria and with Nekromantik 2 in Finland, and I was surprised to see how many female audience members we had – really young female audience members. After a screening of German Angst I was so curious that I approached the young girls and asked why they watched a film like that. My episode [in the three-part anthology] is very close to Nekromantik 2 I think. To them it felt very normal to watch these films, they couldn’t really explain. So it was a very satisfying experience to see so many young women attending screenings of horror films.

Do you think that the fact that the film is about a woman also played a part in the reaction of the authorities in banning it?

That’s very hard to say. If I think about it today, maybe. But the Werkstattkino cinema in Munich, where the raid happened in 1992, was raided on a regular basis. The same thing happened for Texas Chainsaw Massacre 2. So I think that for the authorities it was just another one of those films, and they didn’t even know it was a German film. When they banned a movie like Texas Chainsaw Massacre 2 or an American horror movie nobody complained because in the case of TCM 2 there wasn’t even a German distributor, so it was very easy to get rid of those films. But when they took my film I had to fight back because they were trying to destroy the negative, something that was really frightening, and that resulted in raids on our homes as well. So what they did was more like a political attack. And maybe it was also due to the fact that it was my third movie. When I made Nekromantik it played in exactly the same cinema in Munich but nothing happened because the authorities didn’t know me. After the third movie it was ‘OK, this guy is not going to stop if we don’t do something’.

It’s interesting that you made the first Nekromantik as a reaction to German censorship but nothing happened and it was only with the sequel…

Because Nekromantik was so small. It was me driving around with the film prints to all the different cities. Nobody had seen the film. If you wanted to see it you had to go to a midnight screening and district attorneys don’t go to midnight screenings. Sometimes it’s easy to get away from censorship by just making it exclusive. We hadn’t put it out on VHS, that came a year later, so it was a really underground independent film. Everybody heard about the movie. I think the first screening in Berlin of Nekromantik was in a three-seat cinema and 500 people came. After that screening it was just word of mouth. But with Nekromantik 2 it was different, it was reviewed like a normal movie.

Did you still feel you were making a film in reaction to German censorship when you made Nekromantik 2?

I was feeling quite secure, quite free to do what I wanted. So when I heard that the movie was confiscated in Munich, I wasn’t there, I was in Paris, promoting the release of Der Todesking I think, and Nekromantik on VHS. Someone phoned me in Paris and told me the cinema had been raided and I would be charged with ‘glorifying violence’. I didn’t take it very seriously in the first place, but when I got back home and they had raided the place of the producer it got quite serious.

What do you think of that accusation of ‘glorifying violence’?

That was the usual way of getting rid of movies like this, it’s a paragraph of the law where you can skip artistic freedom. It’s aimed at Nazi propaganda. If you glorify violence against foreigners you’re doing something against the law and you should be treated like a criminal and not like an artist. That’s the concept behind it. So I didn’t take that accusation very seriously because I knew that it was not true. That’s why the film was unharmed in the end, because it was not true. The judge watched the movie and an art historian came up with a thesis about it being a metaphor for East Germany and then the film was cleared. If you watch it it’s very obvious that it doesn’t promote violence against other people. It was stupid to take this kind of bullet-proof paragraph of the law to get rid of it, they were just too lazy to think about it.

There is a direct reference to real-life necrophile Karen Greenlee in Nekromantik 2 through one of her drawings, which appears on Monika’s wall. This grounding in reality always seems essential to you.

Yes, of course, because that’s something normal horror movies do as well – ‘what you’re about to see is based on actual fact’ – all this stuff gives films a more realistic and threatening kick. But my films are about real horror, not about walking dead and ghosts from another world. I wouldn’t dare to touch stuff Hollywood could do better. If you work with friends, there’s no money, it’d be ridiculous to do something like Lifeforce [laughs]. You have to stick to your abilities, throw everything away that could be ridiculous if you tried it. I think that’s why so many independent or low-budget horror movies suck, because they want to do the same things as Hollywood, which is pointless in the first place because those movies already exist, so why bother doing it again?

The film pragmatically looks at the reality of being a necrophile, for instance in the first scene, when Monika can’t have sex with Rob’s corpse because it makes her physically sick.

That’s something Dennis Nilsen describes in his book, Killing for Company, which I’d read before doing Nekromantik. There are pictures in Killing for Company where he drew how he put the corpses and the heads in plastic bags, and where he put air freshener in, which I was trying to copy exactly. If they could choose I think they would prefer a living person, but that’s so complicated sometimes [laughs]. Dennis Nilsen had living people in his flat but he was afraid that they would go away, and so he got them drunk to make sure that they would stay. It’s a very innocent and childish concept but he, and Monika too, would have preferred to have a living partner, and that’s what the movie is about. That’s why she’s trying to make the straight relationship work with Mark Reeder.

There’s something funny, but also quite poignant, about the scene when Monika is taking pictures with Rob’s corpse on the sofa.

Again it was a way of trying to picture what I read in books like Killing for Company, having a relationship with this person that you killed last night [laughs]. That was something that fascinated me. When Dennis Nilsen killed someone, he took a necktie from them and went to work the next day with these clothes. He was pretending that this was normal, and for him it was normal. I’m trying to show something normal, which is of course funny and creepy.

The idea of what is normal and what is not normal runs through the film. There’s a really interesting contrast in the film between Monika and her very unconventional desires, and Mark, who works in porn, but is very conventional in terms of his romantic relationships.

That was something I had in mind all the time. It’s still true because if I tell people today that I’ve just done a horror movie called German Angst, they don’t say, ‘That’s great, tell me more about it’, they say, ‘Why? Why do you do this? What’s wrong with you?’ In Germany you have to justify what you do, and people treat you like you’re not normal, but I always felt normal, and I felt more honest in doing these kinds of movies. So that’s maybe the main theme behind it, the need for all German horror film fans and horror filmmakers to justify themselves all the time.

Why did you decide to repeat the climax of the first film in the credits of the sequel?

I think it was mainly because of the fact that Nekromantik 2 starts very slowly and I wanted to have something at the beginning that makes you aware of the fact that there will be something terrible happening after a long wait. Many horror fans were waiting for a film like Nekromantik 2 and I was not giving them what they wanted, I was playing with expectations again. So with the credit scene at the beginning I was making them feel safe so they wouldn’t walk out after five minutes [laughs].

You also include a parody of Louis Malle’s My Dinner with André. Why that particular film?

At the time the film was made I had a subscription to Fangoria and I learned English from reading all the letters in that section of the magazine. There was often hate mail that would say, ‘If you don’t like this horror movie, then go and watch My Dinner with André, so My Dinner with André was like the antithesis of a horror movie. When I thought of the concept for a film-in-a-film, I hadn’t even seen My Dinner with André [laughs]! So it’s mainly a spoof on this very dumb approach horror fans have to art movies, where they just won’t watch them, and that was me playing with the expectations of the audience, giving them an art movie. That’s why the characters in that film-in-the-film are played by famous underground artists Wolfgang Müller and Käthe Kruse from the group Die Tödliche Doris. I said they should be naked and I asked them to find out what they could talk about, and so this is like a spoof on the narrow-minded horror fans [laughs], and I’m having a laugh in the back of the cinema about the horror fans who have to sit through this art stuff.

How important was it that you found Monika at a screening of Lucio Fulci’s House by the Cemetery?

The fact that she was there on her own was something that was not ‘normal’ at the time, and it meant that you could at least hope that she would be open-minded to be in an art movie about necrophilia. I don’t know how aware she was of what she was doing. She was very flattered that everybody was giving her so much attention and that we liked every move she made in front of the camera. We never talked much about it. I can’t really remember directing her like, ‘This is your motive’, and stuff like that. It was more like, ‘OK, the camera is here, you walk from here to there to put this on that’. It was a very pragmatic way of directing. That’s always the way it is with me. She had seen Der Todesking and she watched Nekromantik, and that was more than I could have explained.

Did she have a problem with any of the things that she had to do?

No. That was something I was very curious about too. That was maybe one of the main concerns. I told her what we were showing on screen to make sure that we didn’t exploit her. That was something we talked about a lot and I gave her the chance to be in the editing room in case something wasn’t kosher with her.

What do you think she brought to the character?

The most important thing, innocence. Because she didn’t know anything about acting, or about necrophilia [laughs]. And beauty, of course. The perfect contrast to the idea of necrophilia. When we were doing these films we didn’t know what we were doing. But that’s still the idea now. When I work for the stage I make sure I don’t know exactly what I’m doing. For German Angst it was necessary for me to put something dangerous in the movie. So I took this young girl who was not experienced in acting, and that was my dangerous item for the film. That’s what I look for. I’m not trying to make normal pictures like Hollywood, I look for some kind of truth or authenticity.

Interview by Virginie Sélavy

The interview was first published in December 2015 for the release of Arrow Video’s limited 3-disc digipak (Blu-ray, DVD and CD soundtrack).

Remixing The Stone Tape: Interview with Peter Strickland

The Stone Tape

Format: Radio

Release date: 31 October 2015

Available to stream or download on Radio 4 iPlayer – 3D audio or original stereo broadcast – until 30 November 2015

Distributor: BBC Radio

Director: Peter Strickland

Writers: Matthew Graham, Peter Strickland

Based on the original teleplay by: Nigel Kneale

Cast: Romola Garai, Julian Rhind-Tutt, Dean Andrews, Julian Barratt, Jane Asher

UK 2015

60 mins

For Halloween 2015, BBC Radio 4 commissioned a pair of new radio adaptations of modern horror stories. Alongside an hour-long dramatization of Koji Suzuki’s The Ring (Ringu), the BBC also broadcast a revised version of Nigel Kneale’s 1972 TV drama The Stone Tape directed by Peter Strickland, best known for his films Berberian Sound Studio (2012)and The Duke of Burgundy (2014). This chilling play, considered a classic of 1970s television, relates the tale of some audio researchers investigating a haunted Victorian mansion, using difference frequencies to try and explain ghosts as a playback phenomenon, due to the fact that the stones of buildings capture recordings of the past.

The 2015 radio adaptation moves the temporal location of the play forward to the end of the same decade, when home recording had started to become a normal occurrence, and removes some of the story elements concerning pre-existing ghosts, to concentrate on the arrogance of the researchers creating a dangerous and uncanny situation all by themselves. An alternate download version of the play (available alongside the traditional stereo mix as broadcast on Radio 4) was partially recorded using ‘3D audio’ a.k.a. binaural sound, where a manikin dummy is used in the studio to simulate the position of the listener, with microphones attached to the sides of the dummy’s head to capture sounds at the distance and location where they would be heard from a listener’s ears.

Alex Fitch spoke to the director of the new Stone Tape to talk about his move from cinema to radio, his interest in 1970s drama and the aural influences on his radio play.

Alex Fitch: This is your second radio play after The Len Continuum, which featured your Berberian Sound Studio collaborator Toby Jones, but with The Stone Tape you have brought more filmic techniques to radio, in the sense that you’ve created more of a surround sound soundscape.

Peter Strickland: Yeah. The first one was more of a straightforward drama; I didn’t want to do anything gratuitous with the sound in Len, but with The Stone Tape the sound is so inherently part of the narrative, and part of the appeal. There are a lot of records that I love and I felt that if they’re going to be shoe-horned into the script, there’s no point in doing it. With The Stone Tape it was crying out to have these ideas informing the whole play, such as Arvin Lucier’s ‘I am sitting in a room’ or Robert Ashley’s ‘Automatic Writing’. So, it was a great opportunity to pay tribute to music, rather than anything to do with film. There’s the original Stone Tape, of course, but I wasn’t really thinking of any other films at all.

You used a 3D microphone set-up that records sounds coming from all directions. Did that make any difference to mixing the tracks for radio, or did you do two different edits – one for broadcast and one for download?

There are two different edits. When we did the assembly edit, the sound that was recorded using the microphones attached to the dummy head was mixed into one track. My editor John, who was doing this using ProTools, has one track for the straightforward edit and another for the sound from the dummy head. It was quite complicated – with radio it’s so complicated, you sometimes only listen to temporary audio, but for us it was sometimes two or three different edits within sentences, which can be a nightmare with the dummy head in terms of the whole special quality – if an actor moves slightly that’s going to disrupt things.

Only at the last minute did we realise there was a bit of spare time – not for the radio edit, but for the binaural download – so what we did was extend some of the things that had to be shortened for radio. So we extended the scream decay at the end of the play. James’s experiments with resonance were extended, but as far as I remember there were no extensions to the amount of dialogue; there was no time to do that.
It would be great if they released a soundtrack of the actual sounds; James Cargill did a lot of work and Andrew Liles did as well. There are five separate components: James did all the electronic tones and the library music at the beginning; Andrew did the vocal sounds; Steve Haywood and Raoul Brand took what was recorded and added all these analogue effects; Eloise Whitmore was on hand with the Nagra 4D, plus the whole mix, the foley and everything; and then Chris Pike worked with Eloise on the 3D sound.

When we recorded with the Nagra, the fidelity was so good that we could barely hear the difference between it and digital. So, we did this thing where you can feel the difference when you go from tape to ‘real sound’. We didn’t want to cheat it, Steve gave us the option of using a high gain to make it sound a bit ‘crunchier’, but I thought that was a bit of a shortcut. If the Nagra 4D is that good, let it sound that good. So what we did was: for the 3D sound we used mono, which seems kind of perverse! We’re spending all this money on this incredibly expensive studio and then we’re using mono for about 30% of the whole play, but what that does is really interesting regarding the contrast in sound. If you have 3D sound being used all the way through, you become numb to it somehow. By dipping into mono when it switches to tape, it seemed like a good way of solving the whole thing.

And also, because the play is very specifically located in 1979, you probably wanted to limit yourself to the technology of the time, so it sounded authentic…

Well, that was the thing. Even though we recorded the whole thing on digital, when we did the tape parts, that was recorded on the Nagra 4D, which has been around for donkeys’ years! Obviously the original play was 1972, but by moving it up to the end of that decade, a lot of the possibilities of sounds fitting into smaller spaces don’t sound quite as preposterous as it would have done 7 years earlier. I really wanted this idea that, if not clearly a ghost, there’s a lot more in this version on the fact that this is something much more that they can monetise, and either use it for the consumer market – which is essentially what the mp3 generation has done – or for MI5 or MI6, in terms of setting a whole house up as a recording device.

So, I wanted to expand on this and get into the idea of how we perceive recording and playback set against the time we live in. It’s all dictated by what’s happening at the time. In the 1970s you were still thinking about side A and side B – to get beyond that concept is quite strange – whereas now young people don’t even know about side A and side B.

It seems almost a natural progression for you to move into radio, particularly following Berberian Sound Studio, which was also an obsessive attempt to find some meaning in layered sound, which seems to offer many parallels with The Stone Tape. Is there something about audio, which you think other filmmakers don’t explore, that you’ve had an opportunity to do more with in your work?

I don’t pay too much attention to that. It’s just stuff that works for me in some way. I wouldn’t say it’s always that way – the last film I did, The Duke of Burgundy, had nothing to do with sound. We do our best with it, but we didn’t want to be emphatic with it, we don’t want to be gratuitous. I suppose a lot of filmmakers get their cues from painting, for me it’s always from sound. With my last film, the whole structure of it came from my listening to minimalist music, even though it wasn’t a film as concerned with sound.

I grew up listening to a lot of records that were fascinating. I was always dying to use some of Arvin Lucier’s ideas in something, and I think The Stone Tape was the first thing that was the perfect way of doing that – a way of looking backwards from what Lucier was doing. He was trying to annihilate his voice and we’re trying to do the opposite, bring back a voice from annihilation! On the one hand, it might be seen as a very dry, academic piece of work, but on the other hand it was something very sad – here’s this character that doesn’t like his voice and he wants the dominant frequencies of this room to smooth it out, he wants his voice to be subsumed. All of us can relate to that in some way.

But also thinking of your debut film – Katalin Varga (2009) – you created a lot of atmosphere in that film just from discordant noises overlaid with images of landscape. So I think it’s a tool that isn’t used enough by some filmmakers, and by using this technique, you’re experimenting with its possibilities as a threatening presence within the film.

In hindsight, yes. When we made that film, it was my habit of working. I took this long gap between making short films and my first feature and got into making sound stuff. So I’d developed this habit of working, which no one gave a damn about at the time! I’m not saying that out of sour grapes, it just took me by surprise when the film got recognised for its sound. I thought: ‘What?’, because people always did that on records and no one really paid attention.

So, I never thought in a million years that it was going to be special… I was just making this story, working by habit, and then all this. There was that very pleasant shock when we made that film, and that’s what led on to Berberian, thinking of all those records that I loved, and if you use those ideas, combined with imagery, somehow it clicks with people. The best example is Krzysztof Penderecki’s music for The Shining (1980); on vinyl people find it too academic, but on film there’s something about the timbre and the dissonance that really ignites how you see the scenes.

So, a long way of answering your question is: I just work that way out of habit! After Varga, I thought: ‘people are responding to the sound’, and that had never happened to me before.

Obviously you’re a child of the 1970s, but it’s also a temporal location you keep returning to. The Stone Tape is set in 1979, the opening credits of The Duke of Burgundy hark back to the 60s and 70s’ style of credits, and Berberian Sound Studio is set in the 1970s as well. Is there something about that decade you’re almost trying to exorcise through your work?

I think it’s just childhood. Many directors just reference their childhood. If you think of the 1980s, the directors of Back to the Future (1985), Gremlins (1984), and Blue Velvet (1986) were all going back to their childhoods in the 1950s. People’s childhoods are just perhaps more intense; whatever you experience or perceive embeds itself in you more, whatever you perceive now just goes straight through your head, like water off a duck’s back!
The way I saw television, the way I heard music, it somehow had this uncanny feel to it, and that’s something that stays with you. Was it a particularly odd decade? Maybe not. This generation working now just happened to be kids in the 70s. Perhaps in 20 years’ time you’ll have people looking back at the 1990s in a strange way, but for me the 90s was completely strait-laced. I think that’s all it is. I’ve become aware of that; Varga was the only contemporary story I’ve directed, but for some reason I always end up in that blasted decade!

Was the original Stone Tape something that made an impression on you, when you were young?

No, because I didn’t see it when I was young. I was born in 1973 and must have missed it when it was repeated in the 80s – I saw it much later. I saw it sometime last decade, so it didn’t have the same resonance… A lot of people I spoke to found it absolutely terrifying when they were children, but I was more into it for the whole sonic notion that was being explored, these notions of natural acoustics and so on.
I found it uncanny, but what we wanted to do – when Matthew Graham and I wrote the script – was to focus more on the melancholic side of Jill, and the slightly creepy nature of it. But I think I never found it really terrifying. The stuff I found terrifying was more mainstream like The Omen (1976) – Billie Whitelaw’s eyes – and so on. It’s strange, even with M.R. James, the only one that scares me is Whistle and I’ll Come to You (1968).

With this radio version of The Stone Tape, you’ve cast comedy actors as two of your lead roles – Julian Barratt and Julian Rhind-Tutt. Is that because their heightened performances work well with horror, particularly on radio where it’s just voices?

I didn’t pay too much attention to that, there’s definitely some humour in the script, but in terms of casting I thought they would be interesting. What I wanted to do, and I guess it all goes back to when you hear bands like Joy Division, is that they have these gloomy personas, but when you hear about them, they’re just a bunch of lads messing around.

I think having worked in studios a lot, it is quite laddish in there. You get this kind of cabin fever, people just get on each other’s nerves, they start messing around and playing up, so I wanted an element of that kind of banter you get in the studio, especially back in the 70s where there was this casual sexism. To be a woman at that time, with all those blokes, must have been quite unpleasant. Also, what I like about that is that it sets up this fairly innocent framework, and when the creepiness does come in, it’s a bit more of a contrast, perhaps. I wasn’t interested in having a creepy atmosphere throughout the whole thing. The first half is more like a bad version of Fawlty Towers, and then slowly things happen. I never wanted to have any kind of background music, every single sound in the play is diegetic, and everything comes from what the characters are doing, even if the radio is on in the background. I never wanted to creep people out, the films I find scary are the ones where nothing is signposted too much. A lot of the terror I find is in Michele Haneke’s films – they’re stone cold silent. So, I’m only using the sound for when the characters are employing this machinery, this sonic drilling.

It’s a great sound in itself, and it’s a sound I like – you don’t need much more than that. There’s no emotive element to it. It’s cold and hard, and I really enjoy that.

Interview by Alex Fitch

The Miskatonic Institute of Horror Studies – London presents Live at Miskatonic: Nigel Kneale’s The Road, a live reading of Nigel Kneale’s lost drama featuring Jonathan Rigby, followed by a discussion of Kneale’s work with Stephen Volk and Kim Newman on Thursday 10 December at the Horse Hospital, 7-10pm.
Tickets are on sale now £10 advance / £8 concs / £11 on the door.

It Isn’t Very Pretty… Interview with John Waters

Pecker (Credit - Michael Ginsburg) (2)
John Waters on the set of Pecker (1998) © Michael Ginsburg

Format: Cinema

It Isn’t Very Pretty… The Complete Films of John Waters (Every Goddam One of Them…)

Screening Dates:
1 Sept – 6 Oct 2015

Venue: BFI Southbank

Enjoy a 2-4-1 ticket on all events in this season by simply quoting Waters241 online, in person OR over the phone 020 7928 3232. For full programme info and to book tickets online, visit BFI website

On 18 September 2015, the exceptional John Waters will be in London to conduct an on-stage interview as part of the BFI’s two-month season celebrating his 50-year film career. Pamela Jahn caught up with the director ahead of his visit to talk about his work, breaking taboos now and then, turning Pink Flamingos into a kid’s movie and feeling good watching French feel-bad movies.

Pamela Jahn: You’ve just had your first UK art show at the Sprüth Magers Gallery in London, now you are honoured with an extensive film season at the BFI – it seems that the thin line between dark comedy, bad taste and high camp that you’ve been walking for decades has manifested into a runway for success on all fronts…

John Waters: Well, it’s true that nobody really gets mad at much about anything I do anymore, but I haven’t changed anything. I mean, the very first thing I ever did was a film called Hag in a Black Leather Jacket. I still lived with my parents, it was filmed on the roof of my house with my high school friends, and it was a white woman marrying a black guy and the wedding ceremony was performed by a member of the Ku Klux Klan. But is it that so different from my last movie, which was about a middle-class neighbourhood that is taken over by sex addicts? I don’t know. But I’m certainly proud to be having a 50-year retrospective at the BFI now – and my mum would really be proud because she was such an anglophile.

The season at the BFI includes not only your features but also your early short films from the 60s, which you just mentioned. What do they mean to you today?

The early films are not really movies, and that’s why they are shown for free. They were never distributed or anything, they’re kind of like my home movies that I made with my friends. Still, I look back at them all with fondness, although I never sit around and watch my own movies. I also don’t think I had more fun then, I always think tomorrow is going to be more fun than yesterday. But then again, I was trying to make an underground movie and I had no idea how to do it. I didn’t go to film school, so I learned just from experimenting, and those really early films are what that is. It just so happened that my friends happened to be Divine and people who, I guess, seemed like normal people to me at the time, but I guess they were a little more extreme than other people’s friends.

According to your mother, one of the most important influences on your filmmaking must have been Charles Walters’s Lili (1953), and from there you went on to organise your own puppet shows as a kid. Did you sort of know back then where you wanted to go with it, that you wanted to make films one day?

David Lochary, when he used to get mad at me, used to say, ‘We are not your puppets, you know!’ And I said, ‘Well, maybe you are!’ Because do you know how many film directors, if you asked them, were puppeteers when they were kids? They all had puppets, because they are control freaks and the puppets could create their own world. For me, when I then went on to do those puppet shows as a kid, I would break the fourth wall of puppetry at the end and come out with a dragon puppet and say, ‘So, all brave kids stick out your hands and the one kid that gets bitten by the dragon will have good luck forever.’ At that point, some of the kids would start crying and the brave ones would stick their hands out, and I always thought the ones who started crying ended up being losers in life.

How difficult was it to be a control freak given the low budget and pretty chaotic circumstances that you shot your early films in? You still always managed to have a script and stick with it, and you’ve always had a very clear idea of what you wanted.

That’s my work ethic. Obviously, I was on pot when I wrote the movies, but I was never on pot or any drugs when we made the movies. I don’t think anybody was, it was too hard to work. I mean they were made for an audience that was completely on marijuana, but when we made the movies, we had like 20-hour shooting days or something, with no food. If you were stoned you couldn’t have gone through it really. Okay, the cast might have smoked pot behind my back somewhere, but not that much. I think afterwards, yeah, but during the actual shooting day… Mink Stone always used to say, when someone called them amateur actors, she said, ‘Amateur? We had to remember five pages of dialogue and get it right in one take – that isn’t amateur.’ And even today, I still don’t like improvisation. But I know all actors want to improvise today and you can see it in movies, there is too much of it. I’m in the Writers Guild – save the script!

Shooting those films with your friends required a lot of trust from both sides, I imagine…

I didn’t make them do anything, it was all in the script and I asked them to do it. There is a movie that I presented at a festival recently, it’s called Killer Joe, it’s a pretty shocking movie and there is a scene where Gina Gershon does this hideous sex act with a chicken, it’s really hilarious. And Mink said to me afterwards, ‘See, they’re just like us. We didn’t talk about it, we just went for it. We just did it.’ And that’s right, it was a group effort, it was a group madness in away, and I didn’t really do anything that was bad for them… I mean, we all survived. I wasn’t a sadist. And the eat shit scene, we just did it once, it was one take, I didn’t say, ‘Oh, let’s try that again!’ I think, they’re my friends and we all did this together, more as almost like a political action. I think Johnny Knoxville’s Jackass movies are the closest in spirit to my early movies and also in terms of the camaraderie those films were made in.

About Pink Flamingos, you used to say it’s like a kindergarten movie – it’s grown-up people doing babyish things. Was that your inspiration for Kiddie Flamingos, the video that was part of your recent art show in London?

Exactly! I basically just rewrote it and took out all the dirty parts and just made it PG-rated with the same story. But I don’t see it as my next film, I do see it as a video-art piece, because it’s the same thing, whether you poke your head in and watch five or ten minutes of it, or you watch the whole thing. It’s not a feature film, it’s a concept video piece. But with Pink Flamingos, yeah, I think you’re dead right, I think no one over 18 should be allowed to see it, it’s so juvenile.

Almost ten years later, Polyester became your transition film, somewhat marking an evolution from the underground midnight movies and before your mainstream success with Hairspray

Yeah, and you know why? Because video had just come out, so midnight movies were over. Before you always had to go to a movie theatre to see a film. It’s hard to imagine these days, but nobody could watch a movie twice. That’s why midnight movies were so popular, because people would come and see them every week, but once video came out, the mystery was gone. So, Polyester was the first movie I did that was made to be R-rated, it was the first one to play not at midnight.

And it was the first one that really put the melodrama at the forefront. Was that part of the plan, to become more commercial in a way?

Yes, I was certainly influenced by Douglas Sirk. But there was never a time when I tried to be uncommercial. I always wanted people to come and see my movies. The ending of Pink Flamingos was commercial, when you think about it. In the beginning I made exploitation films for art theatres at midnight, but I always had an audience and I knew that I was trying to get people. I wasn’t purposely trying to not make people to come.

You originally screened the film in ‘Odorama’. How did you come up with the idea?

I always remembered that in the late 50s or early 60s there was a film that I have never seen, because it didn’t play long enough when I was a child. It was called Scent of Mystery, and the system that they used to show it with was called ‘Smell-O-Vision’, it was basically a big machine that came to the theatres and pumped out the smell, but it didn’t really work. And I always loved William Castle, who had all those gimmicks in his movies, so it was made kind of as a homage to him.

How did people react when you first screened the film back in 1981?

The very first time we showed the film was in Cannes. There was such a mob of people who came to see it, that they broke the glass door to get in, so the ‘Odorama’ was definitely a success. But I think it was coupled with the fact that Tab Hunter, who was a real movie star, was part of the cast. He was in the movie with Divine, kissing, which – I know it’s hard to imagine today – was surprising to people, but it was. And I think Tap was also a huge part of why that movie was so successful.

You mentioned in the beginning that people don’t get mad anymore about the things you did in your movies. Do you also feel that today there are fewer taboos that you can actually break?

No, there are more taboos. Everybody is so politically correct. That’s why there’s this thing in America that they call a ‘trigger warning’, where, in college, the teachers have to say, ‘This is a trigger warning’, in case they are going to talk about anything controversial that might make people question their values, which is so ludicrous. I always thought that’s why you went to college in the first place, to question your values. So, no, I think today they are more taboos – but are they interesting? Maybe not. Maybe Hollywood now makes big 100-million-dollar gross sell-out comedies that are funny. So maybe that’s where I’ve been a bad influence.

In your latest book Carsick you almost reveal yourself as being a sentimentalist after all, in particular in the chapter where you imagine reuniting with Edith Massey.

Yes, I believe the chapter with Edith you could call sentimental, certainly. I don’t think it’s pushed too far. I look back at the past with a certain fondness and my memories of Edith are touching to me… is that the same as sentimental? I guess so, so I plead guilty there.

Do you have a personal shock limit? Are you genuinely shocked by anything you watch these days?

Well, I’ll always try to surprise people, but sure, I’m shocked by bad romantic comedies, I am shocked by movies that are exactly the same as a science project. I’m shocked but not in a good way. I like to be surprised, certainly, and Gaspar Noé surprises me. I think Bruno Dumont surprises me… usually they are French feel-bad movies that make me feel good.

Looking back at your own filmography, is there a movie that you personally would like to remake today?

Well, I always used to joke and say I’d make Pink Flamingos a children’s movie, but I already did that. Maybe I will do Female Trouble set in an old-age home next. At one point I was trying to make Flamingos Forever, the sequel to Pink Flamingos, but today that would never get made because it would get an N-17 rating and it would cost a lot and we’d have to have movie stars in it, so I’d rather not go there. I’ll prefer doing something new… a new surprise!

Interview by Pamela Jahn

A Girl Walks Home Alone at Night: Interview with Ana Lily Amirpour

A Girl Walks Home Alone at Night

Format: Cinema

Release date: 22 May 2015

Distributor: Studiocanal

Director: Ana Lily Amirpour

Writer: Ana Lily Amirpour

Cast: Sheila Vand, Arash Marandi, Moshan Marno, Dominic Rains

Iran, USA 2014

100 mins

After enchanting festival audiences around the world, Iranian-American filmmaker Ana Lily Amirpour’s acclaimed debut feature A Girl Walks Home Alone at Night finally comes to UK screens. Shot in gorgeous black and white, this Farsi-language tale about a chador-wearing skateboarding vampire drifting in the desperate world of Bad City creates a seductive, singular world out of an eclectic mix of influences that include comics, David Lynch and Italian Western music.

Virginie Sélavy talked to Amirpour at the London Film Festival in October 2014, where they discussed places of the mind, the magic of music and the loneliness of humans.

Virginie Sélavy: You’ve described your film as an Iranian vampire Western. The first two elements are fairly clear, but in what way do you see it as a Western?

Ana Lily Amirpour: I think it’s definitely the music that was such a defining characteristic. The musical spine throughout the whole film was Federale’s awesome Ennio Morricone-esque music. I think there is that slow-cooking construction that a Western does as well, but it’s more the music.

Why did you choose to shoot in America but in the Farsi language?

I don’t think a film is the real world, a film is a world of the mind of a person. David Lynch’s Mulholland Drive is supposedly in LA, but it’s the LA of his mind. So I think this is a dark fairy tale and it’s a place of my mind. I’m part Iranian and part American and born in England, and it’s like a soup of so many things. What’s so awesome about the film is that it doesn’t have any loyalty to the real world and it doesn’t have to. It’s like a dream, it’s just consistent to itself.

You grew up in California.

I had my period there, yeah. [laughs]

So where did you spend most of your childhood and adolescence?

I think where you have your puberty and period is a big part of it. I was in Miami before that, but I was just a kid. When I hit puberty I was in Bakersfield, in California – there’s this redneck desert, farming, malls, I was going to a mall, I wore short cowboy boots, and there’s also all the Mexican gangs, and all the Mexican girls that I was mixed up with because I was brown, the cholas, the gang girls with lipstick, they’d push me and all that [laughs].

It’s interesting that you grew up in America and that the Iranian part of your identity is a place of the mind for you.

It’s a weird thing about Iranian culture. We’re one of those cultures like Italian or Jewish, we have very strong families, aggressively imposing families, in an awesome way. So I always had my Iranian-ness in that way, my grand-mother and my aunt and everybody, and the dinners and the noises and everything. But I never had the place itself. There was a weird thing that happened when I made this film. It became this imaginary limbo. I felt like I was making my own country in a way. Here’s the rules, and here’s the citizens, and now is the place and everyone can come and visit, and if you like it, stay… Other people in the film were similar. Arash [Marandi] was in Germany, his family lived there, and Dominic [Rains] went to Texas and Sheila [Vand] was born in California, very similar to me. I think everybody liked how it was like getting to have a place that was Iranian. Because even when I went to Iran I didn’t feel like it was my country… It’s something else. But I am Iranian. What am I? [laughs]

I liked the chador for the vampire because it’s very visual, but it’s also very interesting because it is a piece of clothing that has become a symbol for the oppression of women and in your film it becomes a superhero cape.

And a brilliant disguise. No one is going to expect it from her. For me it was just because I put one on – I had one as a prop in a movie and put it on for the first time. It felt like a stingray, I instantly felt like a creature. It moves, and it’s made of a different kind of fabric, it’s very soft and it catches the wind, and it’s beautiful. And I just felt like a badass. And then I thought, this would be an Iranian vampire, this is it, it’s this girl. And the whole idea for the film started with this character. I don’t even like black in my movies. But it’s black and I just pictured it against white, and so it had to be a black and white movie. And the whole thing about whether, like you said, it’s something that symbolizes oppression for women, I think somebody who is Muslim maybe wouldn’t feel that way. You feel that way because that’s what you are bringing. I do like flipping the script, but it’s about something else. In this world, with all these people and all these countries and all these places, we come up with systems on how to exist as people, the clothes people wear, the bumper stickers on the cars, saying ‘This is who I am’, ‘This is what I believe’. But with all of us, if you start peeling it back like an onion there’s weird, weirdo, weird shit inside all of us. And if you get into the inside, and see the weird shit, usually it calls to question the system that’s on the outside, and that’s what I find interesting.

I like the fact that there’s so little dialogue in the film.

It’s weird because I noticed that I have an aversion to it, and yet I talk a lot. When I was a kid my dad called me ‘Chatterbox’, and I had that New Year’s resolution many years to talk less and listen more, and then there’s this stuff, which is really self-indulgent. I love Sergio Leone and I love David Lynch, and I feel they do similar things with the soundscape and the sound design and the music. If you really think of it as a character in itself you have to create space for it. In Once upon a Time in the West Leone was playing that music when Claudia Cardinale was coming on the train in that sequence when she arrives in town. He had that epic piece already made and he was playing it for her to move to the music, so if you make films that way you’re thinking of it like a character and you make space for it. I also love Quentin Tarantino’s dialogue, I could listen to it all the time, and Woody Allen’s films, they talk all the time, it’s a different thing, it works well, but not in my own films so far. Actors were like, ‘I want to fucking say some lines,’ because they want to talk, they don’t want to just stand there. But what you don’t realise is that the less you’re saying the more you’re saying.

THe lack of dialogue makes the film more powerful. In the case of Sheila Vand in particular, if she was talking more, she would be less menacing.

She was always such a creature. I’m very close with her. She’s hypnotic, I can just stare at her face, stare at her eyes, infinitely. And there’s a sadness and a lonely, aching dissatisfaction to her that I find extremely charming and beautiful and self-destructive. The biggest thing was that, it’s supernatural, it’s not human, and she is a human, so my only concern was, ‘you’re a creature, no matter what, at all times, in all scenes’. So we were watching cobra videos on YouTube, and they follow your hand and imitate the movement, and looking at the tension of it too because they can strike fast.

The film seems to have a very melancholy view of human relationships, and it seems to show how those two isolated characters slowly learn to trust each other. Is that what you wanted to put in the film?

That’s my favourite part, when you say stuff like that, it’s the most interesting time for me. I love what people say about the film. My relationship to my film is like my relationship to my reflection in the mirror, like how others look at you. Yeah I have loneliness, and being a person is so singular and lonely in a way, fundamentally. And also when you’re making stuff you go even more into your little mind tunnels. I think I just want magic and meaningful connections and intimacy and it’s so hard, and life can be so automated. And it’s terrifying. That’s why I love music because it’s that and it’s instantly that. And it’s really special when it happens with other people because that’s really rare. But music does give me this feeling of freedom and comfort.

For that lovely scene of the first intimate moment between Arash and The Girl, when he comes up behind her in her room as she plays a record, you chose ‘Death’ by White Lies. Why that particular song?

It’s a really great song. I heard it when I was living in Germany the year before I made the film. It has this vintage nostalgia, it’s a new song but it has this feeling of synth-pop from the 80s. It just felt like the feeling of falling in love but in an adolescent way, it has a high school love feeling, it’s this innocent John Hughes kind of feeling. That’s what they are to me, those two. Because it’s so dumb in a way to fall in love, it’s two people who have no clue who each other are, so it’s that dumb, sweet, nostalgic love.

Why the title?

It’s so weird because I made a short film that was called A Girl Walks Home Alone at Night, it was five minutes long, in black and white. It was after I put that chador on and I thought of that character. I thought it’d be so cool to have her in a park and some man starts following her, through the streets, into a building and then into an apartment, and then right when he enters into the apartment she turns around and eats him. I was telling Sina [Sayyah], my producer, and I was explaining ‘and there’s this girl, and she walks home alone at night’, and then I was, ‘that’s it, that’s the title’.

The secondary characters are very interesting, there is something very rich about them. This is particularly true of Atti, the prostitute, because it is hinted that there are many things in her past, and it feels like she could be the main character of another film.

I feel like that about all of them, they are all the main characters in their own films. And they all had extremely detailed back stories, every single one of them. Atti watched her mother kill her father when she was 14 years old. She has a very intense and long story that ended her the way she is. But she is also a pragmatic, sensible, tough type of hero. I feel like it’s hard to ruffle her feathers. I love the pimp so much too, he is a fetish of mine.


The character was based on Ninja from Die Antwoord, the South African rap-rave duo. I’m a huge fan and I love Ninja, and I modelled Saeed a lot after him. I knew he was going to be this scary gangster because he looks so intense, so I made Dominic watch Friends because Saeed loves the show and Russ is his favourite character, and six weeks after the shooting he was still watching Friends. It was just to bring it down and make it sweet because it’s impossible, if you look like that you’re going to be taken a certain way.

The two women characters, the Girl and Atti, seem to know more than the male characters, they seem more aware of the forces that move them, whereas the male characters seem more confused about what is happening around them.

Yeah, I would say that’s interesting. The girls are cleverer. I read one time that the men seem more open and vulnerable, and the women are more closed-up and hard to read. I think both are astute observations. I feel that they’re also lonely. It was the one common thing that they all had, stages of it becoming crusty, a loneliness that becomes so stiff it’s really difficult to change.

The soundtrack to A Girl Walks Home Alone at Night is available from Death Waltz.

Interview by Virginie Sélavy

Watch the trailer:

Spring: Interview with Justin Benson and Aaron Moorhead


Format: Cinema

Release date: 22 May 2015

Distributor: Metrodome

Directors: Justin Benson, Aaron Moorhead

Writer: Justin Benson

Cast: Lou Taylor Pucci, Nadia Hilker

Italy, USA 2014

109 mins

Following their well-received 2012 debut Resolution, co-directors Justin Benson and Aaron Moorhead have crafted a romantic monster tale in Spring, mixing elements of horror and science fiction to explore love and relationships. The story centres on Evan, a young American who runs away to Italy after a bereavement. In a beautiful seaside town, he meets the seductive, free-spirited Louise and falls helplessly in love. But he will soon come to realise that Louise is hiding a dark secret.

Virginie Sélavy talked to Justin Benson and Aaron Moorhead at the London Film Festival in October 2014 where they discussed stem cells, new monsters and romantic inexperience.

Virginie Sélavy: Spring is part romance, part horror, part science fiction, and it’s very obvious that you made an effort to avoid genre clichés. Why was it important for you to have horror and science fiction elements in a romantic love story?

Justin Benson: I know this is going to sound like a cop-out answer but in the writing process we never discussed the genre it came in. At the very basic level there was the desire to make a monster movie but there’s something fun and rebellious in making a new monster. It’s so ingrained in writers and storytellers to use the same half-dozen or so monsters and mythologies that no one even attempts it. And as far as her mythology and the system by which her body works, the whole thing was trying to create a monster that has an emotional resonance like Bram Stoker’s Dracula is an exploration of sexual repression in Victorian society, or Frankenstein is about fear of science. And if you really think about it you can’t separate the monster component of our movie from the emotional component.

What is your monster about for you?

JB: It’s a little more surface level than metaphorical. She quite literally uses men to regenerate herself. She’s survived for 2,000 years by just sleeping with men and you don’t see that in cinema very often. She’s still a normal girl, but for self-preservation she’s willing to continuously sleep with people without emotional attachment. Thematically the movie is about the idea of rebirth, and that’s something we tried to photograph as well with all the insects and nature shots.

Aaron Moorhead: I think also every time she does that is a rejection of eternal love. And the stopping of the monster is the acceptance of eternal love, so accepting the complications and making sacrifices is what that represents, and the monster going away represents love as something more than just chemical.

Louise is an inexplicable, random, sometimes frightening creature governed by irrational forces. Was this also about women and their unpredictable nature with their strange bodily transformations?

JB: It was but that’s actually a low-hanging fruit in terms of representations or metaphors because every monster story is about that. The hope is that, as audience members who are not monsters, you highly identify with the situation because we’ve all been with someone where you wonder, ‘who is this person actually?’ and you also see yourself as a monster sometimes in relationships. And that’s something that’s been explored through countless films. I hope we did it as effectively as we can do it. However that’s a pretty well-tread path of symbolism.

You make great effort to anchor your story in the natural world and to give a scientific, rather than supernatural, explanation to your monster. Why was that important for you?

JB: For me it’s just that anything that is pure supernatural is less scary. Because there’s the idea that maybe something like Louise could actually exist in the world, without it being beyond the five senses, and that’s a terrifying idea. Our first movie plays with that a little, it’s a bit more metaphysical. In a lot of horror movies, there’s a point at which somebody set up the five rules of the monster, you can look at it, when you run it runs, things like that, and it’s completely arbitrary. In this case there’s just one singular idea and all the rules expand from that because it follows scientifically.

AM: The other interesting thing about it is that at any given time when a monster mythology is invented it’s over time that we start to accept it even though it doesn’t entirely make sense. For example at the time Frankenstein was written sewing a bunch of dead people’s body parts together and reviving it with electricity was almost plausible, today we don’t believe it. But now we know that stem cells basically provide you with immortality, so if one could metabolise stem cells it would follow that they would provide immortality. So if you’re going to develop a new monster it does make sense that you’re going to use something that makes sense from a modern perspective, whether it’s spiritual or scientific.

Justin, you said in the Q&A that you went to medical school.

JB: We made this a year before I went to medical school. I wouldn’t say it has a direct influence on my storytelling outside the fact that I was raised by parents who think very scientifically and I had scientific training. My mind works like that, I always want empirical evidence for things. But as far as my formal medical training goes, I read this article in Time magazine.

There is a strong connection between Louise and nature through all the insert shots of bugs. What was the thinking behind that?

JB: I think in many ways because she’s a freak of nature, she’s very singular, she’s got such a strange and powerful body, it would follow that she’s skipped a few steps of evolution. And so you might also see that if someone can control things outside of themselves like pheromones, or affect them in some way and connect with the world, that would follow from further evolution. It’s not quite so nailed down as that, it’s more like a mutation of some sort, but it seems to make sense that someone who has that kind of ability may also have the ability in very light ways to influence what else is happening around her.

There are a lot of aerial shots of the town and coast as well as close-ups on bugs and the monster’s animal body parts. It seems that you wanted to inscribe your story both in the large scale and the small scale of the world. Is that fair to say?

AM: We decided very early on when we were shooting this movie that, in addition to the small, personal cinema vérité stuff, there would always be these highly subjective shots, whether that be a camera panning off of them to something else the camera might find interesting, suggesting something like a presence or force, literally God’s eye view shots, anything we could do to visually communicate something bigger than them that’s possibly even outside their own belief systems. But not having them talk about it, always suggesting it photographically.

JB: One of the biggest ideas and biggest images of the movie is the comparison between the beautiful and the grotesque. And that’s constantly happening, with the bugs and all of that in beautiful Italy. But the idea is, if you’re making a horror movie that is set in an incredibly beautiful location – most of them take place in creaky old houses or a forest, places that are inherently scary – so if your location isn’t inherently scary how do you get that mood, how do you get the mood of something wrong? And so if we didn’t do that we just have a beautiful location with this other little thing happening, but nothing really feels wrong around it, and there is a sense of wrongness about the story. And that’s able to give us our more unsettling landscape without having to go down a familiar horror movie trail.

Why did you choose to film in Pompeii?

JB: We actually shot at a volcanic excavation site that was very similar to Pompeii but not exactly Pompeii because logistically we couldn’t do it. But the reason why it’s there in the story was that we wanted her to be at least 2,000 years old so she would have seen the transition between gods, which is something I’ve never quite seen in a character. Even in Anne Rice’s Vampire Chronicles they tend to be about 500 years old, and when they speak of things like God and their place in the universe they speak about a very Judeo-Christian God. And what I find so interesting about Louise is that she’s literally seen gods change, and how she would view spirituality given that. As far as it being Pompeii, it was a historical reference point for that region that most audiences would just know and it wouldn’t need much explanation. On top of that, in her own mythology, because of the casts at Pompeii, the moment she would see the cast of her love has a lot of emotional impact. She can go there and stare at the exact moment of death of her parents. And that’s something not only creepy but with a lot of emotional impact. And also she’s had to live through lava, which would be a horrifying painful event that would probably, none of us want to die, but she would probably have an even greater aversion to it given her experiences.

The film is an exploration of love and romance, and it seems almost as if you were working things out for yourself in the characters’ dialogue. When you were asked about love and relationships in the Q&A you said that you didn’t know much about romance. Isn’t that a little disingenuous?

JB: No, it’s true. I would be worried if someone watched that movie and was like, oh I’m going to learn about love or romance from this. The only things I know about romance and love are literally from my friends. I don’t have any personal experience of being in love but I have lots of friends who are in relationships and I speak to them about relationships. Aaron has real relationships, I can talk to him about that. And that’s really where a lot of stuff in this story comes from. And on top of that, as far as women go, I know my mum well, I have some amazing female friends. So far they’ve expressed they like her character and that means a lot. No one has said ‘you’re such a sexist’ yet.

It feels like she’s a fantasy, not a real person. Do you feel you’re still working out what you think relationships are?

JB: I guess so. And in that way it is entirely fictional. I’m inventing an idea of something I don’t know anything about. But it’s cool that people identify with it and like it.

I believe you are now working on an Aleister Crowley film. What angle are you going to take on this?

JB: When you look at everything we’ve done, if you want to put some adjectives on it, it’s weird and mythic, quietly mythic. That is Aleister Crowley. He’s someone that people will immediately identify as being that guy who’s into the supernatural and the occult, but his idea of the supernatural and the occult is something so esoteric that there is no normal path to telling the Aleister Crowley story. You have to break a lot of rules to tell a story, and so you have to take new paths of storytelling and it has to be weird and it has to be mythic.

AM: And that honours the good parts of his memory. There’s plenty of bad parts so we don’t worship this guy in any way, we find him to be a very complicated and flawed and fascinating human being.

JB: And if someone were trying to simplify it into being about a demon they’d be incorrect. If you look at Aleister Crowley and you call him a Satanist, you’re incorrect. He’s not. He doesn’t believe in Satan. What he believes is very complicated. He’s not a great person but it connects with everything we’ve done very nicely.

AM: Right now we don’t have the desire to expand our scope into a full-on biopic, we will eventually, but right now we just want to keep telling a very small personal story about relationships, and this one is more about his relationship with his own ego. But there’s also a lot of people around him that he destroys, builds up and destroys again. So our story takes place in the pressure cooker of one week really early on in his life where he’s performing a ritual to purify himself. That’s the framework of it. What’s really happening is that he’s a man with a bunch of really good ideas but with absolutely no sense of moderation, and he makes these choices that lead him to become what history remembers as ‘the wickedest man in the world’. That’s our take on it, it’s a very small film with a really big idea and a gigantic character.

JB: If you want to simplify it he’s like Tyler Durden from Fight Club meets Captain Jack Sparrow from Pirates of the Caribbean.

Interview by Virginie Sélavy

Watch the trailer:

Rigor Mortis: Interview with Juno Mak

Rigor Mortis
Rigor Mortis

Format: Cinema

Release date: 24 April 2015

Distributor: Metrodome

Director: Juno Mak

Writers: Philip Yung, Jill Leung, Juno Mak

Cast: Chin Siu-ho, Anthony Chan, Kara Hui

Hong Kong 2013

101 mins

Cantopop star, record producer, Hong Kong fashion designer, actor and writer: the multifaceted Juno Mak makes his directorial debut with Rigor Mortis, an elegant dramatic horror film that’s both a melancholic story of bereavement and a sombre love letter to Ricky Lau’s hopping vampire classic Mr. Vampire (1985).

Mark Player talks to Juno Mak about reuniting the cast of Mr. Vampire, working with J-horror icon Takashi Shimizu and, of course, hopping vampires.

Mark Player: You first began your career in the music industry before branching out into acting. What made you then decide to transition to directing?

Juno Mak: I never went to university; I started working when I was 18. Fortunately, I got signed under Universal Music and when I was 17, I spent a year in Japan doing all sorts of training – signing, dancing and speaking Japanese. Then I started working as a singer. But to me, I guess, throughout all these years, composing a melody, singing a song, or producing music, writing a script, being an actor, or being a director and a producer all goes back to being creative. It’s just a different way to express creativity; sometimes through music, sometimes through visuals.

Even before Rigor Mortis you seemed keen to start to writing scripts for films, for instance, Revenge: A Love Story (2010), which you also starred in.

Revenge: A Love Story was a great experience. I was very lucky because that was my first script and I wrote it without knowing whether it would be made into a film or not. There wasn’t such a genre in the market at that moment, so I just wrote it out of curiosity. Luckily we found a producer and investor who were interested in such an extreme, depressed, heavy genre film. It was done with a very low budget and we shot only for 19 days, I believe. Being able to make Revenge: A Love Story was very surprising for me, as was the film festival circuit after we finished production. We got invited to the Moscow International Film Festival. That was my first time attending a film festival and we were fortunate to get the Screenplay Award; the director, Wong Ching-po, won Best Director as well. We also attended the Puchon International Film Festival in South Korea and won another award for Best Actor. Soon I was approached by different producers. They were looking to do a sequel to Revenge: A Love Story, which was difficult for me because I’ve never really believed in doing sequels. Other producers asked me what kind of genre I would like to explore if I could write something of my own will,? That’s when I brought up the hopping vampire (jiangshi) genre, which was very popular during the 1980s but has been gone for almost 30 years. They were willing to let me explore this genre and that’s how Rigor Mortis started.

Rigor Mortis explicitly references – and even subverts – tropes from that Golden Age of jiangshi films you just mentioned, specifically the Mr. Vampire series. It’s very self-referential and very… meta, let’s say. Where did the idea for this approach come from?

At first, it’s about my childhood. I grew up in Vancouver and Mr. Vampire played a big part in my childhood. Renting it on VHS, I watched it so many times that I guess it just got stuck in my mind. I am very familiar with the hopping vampire genre and when I was approached to create Rigor Mortis, I started giving it a lot of thought again. I don’t believe Rigor Mortis is a remake of Mr. Vampire. Since the original film was so popular and great, I didn’t think it was necessary to do one. Approaching this genre, I felt that I had to have a different point of view. Mr. Vampire is more of a comical horror type of film and Rigor Mortis became a heavier, more humane type of film. But by reuniting the original cast of Mr. Vampire, I believe that there’s a certain homage. Sadly, some of the main actors from the film have passed away and others have retired.

Yes, I noticed that you pay tribute to those that have passed in the end credits (Ricky Hui and Lam Ching-ying). But you did manage to reunite actors Chin Siu-ho, Anthony Chan, Richard Ng and Billy Lau from Mr. Vampire. How did it feel to work with these childhood heroes?

It was beautiful. Again, I don’t believe in remaking such a classic, but by reuniting the cast, I felt I got a cast that was much older and more experienced. Most of them are now over 50, and seeing the wrinkles on their faces was just so beautiful. I wanted to make the film about people who have entered a certain age and are quite confused or uncertain about the future. They are broken, basically.

Chin Siu-ho plays a washed-up version of himself, and is also suicidal and mentally disturbed. What was his reaction when you first gave him the script?

We had worked together before. He played a role in Revenge: A Love Story, and that’s how I first met him. He’s always been an action figure, even in the original Mr. Vampire. So when I told him the idea for Rigor Mortis, it was a huge challenge for him because I’m not in for the action, or the stunts; I was more into the idea of him as this fictional character. He lives very happily with his family, so the whole depressive, washed-up side of him is my fictional point of view.

It took me quite a while to get him to open up about his feelings and how he could be more emotionally naked in front of the camera. He’s very healthy and very into sports, and he’s very happy with his family. So I had to make him look depressed as quickly as possible because we only had about three weeks of pre-production. I feel really sorry about it now, but we basically had to torture him to make him very depressive. We consulted three different doctors on the fastest way to break down a person and they all came up with the same solution, which was to not let him sleep. So during pre-production, we had to break up his sleep every two hours. We’d call him and have him stay on the phone for at least 10 minutes before he could get back to sleep, and then we would call him again two hours later. He also went on a diet so the whole process was definitely a torture. But it turned him into what he looks like in Rigor Mortis within three weeks. It was a cold-hearted decision, but he understood.

There’s a scene right near the start of the film when he is unpacking old film costumes that his character has kept over the years. Were they the genuine article?

Some, yes. Some I had to remake because they didn’t keep a lot of the costumes from the original Mr. Vampire. So some of them were the originals and others were the result of my own interpretation from the films I remembered seeing him in as a child. When it came to the hopping vampire, we ended up doing a whole new costume design.

Because horror films tend to be very transnational in their appeal, was it a case of trying to strike a balance between, on the one hand, making a film that was rooted in Chinese folklore and, on the other, making something that a modern international horror audience aren’t going to scoff at or find a bit silly? There’s certainly a lot less hopping in Rigor Mortis than in Mr. Vampire.

I believe it’s definitely more towards the drama side as opposed to the horror side. I didn’t make this film intentionally to be horror. I’m not really into the blood, the gore, or making you jump in your seat. There are moments like that in Rigor Mortis but those are not my main concern. My main concern is about this group of people. For example, I wanted to see how Nina Paw’s character [the widow who wants to resurrect her dead husband in the film] transforms from a really friendly person into a really evil one. Even with Anthony Chan’s character, you can see they are all about the fear of losing, or not knowing what to do about their lives. So definitely Rigor Mortis is about drama and these lost souls instead of just horror thrills.

Having said that, you co-produced the film with Japanese horror cinema veteran Takashi Shimizu, perhaps most famous for Ju-on: The Grudge (2002) and its various permutations. How did he get involved, and what did he bring to the project?

Takashi Shimizu got on board right after I finished shooting the film, so as a producer he joined us pretty late. He worked mostly on the post-production with me. I met him in Japan. I guess the reason he was interested in the project is that the hopping vampire genre plays a big part in Japanese pop culture as well, so people there recognise it too. With Ju-on, he has become a popular name in the horror genre, but deep down I believe he tends to want to work on a more character-driven story that’s heavy on drama. So when he read the script for Rigor Mortis, he saw the elements in it that are more than just thrills, blood and gore. I believe he’s always wanted to make films that are more than just horror. And of course with his experience and insights, he assisted me with things like sound design, the colour tone and the CGI.

So, I guess Rigor Mortis is a revival or sorts for jiangshi films?

The genre has been gone for a long time. It used to be a very commercial and popular genre in Hong Kong. Why did it disappear? That was my main question when I was working on the script. When we were in post-production, we got the announcement from the Venice Film Festival that the film had been selected to play there. That was a big triumph for the team because it had been a very long shoot. We had shot for 70 days, and post-production was almost a year. We never really expected it, and from there the film had a life of its own. It went from Venice to Toronto, then to Tokyo and Taiwan, and then it came back to Hong Kong for the premiere. I guess what connects this film to the audience is more than just the hopping vampire genre, it’s also the characters, the love among these older people. I guess it’s a very universal topic. Of course, at the same time it has a sort of mythical essence to it that got people’s attention.

The film is incredibly stylish and features a lot of special effects sequences. Was this daunting, considering that you were directing for the first time?

Yes… I guess it was like a mission, or a goal for me to achieve. During pre-production, that’s what I wanted, even with the minor details. We’ve seen at lot of hopping vampires from those original films and we absolutely understand the way they hop, but is there another way that we could show it? For our film, we put the hopping vampire in a water tank because I really wanted that slow-motion effect for his clothing and the way he moves. It was a very difficult moment, and because no one had ever done something like that in Hong Kong cinema before, we had to design and build our own tank. But since you can’t really hop in water, we had to use eight wires and four scuba divers to push the stuntman forward in order to present that hopping visual. That’s just one example, but there are lots of minor details like this throughout the whole film. The concern I had as a first-time director was that I wanted people to tell the difference between this film and the other hopping vampire films that came before it. I had plenty of ideas for the visuals and, fortunately, my producers were very patient with me. It was an experiment for all of us because a lot of the things that I wanted to do hadn’t been done before in the Hong Kong film industry. So I am very grateful for having such a great team.

Another element to the film’s style that shouldn’t be overlooked is the apartment block that the whole story takes place in. Was it a real location?

It was based on an actual place. We went location scouting and looked at a lot of housing compounds in Hong Kong, and that was fascinating to me. However, there were technical issues to consider and although these places looked interesting, there wouldn’t be a lot of space for the camera, lighting or the wire rigs. So we had to build our own corridor and all the apartments along it. I guess what you see in the film is about 20% real housing compound and about 80% on set.

What’s next for you? Are you looking to continue directing?

It’s kind of funny, in a sense. When travelling with the film to festivals, I was approached to do a Rigor Mortis sequel. That’s when I realised that I don’t have much more that I want to express in this genre. I want to move on to a different genre, so I have started work on a new script that has nothing to do with Rigor Mortis, or ghosts, or vampires; it’s more of an epic crime thriller. The first cut we did of Rigor Mortis was three hours long and had a lot more character development and extra scenes. I got many people asking if they could see this longer cut. At a certain point it became a pressure for me because I felt like I needed to take a break from it. I may revisit it later, after directing some other films, and maybe I’ll get a different perspective on it. The script I’m working on now is going to be a long shoot. The scale, the budget, the cast, the story, the shooting days, and the technical difficulties I think will be 10 times heavier than Rigor Mortis, so that’s my main focus at the moment. The working title for it is Sons of the Neon Night.

Interview by Mark Player

Watch the trailer:

Fifty Shades of Erotica: Interview with Marc Morris

Fifty Shades of Erotica
Cover art for Fifty Shades of Erotica

Fifty Shades of Erotica

Format: DVD

Release date: 13 April 2015

Distributor: Nucleus Films

Directors: various

UK 2014

102 mins

Following their acclaimed Grindhouse and Video Nasties compilations, Nucleus Films have put together a collection of erotic trailers from the 1960s to the 1990s in response to the success of the bland and comparatively unadventurous Fifty Shades of Grey. Focusing on arthouse erotica, the selection combines well-known films such as In the Realm of the Senses and Emmanuelle as well as more obscure titles including The Libertine and The Frightened Woman.

Virginie Sélavy talked to Marc Morris of Nucleus Films about Pop Art Italian erotica, the importance of soundtracks and the taboos that remain.

Virginie Sélavy: Why was it important to you to respond to Fifty Shades of Grey?

Marc Morris: We’d done several compilations of grindhouse trailers. You could say it’s a shameless cash-in, but when I saw this film coming out, I thought it was going to be really tame, and a lot of people going to see this probably don’t know that there’s this underbelly of erotic cinema that was made a long time ago. And I thought it’d be nice to make people aware that there was other stuff out there way before this. A lot of people said, why didn’t you make a ‘Grindhouse Trailer Classics – Erotica’ version? But I didn’t really want grindhouse sleaze, I wanted more arthouse erotica. So that’s what drew the line for me. I wanted it to be more upmarket, more world cinema erotica. I did go see Fifty Shades of Grey and I didn’t think it was that bad, although I thought the soundtrack was dreadful, that was the worst thing about it.

Yes, it’s awful and it reminds you how amazing the soundtracks to these classic erotic films are, and how important the music is.

The film was mediocre, but it’s refreshing to see a film that’s rated 18 for an adult audience.

But there’s nothing in it.

I know. I guess it’s the whole S&M theme that gives it an 18. There’s no nudity – all you see is a flash of pubic hair, her top off, buttocks, that’s it.

The presence of pubic hair was one positive thing for me about the film.

Yes, that was refreshing, a throwback to the 70s.

But in comparison to all the films on your compilations, it is incredibly tame.

There’s more nudity in most of our trailers than there is in the whole film.

Exactly. There are actually very few sex scenes in Fifty Shades of Grey and it’s not really about S&M.

Most of the people who are seeing it, the kids who have grown up on Marvel blockbusters and PG13 Harry Potter stuff, the women who have read the books, probably think it’s really racy. I remember when I was a teenager my mum went and saw Emmanuelle. That was the cause célèbre at the time, back in 1974-5, I remember all her friends talking about it. Emmanuelle, compared to Fifty Shades of Grey, is way racier.

Absolutely. The end still feels a little edgy, even now.

When I was watching Fifty Shades of Grey I was thinking about The Story of O. It’s the same kind of relationship, the woman proving her love by doing whatever her lover wants, giving herself to him and his desires. And even now that pushes boundaries. There’s full-on nudity, whipping, it’s really strong! And I can’t believe that’s an 18 and so is Fifty Shades of Grey! You look back at those films and they are ground-breaking and confrontational, but you don’t get that anymore. I’m hoping that because of Fifty Shades of Grey we’re going to have more filmmakers out there coming up with something a little edgier. I know you had The Duke of Burgundy but hopefully there’ll be more.

The Duke of Burgundy and Nymphomaniac are more the equivalent of the 60s-70s films, not Fifty Shades of Grey.

Oh I forgot about Nymphomaniac, I can’t believe it showed in mainstream cinemas as well. We tried to market the DVD with the Fifty Shades of Erotica title specifically so that it’d be sat in DVD racks next to Fifty Shades of Grey and people would thumb through and see it, and it might educate them into seeing that there were better and racier films that were made back in those days. And it might make them realise that a lot of these films refer back to Marquis de Sade and Krafft-Ebbing and lead them to the books. I got into it through the books – I collected them as a teenager.

What’s your favourite trailer on the compilation?

The first one, The Libertine, from 1968. I love the soundtrack. The film itself is so European and visual, it’s stunning, it’s like Pop Art on film, it’s the equivalent of Diabolik in a sex film. And The Frightened Woman is another really good one. It’s like a companion piece to that film. Everything about it is so beautiful, the set design, the soundtrack, the acting.

This is what’s direly missing in something like Fifty Shades of Grey: those films are wildly inventive not just in the way they depict sex, but also visually and sonically. You said earlier that you deliberately picked films that were on the arty side.

Yes, because I thought that if I put edgier stuff in there it might frighten people off. I just wanted it to be slick, arthouse cinema erotica – sophisticated erotica.

But you still have a good range in that you go from Night Porter to more light-hearted comedies like the Tinto Brass stuff.

Yes, it was difficult because I wanted to keep it S&M themed, but there weren’t enough movies for that. So I thought I’d keep it to erotic film classics, some things that people wouldn’t have heard of, German stuff, like Seduction: The Cruel Woman. Night Porter is actually a very rare trailer. It’s not on any DVD or Blu-ray. That’s the original UK theatrical trailer. There were loads of trailers that I would have loved to have included but that I couldn’t find.

What is not on there that you would have really liked to have?

Definitely The Slave. But there’s no trailer for it. Madame Claude, lots of Italian films. I have a whole wish list for trailers I’d have liked to have included but I just couldn’t find them. We collect trailers on 35mm and I’ve got a whole archive of them and a whole network of people around the globe who have trailers, and you ask around and they say, no we’ve never seen it. They’re hard to find. There’s some very rare stuff on there, like The Libertine, you try and find this trailer anywhere.

Obviously some directors feature heavily on this compilation, Radley Metzger, Tinto Brass, Jess Franco. Are they the most important erotic directors for you?

Yes, I think they are. I was aware there are a lot of films by them, but they were known for producing erotic movies. They’re like the Russ Meyer of Europe. I was going to put in a few Russ Meyer, but they’re not quite the same, they don’t have the same slickness to them. They push boundaries, Vixen does, and so does The Immoral Mr Teas, but they’re very early. They don’t seem as boundary-breaking as some of the other stuff. And I thought I’d lighten it up a bit with some of the Tinto Brass stuff, make it a bit wittier. It’s difficult balancing it out.

Did you feel that you should include some of the big sex films of the period like Last Tango in Paris or Deep Throat?

For Last Tango in Paris I had a trailer but I didn’t include it because it was so boring. It’s just a selection of stills, there’s nothing in it. Deep Throat is a hardcore porn film and the trailer is hardcore so I didn’t want to include that. The only film that we’ve included a trailer for that was hardcore is The Image, and that’s the soft version of the trailer. I didn’t include any hardcore stuff apart from that one because I think it’s an important film. I’d like to have included The Story of Joanna as well, the Damiano film, but I couldn’t find a trailer for that.

What about Robbe-Grillet?

I looked at those but I didn’t want any black and white stuff. I did consider also including the trailer to Quiet Days in Clichy, but it was just a load of old ugly blokes shagging young girls, it’s a bit unreasonable, isn’t it. It didn’t seem to fit. So with that in mind, Jake [West, the other Nucleus Films producer] and I decided not to include any black and white trailers.

The trailers go from the 60s to the early 90s, why did you go into the 90s?

Because I couldn’t find enough trailers. People have said to me, why don’t you do a Volume 2? But it was hard enough to do that volume. I could do something that wasn’t as arthouse, I could do a sexual roughie one, but the BBFC probably wouldn’t like that. I think the most roughie-ish stuff I put on there was the Joe Sarno stuff, like Female Animal.

Was the BBFC a consideration when you were putting the compilation together?

I thought that it wouldn’t really fit with the rest of the stuff. America at the time, and a lot of other countries, put out a lot of roughies, with rape and things like that, and I didn’t think that was very erotic. I wanted to keep it consensual.

There’s one film that stands out in there in the sense that you don’t have much Japanese stuff but you have Blind Beast.

I love that film. I could have put more in there but I worry about owners of rights. Some studios are a bit difficult. There were hundreds of pink movies made but it’s difficult where to draw the line.

So why did you include that one particularly?

Because it’s a favourite of mine. It’s beautiful, it’s a bit like the Italian Pop Art stuff, it’s a Japanese Pop Art film. Everything about it is so mesmerising. It’s like The Frightened Woman Japanese-style. It’s a film people must see!

When you put together the Video Nasties trailer compilations you made two excellent documentaries that put the film in context. Did you think of doing the same thing for this one?

We did, but we couldn’t think of anybody who could talk about it. We needed someone well-known, and it took
me so long to put this together I didn’t have time to go and film anybody, so we thought we’d let the trailers
speak for themselves. We couldn’t find anybody who would do it justice. There’s such a hang-up about sexual material.

Read our interview with Jake West and Marc Morris on Video Nasties: The Definitive Guide Part Two.

Interview by Virginie Sélavy

Watch the trailer:

Queen and Country: Interview with John Boorman

Queen and Country
Queen and Country

Format: Cinema

Release date: 5 June 2015 (London), 12 June 2015(nationwide UK)

DVD release date: 24 August 2015

Distributor: Curzon Artificial Eye

Director: John Boorman

Writer: John Boorman

Cast: Callum Turner, Caleb Landry Jones, Vanessa Kirby, Richard E. Grant, David Thewlis

UK 2014

115 mins

Greg Klymkiw’s Colonial Report (on cinema) from the Dominion of Canada

In 1987 John Boorman (Deliverance, Point Blank) gave us the sweet, funny and happily (as well as sadly) nostalgic Hope and Glory, the autobiographical journey of Bill Rohan, a young lad growing up in London during the Blitz and his subsequent adventures when moved out to the country for safety. One of the strangest and most delightful aspects of Boorman’s picture was how it focused on a boy and his chums discovering that their bombed-out city had been transformed into one big playground. Tempering this were the more sobering realities of life, love, family and yes, even the realities of war, seen through a child’s eyes.

It’s now 25 years later that the 82-year-old Boorman delivers a sequel, Queen and Country. Bill (Callum Turner) is now a young man and he’s been called up for two years of mandatory military service to dear old Blighty. Much to the chagrin of the regiment’s commanding officer (Richard E. Grant), Bill forms a veritable Dynamic Duo with his cheeky, irreverent chum Percy Hapgood (Caleb Landry Jones), and the lads wreak considerable havoc in the barracks, from basic training through to the end of their short military careers.

The lads’ chief nemesis is the humourless, mean-spirited, borderline psychotic Sgt. Major Bradley (David Thewlis), who proves to be the bane of their existence. But the boys turn those tables quite handily and indeed become the even bigger bane of Bradley’s existence – pilfering the beloved regiment clock, ignoring protocol during typing lessons (YES! Typing lessons!) and eventually using ‘the book’ to gain an upper hand over their superiors.

The humour and events are mostly of the gentle and good-natured variety, from Bill courting Ophelia (Tamsin Egerton), a beautiful icequeen with a dark secret, to Percy wooing Dawn (Vanessa Kirby), Bill’s sexy sister, during a happy leave in the country, where the entire Rohan family joins in the thrill of unboxing a television set, madly attempting to get the roof-antenna reception just right and gathering round the flickering, monochrome cathode-ray images that capture the coronation of the young Queen Elizabeth.

There is darkness to Boorman’s tale, however, and though our characters are far away from the explosive Hope and Glory rubble of the Blitz, the very real and scary prospect of being called up for active duty in Korea looms large. The horror of war also creeps into the character of Bradley, when eventually the shenanigans perpetrated upon him reveal why his mask might not be as firmly affixed as everyone thinks.

The final third of the film is imbued with one emotional wallop after another, including a court martial, harrowing trips to a veterans’ hospital, military prison and finally a very sweet and deeply moving tribute to both love and cinema.

Queen and Country is a lovely, elegiac capper to the long, illustrious career of a grand old man of the movies. That said, I desperately hope Mr Boorman has it in him to produce one final installment in the early life of Bill Rohan. We’ve been treated to the Blitz and post-war England, and I do think an excursion into the Swinging 60s is in order.

And now, my brief, but lovely, conversation with this great man whose lifetime of films have delivered so much to the art of cinema.

* * *

Greg Klymkiw: I was tremendously moved by Queen and Country, and not only because it continues the adventures of Bill Rohan from Hope and Glory, a film that was very special to me when it was first released. It has, in fact, continued to resonate within me as a film that fueled memories of my own childhood, at a time that was 20+ years after the events of the film. As a child growing up in Canada, which, in the early 60s, was still very much the Dominion of Canada, I recalled feeling a kinship with the Queen and England, but also World War II, which Canada participated in, both as its own entity, and also as a subject of the Crown. The war did not, at least in early childhood, seem that far away. As a young man in my early 20s, Hope and Glory plunged me back to the early 60s, rekindling the odd feelings of how war, as a kid, seemed, well, fun. But, interestingly, because the new film focuses upon Bill at an age I myself was when I first saw Hope and Glory, I was able to respond this time on a similarly strangely nostalgic level. Seeing Bill’s character in Queen and Country, not only did I relate to his sense of fun and irreverence, but, most importantly, his questioning of authority during the 1950s was not unlike my own experience as a young man during the 1980s. Authority? Conformity? Be damned, will you! It’s strange how everything old becomes new again. Post-war must have been a huge time of change, as I feel now about the 1980s, what with the era of Reagan and Thatcher.

John Boorman: Well thank you. That makes me very happy to hear when people respond so positively and personally to the film.

I respond that way not just to Queen and Country, but all of your films. From Having a Wild Weekend onwards, I feel like I’ve grown up from childhood to middle age with all of your work.

That’s so kind of you to say. I also appreciate your thoughts regarding the periods in which both of the Bill Rohan films are set. With Queen and Country, it’s set during a time of great change. After two world wars, England was completely broke, so heavily bombed that massive reconstruction needed to take place. Churchill was tossed out and the Labour Party came into power. It was a very reforming government.

Well, of course, my only experience with the postwar period comes from the movies – mostly American cinema for me, mind you. Both film noir and the strangely expressionistic melodramas of Douglas Sirk were fraught with a weird amalgam of new beginnings and ennui, though the new beginnings seemed loaded with compromise, conformity and authority.

That’s so true, and it’s fascinating how all art reflects history, all the more so with cinema.

Come to think of it, though, British cinema had its own reaction to the period, what with the Ealing comedies and their emphasis upon industry, labour relations, etc.; those weird, low-budget British noir-knock-offs that Hammer was doing, and, a bit later on, the kitchen-sink angry-young-man work. What precisely were the changes and reforms in England that populate Bill Rohan’s world in Queen and Country?

It was a time of great upheaval. These were, after all, the beginnings of the National Health Service and, very importantly, the 1947 Education Act, which positively transformed the youngest of that generation in ways that yielded genuine personal exploration. Up until that time it was grammar school or being shunted into a trade, but now, every child was taught music, literature beyond mere grammar and, of course, art. When you pitch all that forward, those kids in the postwar period who started to learn so many new things, as well as the emphasis on personal expression, those same kids in the 60s became The Beatles.

Ah yes, and in Queen and Country we find young Bill in the middle, burrowed deeply between the early reforms and, uh, The Beatles. He’s got the benefits of reform, but is smack up against authority, just before things explode for his generation.

Yes, precisely.

The monarchy played an odd role in Canada during the early 60s and certainly, to this day, we are still, at least on paper, subjects of the Queen. My Lord, we still have pockets of die-hard monarchists occasionally rearing their heads in the strangest enclaves here and there across our Dominion.

Yes, I’ve never understood how or why certain progressive countries within the former Commonwealth, like Canada and Australia, held on to the traditions of the monarchy, if only in name only.

I’ve always felt like the monarchy became an especially important thing for the middle class in England. Certainly Queen and Country places a fair degree of emphasis upon the backdrop of royalty. There is, of course, the whole gentle set-piece revolving around the king’s death and Queen Elizabeth’s coronation.

Oh yes, the scene where the family is watching the coronation certainly captures the generational differences. Though Bill’s father is a loyalist, Grandpa pooh-poohs the whole thing and Bill is somewhat indifferent, save for feeling that there’s no real context for the monarchy in the modern world.

I loved the scene where the whole family rallies together to set up the new television and the complex machinations of getting the antenna just right to receive the best reception.

People responded emotionally to a young queen, though most of the younger people at the time were opposed to the aristocracy and wanted it all to be swept away.

And yet, the monarchy survives.

It’s only survived because Elizabeth has been on the throne for 63 years and through sheer longevity has kept the whole thing afloat. There’s no place for it in the modern world. The objections of those earlier generations probably didn’t go far enough. We should have gotten rid of the aristocracy.

And class?

Privilege continues, as does the aristocracy. We’ve never been able to make it disappear. As for class, money has taken over from class.

The character in Queen and Country who fascinated me was Bradley, the antagonistic force played by David Thewlis. He’s a stiff-upper-lip, strict rule of the law, by-the-book military man, and though he refuses to buckle under, I kept sensing a considerable degree of humanity in him – so much so that I often pined for even just a moment when his shell might crack and allow him to connect with Bill’s character.

Bradley is based on a real-life person who was very much like that. David is a remarkable actor. Given the autobiographical nature of the film, I was still able to maintain a certain degree of objectivity and quite successfully separate myself from the events and characters I was shooting. In the case of Bradley, though, David managed to reproduce this person he himself had never met, so that every single time he came on set I got a frisson of fear from this actor, this beautiful man who is normally one of the sweetest, kindest and gentlest of men. What David accomplished seems to go beyond acting.

Of course I suspect my need to experience a shell cracking in Bradley to allow him even a solitary moment to acknowledge Bill is rooted in my own occasional desire to give way to clichéd and/or sentimental elements of storytelling, but as frightening as Bradley is, this tiny part of me was almost pleading with him, ‘Please, crack, just a bit. Let in some sunshine, please!’

[Laughing] I understand completely. That’s David Thewlis, though. When David is, for example, looking at the flag after the king has died, waiting for it to go half-mast, this is on the heels of feeling like his whole cosmos is threatened. One can understand this and the reality of it is palpable. Ah, David’s such a magnificent actor and he achieves a high degree of reality with this role.

Certainly so many of your films pulsate with a reality that seems to send us into the kind of thrilling places only movies can take us – unless of course we actually experience them for ourselves. I find the almost ‘documentary’ approach to Deliverance – real people, in real canoes on real rushing rapids – something that I can’t shake. The sense of reality Thewlis brings to his role is surely different from that, isn’t it?

Both are recreations of reality. Yes, they’re different, but it’s still achieving a reality for your audience. However, plunging into that powerful river with a skeleton crew and the reality of filming real actors on those dangerous rapids in Deliverance still doesn’t have the same effect upon me as delving into my own personal memories and putting those on film.

And your previous thoughts about maintaining objectivity in recreating dramatic renderings of your life in Queen and Country?

Maintaining objectivity is one thing and very important in presenting a dramatic work, but there’s the very reality of what one feels as a director, on set, a reality, a personal reality, that you must work hard at so it is not affecting the final outcome of what you put on film – trying to maintain balance at all times so that the drama does indeed work as such.

Other than Thewlis, was there anything else in Queen and Country that challenged this objectivity as a filmmaker?

The scene with my ‘mother’ waving to her lover from the affair she had in Hope and Glory was the only other time in the process of making Queen and Country that I was not able to maintain complete objectivity. In life and as portrayed in both films, my mother’s affair devastated me as a child, and even now those feelings of deep sadness are with me. Having to recreate that simple moment, that simple connection between the mother and her long-ago lover with a gesture as simple as a wave, was tremendously affecting to me on a personal level.

I can’t help but think, then, that all of your best work is infused with you personally. Aside from the incredible skill and craftsmanship you bring to bear, there must also be elements of who you are that affect the final outcome, yes?

I do think it occasionally manifests itself in the kinds of films I’m compelled to make, the stories I feel the need to tell. My mother’s love affair with my father’s best friend had an enormous impact upon me as a child and that certainly carries over into some of my films. Point Blank, on one level, is a brutal crime film, but on the level of character it’s driven by a similar love triangle that’s haunted me for so much of my life. Excalibur is derived from the most well-known love triangle in the narrative of Britain’s royalty, that of King Arthur, Guinevere and Sir Lancelot. Indeed, these things in one’s own life creep in, you’re not always even aware of them as you’re ultimately in the business of creating works of imagination.

Well, Mr Boorman, I’d certainly be interested in knowing what elements of your life and indeed, your innermost soul, were roiling about within you when you chose to make Zardoz.

[Laughs heartily] Oh, indeed. We don’t want to go there.

I love that movie. For the two or so weeks it played first-run in my old hometown, I obsessively sat through multiple screenings. Lord knows, for my own sake, in conjuring what manner of psychoses roiled within me as a teenager, it is a place I certainly don’t want to go to either.

Fox brought me to Los Angeles recently and I actually supervised the colour restoration for a major home-entertainment release. I queried the Fox people on why they were going to this trouble and expense. They informed me that Zardoz has a lot of admirers and considerable interest. So here we are with a film that went from being a failure to a classic without passing through success.

Queen and Country ends with the early beginnings of Bill as a filmmaker. The final shot is both breathtaking and deeply moving.

I’m glad you responded emotionally to it. The camera stopping is my way of saying that my career as a filmmaker has stopped.

Queen and Country was released in Canada on 27 March 2015 by Search Engine Films, following it’s US release by BBC Worldwide North America.

Surely not in the 50s?

[Laughs] I am, at present, 82 years old.

Well, I for one, urge you to make one more movie about Bill.

Thank you so much. We’ll see what we can do about that.

Interview by Greg Klymkiw

Silver Shoes: Interview with Jennifer Lyon Bell

Silver Shoes
Silver Shoes

Format: DVD

Release date: 5 February 2015

Distributor: Blue Artichoke Films

Director: Jennifer Lyon Bell

Writer: Jennifer Lyon Bell

Cast: Joost Smoss, Liandra Dahl, AnnaBelle Lee

Netherlands 2015

73 mins

Good films and good sex don’t have to be mutually exclusive. That should be common sense but how many good films can you think of which have realistic, genuinely erotic sex scenes? And how many erotic films can you think of with artistic or dramatic merit? For Jennifer Lyon Bell, the answer was ‘surprisingly few’, and so she set about making her own. Her latest release, Silver Shoes, is a trilogy of erotic films woven loosely around the theme of clothing. In the first, a girl goes to borrow some shoes from a female acquaintance and, after discovering a wardrobe full of men’s clothes, finds her sexual curiosity is sparked. In the second, a housesitter explores the mixed feelings (both erotic and melancholic) sparked by going through the owner’s clothing. And in the third, a woman and a man end up having sex after a build-up in which the woman believes the man to be gay.

Lisa Williams talks to Jennifer Lyon Bell about clothing as sexual currency, feminist porn and how she likes to craft a film.

Lisa Williams: Clothes have emotional and sexual currency in this collection of films; was that the start point of it all, and what is it about clothing that creates this meaning for you?

Jennifer Lyon Bell: I started thinking a lot about clothing after I took a drag king workshop a few years ago by the brilliant European performance artist Louise Deville. Seeing the ways in which small changes in my outfit made other people treat me so differently was intense. And I enjoyed thinking about what items of clothing, anywhere on the gender spectrum, had come to carry erotic power for me. I was struck that the typical female ‘sexy’ clothes – fishnets, black high heels, bandage dresses – didn’t do much for me and never had. And I wasn’t even sure what men’s ‘sexy’ clothing was supposed to be, though I had certainly gotten an erotic charge from certain men’s clothing items in the context of my own life. It seemed only natural to start exploring these issues through the lens of a film.

There is that running theme but there’s also a nice balance to the collection (one woman and woman story, one woman alone, and one woman and a man story). Did you think of it in these terms or did it come about organically?

I’ve always enjoyed short films, and I liked the idea of creating a filmic kaleidoscope with short films, whereby certain elements change while others stay the same. So portraying a variety of relationships in Silver Shoes definitely was an integral part of that idea. In truth, I also shot a solo male scene because I thought it would make a true balance. But in the final edit, that short film felt so different tonally from the others that it made the film feel unbalanced and harder to understand. I liked it better as a trilogy, so I kept it that way. I decided to include the male solo on the DVD release for those who would like a peek at it anyway. I might also add that I like the idea of offering the viewer all kinds of hot sex without necessarily asking them to connect it to their own sexual orientation or desired real-life practices. People have a very flexible ability to identify with characters and get aroused by seeing things they don’t expect. So the sexual variety is quite intentional too.

Mainstream porn plays with fantasy (narratively and in the bodies depicted), yours seems much more concerned with realism. Are the characters and experiences on screen meant to be relatable to the viewer and do you think these are scenarios happening in real life?

It is so rare to see sexuality presented in a realistic way that I still find it fascinating when it is. Personally I need to feel a lot of sympathy and empathy for the main character, which means that there needs to be a fair amount of emotional realism even if the rest of the story is quite fantastical. Even in a non-erotic context, I’ve always been attracted to movies with an element of realism. Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind strikes me as an especially strong sci-fi movie because it’s so realistic in other ways. As far as whether these scenarios happen in real life – well, without giving too much away, I can say that the plot of ‘Mimosa’ [one of the short films in Silver Shoes] is startlingly close to something that’s happened to me… more than once! And I know several women who have had the same happen to them. So I was dying to put it up on the screen.

Were there any mainstream porn conventions you wanted to keep (or send up)?

No, I let the stories develop on their own, rather than wrestling them into a particular statement about sex or porn. In some ways Silver Shoes is like porn – there are orgasms, there are wet and hard body parts, there are people enjoying themselves. But in other ways the film evokes something quite different from porn: there’s a lot of story, there are no pre-choreographed porn-style external ejaculations, there are some challenging emotional moments like when one of the characters gets teary. Nothing was off-limits for us.

I sensed the actors in Silver Shoes were friends; can you describe your casting process and what you look for in an on-screen pairing?

I’m so pleased you thought they were friends, because I pride myself on finding couples who genuinely like each other and have great personal chemistry. But in truth, these people all met in real life for the first time the day before their shoot. Usually, before I do any auditions, I like to meet actors and actresses myself over coffee to get a sense of their personality and reasons for getting involved in erotic film. But, in this case, geographically I was considering actors and actresses from all over the world. So I knew I couldn’t rely on in-person meetings or a long rehearsal process. I narrowed down the actors and actresses I liked best to a shortlist, had them do an acting audition with me by Skype or in person, and then put them in touch with each other by Skype to see who hit it off. The final three who won the roles live really far apart. Joost is from Belgium, Liandra lives in Australia, and AnnaBelle lives in the United States. In each case it worked a little differently. Liandra and I were friends when she lived in Amsterdam. I liked her a lot, felt I had a grasp on her personal style, and had recently auditioned her for a different project, so I knew she’d be great if we could find her a match. Joost contacted me about the project and he had a lot of natural connection to it. We chatted by Skype, and eventually I auditioned him by Skype too – though I went over to Belgium to visit with him personally before officially casting him. And AnnaBelle I simply met with and auditioned by Skype. I loved her and thought she had a nice collaborative mentality. Fortunately, she was so open and forthright that I was able to get a good sense of what she was like. They all Skyped with each other and it was a clear ‘yes’ with these three. I’ll also admit that in the brunch party scene, the party guests are all personal friends of mine, so maybe that friendly vibe comes through. I know we had a lot of fun on the set that day, which maybe makes it fun to watch.

How scripted were your films; both in the sense of dialogue and action? Was there any room for improvisation and did much change in the process of bringing it to life?

I’ve worked before in very different modalities, from a full script (Matinée) to total improvisation ((Headshot). This time I decided to try something in between: us all agreeing on a theme and the key plot points, and then letting the actors/actresses improvise the dialogue. While it was a little nerve-racking for me, I think it worked out great. Particularly for performers with no formal acting training, it helps a lot to be able to speak with your own style and rhythm. It also helps a lot that my editor is very talented; he helped me find ways to put the best parts together, so it had a good flow even when we had to cut pieces out.

As far as the sex scenes go, I like to give the performers as much freedom as possible. We do discuss in advance what they would like to do sexually with each other, how the sex fits into the story, and generally what parts of the set we’ll use. After that, I let them take the reins because I think it’s the best way to preserve the real chemistry between them. Usually I’m working with actors and actresses who’ve never been sexual on camera before, so for them it’s especially important not to stop the flow. But now I know that even performers who’ve had sex on camera before do appreciate the freedom to stay in the moment and try out what feels right. Later I can always get a pickup shot if necessary. This method is a heck of a lot more work for the camera people (in this case, the director of photography and me as second camera), the lighting person, and the editor, because we aren’t sure where the best shot or best light will be, and have to stay 100% present during the shoot. But having tried different methods, I think this works well for capturing the kind of spontaneity that I most like to see.

All these films appear to be in ‘real time’. Is this an important convention to you and how long, in reality, did they take to film?

Perhaps it’s just the way my body is built, but I’ve always been attracted to physical continuity in sex scenes. I like to mentally get into the characters’ bodies and then stay there pretty much the whole time. When I see a hard edit between sexual positions, for example, I can feel my body disengage from the characters a little. It’s worthwhile using that effect sparingly: in Matinée I purposely include some distanced shots that force you to imagine yourself as one of the ‘observing’ characters rather than one of the couple; but in general I want to build connection between viewer and performer. The end result is pretty close to real time. But that doesn’t mean the sequences were filmed in real time. Usually I plan for the performers to enjoy the whole sex scene twice, and we use multiple cameras. As a result, we have lots of extra footage which can easily cover the moments that the actor/actress wanted to take a break. You wouldn’t believe the great material I have had to leave on the cutting room floor because there just wasn’t room for it all!

As for the narrative portions of the films, so far I have taken a fairly classical approach in the structure, but I’m very open to playing with nonlinear storytelling. The trade-off is that I need to make sure I don’t confuse the viewer’s understanding of the characters’ interior states too much while trying to create drama. Drama with no erotic connection would be a silly bargain for me.

I was interested to read that you cite films such as The Piano Teacher and Baise-moi among your favourite examples of eroticism. Would you say you are inspired more by sex scenes within a narrative than straightforward porn with little or no plot? Also, these two films arguably show extremely surprising expressions of sexuality; can you describe what you appreciated about each film?

The movies I find sexiest are the ones where I want to emotionally engage with the characters and feel what they’re feeling. Usually those end up being narrative art films that show the characters overcoming a struggle or barrier to get what they want sexually, in a story that I can somehow relate to. In The Piano Teacher, Isabelle Huppert’s character is full of struggle. She has a deep sexual itch that she can’t seem to scratch, which is tragic yet wholly relatable to me. I also find it very relatable that her inner sexual life is so at odds with her conservative ladylike self-presentation. People assume all sorts of things about women’s sexuality, especially about women who present themselves as heteronormatively feminine. Women come up to me all the time to confess that their sexuality is darker or odder than they dare to tell their partner. They have no idea they’re not alone.

Having said that, I also enjoy a lighter approach to sex as long as it’s grounded in emotional realism. Especially because I like the idea that sexuality doesn’t have to paired with violence to be appropriate fodder for cinema. John Duigan’s little-discussed film Sirens (with Hugh Grant) is light-hearted, but the individual relationships have enough weight in their power dynamics to make the sex scenes memorable. Or John Cameron Mitchell’s Shortbus, which had some intensely emotional sexual plotlines yet is fundamentally uplifting. (I wish Shortbus had gone even further with its erotic and explicit potential – I’d pay good money to see that darling male threesome played out completely.) As for Baise-moi, I mention that film on my site as a landmark example of the millennial movement incorporating explicit sex into art film, which I totally applaud. And I also liked the aesthetics of the film, pairing a rough punk aesthetic with a feminist revenge narrative. But the film is not an example of eroticism, at least not for me.

How do you position yourself within your feminist porn peers? Would you say there is an industry or a community, and are there any other filmmakers/companies you admire?

Of the handful of us making feminist porn, our styles have turned out to be fairly different. I think that’s an entirely good thing. We’re pretty close-knit and trade tips when we see each other at the erotic/pornographic film festivals that have cropped up in Europe and the USA. I would say I personally like creating narrative context (even if not full narrative storyline), creating an intimate feeling through close-ups, and using sync sound with an emphasis on sex sounds rather than music in the sex scenes. Australian filmmaker Gala Vanting has an entirely different production style, more formal and distanced than mine, but she combines beautiful images with unflinching eroticism (sometimes including kink) in a way I love. Queer French filmmaker Emilie Jouvet is a photographer, and hers might be some of the only pure-sex films that I find hot. Her casting is incredible. Erika Lust is also doing some brilliant casting, and she creates fantastic, creative stories. Tony Comstock was one of the first to pioneer the erotic documentary genre, and his relationship interviews are some of the best I’ve ever seen. Other erotic/pornographic filmmakers I’m inspired by include Sadie Lune, Shine Louise Houston, Courtney Trouble, Ms Naughty, Zahra Stardust, Maria Beatty, Marit Ostberg, Petra Joy, Travis Mathews, Michelle Flynn, Anna Brownfield, and Madison Young. And performer Wolf Hudson’s great collaborations with Aiden Starr.

You say on your website that your reason for making these films has nothing to do with commerce but how does the company fare commercially? Other feminist porn filmmakers we have spoken to have complained of distributors being unwilling to pick their films up. Do you feel you are getting these films out to the people who want to see them?

I have had lots of interest from distributors, but not always the ones I want to work with. The heavy porn consumer who is used to making selections entirely by keyword, and who is accustomed to crap porn quality, apparently does not want to pay a fair price for my genre-crossing erotic movie. In contrast, mainstream outlets like Amazon have been a great place for me to reach people who like good movies and good porn. And as our little community grows, online distribution outlets are cropping up slowly. in San Francisco carries films that you can’t see anywhere else; Erika Lust’s LustCinema has a great selection too. offers great amateur films. Little by little the film world is changing. If we can convince the entrepreneurs who make mainstream VOD sites, social media sites, and video hosting sites that it’s worthwhile not to exclude filmmakers who incorporate explicit sex (I’m looking at you, Vimeo), the film world could change a lot – for the better. In any case, almost all independent filmmakers are, as you probably know, getting creative with making their films available directly to interested viewers. Distributors can be very helpful, but since formal theatrical distribution usually isn’t an option for us anyway, we can fill in some of the gap ourselves. We’re an enthusiastically DIY community and a lot of us are enjoying doing it ourselves.

Silver Shoes screened as part of the 12th London Short Film Festival.

Interview by Lisa Williams

Daddy: Interview with Peter Whitehead

Niki de Saint Phalle
Daddy Phallus in a coffin © 2007 Niki Charitable Art Foundation

Format: YouTube

Directors: Niki de Saint Phalle, Peter Whitehead

UK, France 1973

90 mins

Peter Whitehead is best known for documenting the landmark events in the rise and fall of the counterculture throughout the 1960s, from the Beat poetry reading at the Royal Albert Hall in Wholly Communion, to the explosion of the myth of Swinging London in Tonite Let’s All Make Love in London. But at the end of the decade, Peter Whitehead withdrew from filmmaking to breed falcons after facing his own impossible position as observer of the protest movement in The Fall in 1968. A few years later, he was drawn back into filmmaking by the French sculptress Niki de Saint Phalle with whom he made Daddy (1973), a delirious psycho-sexual fantasy about the artist’s troubled childhood. Famous for her shooting altars and her Nanas, which celebrated a strong, joyous view of femininity, Niki de Saint Phalle revealed a darker, deeper, more ambiguous side in the film.

In May 2014, ahead of the Niki de Saint Phalle retrospective in Paris, Virginie Sélavy talked to Peter Whitehead about the personal entanglements that fed into the film, de Saint Phalle’s increasingly daring exploration of her past in the film and the extreme reactions of critics and audiences.

The Niki de Saint Phalle retrospective runs at the Grand Palais in Paris until 2 February 2015.

Virginie Sélavy: Your relationship to Niki de Saint Phalle seems central to the film.

Peter Whitehead: That’s what it’s about. It is not just an objective film about Niki de Saint Phalle and her sculptures, a sort of crazy pseudo-fictional biopic, it’s a film that’s a complete relationship between two artists who make a film together, and it gets out of hand. We were introduced by a friend who said that Niki was thinking of making an animation film of one of her little books. It was arranged for me to go to her house and make the film. She picked me up in a car, but the funny thing is, we drive off to a church. She says, ‘I want you to meet my girlfriend. Do you mind if we go to this church on the way? This girlfriend of mine is actually a sculptress, she’s my husband Jean Tinguely’s ex-wife. I married Jean two weeks ago.’ So we arrive in this church and Niki says, ‘look, the organ’s on, you’re an organist, aren’t you? Why don’t you just play? We’ll be about 15 minutes’. I hadn’t played the organ in years, it was a massive organ in this huge church in downtown Paris. Then they come back and they’re giggling. I thought there was something fishy there.

We drive off to Niki’s house, La Commanderie, which is this big house just south of Paris with all these Nanas and altars in the garden. We start to discuss making the film, and two days later I suddenly see this pile of lithographs on the table. Niki says they’re for another project, which I called ‘Dear Diana’. They’re all letters: ‘Dear Diana, you won’t believe this but I met this bloke and I did that…’ Like a comic strip from the newspaper. They’re typically funny, crazy, mad early Niki de Saint Phalle stuff. But it wasn’t only about feminism and freedom and sex. It was two girls gossiping, but being Niki and her friend Diana, it had little serious connotations. I looked through all of them and I said to Niki, ‘I think we should make a film of this’.

So by the time I leave, a week later, I’m apparently moving to Paris to live with Niki de Saint Phalle and make a film called ‘Dear Diana’. I asked her about the organ thing. She said that she’d heard I was an organist at school. She said, ‘I told my friend that I met you in London and we were going to make a film and I was quite taken by you, and she knew this clairvoyant that she always consulted when something important was happening. My friend said, “why don’t I take you to meet her and see what is going to happen with this Peter Whitehead guy?” The clairvoyant said, you are going to meet a man who is going to be very important to you – he’s an organist!’ Niki comes out flabbergasted and says, ‘Peter Whitehead is the one’. So they wanted to prove that I could play the organ. This film was a sheer, unadulterated madness from the beginning – but a divine madness.

We started to develop ‘Dear Diana’. I went back to England because I had a bit of a problem. I was supposed to live in London with Penny Slinger, who was also a sculptress, and we were going to make a film called ‘The Exorcist’ [which became the book An Exorcism]. I went back about two weeks later. Funnily enough, I met Jean and he was fascinated because I had all these falcons – I had 40 falcons in my back garden. Jean Tinguely ended up looking after them. I looked after Niki and he looked after my falcons, we had a perfect relationship!

We were just about to start filming ‘Dear Diana’ and I was thinking about how I could translate all these things, and I saw a picture, a watercolour. It had a huge, black, nasty, hideous Nana. Next to her there was a coffin. And in the middle, coming out from the back, a cross, and on the cross was a crucified bird. The bird was multi-coloured. Niki said it was just a sketch she was doing for a sculpture. She said, ‘oh that’s the funeral of my father’. So I said, ‘right, the funeral of the father – what’s the crucified bird?’ And she said, ‘I don’t know. I’ve done that several times, it’s just a crucified bird’. So I tried to make her sit down and tell me about her work – why was this and why was that? And she didn’t seem to know. She was not a reflective, rationalist kind of person who analysed her work. She started painting in a lunatic asylum where she’d been plonked by her mother for a few years, and her psychiatrist told her to paint and draw because she loved it so much. I said, ‘this is very important. You know who that bird is? You. We’ve got you crucified on the cross, we’ve got Daddy dead in his coffin and we’ve got… Mummy. That’s the essence of your work’. ‘No it’s not! Is it?’ So already I was pushing for something else, which was not evident to people who had looked at her work, who thought it was great because she did Nanas, which were full of joy, and fired at altars that burst into flames in colour.

Daddy 2
Niki de Saint Phalle
Daddy © Coll. Centre Pompidou

And Nanas seemed to be about powerful women.

She was loved by a lot of women who saw her as a feminist celebrating joy and sex and voluptuousness. And I was in a way, even from the beginning, being slightly threatening because I was starting to analyse her. She had admitted that she killed off Daddy, because Daddy was in his coffin and that’s where he was going to stay. So that being the joyful feminist required the murder, or the destruction, the assassination, the elimination of Daddy with all his power, which of course fascinated me because it went back to a novel I wrote called Nora and…. With Nora and…, Penny Slinger and Niki de Saint Phalle, I was having a rough time at the time of this explosion of feminism! I said ‘the most important thing is to aim high, let’s try and make the ultimate film about you and your work and what it is really about: Mummy, Daddy and the crucified bird.’

We played around with the ideas and she asked Clarice to come and play Mummy. Clarice [Mary] was her girlfriend, her lover, and the wife of Larry Rivers. She was English and she had a little daughter with Larry Rivers. Niki and Clarice had been very close for a very long time and Clarice was the inspiration for the Nanas. Clarice was the Nana. She didn’t care about anything. And the other crazy thing is that Niki had introduced Clarice to one of her previous lovers, with whom she’d done the scenery for a play, Rainer von Diez. Clarice and Rainer got on like a house on fire and became a couple. Rainer was a distinguished theatre director so the next thing is, she decides that this Rainer figure, who was a German count or a prince actually, would be the perfect Daddy.

At that time I had been filming and working with Mick Jagger in the south of France where I met him and Bianca. I’d visited a house with Mick where we could have some falcons. I flew 12 falcons to the south of France, Antibes, and I had them in the garden with Mick and Bianca. We went and saw this castle, which Mick considered renting, but it all fell through because the count who owned it didn’t like the idea of Mick Jagger. But I remembered it, so we flew to the south of France and apparently this castle was owned by a cousin of Niki in some part of the de Saint Phalle empire, which is vast. Her father owned most of the banks in France. After a short while, he was delighted to rent it to her. So we rented it for three months and we had the place where to film it.

Some of her sculptures appear in the garden and on the terrace.

Yes, I took them all down there. We moved in.

So during the shoot you have Niki de Saint Phalle, her current female lover, her previous male lover and you – that must have been a fairly intense experience.

Yes and no. Niki was very cool about everything. She couldn’t have got away with it if she hadn’t been very cool. And everyone was very cool with everybody else. We all got on very well. I was the filmmaker who had authority and power over Niki, which she reluctantly had to admit in public in front of all her ex-boyfriends and girlfriends. But it wasn’t dark in any way at all. We had the most wonderful time. We started to film. I had written most of this sort of narrative.

So you wrote the script even though it was her story.

I started writing it, but it became a total collaboration. Niki totally accepted the fact that I was making the film, writing it and creating it, and she had to contribute in every single situation whatever she could. It was a total dialogue. Soon though Niki came up with the idea that she should play the 12-year-old daughter who was ravished and ravaged and abused by the father. So we shot a whole version of the film from beginning to end with Niki playing the daughter. Most of the scenes where she’s kicking Daddy down the stairs were filmed with Niki dressed as a 12-year-old, being shouted at by Clarice while Clarice and Rainer went off and screwed on the stairs while Niki was watching. It gets very complicated and very strange.

Why was that version rejected?

It was finished as a 60-minute film, and we showed it to Richard Roud, director of the New York Film Festival, and he wanted to give it its world premiere at the festival, as part of a MOMA thing about films made by artists. Fantastic. But then Niki started to get cold feet, saying, ‘I’m not happy with my being this 12-year-old. Am I good? Does it work?’ And I said, ‘nothing in the film works if you’re talking about embarrassment. But if you want embarrassment it works, you’re challenging every possible taboo about family and children and childhood’. Niki was in a real quandary about it all. Things were coming back. The analysis was proceeding. She’d been in bed with Clarice, talking about seducing Clarice. Things were darkening.

In the meantime I had been going back to London periodically and seeing Penny Slinger, and she’d just done a play in London, called The Four Little Girls, written by Picasso, quite close to the bone, about four little girls playing with dolls and things, really very sexy and provocative. Penny Slinger had done all the costumes and backgrounds. Penny and I were still very close. She’d known that I’d met Niki and was now making a film with her so she was a bit upset, but that was the world we lived in. So I get on to see this play and it’s very erotic, very naughty, you couldn’t do it now, you couldn’t show that in England now. One of the four girls was Mia Martin. After the play, Penny said, ‘would you like to meet any of the girls? Who did you think was the best?’ ‘I think the one who was the most authentic was the girl in the yellow.’ She said, ‘I knew you’d like Mia’. She looked about 12.

How old was she?

Eighteen. So Penny went to see if Mia was available but she’d left. She said, she strips in Soho. Penny was always pulling girls for me. Penny told Mia about me and one day Mia dropped in my flat at 1 o’clock because she was just round the corner stripping at lunch time. So there’s a knock on the door and instead of the innocent 12-year-old girl from the play in her little skirt, there is a 12-year-old vamp who dances in strip clubs as the school girl number. I discovered she was also a very successful actress. She’d played Wendy in the London Coliseum’s Peter Pan and Wendy. Her mother was a very famous actress. And there she was, heavily made up because she’d just come from the club. I told her about the film and I said, I have to take photographs of you in your outfit from the play. Poor old Peter Whitehead. She couldn’t take it out because the play was on for another two weeks but I had to film on the Saturday. So we agreed that we’d have to go and buy all the gear from Selfridges. The day after, we went to Primrose Hill to photograph her dressed as a 12-year-old nymphet, as Lolita. It was getting late by the time we finished the photographs, we go back to my flat one way or another, it was a Sunday so she wasn’t stripping in a night club, so she stripped for me.

I went back to Niki and showed her the photographs. She said, ‘she’s perfect, bring her’. Because Niki had admitted that there was one element that wasn’t in the film. She considered herself as the young girl who had been sexy, and therefore responsible to a degree in seducing and leading the Daddy figure on. And she thought and I thought that it was a very important element, if not the most important element of the film, that she, the little girl, is in part responsible, and enjoyed it.

By that time, we’d filmed everything in the south of France and the chateau was gone. So I said to Niki we’d use the Commanderie. I arrived in Paris with Mia to film and we started having all this fun. Mia was a bright kid. They got on famously, Mia and Niki. And eventually we got on famously the three of us. I shoot all the scenes then I realise that I need Rainer von Diez again. I had to do the scene in which she is taunting the father in the Commanderie so I flew to New York and filmed Rainer and Clarice in their flat. Rainer never met Mia until about three months after the film was finished.

In the film Daddy loves birds and you play his falconer, which makes you a stand-in for the father, right?

I would have no doubts whatsoever that in Niki’s mind, although I might have been a young guy, like Rainer had been a young guy, that was the case. Rainer was a passive, weak, but very talented guy, and I’m not, I would have thought, that much of a macho hulk – but certainly Jean Tinguely was that. I was nevertheless the psychiatrist, the filmmaker, the father figure. We had all these episodes, which corresponded to her imaginary sex life as a young girl in this family with this mad woman and this terrible father, who did drown when she was quite young. So the real death of the father was repeated in the filming with the little girl, and by the role I was forced to play. Just before the London show is when we both seemed to reach a consensus about the question of the psychoanalysis and the mythological meaning of the whole thing. It had started off as a child’s charade in a little book, then became an adolescent charade with ‘Dear Diana’, then became a rather ominous presentiment of Daddy’s death, then went on finally to be the celebration of Daddy’s death, because the murder of the father and the transforming into a transvestite was for Niki the perfect kind of embarrassment for her mother, revenge on her mother.

Do you feel that at any point you manipulated her, or that you pushed her into things?

Not at all. We manipulated each other. She suggested things and I’d do it, we were living it out. We were living out a fantasy, a dream. I was thoroughly enjoying making a film, having a fantastic holiday from reality for six months. From the moment I met Niki I was in a surrealist movie. Perhaps a horror movie.

In addition to your personal relationship, there’s also the relationship between the voyeuristic filmmaker and the actress-sculptress.

I made that clear. From The Perception of Life through to The Fall and Fire in the Water, this was me playing that role. I had always, still have, a very ambiguous, dubious attitude to filmmaking. I made the film for Niki, and I made Fire in the Water for Nathalie [Delon] because I cherished the relationships. They wanted me to film them. That’s the important thing. You can’t talk about the narcissism and the voyeuristic person filming pretty girls dancing in night clubs without recognising this is one of the tropes that is absolutely essential to female sexuality from the earlier stirrings right the way through. They have to turn Daddy on. And if there are no daddys, they’ll do the uncles, and if there are no uncles they’ll experiment with the brothers.

The Fall
The Fall

I know that for you there’s a definite breaking point after The Fall but I see continuity here too in the sense that from The Fall on you film your girlfriends, lovers, partners, Alberta Tiburzi in The Fall, Niki de Saint Phalle in Daddy and Nathalie Delon in Fire in the Water. And that starts in The Fall.

Does it? Yes, it starts with The Fall. The first time I had an intense relationship with a strong, powerful, creative female was with Alberta. The next one was Penny Slinger.

So The Fall is the end of something but it’s also the beginning of a different kind of filmmaking that you start developing with a female partner.

Was it that different? I consider everything in my life to be a search for that female partner who is a muse.

Who’s the muse in Tonite?

No, there is no muse in Tonite.

The other thing that connects the two films is that The Fall is about you exploring difficult questions about yourself as a filmmaker and as a person, and in Daddy, you’re filming Niki going through a similar process.

She added her own element to it that I hadn’t had time yet to do with Penny. She came fully blown, ready-made. She was older than me, she was a world-famous sculptress. And she asked me to do it, that was a different situation. I have some beautiful letters from her saying how it had changed her life, and there is this book that she wrote called My Secret [Mon secret], in which she discusses the issue of her abuse by her father, and she says that she would not have accessed it if she hadn’t made Daddy. The other funny thing is that after we made the film we split. She went into another relationship with a woman, saying that she was never going to have another relationship with a male ever again in her life.

And did she stick to that?

No, she was with this woman for three years, I think. But at the end of it, after we made the second film, I went back and made another film for Niki. There is another film altogether, another 90-minute film. It was originally called ‘Camilla’. And then it became called Voyage au bout du rêve.

Where is that film?

In my boxes in the room next door.

Why is it not available?

It will eventually emerge but Daddy has to be shown and reconsidered first. It has not been re-released since Niki’s death.

How did the second film come about?

She wanted to make a film called ‘Nana Island, but it never happened. Then she had an idea for a new film and she wanted me to help her make it. I flew to the Commanderie and I photographed it, I edited it, I did all the music in it. This time she wanted to make her film and that was fine. By this time I was just happy not to have the responsibility for anything. I was just the cameraman. It was she and Jean who made this film. But this is the funny story. Jean was very involved, he was doing all the sets, it was a collaboration between them about her and her fantasies about young girls, and Jean and his fantasies about machines, and guns. Jean rang and said, ‘sorry, Niki didn’t like the script and she’s writing it again’. He rings me up again a few days later, ‘Peter, I’m sorry to mess you around but Niki has thrown the script out again. She’s completely rewritten it, it’s going to take another week’. This goes on for three months. Finally I get a phone call at the end of the summer, ‘Peter, we’ve got to film it now. She’s got a script. Listen, don’t tell anyone I told you this: she’s written seven complete scripts. But they’re all identical. She writes and then she decides it’s completely wrong, it’s terrible, she throws it away and she starts again. You’ve got to come, we’ve got to make the film with the latest script’. So I arrived and I helped them make the film. It’s crazy. But if you’re interested in Niki you’ve got to see it, and the world has got to see it. But if you were to show that tomorrow it’d be meaningless. If Daddy comes out and is recognised thanks to the retrospective [at the Grand Palais], that’s fine because it’s a sequel.

You also did the music in Daddy. What was the idea behind it?

I had done the music for The Fall that opens the film. I hadn’t played the organ since I’d left school. Thanks to the connection with the Stones and the Olympic Studios, I knew the guy there and he had a Hammond. All the electronic music in The Fall was recorded there with me improvising on the Hammond because I wanted something other than rock and pop. Music for films is not music necessarily. You can try and combine high ideals about music and composition, few people have succeeded in this. The story of just how kitsch music has to be for the cinema is quite an entertaining subject actually. But when you start to imagine putting Pierrot Lunaire by Schönberg on the soundtrack of a film, the film gets destroyed, the music is too powerful.

So I had done that music for The Fall and considered it to be efficient and I enjoyed doing it. When I was making Daddy I suddenly thought, ‘what are we going to do for music?’ And why on earth I came up with the two Hammond organ pieces of music, I don’t know. But it was provoked by the fact that in the castle of Mons was an old piano sitting there in one of the rooms, out of tune. And I had the idea of having the little girl playing piano. I don’t know why I didn’t. Maybe I filmed it and it was never used. And I thought of this tinkly kind of piano music in the background. I thought about the kind of music I could have for a film like Daddy, which is a children’s fantasy story and a horror movie. And I thought of ‘My Heart Belongs to Daddy’, which is a famous Cole Porter song. I thought, I’ll do my pretentious bit as well and I’ll have Chopin’s Revolutionary Etude. I moulded the two so they come into one, into a kind of dissonance. I thought this is perfect, this is a film about revolution. Niki very kindly bought me an organ. For the first time ever in 1972 or 1973, Philips had come up with an organ that looked like a piano, which you plugged in but in fact had organ stops in it. Then there are some other songs, the ‘Wedding March’, ‘On with Christian Soldiers’, and ‘Lili Marlene’. I changed the original words. I really like it.

So the music happened with me originally recording the plinkety plonkety piano stuff in Mons and then adding a few bits when she shoots the altar at the very beginning – it’s perfect, it’s an altar, it’s a church, and it’s an organ. It’s interesting, people either go ga-ga about it and appreciate what it’s trying to do and it does resonate on all these non-serious levels, or they hate it. But it works for the film.

What was the reception of the film? Was the London Film Festival screening the first time it was shown in the UK?

Yes. After it was shown in America, which was quite an event in itself, Richard Roud said Ken Wlaschin, who was in charge of the London Film Festival, wanted to show it. So I get a phone call, ‘hello my name is Ken Wlaschin, I just watched your film Daddy – American. Looooved it! Wow, we’re going to blow them away! I’m going to hit them hard this year, I’m going to use Daddy as the first film for the critics’. I said, ‘are you sure about this, Ken, because I don’t think it’s a terribly English film’. And he said, ‘no, it’s fine, you’re coming on Sunday, everybody’s coming’. So I drive down and I come in. Ken is sitting at a table and he’s looking very miserable. And he said, ‘It’s not quite finished yet, we started a bit late. I wish I’d listened to you. Two thirds of the people have left already. The last one, from The Times, said to me, “Ken, if that’s the kind of film you’re showing this year at the London Film Festival, I’m not going to review any films at all!” And we’re sitting talking about the differences between England and the French, and the English don’t have a sense of humour, and the American sense of humour, and then suddenly one of his secretaries comes back and says, ‘Mr Wlashin, can I have a word with you? We have a problem. I was standing at the back trying to gauge the reception and seeing how many people were still in there and you know what I saw? There’s someone in the back row masturbating’. So Ken goes to have a look. He comes back in five minutes. He sits down and says, ‘Peter, I’m sorry this has been such a disappointment for you, one way or another I hope it works out well. I ask, ‘who’s the bloke on the back seat masturbating?’ He tells me. That person gave it a good review. That’s the funniest story ever.

How different was the reaction in America?

They loved it. It was shown in the New York Film Festival, Niki and I were there, in the MOMA. It was a big thing, and it went really quite well. At the end of it, Richard Roud came out on stage with me and Niki and said there was time for questions. People tended to ask me more, interestingly, and then Richard would ask Niki what she thought. It was quite an interesting dialogue. And then there was a howl. It created quite a few howls, this film. Suddenly there was some boy shouting from the very back. ‘I disagree! I want to speak!’ He walked half way down. ‘How dare you? How dare you do such a thing?’ To me. I said, ‘I’m very sorry you seem so hurt’. ‘Hurt? Not hurt, worse than that, I’m destroyed’. And I said, ‘I’m very sorry, why?’ He said, ‘well I’m gay, I’ve never told anyone ever. Seeing your film made me realise I’m gay’. And I had to talk for about 10 minutes to calm him down.

But then another very interesting story. We went out on to the pavement, waiting for a taxi. And suddenly I looked around, I heard some noise, and I thought it was the same guy, coming for me. But it wasn’t the same guy. It was some other guy, running along the pavement, towards us. And he lurched to a halt, and he said, ‘I didn’t expect to see you here. I’ve just seen your film, I’ve had to run round the block twice. It’s an amazing film, I’m sorry about the guy in there, but maybe that’s the best thing that happened, because he can be gay now’. And he said, ‘you know, I found it totally erotic. I had an erection throughout almost the whole film. There was only one scene where I didn’t. When the father is sitting in his wheelchair and the mother comes along and she lifts up her skirt and she sits on him’. And I said, ‘yes that is a disturbing scene’. But he added, ‘I don’t think the film should be called Daddy. It should be called “Blind Man”’. Very clever. Because that’s the game the father and daughter play. He’s right. It’s the story of Antigone. But on the other hand it would have made it a man’s film – his and mine. It had to be Daddy because it was Niki’s film.

For more information on Peter Whitehead visit his website.

Interview by Virginie Sélavy