Interview with Director Bruce LaBruce

Bruce LaBruce, director of OTTO; OR, UP WITH DEAD PEOPLE took a moment to speak with QFR about Maya Deren, nonconformity, Queer culture, and the craft of filmmaking. Bruce has a unique vision and fearlessly fused beauty and horror to create a truly captivating, honest story. Beneath the gruesome appearance of Otto, the potential zombie, is a fascinating character and a must see movie. OTTO; OR, UP WITH DEAD PEOPLE screened at the Sundance Film Festival this year. Bruce, thank you for your insightful words.

director Bruce LaBruce Why gay zombies? What was the inspiration for the film?

Bruce LaBruce: I kept on running into kids in their late teens/early twenties who told me they were dead or felt dead inside. Not just gay kids, but kids in general. They seemed to be disaffected and disassociated from the world. I figured it had something to do with a feeling of hopelessness and helplessness in the face of an increasingly corporatized world, and also perhaps something to do with the brainwashing and alienation that results from a world full of tech gadgets and corporate media saturation. Also in terms of gay teens, the suicide rate is high, and they often feel oppressed and alienated from the broader culture. So I wanted to make a movie about teen angst expressed in a modern horror idiom, which would be zombies. The horror tropes of the past, like vampires and werewolves, are about the individual against society, about nonconformists on the fringes who don’t fit in. The modern monster, the zombie, is the ultimate consumer and conformist. Zombies are interchangeable and they all act the same. So I wanted to shift the paradigm and make a zombie who is a nonconformist and a rebel. I think a lot of kids feel that way.

QFR: As a writer, where do you go to get your ideas?

BLAB: I try to read the zeitgeist. I talk to people in both the real and virtual worlds and try to figure out what’s in the ether. I also try to take myths and movies from the past and reinterpret them. I also like to use movies as a soapbox to relay certain political messages, although I try to do it in an entertaining and paradoxical way so as not to be too literal or preachy.

QFR: Do you find your characters change from page to screen?

BLAB: Some do and some don’t, but it’s more complicated than that. In Otto, for example, the character of Medea was partly based on Katharina Klewinghaus, the actress who plays her. I met her socially in Berlin before I wrote the script, and then I partially based the character on her. (Although not a lesbian, she is a female filmmaker with strong political views who loves the work of Maya Deren, etc.). I cast Jey Crisfar, who plays Otto, after meeting him on MySpace. He had the quality I was looking for, someone young and a bit blank and hypersensitive. (He also had to be very young to still look young and cute after putting on all that zombie make-up!) I had my storyboard artist, Dr. Wunder, base his storyboards of Otto on photographs of Jey that I gave him. So these characters were really very much what I had in mind on the page. Of course both of them brought something unique to their roles, something very personal.


QFR: What was your favorite scene from the movie? Why should people go see this movie?

BLAB: I love the scene in which Medea and her brother Adolf bury Otto in a grave and then film him emerging from the earth as Medea gives him direction. She says the following:
“Action! Now raise your hand up out of the grave. That’s it. Raise it as a protest against all the injustices perpetrated against your kind. Raise it in solidarity with the weak and the lonely and the dispossessed of the earth, for the misfits and the sissies and the plague-ridden faggots who have been buried and forgotten by the heartless, merciless, heterofascist majority. Rise! Rise!”. For me it really has a quality of Grand Guignol, which I love, but beyond that it nails the thesis of the film: that homosexuals have historically often been buried and forgotten and not really valued or understood by the majority. Medea is making a political statement, but the scene is also melancholy and a bit heart-breaking. I think a lot of people who are homosexual or who have gay friends can relate to this scene.

QFR: I think people often don’t understand the genre of zombie movies and gay movies: what do you think is unique about your combination of two under-appreciated areas of filmmaking?


BLAB: I always tell people jokingly that if they’ve ever cruised a park or public washroom or bathhouse for sex, it really is like Night of the Living Dead! And I don’t mean that in a totally judgmental way: there’s something exciting about that anonymity, the faceless body parts, the somnambulistic trance you go into when searching for sex in dark corners. So I wanted to make that connection. But also I think a lot of gay people have had to deal with the paradox of fighting to be accepted and approved of by the mainstream but also in the process being expected to conform to more acceptable forms of behaviour, to become good consumers in capitalist society like everyone else. It’s almost as if they have to give up part of their identity to gain the same rights as everyone else. Medea says, after Marcuse, “A person who functions normally in a sick society is himself sick,” and I think that really pinpoints the dilemma. For me zombie movies are inherently political, as is being gay, so the combination of the two makes a strong statement.

QFR: Do you like other horror films, what are they?

BLAB: I love the horror genre. I love all sorts of horror movies, from splatter and gore (I love the original Halloween and early David Cronenberg) to psychological (like The Innocents or Repulsion) to metaphysical (like the original The Haunting or The Legend of Hell House). For this movie, however, I was paying homage to low-budget horror movies that are more whimsical and philosophical in tone, films like Curtis Harrington’s Night Tide, Herk Harvey’s Carnival of Souls, and George A. Romero’s Martin. Each involves a character who could be a real monster/creature, or who might just be a screwed up person who doesn’t fit into normal society. I wanted to make more of a mood piece, something droll and necrophilical along the lines of the cartoons of Charles Addams and Edward Gorey. I also wanted to lure straight horror geeks into the movie on the promise of a zombie film, and then torture them with a melancholy gay love story with feminist overtones. I really hate how these straight horror geeks get away with being homophobic and misogynistic, slobbering over all these gross torture movies. Otto is my little sweet revenge on them.

QFR: What do you think separates Otto from any other character?

BLAB: Otto is very modern. He’s very fashion-forward (the costumes in the film are by designer Rick Owens), and yet he is homeless and filthy. He’s a zombie with an identity crisis. He doesn’t want to eat human flesh so he eats road kill instead. Zombies are supposed to be conformists and consumers, but Otto doesn’t relate to that. He’s equally alienated from the living and the undead, so he’s a lonely little in-between.


QFR: What have been some of your other film accomplishments?

BLAB: I guess the films I’m best known for are Hustler White, a meditation on hustlers on Santa Monica Boulevard in LA, and The Raspberry Reich, a porn film about sexual revolutionaries. My films have been very low budget, but they’ve managed to gain an international audience. That’s quite an accomplishment for me.

QFR: How do you handle the stress of production?

BLAB: Shooting Otto was the most fun I’ve ever had during production because I had about ten times more money than ever before so we had a much better camera package and we could be more creative visually. But I shot every day for three weeks for up to 14 or 16 hours a day, so it was pretty stressful. You just have to throw yourself into it and focus on the vision you have in your head. You just go into another world where the only thing that matters is getting the movie in the can. It’s a kind of megalomania.

QFR: What was the chemistry like on set?

BLAB: This is the fourth picture I’ve shot with cinematographer James Carman, so we have a nice shorthand going on. Even though I had significantly more money this time, it was still a low budget film, so we really had to push the cast and crew really hard, sometimes beyond reasonable endurance. Jey Crisfar in particular was put through a lot, having to eat raw meat and walk through fields of killer bees and be buried in the cold, cold ground in a cemetery on his 19th birthday. But he was a trooper. The cast and crew really believed in the film, so the overall spirit of the shoot was very strong.

QFR: How did the team come together?

BLAB: We counted at one point and figured out that the cast and crew came from ten different countries! We just put out the word that I was making a zombie movie, and we had people coming from all over wanting to work on it. I’d worked with James a lot, and also with Diego Reiwald, the sound recordist, on a previous film; Stefan Dickfeld, the art director, also did the production design on The Raspberry Reich. Soren Salzer, the head gaffer, has also worked on all my movies since Hustler White. And of course Jurgen Bruning has produced or co-produced all six of my feature films. Some of my co-producers this time – Javier Peres, Terence Koh, Bruce Bailey – came from the art world. Javier represents me as an artist with his gallery, Peres Projects. I brought in some new Canadian producers I’m working with, New Real Films. So it was quite diverse and international.


QFR: What Queer themes do you think are apparent in Otto; or, Up with Dead People?

BLAB: The main queer theme of Otto is that homosexuality is an opportunity to be different, and to conform or assimilate defeats the purpose. And it’s not about your outward appearance or your identity; it’s about a philosophy of being. To be queer gives you a unique perspective on the world, and it’s a shame to feel like you have to divest yourself of everything that makes you different in order to fit in. Frankly, I’d rather be dead. Undead.

–reviewed by T. Nova

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