Up With Bruce LaBruce
Published February 12, 2009
Jey Crisfar as Otto
Bruce LaBruce, the self-described reluctant pornographer, has a new movie out on DVD this week called Otto, or Up With Dead People. It’s a zombie flick done in the inimitable LaBruce way, which means there’s gay sex, strong females, and a theme of revolutionary uprising against the death grip of capitalism. After an extensive run on the fancy festival circuit, including places like Sundance and the Berlin Film Festival, an adoring public can finally watch Otto in the comfort of their own homes.
Of course, LaBruce is much more than a celebrated filmmaker, he’s also a writer and photographer. Watch out for a gallery show of his work at Peres Projects in Los Angeles in May that will feature, among other things, a “hardcore zombie splatter movie as an art piece.” I spoke to LaBruce when he had just arrived home in Toronto, fresh off a plane from the Zinegoak Festival in Bilbao. Far from being jetlagged, he was as sharp as a tack as we discussed everything from Rosemary’s Baby to gay rainbows to Dr. Feelgood.
ARIANA SPEYER: Otto, or Up With Dead People is about a gay zombie who falls in with a crowd of revolutionary filmmakers. What inspired you to make a zombie story?
BRUCE LABRUCE: Well, it was a combination of things. For one thing, I was into all these kids who felt like they were dead or already dead. This heavy alienation. I wrote the movie in early 2006, so it was pre-Obama hope. Another inspiration was that a friend of mine worked at a gay teen suicide hotline and he always told me that the suicide rates for gay teens are much higher than for non-gay teens. I think gay marriage for some people is a sign of acceptance and tolerance, but there is also a backlash that goes along with it, that sort of riled-up homophobia.
AS: Did you also want to turn the horror genre on its head?
BL: I wanted to contribute to the genre because I hate a lot of the new horror movies. I find them so misogynistic and homophobic. The idea was to lure in these horror geeks on the promise of a zombie movie and torture them with a tender love story.
AS: Have you found that you were able to do that? What has the response been like?
BL: Well it’s really divided and I find that really interesting. I seem to have gotten better reviews in more traditional papers like the New York Times and LA Times. The alternative papers like The Village Voice and LA Weekly have been pretty snotty about it. I have a whole theory about it-this reverse political correctness. It’s sort of cool for people who write for Indie or alternative papers to be into something mainstream and corporate like The Dark Knight and Iron Man. I think they are a little contemptuous of more quirky, independent, eccentric stuff and there’s a little homophobia, too. And while Obama is supposedly ushering in this new sincerity movement, there is still this lingering age of irony, which is responsible for really deep cynicism. It kind of became okay for alternative people to become homophobic for a while there. I’m not usually one who jumps up and yells “homophobia,” but the tone of some of those reviews was really nasty.
AS: I was wondering if you were making a point that the mainstream-ization of gay culture is actually killing that culture, that it’s had a negative effect. And Otto is an expression of that.
BL: If you’ve ever cruised a public toilet or a bathhouse, it’s like Night of the Living Dead. You’ve got people in this zombie-like trance, in dark shadows with disembodied body parts. And I don’t mean that negatively; it’s kind of exciting. But there is that aspect to gay culture and sometimes it can be kind of sad. In the drive of the gay movement to become mainstream, they have distanced themselves from the more extreme elements of the movement. Otto kind of represents that for me.
AS: How did you cast Otto?
BL: I found Jey on Myspace. I was looking for a really delicate looking boy and someone quite young because I knew the zombie make-up would age him. And I wanted him to read as a vulnerable teen. He was an art student from Brussels and he contacted me on Myspace and knew my work. I was going through my friend list and he really struck me as being the type. He’s very sensitive and a bit distant.
AS: He was great, but I came away not knowing if he was supposed to be a zombie or a disturbed homeless person.
BL: I deliberately left that ambiguous. The temptation would be at the end to do a Pinocchio thing and he comes out of it and becomes a real boy. I just thought that would be a disservice. I was referencing these three American horror movies from the past Curtis Harrington’s Night Tide with Dennis Hopper about a mermaid, Herk Harvey’s Carnival of Souls, and George Romero’s Martin. In each one the character is a creature and a monster. But it’s left ambiguous whether they’re meant to be a real monster or just perceived as a monster because they’re marginalized or they don’t fit in. In Night Tide, you don’t know if she’s a real mermaid and the rumor is that her ex-boyfriend died when she lured him out to sea. In Martin, he’s this boy who is basically fucked up and likes to drink the blood of women. His grandfather keeps saying “You’re Nosferatu.” And he’s like “No, that’s just a myth.”
AS: That movie is amazing. Romero never lets you feel safe coming to a conclusion one way or the other.
BL: George Romero is just the master and his films are always about the consumer. Zombies are the ultimate consumer and his movies are really a critique of modern capitalism. I was tired of zombies being treated as worthless, homeless people. So not only was I interested in his idea of the zombie as the ultimate consumer, but also as the ultimate conformists. They all act the same and they are attracted to the same places and they eat the same things. I wanted to invert the paradigm and have a zombie who’s a non-conformist. He doesn’t fit in; he’s more of an individual on the margins.
AS: You definitely nailed that ambiguity. You want somehow for Otto to be OK, even though it isn’t really possible. And there’s so much funny stuff, too. The nightclub scene where that guy is like, “Don’t go in, it’s so dead in there.” I felt like there was this humorous commentary going on the whole time.
BL: I really wanted him to be an Emo kid. I was looking at a lot of Charles Addams, Edward Gorey, and Aubrey Beardsley. It’s this cartoon aspect of gothic style and these stylish characters who are fixated on death and morbid things. I purposely made him really fashion forward with Rick Owens.
AS: He was the best-dressed zombie I’ve ever seen. Did you know Rick Owens before this or how did you get to work together?
BL: When I made Hustler White in the mid 90s, I collaborated with Rick Castro. He and Rick Owens knew each other for a long, long time. So I had heard of Rick Owens, but my friend Kembra Pfahler ended up hooking me up with Rick in LA.
AS: The clothes really stood out. They’re just gorgeous. Was it a long process to collaborate with Owens?
BL: He basically styled the movie with his own designs. He didn’t create new stuff. He went through his back catalogue and gave us a lot of the clothes. And then Kembra generously introduced me and connected me with Coco Rosie and Antony. When Otto eats the rabbit, that’s a Coco Rosie song playing.
AS: What was the shoot like in Berlin?
BL: In a way it was the most fun I’ve ever had shooting a movie. I had significantly more money and a longer shooting schedule than I’ve ever had before. Some of it was amazing, like the last scene with the rainbow, which was totally real.
AS: I was wondering about that!
BL: It was the first crane shot I’ve ever done, an elaborate shot where he comes from across the road, has to hit his mark and then turn to the camera and deliver his line, and then walk forward. Then the camera cranes up and turns and he’s walking forward and a car stops and he gets in and then he drives off. It was quite elaborate so we did it seven or eight times. Then this incredibly strong rainbow appears right in the direction we were shooting. I said to my cameraman “We have to get a rainbow!” and he didn’t get the whole gay connection. I was yelling, “Oh my God, everyone get into place.” We set the shot in motion, but you know at any point something can go wrong. But Jeremy hit his mark and delivered his line perfectly and drove off into the sunset.
AS: What are you working on these days?
BL: I have some development money to write a new script. I’m not really talking about it because I don’t want to jinx it. But while I was editing Otto, I was working on my first theatre project in Berlin, which had 4 sold-out performances. I worked with Susanne Sachsse, who plays the silent film actress in Otto. I did it with her and her actor and musician friends, who have a group called The Cheap Collective. It was a post-modern cabaret and musical. Susanne is also the star of my previous movie, The Raspberry Reich.
AS: What was your thinking behind having Sachsse’s character in Otto be this silent movie persona, always shot in black and white and never speaking?
BL: For Medea, the idea was she was such a cinephile that she even sees her own girlfriend as a genre.
AS: Medea is the filmmaker who casts Otto in her zombie movie and Sachsse plays her girlfriend.
BL: Medea and her girlfriend are so beyond what women usually have to do in horror movies. They’re intellectual and really brash, aggressive feminists. American critics just hate Medea and they’re always talking about “she’s pretentious and irritating” but they won’t address what she’s talking about.
AS: I thought her anti-capitalism rhetoric made perfect sense. Capitalism doesn’t seem to be treating anyone well these days. And seeing Sachsse onscreen always made me laugh. She’s uncannily suited for that silent film treatment.
BL: Yeah, people seem to like that. She studied a lot of Louise Brooks movies. She was very scientific about it. How to blink her eyes…
AS: It came across. It was one of the things that really struck me in the movie. The other was the soundtrack, which seemed very character-specific.
BL: The film is so much about Otto’s subjectivity, so we created this whole soundscape that is supposed to show what’s going on inside his head. The music is really amazing for this film. I put word out on Myspace that I was looking for music for a melancholy gay zombie movie and I got flooded with submissions over the period of a year. I ended up with 23 hours of material and I wanted to use as much of it as I could because people were donating it for credit. I ended up using 52 tracks from 26 artists. A lot of the music had distortion and sampling, but we ramped it up and added more distortion or ran things backwards.
AS: I heard that Maya Deren was a big influence too.
BL: Actually, Medea Yarn is an anagram for Maya Deren. She was a Russian Jew, who lived in NY and made these short experimental films. She died when she was really young, maybe 47. There’s a documentary called In the Mirror of Maya Deren. You’ve probably seen clips of her films. They kind of define the avant-garde from that era. The film within the film of Medea’s are direct homages to Deren’s films. Besides her films she went to Haiti for 18 months and wrote this definitive book about Haitian voodoo. Of course there’s a zombie connection there, since voodoo dabbles with zombies as well.
AS: So Medea is sort of modeled on Deren.
BL: As a sidebar, Deren died because she was a speed freak. Dr. Feelgood, the guy that was shooting up the Warhol superstars with Vitamin B, was shooting her up in the late 50’s and she didn’t know how dangerous it was. She ended up dying from malnutrition.
AS: Otto could probably relate to that. There’s so much disgusting eating in the movie.
BL: [LAUGHS] Well yeah, we really put poor Jey through the ringer. We made him eat all this disgusting stuff.
AS: Was that really raw chicken he was eating towards the end?
BL: Yeah, it was real. He didn’t swallow it, but he put it in his mouth. And we buried him on his birthday. And that yellow field he walked through was full of bees. So it was kind of a nightmare for him. At a certain point toward the end of the three-week shoot he was supposed to eat some raw liver, and he just freaked out, he had finally reached his limit. He said, “This is disgusting, I’m not going to do it.” I yelled cut and ran over to him and said, “If Mia Farrow can do it in Rosemary’s Baby, you can do it.” I took a big bite of it and it was so vile, I spit it out and I was like, “Well, I don’t blame you.” Then he did do it, but the scene didn’t make the final cut.