Mit dem fünfteiligen Episodenfilm „Like Cattle Towards Glow“ haben Regisseur Zac Farley und Kultautor Dennis Cooper (denniscooperblog.com) einen sinnlich-morbiden, sexuell überaus expliziten Sehnsuchtsreigen gedreht. Im Interview erzählen sie von gut geschriebenen Pornos, Bilderverbot für Nekrophilie und dem Spaß am „fucking up“.
Porn and its Structure
Interview: Michael Salerno
Let’s talk about how „Like Cattle Towards Glow“ first come together.
Cooper: About eight years ago, I mentioned publicly that I had always wanted to make a porn movie. And someone who was connected in the porn industry read that and got in contact with me. He said he could make it happen, could get the movie financed and produced. So I asked him what rules I should use to write the movie, and he said I could do whatever I wanted. I wrote a script that I think was called NURSE, and I delivered it to the guy. Long story short, no one in the porn industry was interested in financing and producing the film because it was too weird, too controversial, too narrative, etc. So the project died. At some point thereafter, the producer Jürgen Brüning wrote to me and said he had heard about the script from my friend, the writer and filmmaker Eli Levén. I mentioned this to Zac, and he read the script and said he would be interested in making the film with me and directing it. By that point, I thought the script needed work, so Zac and I sat down and rewrote the script together. We changed quite a bit throughout, and we threw out the original last scene, replacing it with a new scene that Zac essentially wrote. Then I sent the script to Jürgen, and he responded that it was the best written porn script that he had ever read (laughs). He was very interested in producing it, and that’s how it began.
Farley: Dennis and I were working on a few different projects. He let me read the script for „Nurse“, and I immediately wanted to make a film from it and with him. There were things in it where I thought might be too ambitious, and I wanted to keep it really open. There was a circular thing where the first and last scenes connected, which was already a rewrite on Dennis’ part because in the original script it was considered too problematic to show someone having sex with a dead body. Apparently it’s entirely illegal in a few countries to even represent something like that. The last scene originally tried to address that by turning the film set and crew into the location and characters of the film, so as to make the construction very evident. It was stressful for me to imagine that thing, I wasn’t so enthusiastic about it.
Cooper: And it was bad too.
Farley: Yeah, it wasn’t very good. (laughs) But I really loved the first scene. The dialogues had a quality and level of complexity I hadn’t experienced before and yet could really envision working. That was the first scene we started working on, and ultimately the first one we shot. I can’t remember so much to what extent we changed things. The basis of someone hiring a sex-worker to stand-in for his dead friend was all there.
Cooper: The film’s structure – five scenes of varying short lengths, each involving a distinct setting, an independent „story“ or „backstory“, and a new grouping of performers – was originally based on the build of the classic porn film. Porn films generally pause to refresh themselves every ten to twenty minutes, which is how long sexual encounters typically last in porn, with the only overall connective tissue being the physical type of the performers. When Zac and I revised script, we maintained that initial structuring outlay, but we also connected the scenes on an intimate and introverted level by emphasizing the tonal similarities of the various characters‘ emotional states. In Zac’s visualization of the script, those connections were further emphasized and elaborated on, such that the film refreshes itself with every scene aesthetically as well. In terms of style, tempo, tone, and in other ways, the film appears to be continually and restlessly reinventing itself, albeit within a rather confined world.
Farley: We were really interested in the structure of porn, and about things that happen in porn, when there is a kind of failure in it, when it seems to go off-script, or when you see something in it that is probably not meant to be there, or when something happens with the camerawork that can be read in a different way. Sometimes I feel like the person operating the camera forgets the codes under which they’re supposed to be operating and the framing suddenly becomes loose or intuitive. We were interested in pornography for the moments when it would fuck up or fail or get blurry, when you’re seeing something in someone’s eyes that seems to go totally against the script.
Cooper: At that point the porn was already unstable. Even though it was still in the film, it was already, in our heads, not as important as it had been when the script had been written for an actual porn movie. The process of disappearing the porn was already in our heads, even if we hadn’t figured out how to do that.
Farley: Not avoiding the graphic aspect of sex became a sort of premise. This sounds kind of simple in retrospect, but we got to make a film and not actually cut away, nothing was off-limits. And still, everything in the film still revolves around sex acts whether they’re particularly graphic or not.
Cooper: Then Jürgen started looking for money to make the film, and we started prepping for it, planning it out. Zac had storyboards made. And then at some point Christophe Honoré came on board as a co-producer. I knew Christophe already because he had asked me to play a small role in his film „Man an Bath“. He let us work with his casting director Sébastien Lévy, which was a massive help to us. When Christophe got involved, that was a giant step. For one thing, he was very supportive of all of the changes we were making to the script and to the film in general because we were making a lot of revisions at that point, both before we cast it, during rehearsals, and during the shooting itself.
Farley: One of the first practical things that Christophe did before we had a clear budget was to say: “Here are some resources. Just start working, and everything else will fall into place!” So he proposed that we work with Sébastien, who started casting for us. He knew that we didn’t want to work with professional actors. So he just went to scout the lines in front of clubs, and whenever he was on the street or the metro or anywhere, he would just approach people he thought might be right, and he asked people to come to casting sessions. We started doing casting pretty early, and that dictated what the film became in a huge way.
Cooper: He didn’t explicitly tell them that they might have to have sex in the film. I think they knew the film was about sex, but I don’t think they knew before they showed up for the casting sessions that they might be asked to have explicit sex in the film.
Farley: He tried to make sure they were people who at least gave some impression of self-confidence, and I think a lot of the time he looked for people in front of queer parties. So he was looking for people who seemed pretty open. In our first meetings with people, we discussed the film pretty broadly. Then, once we had had time to talk to them, we would try to gauge if they would be comfortable being naked, having sex in the film, what kind of sex, and so on.
Cooper: Quite a number of the performers in the film were people we decided we wanted to work with during the very first day of casting.
So let’s talk about the actual shooting of the movie.
Farley: Well, the film consists of five distinct sections that involve different performers and locations. For very practical reasons to do with our own rhythms and the tight budget and people’s availability, we didn’t have a long shooting period but rather shot scenes independently of each other. I think that gave us some time to step back and see what worked and what kind of working process was more efficient and how much time we would need to shoot each section. The shoots were quite a bit different from each other. We learned a lot from one shoot to the next. For example after the first sequence was shot, we had a better idea about what we needed to concentrate on in the rehearsals for the next sequence, and we knew that some things are better left unrehearsed. We asked you, Michael, to work with us. You had made films before, unlike us, and you had always basically made films on your own, which was almost what we were doing.
It was a strange experience for me that, on the first day of shooting, I was the most experienced person on the set. That was weird because I don’t know anything about anything, and I’m the least technical person ever. But … why don’t we talk about the visual style of the film because each of the five sections has a different look and mood. Did we approach the different scenes differently in that sense?
Farley: A little bit. In particular, for the scene in the club. It’s not like there was a wildly different approach, but there were things in each scene that we were looking at or looking for. And, obviously, for the fourth scene, we approached it very differently in terms of how to shoot it.
Cooper: Also, I think the dialogue affected things. The dialogue in the first scene is very serious whereas the dialogue in the fourth scene is very comedic and weird. At the point when we went to shoot the fifth scene, there was no dialogue in that scene at all. And, in the third scene, the dialogue is very disjunctive and complicatedly structured and spaced-out. Those differences required the scenes to be shot diversely.
I knew from having read the screenplay that there were things in the dialogue that, to me, dictated how different scenes would be approached. Like with the first scene, it seemed clear to me that the camera would be very fixed and wouldn’t move. In my head, that scene was kind of a classical composition in some way just because of the stillness and the blankness of the sets and the sparseness of the whole thing. The last sequence was the one where I felt like I didn’t do anything on.
Farley: The last scene is unique in the sense that the script, in very practical terms, dictated the images. The writing was about how the cameras moved or how things moved through the frame. The dialogue in the last scene only entered the night before we shot it. Out of anxiety or something. And there wasn’t going to be any audible speech by Tim’s character at that point. I really wanted that scene to address different registers that, to me, had had to do with the film as a whole. The last scene in a way embodies the film’s arguments, these different strata of meaning. Gisèle is actually affecting images within the film, and her compositions have an effect on yet another body on a different register.
The way we were working with the film was very enjoyable for me because it felt very organic. The film is very precise but there’s also an element of us responding to what the light was doing or what was going on in the room or outdoors in nature.
Farley: Yeah, I’m just not a person to have this really precise thing in my head that I want to enforce into an image. I don’t like when ideas are merely illustrated. For example, when you want to work with people who are not professional actors, you know in advance they’re going to affect the film to a much greater extent than if you work with professional actors, and you want them to. We were always very interested and open to that. I worked on storyboards, but they were never a map for how to shoot. They were a tool to organize thoughts. And also tools to be left behind.
It seemed like a lot of the time we would go to the set and set up, and then we’d go, Well, it makes sense to put the camera here or to focus on this. It was all very responsive, which I think translates in the movie. It’s something you feel as you watch it. There’s a certain aliveness to the images and to what’s happening because we’re responding rather than being, like: okay, it has to be a shot that’s framed like this.
Cooper: The film is very strictly edited, but it’s working collaboratively with that liveliness. That’s why it has a quality of seeming very organized but also almost loose. I think it has this strange tension between how precise everything is and how unpredictable things seem within that precision.
And I think it was that way for us while making it, also for the performers because most of them hadn’t had any experience with ‘acting’. They knew the words they had to say, but they didn’t know how that would be realized until we started filming.
Farley: The performers kept surprising me, and there was this way in which we worked where we didn’t want to ascribe this thing to them. The process of working with them mostly involved a ton of repetition – doing things over and over – and waiting for things to fall into place.
Cooper: With the exception of one performer, E.D. Yang in the club scene, every performer in the film was speaking in a second language. So they couldn’t have a complete confidence in what they were doing. They were guessing, or they were being told how different kinds of deliveries of their lines would work, but there was this distance between what they were saying and what they were feeling, and I think you feel that when you watch the film. Their performances mesh with everything else we were doing with the film aesthetically. That’s something we’d hoped would happen, and I think you do feel that something very personal is happening in the space between who they are and who they’re being asked to portray.
Farley: The unfamiliarity of the performers with the English language in some way related to my experience of Dennis’s novels too. The writing is so open and fluid, it makes no attempt at dictating your experience. The unfamiliarity with language allowed for all these points of entry into another realm to do with movement and emotion. Speaking in a tongue that’s not your own demands intense focus, yet it allows for very beautiful leaks and cracks. Not just cracks in the language, but on the surface of the body as well. When language slows or speeds up to a rhythm that’s unexpected, as a viewer I think you experience time and meaning differently. A kind of heightened state on each side of the mouth. So, yeah, we weren’t particularly interested in looking for people who were too fluent in English.
Cooper: There are performers in the film who speak in a very particular sort of way. Elri, in the third scene, and Paul, in the fourth scene, being the clearest examples. They have very unusual and particular voices. We were interested in working with them because their voices couldn’t do very much. Elri in particular had a very limited range of what his voice could do, and working with that limitation, which was also a real strength, was super interesting. I mean, with the exception of E.D. Yang, not a single line of dialogue in the film is spoken the way it would be by someone whose first language was English. Every single line delivery has something at least slightly wrong with it. It makes all of the language in the film cloudy. I think that’s why the language feels very penetrative. In addition to the fact that the performers’ faces are very appealing and seemingly emotionally transparent, the language, chiseled though it is, feels very open. It doesn’t sound solid. I don’t know that the language quality I’m talking about is so immediately apparent when you watch the film, or that viewers pay particular attention to the slight, wrong pronunciations and phrasings, but it’s very key to how and why the film works. On that note, maybe it’s interesting to mention that, with E.D. Yang, the one performer who speaks English fluently, what we do in his scene is try to break his English down and prevent him from speaking well and fluently. His English is being destroyed.
I think the film is visually like that too. The images are there, but there’s always something slightly off about them.
Farley: Most of my experiences working with video include that. Video is this very material thing. Video always seems to have this more tactile thing going on as opposed to film. I find this sort of haptic relationship to the video image to be more affective when the framing or focus or movement is slightly… off, yes. And, in a similar way, I think language has a kind of materiality and a potential for… not glitches, but for something else to come through.
I think the same thing applies to the editing as well. There are little spaces and holes.
Cooper: As far as the editing goes… I think the film’s attention span seems very strange, but all of it makes sense and is of a whole. For instance, in the final scene, where the woman is using the surveillance cameras and monitors to make aesthetically pleasing if strange compositions that seem initially at odds with her role as a surveillance monitor and at odds with what’s going on with the young man she’s monitoring,… it’s not an explaining of the film’s overall interest, but it is a kind of literalizing of what the film has been doing throughout. Zac’s interest, as the director of the film, which has been highly present and directive, though not addressed explicitly within the film throughout, is being consolidated and pressurized in the last scene and, maybe, in a way revealed there.
How did you find the transition to making a film using your writing? Because you’ve never been involved in making a film based on your writing before. Was there an adjustment, a surprise?
Cooper: Of course. I mean I hadn’t made a film before, but I have worked with the theater director Gisèle Vienne for ten years, so I had some experience writing texts for performers and watching them deliver the texts. But, in that case, Gisèle decides how the texts will be performed, and their deliveries are not always what I imagined, and they don’t always match what I had originally intended when writing the texts. With this film, it was amazing. Zac and I are just incredibly attuned. For me, there’s this deep mutual understanding, not just about how the texts work but with everything to do with this film and with every aspect of everything we’ve worked on together. Zac completely understands how my writing works, and he’s able to visualize the effect my work has when it’s printed on the pages of books, and no one has ever been able to do that in a complete and absolute way before. There’s total faith between us, and our work together happens in an atmosphere of an always understood agreement. It’s a once in a lifetime situation. And, obviously, that in and of itself, is a totally new experience for me. And many of the responses to the film so far have mentioned that the film perfectly translates how my writing works in my books. Even though I had never been able to imagine how my writing could be visualized, with this film, that’s happened exactly as I would have imagined it, if I could have imagined it.
The film doesn’t try to hide the fact that it was shot on video.
Farley: Yes, we wanted it to have the quality of being shot on video, so we weren’t going to grade it so as to disguise that.
Cooper: People have mentioned how ‘real’ the film feels. And I think the video look is a big factor in that. The film is very aestheticized, but it’s also… not raw, but it has a very intimate, almost home movie quality.
We weren’t making a movie the way people normally make movies. Because we don’t know how they normally do it.
Farley: I’ve never been on a film set in my life.
I’ve never been on any film sets except my own, and there I do everything myself. I never went to film school. I don’t have any technical training at all. So we were all coming from a lack of filmmaking experience, and I think that was a great advantage. The film is very distinct, and it doesn’t follow any of the normal conventions about how you’re supposed to shoot things and light them, how you’re supposed to grade them, how you’re supposed to cut them together.
Cooper: It’s the same with the script. I had no idea how to write a conventional film script. I’ve barely even read any real scripts. I don’t know how to write a novel. I’ve been writing novels forever but I have no idea how you’re supposed to write a novel. I make my novels up from scratch, and the script of the film was made from scratch. So, going back to the film’s very inception, it’s coming out of nowhere, in a sense.
My job on the film was to shoot the thing, and I was always just, like: I want to find a beautiful image. It was interesting for me because I wasn’t controlling anything else that was happening. The question was: How can I express myself in a purely visual way? – which was an interesting exercise for me. I think the film has a strange quality of being controlled but also being the opposite of that, too.
Cooper: But that’s the way I write. That’s the way Zac makes art, from my perspective. That’s the only way we know how to make things. It’s very natural.
Farley: I wouldn’t go that far. Not that it’s unnatural, but… (laughs) I guess it doesn’t feel natural to me. It feels very intuitive, but… I never go with my first instinct.
Cooper: For instance, the third scene was completely reinvented in the editing. We basically threw out much of the original concept and execution of the scene. And I think that might be the most exciting scene in the film. I’m just saying that decisions were made and revised and cancelled constantly, but never in a state of uncertainty or chaos at all. Somehow we knew what we wanted, and we knew we would find it whatever that involved.
The sound of the film is very important.
Farley: I think a lot about sounds and voices, and, obviously, with that kind of dialogue, the quality of the voices, and some of the flaws in the voices, really had to come through. But I had no experience in sound recording at all. That’s a field that’s actually advanced to a kind of science, I think more than any other area of filmmaking. It actually demands skill and an understanding of the science of sound. So Christophe Honoré put us in touch with Guillaume le Braz, a really amazing sound engineer who has worked with Philippe Grandrieux. And I think most of our early discussions with him were … (laughs) When you did „Un Lac“, what was it like to… ?
Cooper: Grandrieux’s films are just about the best sounding films in the world.
Farley: I think there’s this kind of faith in our movie for direct sound. There’s almost nothing but the sound that was recorded on set. Guillaume was incredible. We wanted to shoot these incredibly long takes where two different tracks of music are coming from two pairs of headphones at the same time. Basically, as we were shooting it, he was already premixing the sound with his microphone, moving it from one side of the room to the other very carefully in a kind of dance. On the first day, I forgot to tell anyone on set that we had started shooting. We just started shooting. He hadn’t pulled out his equipment yet. At some point he put headphones on my ears, and I got incredibly excited. It’s a completely different experience to look at the images, to look at the performers, to look at everything that’s happening on the set when you’re listening to something that’s actually this really partial machine. That was one of the most exciting moments when I got those headphones. So we worked with Guillaume on the first scene, and then with François Abdelnour, who was also incredible and who went above and beyond to get the best sound in contexts that were definitely not ideal. During editing, we were as attuned to sound as we were to images. That’s one of the things that make the final cut slightly unusual perhaps, edited sound and picture at the same time. Some of the most amazing images we ended up not using just because we were so faithful to this other kind of package. When it came to mixing, Mikaël Barre – who, again, was just incredible – worked with us. He’s a complete magician.
Cooper: He had great, inventive ideas of his own, but he was also totally dedicated to realizing Zac’s ideas. It was heaven working with him.
Farley: It was a process where, within the first hours of working with him, he immediately allowed me understand the kind of range we had to work within. So I became really enthusiastic about really crafting the sound.
Cooper: Maybe we can also talk about the music in the film. From the beginning, we knew that in the first scene we wanted to have these two pieces of music that you would hear leaking through two sets of headphones that would be heard individually at first when the characters were in different rooms and and then would blend together and merge into one fucked-up piece of music when the characters were together. Zac and I were both very interested in the work of Bee Mask, and we thought his music would be perfect, and he very kindly let us use two tracks in whatever way we liked. And then, in the second scene, there was always the music track. Originally, in the early version of the script, it was going to be a band playing live, but that proved to be too difficult and complicated to do, so we changed it to a laptop artist. We found this pretty but assaultive track by Peter Rehberg, whom I’ve worked with for years because he’s a fellow long-term collaborator with Gisèle Vienne, that had the exact quality we were hoping for, and he let us use it. The one bit of music that came in late was the Golden Fur score for the fourth scene. We knew and liked the work of the composer and musician James Rushford, who’s a member of Golden Fur, and we happened to watch this video of them playing live in Amsterdam, and what they played seemed perfect for the scene. So we asked them if they would rerecord and lengthen it.
Farley: They did an incredible score in a live session to a rough cut of the scene, and we got it two days later. That track is so great.
Cooper: They seemed to understand how to counterbalance the weird, surreal comedy in the scene, and also to do this musical drama that was so serious but, at the same time, showed how absurd the dramatic moments in the scene were. So, the other scenes are without music, except for the last scene which involves basically a kind of complex symphony of direct sounds, a composition of the sounds of the flying drone, the control room sound, the beach sounds, the sounds of cameras operating, and so on. And, at the very last minute, literally as we were putting together the end credits, Zac found these tracks to use over the credits by Niko Solorio.
Farley: Niko is a friend of mine from CalArts. He’d sent me this demo of a new project he had been working on, five tracks. There was one track where, as soon as I heard it, it made total sense to me for the film. I asked him to merge two of the tracks into one, and it was kind of perfect.
Like Cattle Towards Glow
von Dennis Cooper & Zac Farley
DE/FR 2015, 93 Minuten, FSK 18,
englische OF mit deutschen UT,