Taken from the November issue of Dazed & Confused:
On a hot June day, a film crew and hundreds of ravaging mosquitoes are gathered in the Lake District’s Grizedale Forest to shoot artist Jamie Shovlin’s debut feature. Inside a country barn, the finishing touches are being added to a huge sharp-toothed silicon-and-latex worm’s head with thin ropes attached for manoeuvring. Shouts that the camera is ready to roll hush the tired but chatty crew, and downstairs in the basement the bloodthirsty screams of a stabbing scene can be heard. Tomorrow, vintage cars rented from local hobbyists will add a touch of wheels fetishism as the lead (a tanned, cheery blonde played by Norwegian non-actor Agnes Aspen) is shot hitching a ride by a cemetery.
The actors are all wearing 70s clothes, and the set-up points to a retro slasher. But Shovlin’s rep for notoriously deceptive conceptual art means that surface appearances can’t be trusted. In 2004 he exhibited drawings by an imaginary missing schoolgirl (her name was Naomi V Jelish, an anagram of “Jamie Shovlin”) that were bought by Charles Saatchi, allegedly before realising it was a hoax. In 2006 he presented a meticulously created set of memorabilia for 70s German krautrock band Lustfaust, who again, never existed. Many who stumbled across the fansite, ostensibly set up for fans to trade DIY tape-cover designs, were duped.
Why the trickery? As we mini-van between locations, Shovlin insists that the creation of Lustfaust was not cynical deception – although it took in the likes of critic Waldemar Januszczak – but an exploration of the fan communities spawned by pop culture and how they sustain themselves. “The community essentially creates this culture around something – in the case of Lustfaust, a band – that has a false centre. They substantiate it through their interest, but the band itself doesn’t even actually need to exist. I started developing it in 2003, around the time Myspace was becoming a significant challenge to major record-label distribution.”
People made exploitation films with extremely limited means. I’m really happy there are people that want to make things like The Sinful Dwarf, a terrible, terrible film
His debut feature is similarly slippery, and on set, no one seems to have a clear idea of what is going on. But a few weeks later Shovlin ushers me inside his London Fields studio to see choice excerpts from the shoot. The film, Rough Cut, is actually a “metamentary” on the making of imaginary 70s exploitation film Hiker Meat, the legend of which he has been developing for years. The crew are followed as they film the movie, and interviewed on their (mis)conceptions of what Hiker Meat and Rough Cut variously are. Also part of the project is a multi-screen gallery exhibition, which showed last month at the Toronto Film Festival and will come to Manchester’s Cornerhouse in January.
It was out of the Lustfaust project that Hiker Meat was born. Shovlin and writer Mike Harte came up with a pool of song titles that did not relate to actual music but would be cited as the seventh album of the band — a concept album soundtracking an imaginary horror film, from the opening track, “Scream in the Sunset” through to the closer, “Failure Machine”. To fit that fake construct, a narrative to connect the titles was formulated and named Hiker Meat (an anagram of “Mike Harte”). Several of the tracks were created later by Shovlin’s musician friend Euan Rodger, who also scores Rough Cut with synth-laden dread.
A grubbily low-res trailer for the non-existent film was made, then uploaded to YouTube and credited to bogus Italian director Jesus Rinzoli. Hiker Meat posters were also designed. One bears the tagline: “30 kids made their way to Jamestown. How many will make it back?” “It’s an aggregate of clichés,” Shovlin says. “It’s so stylised you could be familiar with the film without seeing it.” He pieced the trailer together from clips he’d collected and catalogued from around 400 exploitation films – lurid B-movies that thrived in the 70s and 80s by touting freakishness of all kinds as an audience pull – then recreated them shot-for-shot. “These aren’t sexy grindhouse films, they are mostly just terrible,” he grins. “None have been garnered through official means, and some are extremely rare – you can’t get hold of them any other way than people sharing them online.”
The haul spans exploitation sub-genres. Danish white-slavery flick The Sinful Dwarf (1973) sees a cackling dwarf lure girls into the apartment he shares with his mother – a washed-up alcoholic cabaret singer who’s given to impromptu Carmen Miranda impressions – to hook them on smack. Also in the mix is cult Italian giallo favourite Torso (1973), about a killer who strangles college students after being blackmailed about a three-way. “The thing I like about exploitation films is not really their subject matter,” says Shovlin. “It’s that at a certain point in time people got together and made them with extremely limited means. They actually had the drive to make The Sinful Dwarf, a terrible, terrible film, or Godmonster of Indian Flats (also 1973). It’s crazy but I’m really happy there are people that want to make things like that exist.”
The plot Shovlin and his collaborators created for Hiker Meat follows a troubled girl who hitches a ride to a town where a magnetic benefactor runs a commune. There’s a harvest festival that’s a mere ruse to enslave hippie kids into forced labour under the control of a giant lactating worm, which produces a black, senses-dulling milk. Unlikely escape leads to an overthrow of the beast.
Shovlin’s exploitation-clip catalogue wasn’t the only reference. Harte chose the date August 1 at random as a connecting reference point, and named characters after people linked historically to that date. I look over an annotated Wikipedia entry on the date that indicates a fertile ground of free associations. Aspen’s character, Eva, is named after Eva Bartok, a Jewish actress from Hungary born on August 1, whose films include Italian giallo classic Blood and Black Lace (1964). Harte notes that she was interned in a German concentration camp and forced to marry a Nazi officer. Meanwhile, Anne and Frank are named after the famous Holocaust victim, whose last diary entry was on that date in 1944 – the same day the Warsaw Uprising began. Echoes of the Nazisploitation subgenre are clear, feeding into a Hiker Meat plot that turns on the overthrow of a tyrannical system. August 1 is also the date of the neopagan wheat festival Lammas, the inspiration for Bram Stoker’s 1911 horror novel Lair of the White Worm and its 1988 film adaptation, which features a hippy-enslaving creature that also has its roots in trashy 1983 sci-fi The Deadly Spawn.
Confused yet? Given the Hiker Meat project’s dense back-story and smog of arbitrary associations, Rough Cut the feature film could almost be seen as an afterthought. It came about after Shovlin was approached by Cornerhouse Artist Film, a production initiative by the Manchester venue that has previously released experimental documentaries by Gillian Wearing and Andrew Kötting. “Initially I thought it was crazy, because this project is entirely about the absence of a film,” he says. “It was very important that Hiker Meat was invisible, or mythological, and everything about it would be substantiated only by secondary media: things like posters and scripts. But gradually I realised that the best way of documenting this entire four or five-year project was in filmic form.”
Trying to pin down Shovlin for a precise definition of the purpose of this intricate, ongoing mesh of creative labour is no easy business. But he’s clear that the process itself is what matters most. “I was using the film-within-a-film as a construct to get this social environment around the production of a film to take place, to look at people creating together and trying to resolve problems. And I’m very interested in how people start characterising themselves when they’re filmed. The natural consequence of those situations is that drama arises, or community arises – people get behind each other because they have to.” To work out what your role as audience might be in this very elaborate game — well, you’ll have to dip into the film for yourself.
Rough Cut is out on December 6