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Bruce LaBruce on Zombies and Messiness

We featured the polymath provocateur in this month's issue and here is the extended interview.

When Dazed shot the breeze with cult filmmaker Bruce LaBruce in LA and discussed his low-budget transgressive films No Skin Off My Ass, Super 8 ½, Hustler White and Otto; Or, Up With Dead People (to be released as a DVD box-set), the director was recovering from his exhibition opening at Peres Projects. The previous night, the ultra-hip gallery had been transformed into a blood-spattered hotel room in which the tattoo-scalped porn star Francois Sagat (set to star in LaBruce’s next splatter-fest LA Zombie) was gunned down as a performance piece.

Dazed Digital: Do you get tired of people always comparing your films to Warhol?
Bruce LaBruce:Someone posted a picture on Facebook of the opening and some girl commented “Oh, Bruce LaBruce, wasn’t he part of the whole Warhol crowd?” and I’m like, “Oh my God, I’m not that old!” But my favourite part of Warhol was his film period. Super 8 ½ I made in Warhol style, and Hustler White was made in homage to Sunset Boulevard, Whatever Happened to Baby Jane and Warhol’s Flesh. These were direct references, but before those films were even available Ondine from the Factory who was the subject of Warhol’s novel A, who was kind of a crazy Jewish speed freak toured in the early ‘80s and played at The Funnel, an experimental film place in Toronto. I was totally starstruck- he was a larger-than-life character and my friends and I became obsessed. We were punks in the ‘80s and also obsessed by the Factory. But I was also influenced by other members of the gay avant-garde.

DD: Why the current zombie fixation?
Bruce LaBruce: It sort of started out just doing stuff based on massacre, but more based on war and torture, after Abu Ghraib and the Iraq War with those abduction videos, with people almost getting decapitated and turning into zombies. It’s really interesting that the zombie film is becoming the most popular horror genre. There’s three reasons I think for this- first it’s viral, so it’s so rich in allegories- it sort of spreads, like hate or ideology as a monster. Or it could also be like a disease, like swine flu. And it’s also consumerism - George A Romero made the zombies in Dawn of the Dead hang out at the shopping mall because it’s where they feel most at home. In Otto they all do the same thing, eat the same things, hang out in the same place- it’s that idea of the mall where people are kind of like losing their identity, and being alienated. But Otto I intended to make into more of a misfit, who didn’t relate to the other zombies.

DD: Do you have a specific audience in mind with your work?
Bruce LaBruce: Not so much. My first film, No Skin Off My Ass, I made for $14,000, and never really intended it to be seen outside punk clubs and alternative art spaces, it was not so much for a gay crowd even. I shot it on Super 8 and this was when the gay festival circuit was starting. It played in a number of regular festivals as well. It showed me and my boyfriend at the time having sex together and we never thought it would be seen this widely, and it suddenly felt strange. We didn’t know anything about porn, we were just making things to be provocative and confront homophobia head-on, to show other punks that they were not as radical as they seemed to be. Then I made Super 8 ½, which fictionalised my reaction to suddenly being regarded as a pornographer. I had to get out of Toronto because it got so messy because of these films.

DD: Messy how?
Bruce LaBruce: I had a messy break-up with my boyfriend and it divided up the scene we had. It was very difficult for me to get films made because of attempts at censorship, and I had problems with both American and Canadian customs- the Toronto one was part of the police so-called “morality squad”- the same one which tried to shut down a Madonna concert. When I tried to convert No Skin Off My Ass to 16mm the lab called the cops and wanted them to come in to cut the negative. That’s why I also needed a pseudonym- I was doing stuff that was technically illegal.

DD: Your films show graphically-filmed fetishes- the amputee scene in Hustler White, a lot of people found hard to take...
Bruce LaBruce: It seems sort of tame now, it’s even played on television on the independent film channel. It took about eight or nine years to happen- at first it was banned. I think what enraged people and they didn’t even know why at the time was the romantic way it was presented- with these people as normal and having this fetish unexpectedly. For homophobics it’s an excuse to say all these people are freaks. That’s why a lot of gays are skeptical about my work, as if for a straight audience it’s proof of their ideas of how perverted homosexuals are. But these characters who indulge in extreme fetishes, there is actual tenderness in it. The real taboo is affection and romance.

DD: There’s often porn films being shot within your films. Are your films porn?
Bruce LaBruce: As Tony Ward said, “The difference between porn and non-porn is the lighting.” There are so many different definitions. And other people say “I don’t know how to define it, I just know I definitely want to see it.” I always say there’s one line really, and that’s the cornhole line- the penetration line, which isn’t an exact line either. In my movies, I try to create a lot of distance between the audience and the explicit sex act, because I’m self-conscious about presenting it and also to make the audience aware of exactly how they’re viewing it. I use black-and-white film-within-a-film, or interrupt it in some way, or use unexpected music...

DD: Are you ever tempted to tone things down to get a bigger budget or wider audience?
Bruce LaBruce: That’s something I’m struggling with right now. The whole trajectory of my career has been very strange- the Hollywood producer of Hustler White started the first gay porn company in Berlin, and I worked for him to make Skin Flick, a porn movie, and it was a bizarre self-fulfilling prophecy where I started making legitimate porn. Raspberry Reich was made for his spin-off porn company, and it’s sexually explicit as well. In terms of my career I don’t have Hollywood aspirations- but I would like to get into bigger budget-taking and I’m working on a script for a larger one. It’s harder for me now to just make a quiet, small film– the next thing it’s snowballed into something bigger.

Bruce LaBruce's box set is available July 28.
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