“Honestly, I started getting tired of movies that treat zombies like worthless, homeless people who can be cruelly annihilated for sport,” “Otto; Or Up With Dead People!” director Bruce LaBruce told indieWIRE. “I thought it was high time for a zombie uprising, so to speak. I also thought it was time for a new homosexual revolution, so it made sense to combine the two uprisings.” Perhaps Canada’s best known and most controversial contributor to queer cinema, with films like “Super 8 1/2” and “The Raspberry Reich,” LaBruce’s “Otto” makes its way to US theatres this Friday at New York’s IFC Center.
“Cinema is so central to my consciousness that I sometimes dream with credits,” LaBruce said. “Film was my major in university, but I dropped out of production because I never thought a sissy like me could make a movie. It seemed too complicated and expensive. But after getting involved in the punk scene in Toronto I discovered super 8 and started making experimental films while getting my MA in film theory and social and political thought at university. This lead to feature filmmaking, and that’s where I’m at today.”
Specifically, LaBruce is at “Otto” today. After touring with the film for almost a year (it screened at both Sundance and Berlin this past winter, and in dozens of fests since), his journey with it is coming to a close. The film follows its titular zombie (Jey Crisfar), as he wanders German streets and hillsides driven by the vague memory of a boyfriend from before his zombiehood. A film crew making a “political gay zombie porno flick” mistakes him for a zombie impersonator, and he winds up the film’s star. This allows LaBruce to both poke fun at himself (some critics have deemed him a “pretentious pornographer”), and break out some scenes of considerable zombie gore and sex.
“There were all the kids I was running into who would tell me they felt dead or dead inside,” he said. “I wondered what was creating this new zombie youth movement: alienation from a materialistic, soulless society, perhaps? That inspired me to create Medea Yarn, a female protagonist who is a revolutionary, anti-capitalist lesbian filmmaker, based on the legendary avant-garde filmmaker Maya Deren. There are so few female heroines in cinema these days who are strong-willed and political and feminist. It’s my antidote to all the straight horror geeks who are vaguely homophobic and overtly misogynistic, the ones who get off on seeing women tortured in horror films.”
La Bruce’s other dominant reasoning for the film came from a more a direct metaphor. “f you’ve ever cruised a public park or bathhouse at night, you know that it’s pretty much like “Night of the Living Dead,” he said. “Bodies coming out of dark shadows, interchangeable body parts, men in a somnambulistic trance groping each other. Zombies and gays just seem to go together naturally. Like a horse and carriage.”
But they don’t necessarily go well together with film financing. “It’s always difficult to finance independent films without name actors,” he said. “But to make one that is also sexually explicit and anti-capitalist presents an even bigger challenge! I relied on my usual producing partner, Jurgen Bruning, who generally supports even my craziest ideas. This time I also got the support of some of my art world connections, like co-producers Bruce Bailey, Alfredo Ferran Calle, Javier Peres, and Terence Koh. When I began financing the film there was a lot of art money floating around, so I tapped into that. Also as a Canadian I got generous support from the Ontario Arts Council and the Canada Council for the Arts. I’ve been fortunate to find distribution in most of the major regions, with some theatrical play as well, which is becoming increasingly difficult for smaller movies. The film was shot on HD-Cam and Super 16mm, but we finished on 35mm, so that’s opened us up for more theatrical.”
Though LaBruce’s work is certainly queer, his rule is “to always start with cinema first.” “Gay content for me is important because I make personal films and I am gay, so I have to make work about my experience,” he said. “But I also try to make work that has universal themes that everyone can relate to, and to present it cinematically, which is a universal language. Personally I have always been somewhat alienated from the gay mainstream and its orthodoxy, so I never feel like I’m representing any sort of ideological agenda or platform. I’m opposed to gay films that try to prop up “the gay experience” (whatever that is) as something non-threatening and normal. For me being gay is by its very nature something that goes against the grain and causes people to reconsider the very definition of normalcy.”
Having said that, La Bruce admits it’s very difficult to market his work “because it tends to fall between the cracks.” “The gay audience has been conditioned to expect a certain kind of gay product that espouses certain values and aesthetics, something that I simply don’t support,” he said. “But my films are still aggressively homosexual, with explicit gay sex, so it’s hard for them to cross over to a wider audience. I am encouraged, however, by the kinds f audiences that ‘Otto’ has been attracting. I’ve had sold-out screenings all over the world, from Seoul, to Istanbul to Portland to Mexico City, and the audiences have been very mixed – male and female, gay and straight – and they all seem to respond to the more universal message of the movie. Zombies tend to unify.”
So that “Otto” is ended its journey, what’s next for LaBruce? “I’m not really talking about the new scripts I’m developing at the moment lest I jinx them,” he admitted. “I directed my first theatre piece, called ‘Cheap Blacky,’ last fall in Berlin, and I will be doing another one at the Hau Theatre next fall on the subject of female hysteria. I was excited to work with my biggest budget so far with ‘Otto,’ and I look forward to even bigger budgets to realize certain goals I have as a director. I would love to make another genre film some day. ‘Otto’ is a whimsical, melancholy horror movie, which is a genre I love. But I also love scary, creepy horror films, so that would be fun to try in the future.”