City Desk

Interview With Donkey Punch Director Olly Blackburn

<b><i>Blackburn</i></b>

Blackburn

Surely there are quite a few cynical souls out there who would prefer their Valentine's weekend to be less about lacy hearts and more about geysers of blood.

But if the thought of spending another cinematic second with Jason Voorhees makes you want to slash your own throat, try Donkey Punch, a debut thriller from South London director Olly Blackburn that opens today at Landmark's E Street Cinema.

Blackburn, who gives his age as "30s" and came to NYU's film school after a stint in journalism and a near-doctorate in history, has created a taut albeit stomach-turning first feature about a group of young Brits partying on a boat in Spain. Things get tres dirty (if you don't know what the title term means, go forth and Google) and then (spoiler alert!) go horribly wrong.

Throughout, there's not a hint of Friday the 13th-esque cartoonishness, which can make Donkey Punch a difficult sit.

After the jump is an email interview I conducted with Blackburn, in which he talks budget, future projects, and why you shouldn't consider his film torture porn.

I can't lie: I had a pretty sick feeling while watching the film. Although I knew it wasn't going to be a nice little romp, I couldn't shake its nastiness, from Bluey's overwhelming dirtbag-ness to the graphic sex to the pivotal first death. I sensed an undercurrent of hatefulness from the guys that only got worse — "Fix us a meal!" — and I'm not someone who throws accusations of sexism around.

Did you expect that the film might be perceived as misogynistic, and do you feel you successfully offset it (with, say, details such as Sean's relative decency and the girls, without spoiling anything, eventually giving as good as they got)?

The film deals with misogynistic behavior and with the weird emotional power plays you get between men (that's part of what drives the "donkey punch" itself) — that doesn't make it misogynist in message. It's a story about a group of characters caught in a situation where things disintegrate, their behavior leads them to make decisions that have terrible repercussions and conflicts break out on all lines — class, region, gender and also personal lines, some people have just taken a huge dislike to each other.

So within all that emotional chaos there is a men vs. women dynamic and clearly some of the men are very misogynist and treat the women as if they have no choice or decision in what's going on and are just playthings to be used and manipulated but...the women don't take that lying down. They fight back.

<b>Donkey Punch: <i>First, Oh yeah!...</i></b>

Donkey Punch: First, Oh yeah!...

And by the end of the film, when you tally up the final score, it's clear the women have won. So the film features misogyny but is certainly not misogynist — it doesn't hate or underestimate women.

I was reminded of Funny Games with its real-time, in-your-face, and ultimately realistic psychological and physical torture. Have you seen either of Michael Haneke's version of this film, and if so was it an influence? Did any other movies or filmmakers come to mind when you were making Donkey Punch?

I actually only saw Funny Games after we finished the film, then I saw [Haneke's] remake after that — both of which I like — so no, it wasn't an influence. My inspirations in terms of filmmaking were Larry Clark for the first part of the film, the way in which he shows the behavior of teenagers and young men and women and it feels so real and unforced.

And for the genre stuff I'm a big fan of Carpenter, Romero, Peckinpah, and Polanski, because they're unremitting and real and brilliant at showing characters under unbearable stress and unafraid of challenging us with uncomfortable truths as well as being just incredible filmmakers.

But just focusing on other films is to ignore that a lot of the inspiration for the story came from the realities of the world and situation that [co-writer David Bloom and I] researched very carefully. We spent a lot of time talking to crew members of boats, we visited several boats and looked at their floor plans, designs, equipment, etc., we met with a clinical psychiatrist from UCL to discuss shock and trauma states in this type of situation, we researched the medical/physical effects of all the woundings and kills, etc.

And then a lot of the stuff from the start of the film — where the characters are just free and easy and goofing around on holiday — came from our own experiences in our 20s going on these kind of holidays and meeting these kinds of people.

Remember, at the start, these characters are doing what hundreds of thousands of young Brits do every year — go away to places like Spain to party and have a good time. And that was probably the most important thing, to try and have realistic characters who people could identify with so that when everything goes to shit later on people are not just thinking "This is awful" but "That could be me."

Do you consider Donkey Punch part of the torture-porn movement? Personally, I'm happy that horror films seem to be swinging back to silly slashers, like My Bloody Valentine. (Remakes, on the other hand, are a different topic entirely.) The parts of your shorts that I've seen have an otherworldly, nightmarish quality, so what made you turn to a more brutal style with your first feature?

Well. Although Donkey Punch contains both torture and porn in it, it's not torture porn. See if you can figure that one out!

<b>...then, Oh no!</b>

...then, Oh no!

The film is about what happens when real people do ghastly things to each other, and sure, it shows those things because that's the tone of the film — fairly realistic. But it doesn't glorify those things and it doesn't make them baroque or try to have fun with them. Which for me is what torture porn is about.

I've always hated when viewers/readers/consumers of art project all these messages onto a piece when perhaps the creator didn't mean it to be anything but entertainment. So, is there any subtext to your story, or should the audience just regard it as a particularly tense way to pass 90 minutes?

And it's not for me to tell people how to watch my film. The film has really divided people, different people have very different takes on the film and whatever people think of it. This film clearly engages its audience. I'm very happy about that. I think that's what filmmaking is about.

I read that you didn't have much of a budget for this but couldn't find a number. How much was it made for, and how long was the shoot?

It was a million pounds and we shot for 24 days.

Watching the film a second time, I was shocked at how well-made it was, considering it was your first feature and you had limited resources. I'm particularly impressed that, as an experienced music-video director, you didn't resort to the popular slasher cop-out of very fast edits to make the audience think they're seeing something terrifying when really it's a bunch of indecipherable rubbish. (I guess there's really no question here, but feel free to comment.)

Thank you.

Did you use old-school special effects or CGI? Do you have a preference for one or the other?

There was no CGI in the film and just a very small amount of simple digital effects (painting lights out, etc.).

How did you meet David, and where did the story come from? How long did the script take to write?

Me and David met in the '90s because we were both studying in the States on Fulbright awards. We ended up sharing a place in NYC for a year. We didn't actually work together till much much later when David returned from a holiday in the South of France and told me about the luxury boats he'd seen down there watched over just by very young crew members.

He thought there was a great story there. And he was right. So then we came up with the story and characters and wrote the script. Took it to WarpX and 9 months later, after several new drafts, I was in preproduction. That's uncommonly fast for a feature film. I pray I get to do something that fast again.

Can you talk about one of your future horror projects, Defiance, and what kind of tone it has?

That's not called Defiance anymore, it's called A New England. And it's a survival thriller set in Britain in the early '70s. Which was an amazing and bizarre time.

Your bio also lists an upcoming "comedy-drama," Fever. Do you plan on experimenting with genres or would you prefer to stay in horror? (Good horror filmmakers are hard to find!)

I love genre and I love films. I just want to make films that engage and challenge and do things. Let's see how that works out.

Your cast is pretty naked for a while. Any difficulty getting everyone to agree to those scenes?

Yes, that was a big deal. I was very open during the casting that we would have nudity on those scenes and that really helped separate the actors who were prepared to do it and those who didn't want to.

The cast we have in the film were all very brave and very committed, and once they were on board [they were] ready to do what it took to tell the story. And I think that shows on the screen. They're really talented people.

Last question: The title. Does it give too much away?

Maybe. But it's a good title.

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  • Fred

    Please provide an update on the stimulus particularly as it relates to Metro and whether or not there will be any service cuts afterall. Thanks.

  • Arthur Delaney

    Fred, today's Post says the stimulus contains $1.6 billion for Washington area infrastructure projects. Please let us know if you have any questions. Thanks.

  • Fred

    Yes, but will you find out how much of that will go to METRO?

  • Arthur Delaney

    The Post says the amount slotted for Metro remains to be determined, but Metro officials have "prioritized $325 million worth of 'shovel ready' capital projects that include new vehicles and parts, maintenance programs and safety measures."

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