Sunday, August 15, 2010

The Grunge of Virgin Beasts.

I’m skipping over “The Thief of Sydney” to tell the denouement of my non-career as a movie star, Virgin Beasts, all very cut up a la William Burroughs. These are the unabridged Production Notes on Virgin Beasts that I am presenting at Newtown Library in September for my return to the era of '80s “Grunge” via the soundtrack and artworks from the movie. It’s a long story, some of which I’ve told before but here it is from beginning to end, straight from the heart.

“Virgin Beasts” is a camp look at the male ‘Unconscious’ and one mans’ “Venus-Envy”. I was inspired by the early ‘80s text “Fathering the Unthinkable”, where men give birth to atom bombs and “war is menstruation envy”. The story interweaves between two levels, reality and fantasy: a nasty, powerful old arms dealer lusts for immortality even on his deathbed and, as he dies, has a drug-induced hallucination of a future life where he can reconquer the world. He has heart-swap surgery, his devious lawyers arranging the healthy heart of an Aboriginal convict be donated to him. All the while he’s taken on an odyssey by an animated cartoon dolphin-soul to the Underworld and a poisoned future to rescue “The Cup that Heals all Wounds” from the last-supper table of a mutants’ bacchanalia. But he’s foiled at every turn by a beautiful woman, emissary from ‘out there’, the World.
What was the old man’s problem? As a “man’s man” maybe he invested too much value in his penis and had unleashed his anxiety over its potency onto a long-suffering, alienated world. The Holy Penis is flashed throughout the film and lampooned as an icon of power, mimicked by towers, bullets and missiles, and the arms dealer is exposed as a narcissistic ‘dickhead’. The Holy Cup he lusted after could be the womb, the truly receptive and creative vessel, the Feminine, Nature, the Ocean, the “Great Out There” that the hung-up male longs to be part of but is always a penis length away from.
“Virgin Beasts” is a paradox wherein opposites have to co-operate and compete, female and male, nature and civilization, black and white, beauty and the beast, love and desire, the Id and the Super-ego. The film critiques 20th Century science, its politics and consequences, when power usually came from the end of a gun. “Virgin Beasts” are personified in modern cartoons where animals are anthropomorphized, treated with ambiguous desire: innocent, cute and lovable but viciously violatable, torn apart for fun or turned into consumerables.
The full story of the films’ journey that follows is a tough one, almost unbelievable, but it’s my truth, and I’ve longed to tell it for twenty years, unlike my detractors I never got any Power or a million dollars, virgin beast that I am.
“Virgin Beasts” was made on a very low budget, ($200,000 with all involved paid basic Union rates), overcoming manifold obstacles for seven years to see the light of day. The film was made on 16ml using trash as the basic materials i.e. the costumes, sets and props, and the actors for the most part untrained and unrehearsed. The music was recorded on 8 tracks, the animation shot under a single-plane camera with thousands of plastic cells, the special effects created on an Amiga 500 computer. The art style is naïve and kitsch, the narrative is derivative, the dialogue full of clichés, truisms and platitudes, the film gloats in its own crassness and obvious artifice, “Trash Cinema” being the ruling aesthetic. The theatrics are based on Vaudeville, “Theatre of Poverty” and pagan rites such as “the Saturnalia” and fertility dances.

 1985 – I was fresh from winning a Bronze Dragon, (for script), out of 90 films at the Crakow Animation Film Festival, Poland, for my short musical “The Thief of Sydney” and I hoped I could get paid to write the next one. I was obsessed by dolphin-lore, researching their mythological history for years, moulding my narrative in Creative Writing Classes while I did my Communications Course at the University of Technology, Sydney and painting my tentative themes in a giant wall-mural on my squat at Pyrmont. I wrote a treatment, with sketches for key scenes, and applied to the Australian Film Commission for Script Development.
“The A.F.C. does not fund people who want to burn the world down”, (as revealed in “The Thief”) said my two razor-faced assessors. “What’s the connection between nasty, old arms dealers and poisoned whales?” snapped the American, (she had made a short film the same year as me and I was her competition for future glory.) “It’s all so predictable!” whined the other, (a tepid play-write from Adelaide who then ripped my “Jesus Christ Saturnalia” scene to spice up his next trite play.) “Too expensive to make. Give it up!” they curtly terminated the interview. “Over your dead bodies!” I avowed as I stumbled out into the cold.
1987 – for two years I wrote 5 drafts of the script, the final being story-boarded shot for shot, and showed it all over town, from every floor of UTS to several art colleges, advertising agencies to film companies, crew members to actors, trying to get support to make the film. Everybody loved the script, thought it was wild, too wild to ever get realized. I did all the pre-production with determination, printing scripts, hunting locations, designing the shoot schedule, preparing the budget, convincing enough talent to participate. And I paid for it all by working as a night-nurse in half the hospitals of Sydney, including the AIDs Hospice at St.Vincents. I felt confident enough to once again try a submission to the AFC, this time with a fully prepared project.
I was lucky enough to get a bright, keen Project officer, Chris Strewe, who fought for me to get a fair assessment at which I did a song and dance, winning my four “peer filmmakers” over. They evinced enthusiasm for its innovative flair and cult potential and the project got approved by The Board.
I was informed I would get no more than $70,000 to get me to the half-way mark, i.e. a 50 to 70 minute rough-cut of the live-action shoot, cast and crew paid, fed, insured, costumed, propped, back-dropped, choreographed, dialogue and music sound-recorded, and edited. And I could expect no more than $40,000 to finish the film with its animation put in place, then fine edited, sound edited and mixed, opticals and answer print completed. I said “Yes, yes, yes!” to everything and gratefully clutched my contract to spin gold from straw to my heart, willing all the miracles to continue falling into place.

 1988 – I worked as a night-nurse right up to the day of the shoot for the budget was too small to include wages for myself even though for the same reason I had to do ten jobs on the film, writer, producer, actor, choreographer, art director, singer, paymaster and cleaner. For the previous year I had been making and collecting the props, (much of them discarded from the hospitals where I worked), organizing the immanent shoot and making the rubber latex masks for the beasts. It’s a good thing I was living in a squat for in the process of prop making I got clay, paint, plaster and liquid rubber dripping all over the house.
By begging, cajoling and inspiring I got a team together for one weeks rehearsal and a twelve day shoot, which included constructing a different set each day in a huge tin shed in Redfern plus going out to three separate locations. It was all an exhilarating experience, of life out of control and art out of chaos. I was like a frantic human octopus with some hysterical cast or crew member hanging off of each arm, I had too many jobs to do and it all made for a messy movie. When the cook passed out stoned from sniffing his own whipped-cream dispenser and then taken away to hospital it was me who served up the cold soup to the wailing mob.
If only ‘They’ had truly believed in me and given me another $30,000 for the live-action shoot I could’ve had more time to rehearse, shoot close-ups, build really wild sets and have a bit of a rest between scenes. But no, everything had to be rushed and half-arsed! Yet somehow out of this whirlwind of frustration, desire and ingenuity I hoped I got what would be the makings of a funny, comic book opera. I guess the toughest part of the shoot was in the old haunted dungeons of Callam Park Mental Hospital, with my actors chained to the walls, screaming as they’re being whipped, the ancient, tortured souls of the Victorian insane being roused to join in and reinforce the demonic choral of pain. Everybody, including me, lost their nerve and the shoot had to be wrapped early. And at Deewhy Beach, the tide came in as we laboriosly shot the Utopian dance scene, and everybody whined about the water coming up to their ankles.
In mid-1988 I went back to the AFC with an 85 minute rough-cut praying THEY will give me the money to finish the film as it was obviously nothing without the animation. My new assessment panel of “Peer Filmmakers” just couldn’t visualize the animation amongst the live-action, (I was the only animator in the room), and couldn’t see it working as a movie, even though the story was there shot for shot as I’d presented in the original story-board. Getting money from Govt. Arts bodies has always been tricky, especially in the ‘80s, more like a gladiator pit with half your film-making competition in the Emperor’s box, their thumbs down before your first move. In reality one of my assessors was to get a job on a film competing for the same money that year as me, and one of the frustrated filmmaker-bureaucrats upstairs coincidentally wanted to make a million dollar feature about "going into a woman’s Unconscious" with animation to get you there. So now none of my assessors could understand what I was on about, THEY didn’t like my film at all and I was rejected, thrown out to rot amongst my vast pile of movie-cans and rubber masks. Probably the scene with J.C. at a ‘Black Mass’ was what put the last nail in the coffin for me.
Though depressed, thinking my “career” as a filmmaker was over, from some art-obsessive, life-affirmative urge, I continued line-rehearsing the dolphin characters, drawing them a thousand times over until I was satisfied I’d instilled some personality into their look. I knew I’d get nothing by being a wimp so for over 18 months I hassled, cajoled and pleaded with everyone high and low, on every floor of the AFC, Project Officers and Commissioners, the Head of Special Projects and the telephone-operator at the front-door, but no one could help me, I was “persona non grata”.

 Late 1989 - All the film bureaucrats were in a kerfluffle, the joint was getting a shake-up as nepotism, cliques and hidden agendas wasn't supposed to happen in an open democracy, not with millions of dollars to throw around. A new boss was brought in from outside, (Peter Sainesbury had previously worked in the British film industry), to get the AFC shipshape, and it seemed to me the chance of a fair hearing was in the air. I tried to ring the guy but got his secretary instead, and I was denied access, the phone hung up on me. I also had his private office number so I took a deep breath and rang him direct, and he picked up the phone.
In one minute I pitched the history of my film and being sharp, he got IT and invited me to show him the rough cut, which he liked and had the guts and vision to support, “What do you need to finish it?”
“$100,000 with animation, sound edit and print,” I asked hesitantly. “Are you sure you don’t need more?” “Okay, $104,000”, I said hopefully. “You got it!” I was a fool, I should’ve asked for $150,000 but I was a naïve working class lad, not in the know and not greedy. Still, I punched the air when I got outside that gray concrete AFC building, I was alive again! I had enough to pay myself and assistant painters for a year and, from the hordes I talked up, seven cool artists stuck with me through my 21 nervous breakdowns while I created ten thousand acetate-cells and seventy backgrounds for the animation. I did all of the drawing, some of the painting and most of the filming.
1990 - Filmmakers don’t get all the money at one time, otherwise it would be off to Monte Carlo for some of them. I got it in bits; every three months I had to show my Project Officer what I’d done, with a budget update, before I could get the next installment. I had no time for further line-rehearsals and shot the animation blind, one for one, but the results were psychedelically pleasing and thus I passed through every fire, toiling under hot movie lights for 370 nights, churning out lots of explosive animation, completing the fantasy aspects of the film.
Only towards the end of 1990 did we get access to the latest in personal computers, the Amiga 500 and, while we waited endlessly for the sound edit to get mixed at the Film and Television School, we created digital effects to superimpose on top of my live action like hallucinations, morphing the film into the grungy magical folk-tale I’d always hoped to create. From the dawn of this project I was encouraged, instructed and assisted by my animation guru, grumpy old techno-wizard Eddie vander Madden, he built the animation desk and the rotoscoper, he painted my drawings for the backgrounds and he designed and shot the psychedelic effects on the Amiga.This film is dedicated to his mad genius.

 And what were the tribulations you might ask? Well, it was hell trying to find all the lead actors for the first as it was 1988 when I shot the live-action and ALL actors had jobs re-enacting “the Invasion of Auz” in 1788. I found the leads only one week before the shoot was to start, I met Michelle Granieri by accident, when I went to audition what I thought was going to be an Aboriginal actor. I met Mathew the Koori lead standing on a street corner in Redfern, he had no acting experience but was willing to help me out as I badly wanted an indigenous Australian in my Aussie tale.
Halfway thru the shoot the crew wanted to rebel, I saw them muttering at the back of the set and asked what was up. They said they were unhappy with the cold tin-shed in which we worked, the smoke from the tin-drum fire drove them nuts and we should move the production to Paddington Town Hall. I told them sternly that as I was producer and director, thus captain of the ship, they'd just have to put up with it, there was no money to move anywhere and they were wimps, they had it easy, be thankful it wasn’t a wildlife doco shot in the jungle, so they hung in there with me. Some hysterical girl broke onto the set in the middle of a shot and declared she’d taken too many drugs, screaming up a storm, everyone dithered until I had a brilliant idea, I called for an ambulance to which she straightened out quickly and someone put her in a cab.
Again, in the middle of the hectic shoot, my props master flipped out, from fatigue and infantilism, he ran about smashing the sets and props and , like Nurse Ratshit, I ordered him to go home, sleep and "don't come back". Luckily a good mate of mine, David Grove, was lending assist, very clever with gadgets and craftsmanship, he took over the props dept and did a great job, my rubber hearts wouldn't be pumping or have twinkling lights on their trolley if he hadn't come to the rescue.
Another gripe is something I discovered in all film shoots I’ve directed, that others in the team will try to take over the direction if you’re a wimp and let them, from the photographer and lighting guy to the assistant director and lead actress, (as well as the funding bodies), all tried to call the shots and I’d have to get tough, insist on what I wanted and even shove them out of the way if they got too obstreperous. We all think we can do it better, no matter that usually it’s one person with the vision who’s put it all together after much struggle, everyone is just choking to get their “gold statuette”, as if their soul depended on it. But I’m a fighter from the streets of Melbourne and India, not an easy push-over.
And my biggest heartbreak? Halfway thru producing the animation my poor old dad died and I had to rush to Melbourne for the funeral and then carry on painting rainbow psychedelia, aware of the transience of all things, including movies and stardom.

 1991 – I forgot that sound is as important as visuals and hadn’t budgeted properly for it, thus I hired amateurs and it had to be done twice, they’d fore-grounded their sound-effects and back-grounded the lip-synched songs, disaster for a musical. I couldn’t pay to really fix it so holes in the soundtrack joined the myriad holes in the other production areas, (like watery blood, wobbly sets, wooden acting and silly props), to make Swiss cheese of my movie. But it was Trash anti-cinema so why worry? I harassed the Neg-cutter to distraction, ever adding animation to superimpose on the Opticals-bench, overdoing it in my excitement, but no matter, I achieved what I was after, a fluid psychedelic, Grunge-rock film experience.
For the Febuary 1991 Sydney Gay Mardi Gras Parade my fellow artists and I built a “Virgin Beasts” float, with a plywood whale and dragon on its sides, and beautiful girls dancing on the truck’s roof, from which I threw thousands of flyers to the baying mobs promising “Virgin Beasts the movie will be cumming in a dive near YOU soon!” But it took the rest of the year till I had my beloved final print of 67 minutes length and then the next obstacle course in filmmaking would begin, getting it sold and exhibited.
I hoped maybe the 1992 Gay Mardi Gras Film Festival would premier it, Ms. Gerry the Selector put it up on the big screen at the Academy Twin, I took my lead actor Simon Reptile along and we both thought it looked good, but she didn’t like it, it wasn’t “Gay” enough, queer writer/producer/director (me), half the actors gay and the movie's “gay sensibility” didn’t cut it, and she’d previously had a vicious spat with Simon in a nightclub, so we were spurned. She even scratched my one print. Meyow! (Maybe she was a member of the "dyke mafia" that had tried to stymie the film so their own plagiarised dross, "Pissing Under Water" would get all the kudos.) I got the fat guy who ran the Valhalla Cinema in Glebe to view it on his big screen, again it looked pretty good, but he didn’t like the nasty fat villain nor the test-tube babies and didn’t want to risk his money, Independents were out, Hollywood blockbusters were in. I dragged the film all over town but nobody wanted to risk it, not Palace Films nor Dendy Theatres nor TV distributors.
Was it that bad? Yeah, but I’ve seen worse, the animation is colourful and the music original, the story’s funky, overall it’s as much fun as any Trash film on the market. I had to show it to the AFC bureaucrats to prove I’d finished the dam thing, I arranged a showing at a cinema in North Sydney and everyone at the AFC was invited to come, but nobody showed up, only the boss, Peter Sainesbury, alone in the theatre with me, he liked the film and laughed at the nasty jokes. It seemed a “Cone of Silence” was descending over me, later on I heard Peter had a hard time battling the entrenched corruption rife in so many Govt. bureaucracies.
I entered VB in the 1992 Sydney Film Festival but they didn’t even bother to notify me of my rejection, I simply did not exist. So, like the nasty punk I was, I decided to premier the movie at a Grunge rock club called Jellyhedz, in reality a converted car mechanic’s garage in Surry Hills. I publicized the event by flooding the Sydney Film Fests’ opening night with flyers claiming, “If you DON’T see one film this year make it Virgin Beasts… a piece of shit, it stinks!” (Paul Egghead : S&M Herald) etc. The tuxedoed crowd at the Film Fest grimaced scornfully when they read my scurrilous missive, their annoyance pleasing me endlessly.

 I showed the movie at Jellyhedz the same night the Film Fest showed a doco on “Tom of Finland”, we were like two “Queer” artists from opposite extremes competing, only I put on two live Grunge bands with my movie and the garage truly rocked. With a wood fire in a metal drum in the backyard and horror movies upstairs, it was an explosive night, the crowd of rock’n’rollers, dopesters, hustlers, street-punks and grunge-bunnies slam-danced the roof down, the movie punters cheered and plain-clothes cops spied, one of the best nights of my life, much better than what the leather queens were having at the State Theatre.
At great cost I also entered VB in the 1992 AFI Awards but “the Cone of Silence” was fully suffocating me, and even though the projectionist told me THEY showed AFI voting members the film twice, which is unusual, I didn’t get a mention at the “Nominations”. That year I was up against a much trumpeted musical, “Strictly Boring”, which won everything but didn’t actually have even one original lip-synched song in it, and “Romper Stomper”, which won Russel Crowe a “Best Actor” nomination. I’ll never forget him jumping and screaming, “Yay!” for he’d MADE IT, while I was shown the back door, politely told to “Piss off!” even though my musical had seven original lip-synched songs in it. The Arts in Auz is a tough game, very straight and very class conscious.
Halfway through production of the animation my lead actress, Michelle Granieri, was going home to New York for a visit and I showed her a video-tape with the “Troma” logo upon it and told her to try and crack that company as they were experts at flogging “Trash cinema”, their products in every video store in the world. She got into Troma’s inner sanctum to meet the head honcho Lloyd Kaufman and he showed interest in “Virgin Beasts” and encouraged its completion.
1993 - I was increasingly desperate to sell VB for it looked like being left on the shelf, nobody in Auz would touch me. I even included my earlier film, “The Thief of Sydney”, as a short before the feature to take the total length to 80 minutes, making it more commercial. I heard Lloyd Kaufman was in Sydney showing one of his crappy films, (at the Valhalla), so I got brave and rang his hotel room and asked him if he remembered my project “Virgin Beasts”. He invited me up and over beer we haggled, I started at $50,000 and he got me down to $1000 for the sale of my hard-won baby. What else could I do? He knew I was desperate to get it exhibited after years of toil and only trashy Troma would take it on. I’d sold my soul to America for a pittance, but he did promise to show it all around the world and I hoped I’d eventually win out by sharing in its profits.

1993 - For me it was back on the streets where I schemed to make another movie but being on the bottom of the heap has its dangers and I suddenly had the worst luck of my life. Some junkie had robbed my local cake-shop and in a case of mistaken identity I was grabbed and questioned by two corrupt cops. I recognized one of them from the night of my premier at Jellyhedz and it seemed to me he wanted to cut this smart-arse filmmaker down to size. When pleading “I’m an artist” one pig snarled, “You’re just a bullshit artist, mate.” On finding I had a record of civil disobedience on many political issues, all part of my “performance art”, THEY decided to frame me for ‘armed robbery’ and, after 2 years of house arrest and torture, sent me to trial.
1995 - The Dept. of Public Prosecution wasn’t interested in the facts, the millions THEY wasted on prosecuting me I could’ve made a fabulous movie with and the injustice of it sent me into a deep depression that required psychiatric intervention, I never recovered and gave up filmmaking, it was already impossibly difficult for a non-connected nobody like me to enter the industry, the mafias gobbling up most of the money and fame were too hard to battle, and I lost the spirit to even try to contribute to my culture, though I did, of course, eventually get acquitted of the nonsensical crime.
1996 – The ‘Wheel of Fortune’ turned again for me. I’d entered a video of VB into a competition of Trash film in France and was lying depressed on my bed when I got a phone call, the Trash Festival liked VB and was flying me to France to compete with 6 other nations. Like a dream come true I was feted in Montmartre, Paris as a happening artist, then whisked up to Lille to face my competition, America, Germany, Japan, Canada, Yugoslavia and South Africa. I seemed to win over the hard-edged French punk crowd with my Aussie déclassé larrikin style, as trashy as any of the films, and I came equal first with Japan, no easy feat as the Jap film had high art, (Zen), values and was extremely funny, being soft, (Pink), porn. My vote would’ve gone to the Yugoslavian film “Marble Arse” but I wasn’t a judge. The judges said I’d emotionally blackmailed them into giving me the prize, the poor punk from the Antipodes who’d never been to Europe before, but I wasn’t quibbling. I won 10,000 francs, enough for this poor boy to tour Amsterdam, Portugal and Morocco.
When I got back to Auz I sent out press releases to all and sundry but nobody gave me an inch except the S &M Herald’s Stay in Touch, if I was a sporting star I might’ve got a ticker tape parade but art, especially “trash art”, doesn’t rate. But I bet I pissed off all those scumbags who’d tried to block VBs completion. Ha ha ha!
 2010 - Troma went on to show and sell VB all around the world, look it up on the WEB and you’ll see a thousand entries commenting upon it, but I never received another cent. Every year I receive a bill from Troma telling me I owe them thousands of dollars for “distribution costs”, this year the bill is down to $59,999.00, the movie having made only $1 in 2009. I think they’ve got two sets of books but as the eternal pauper I have no wherewithal to contest their rip-off. The cheated, defamed, disaffected artist is a cliché but I’m living proof.
Was “Virgin Beasts” worth 7 years of my life? Yes! I’m a compulsive, mad artist and the exhibition of colourful, completed works is what I live for. I also fight for the right of alternative philosophies to be aired alongside the plethora of conservative views. Why can’t atheist, anti-nuclear, egalitarian eco-warriors get some air-time? But do I want to make more movies? No, art is a lifestyle for me not a career, I can’t cut it in Big Business, I’d rather dream and travel not sacrifice my life for a gold statuette, and I didn’t like many of the people I met, they were like smiling vampires. I’m a beatnik, beaten and beatific, I want peace, like a wild, naive virgin beast.
I did show VB myself underground in many community halls, funky cinemas and festivals from Melbourne to Nimbin, like movie-makers did in times long gone. But when They had a Trash festival in Brisbane I got excluded, I saw jealousy on many faces that I approached, it's a very real and destructive emotion here in Auz, petty arts bureaucrats/entrepreneurs with their one cent of power just love to frustrate the real artists' attempts. It's a small populace and there just aren't that many good, original artists around but many want so desperately to be "Somebody" they'd kill their own mother's for it, and don't mind ripping, plagiarising, denouncing others, it's who wins in the end that counts, doesn't matter how you got there.
For years after my AFI and Auz rejection, even after I won the World Trash Cinema Prize, I felt ashamed of "Virgin Beasts", that it was cheap and nasty, offensive and outrageous, and I downplayed its creation, tho I still struggled to exhibit it as I knew I was a nasty boy and loved to splash color, music and provocative ideas in an audience's face. But now, 21 years later in 2010 I'm totally amazed at what a brash youth I must have been, that I dared to do it, somehow I forced myself to paint at least 30 acetate cells a day over a year plus draw the backgrounds and film the animation a single frame at a time for hundreds of thousands of times, what madness!
And I still think the story is wild, I'm not ashamed of it, no one else at the time was doing anything like it here in Auz, and not now even. And I had a next project I'd already written and preliminary sketched for, it was a fucking beauty I realise now, a great Australian science fiction story that went from the city to the bush with hot music along the way but when I had a tentative meeting with a low-echelon AFC bureaucrat to fish for interest I was met with a glum gray face that discouraged any further attempts by me to make films. He should've connected me with a producer and done his job properly if Auz really wanted to foster a burgeoning industry. But remember, we're not in a meritocracy, it's a bureau-aristocracy, get a job inside the govt. and suck up to the powers that be if you want to succeed here, to make it you have to be be State sanctioned, no hope for a cheeky punk. And then I had the bad luck of getting jammed in the cogs of criminal justice by being framed for armed robbery so I was doubly fucked.
No more hot art from that feral alley cat TZ: Auz can go to the dogs, I've gone mad, this is my HOOWWWWLLLLL!!!!!!!!! 

If you enjoyed this story please go to the WEB address above and consider buying my book of tales about growing up anarcho-queer, rock and roll punter and mystic adventurer in Australia and India of the 1950s, ‘60s and ‘70s.