Forbidden fruit

Keola Racela on wholesomeness, horror and comedy in Porno

by Jennie Kermode

Keola Racela tried to capture the experience of discovering a whole new kind of cinema.
Keola Racela tried to capture the experience of discovering a whole new kind of cinema.

Do you remember your first encounter with pornography? For many teenagers it’ a thrilling step into a forbidden adult world – even if the material they find is really very tame and mediocre. The five Christian teenagers in Porno have a rather more dramatic experience when they find a hidden room in their local cinema and an old reel that promises something new and daring. What they don’t know is that the reel is home to a succubus and their lives are about to be turned upside down – if, indeed, they can make it through the night.

Chatting to director Keola Racela about the acclaim he’s received for this, his first feature, I asked which aspects of the script first appealed to him.

The secret room
The secret room

“It wasn’t a script when we started to make the film!” he laughs. “The origin of the film was that some classmates of mine – actually some former roommates of mine from film school – called me up and said ‘Do you want to make a movie?’ I said ‘Yeah, obviously, of course I do – what movie?’ and they said ‘We don’t know, but someone is willing to give us a small amount of money to make a horror film and if you’re interested I think we can go in and make this thing. The only stipulation is that we have to make it very quickly.’

“I was living in New York at the time; my friends were living in LA. I basically just grabbed the phone and booked a plane ticket to LA. We sat in an Air B&B for a week and drew up an outline of this idea, which is based on an idea they had previous, and then they went away and wrote the script. We have shared sensibilities and we’d bonded in film school. We don’t have the exact same tastes, which I think is great because when you locate where your tastes overlap I think those ideas tend to be super strong.”

The film makes an impact partly because the religious background of its protagonists means they have an innocence that just isn’t found in most teenagers today.

“Yeah. At the beginning the idea that Laurence [Vannicelli] and Matt [Black] had was about a haunted movie theatre. it was supposed to take place in New York when Rudy Giuliani was cleaning up all the old theatres and stuff out of Times Square, so it was about these kids who take this pilgrimage to go and visit a porn theatre for the first time. Given our budget we were like, ‘Well, we probably can’t do a period piece set in Times Square!’ so we went back to the drawing board on that.”

They wanted to keep the core of the original idea, he explains, so the next question was who would be best to send in to the haunted cinema.

The film within a film
The film within a film

“These pure, quite innocent and actually quite ignorant Christian kids came to mind. I think it was a little bit based on Matt’s experience growing up in Oklahoma with a lot of very devout friends and family.

“When I was in middle school my parents became Mormon, which was a very interesting thing. Part of the package deal when you’re Mormon is that missionaries come around and it was just these very kind of like wholesome young guys – who were just a couple of years older than I was – who were essentially sent into different parts of the country and different parts of the world to preach the Book of Mormon.

“I’d see these guys riding around on their bikes with their white shirts and their big smiles and think ‘What kind of people are they? Who would choose to do that?’ And they’re just regular kids. Some people have been like ‘Oh, you’re skewering religion.’” He sighs. “It was never our goal to trash that.”

I note that one of the things I liked about the film was that it did treat those characters with respect, and that’s rare in films that aren’t specifically made to promote Christianity. I liked the fact that in Porno we see them as human.

“Yeah. And that’s a credit to Matt, who was really beating the drum on keeping it that way and not letting it be an easy joke or anything like that. I believe it has a certain quality to it because of that, which I’m really proud of.”

We discuss the Eighties vibe of Porno and how it contrasts with the arthouse style of the forbidden film its young heroes watch. He cites Kenneth Anger as an influence on the latter.

Entering a new world
Entering a new world

“The whole point of having the Christian kids is the contrast,” he says. “Throwing them up against something like that is the fun of the movie. It was super fun to do.

“I grew up in a very small town, not dissimilar from the one in the film. I spent much of my youth in movie theatres or hanging around video stores, and then I went away to college and thought ‘Oh, wait, there’s a whole different world of films out here!’ I distinctly remember watching Scorpio Rising, which is an amazing queer motorcycle movie and being like ‘Oh, wow! What am I watching? This is beyond any frame of reference.’ Invoking those feelings was very much a thing that we were going for. To us it was very funny.”

There are also some spectacularly gory scenes in the film, mostly played for laughs, which look as though they were fun to shoot.

“In the script it has maybe four or five times the amount of those kind of gags in it and it was really about picking and choosing where we put the money or where we thought we should focus our resources,” he says. “We focused on some key effects and really threw all of our weight behind them. I think that part of the appeal of directing a horror film – and this is the first horror film I’ve made – was being able to do these fun things.”

A lot of things changed during production, but sometimes in ways that turned out to be beneficial.

“It was interesting because we were supposed to shoot in LA and we couldn’t find a theatre in LA for a lot of reasons. We ended up finding this theatre in Greenpoint, Long Island, so we had to move our production out to the East Coast and we cast in New York. There’s a wealth of talent there because of the theatre scene – there’s so much talent that people have never heard of or seen in films and so it felt like we had a huge pool of people. It wasn’t a huge cast but there are kind of like five leads in the film and so finding each one was super important... I feel incredibly lucky that we found all the people.”

Porno poster
Porno poster

So how does he feel about reactions to the film so far?

“They’ve been super positive. I feel really fortunate that we had a pretty healthy, pretty long festival run. We were invited to a lot of festivals and we kicked off with South by Southwest, which was kind of a dream come true. we got to watch our film a couple of times in the theatre with an audience which I think is such a great thing. We were supposed to open theatrically in April but we’ve been able to do this virtual theatrical run, which has been pretty amazing.”

We discuss the fact that it’s actually pretty well suited to home viewing – it feels like a VHS horror classic, in a good way – and I ask what he’s working on now.

“I’ve just finished a script, which I co-wrote with Laurence, which we’re excited about. It’s a horror movie but not a horror comedy; it’s a different tone.”

We chat about horror films more generally and he asks me what I've seen recently that I'd recommend. I mention The Wretched and Z, and comment on how annoying it is trying to run searches on one letter titles.

"Try making a film called Porno," he says.

Porno is available to watch on VoD in North America and will come out in the UK on Monday the 1st of June.

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