A serial killer enters the supposedly safe space of a queer nudist campsite in Nate Dushku’s first fictional work as a director, Birder. Screened at Atlanta's Out on Film, the Seattle Queer Film Festival and DC's Reel Affirmations, it’s a film which explores a culture rarely seen in cinema outside pornography. Though it does feature sex, this is no more explicit that in the average present day erotic thriller. The focus is on a different sort of thrill – or chill – as the stranger works his way through a population ill-equipped to defend itself, breaking the spirit but never the letter of the various agreements he makes as he persuades his victims to consent without a full understanding of his intentions.
When Nate and I discussed the film last month, I told him that, to me, it seemed that one of the film’s biggest concerns was the ease with which LGBTQ+ people can disappear without anyone really noticing or following up.
He nods. “Yes, and I'm glad that you began with that point because it's crucial to it. When we were thinking about what we wanted to do for our next project but also my first project as a director, I really wanted to speak to my people, the queer community. I was really struck by certain films in the past that used the horror or thriller genre. I wouldn't necessarily classify this as horror because horror has these tropes and oftentimes blood, and slasher and camp and all these things that we actually were playing against. But definitely that was one of the central focal points of the story – and how can weave it together in such a way that there's this metaphor but it's not hitting you over the head? In the beginning we were calling it Gay Get Out, but we kind of had to move away from that because it's just a totally different beast. But that was definitely part of it.”
There are a lot of films out there these days about queer community and building queer family and so on, but this seems to challenge that a bit as well, because even when people notice that others have gone missing, nobody tries very hard to look for them.
“Yeah, absolutely. I'm a big fan of true crime as well. When were researching psychopaths – because this is also a psychopath film and there's a pathology, and that was really important – there was actually a psycho killer in New Hampshire that was killing people and putting their bodies in barrels and rolling them out into the forest, and then 10, 15 years later, they're decaying and they're discovering this person that has this pathology. Did he think he would be found out? Probably not. But we only hear about the psychopaths that get caught and oftentimes they don't get caught, which means they really did cover their tracks.
“In this film people are disappearing and we see what's happening. And maybe we don't know the end of the story yet, but we definitely have a suspicion that he's good at what he does. Maybe he's not great, but definitely people are disappearing. And nobody would think that this horrible thing could happen because they're amongst their community. The writer [Amnon Lourie] grew up with Greek myths and felt like maybe a good way to tell the story was like an odyssey, playing with the idea of Scylla and Charibdis, where it's like if you go too far from the whirlpool you get picked off by the monster in the cave, and if you go too far from the cave, you get caught by the whirlpool. So there’s this idea that these people are escaping from the mainstream to be amongst themselves where they feel comfortable, and where they feel like they're amongst their people, and perhaps if you go too far in that direction, you may be equally as in danger.”
Did that influence the way that he shot the film or depicted those friendships visually?
“Oh, yeah. Another thing is that the setting is really authentic to me, and I really think it came across. There's this radical fairy movement in the US, and maybe there's something similar – I'm sure there is – over in the UK – where you go where you can be yourself and oftentimes shed your clothing to just feel what it feels like to accept your body, accept yourself. So these clothing optional communities may be seen from the outside in as something very salacious or entirely sex driven, but they still exist today, whether it's Boys Beach in Provincetown or Fire Island or whatever.
“Yes, there's gay cruising and sex, but there's just also community. And I'm part of that community. So these are people that I know, similar to friends that I have. In particular, this was one modeled after one in Vermont. We were sitting around on a riverbank, and the history of this specific place does go back to the radical fairy movement and I just thought, what would be the most terrifying thing here?”
The relationships and the underlying diversity are key to understanding the community, he says.
“The way in which there's white couples and mixed race couples. There's one trans couple, there's gay couples, there's femme, there's butch, there's this, there's that, and everybody's friends and everybody's kind of lifting each other up and having different interpersonal relationships. I thought that if that was authentic and it felt like genuinely a believable dynamic, then this would work.”
We don’t take our clothes off much in Scottish queer communities, I explain, because that would get a bit chilly. The law can be an issue too.
“There are many states where you can't either. I think Nantucket, the island, just passed a law spearheaded by a woman who said ‘Hey, if men can be topless, so can women,’ and she finally won after ten years. There are certain laws, like in Vermont, I guess, where it’s legal to leave the house naked if it's a lifestyle choice, but you're not able to take your clothes off in public because the intention is to shock. And so the law is written like that, where if the intention is to harm, then it's illegal.
“When we decided to shoot in New Hampshire, we thought ‘Hey, this is almost more interesting because New Hampshire is such a divided state politically.’ It was interesting because there's more of a force of danger coming in from the outside than there would be in Vermont, which is Bernie Sanders world.”
It’s interesting to see that community represented with women present, because that's something rarely shown on screen.
“That was a question we had in casting,” he says. “We kind of went into casting with an eye towards blind casting, but there was a little bit of a debate amongst producers because when you said ‘blind casting’ back in the day, that meant the best actor for the role, period. We're open to anything. But if you're open to anything and you just choose the best actor for the role, then oftentimes you're not getting the representation you want.
“We really wanted to show that there could be a woman or a femme trans person – I mean, you don't know the characters, you just see the physical form or you see the hair. The actor Jes Davis that played Sam had really short hair in the audition and I think their Instagram handle says ‘femme queer’ or something - definitely non binary. And the role was open to it being a two trans male couple, but we just kind of wanted to find something that worked. We really love the idea of it being a femme character. When we go to these places, there often are two or three. Whether that person was born male or female you don't know, but it doesn't matter if it works. And then Jes came to the table and said ‘I really want to put extensions in because I want to show that side of it.’ They felt really strongly about it, and I'm so glad that they did. It just really rounded out the spectrum.”
The central character also has an encounter with two homophobes on a clifftop near the campsite.
“I've been to that specific spot and that is this gorgeous place,” Nate says. “It's a public trail, and when you get there, everybody wants that one moment where they can take that picture, so you have to wait. But also, like I said, it's a divided state. And that community has different types of people. Lots of wealthy people from the surrounding cities go there to have their own space. You don't always feel welcome up there. Whether you're on the mountaintop or you're in the country store, you can feel it.
“There's actually a country store that's owned by a lesbian couple there, in one of the towns around the lake. But everybody knows that's the liberal town. It's not all a liberal community.
“I love watching Karen videos. Something about it is very satisfying to me, to watch somebody who's a bigot get exposed. We wanted to create a moment in the film where you can breathe, and maybe give something to the die hard horror fans. It's kind of a nod to that. it was risky because some people that I trust had read the script and also screened it and didn't quite get it. But as we watch it with audiences from beginning to end, that moment is becoming one of my favourites in some ways. I'm just so pleased with how it one turned out.”
We talk about the way that consent is addressed in the film, and the fact that a lot of people in the community do end up going to quite extreme places, at least in terms of fantasy and what they think they want, because sometimes it's a response to dealing with the stresses of other aspects of life.
“I really think you nailed it,” he says. “The writer is very vocal about having been molested as a child. And this idea of autoerotic asphyxiation or basically being choked out during sex, it's kind of taboo. I think it's popular no matter what your gender or sexuality is. Where does that come from? Each person has their own history, whether they just want to try it, or whether it comes from some type of trauma. That was the idea behind it and that he's getting consent, and that can be dangerous.
“When we worked with the intimacy coordinator, that was one of the most exciting things about it with them, making sure that in each scene where this happens, full consent is given. So we played with that. It's really important to the film, I think that it's what makes it either kind of traumatizing for people to watch it, or horrifying in the best way. With the audience the main point was like, how do we do this without passing the trauma along?”
Music plays an important role in establishing the right tone.
“The composer [Culley Johnson] is a great friend of mine that I've worked with before, and he was sending all these samples and things that he was recording in his home studio. ‘Heartbeats’, he was calling them. And a big thing in the film is the realistic portrayal of queer sex because we also have not gotten that. I was raised on Basic Instinct where women are getting tossed around. Speaking of consent, Sharon Stone came out and said that that Basic Instinct scene was put in the film without her consent. They told her the light was reflecting off her underwear, which is why she took her underwear off. And it became one of these big moments in this ultra famous erotic thriller.
“We thought ‘Hey, we're going to do this for queers, but we're going to do it the right way.’ And one of the things was the realistic portrayal of queer sex. We really wanted to say ‘Hey, lube is a big thing.’ Queer sex in Brokeback Mountain, we get the okay, maybe that's not necessarily going to happen, but we have a lube moment. We have the moment where we talk about poppers. And not that I condone the use of poppers, but it's a very common practice.”
We are running short on time, so I ask if he wants to say anything about the film he’s working on now, False Cards.
“That's the current name – it might change,” he says. “It's about a bunch of older people, and one in particular, an older woman that bought a bridge club. Are you familiar with the game of bridge?”
I am, I explain. My Uncle John Crocodile was a champion bridge player for a while.
“It seems like everybody has some connection to it, but mostly they're the older generation,” he reflects. “In fact, in a lot of countries, there are younger people that play bridge. My partner’s mother, who passed last year, was a professional bridge player, traveled the world and had a bridge club in Boca Raton, Florida. It’s loosely based on her life. She owns a bridge club and a younger person is trying to come in and buy it out. And she's attempting to save the bridge club and save the community, because these people come every day to be a part of it. And so they go to the bridge championships. So we're dealing with Alzheimer's – because a lot of people play bridge to combat Alzheimer's – dementia and family. It's a little bit different.
“I think that now that we've established what it looks like to pair Amnon’s writing with my direction and our troupe of actors. We want to deal with intimacy, but not quite in the same way. We’re calling it Steel Magnolias meets Dodgeball meets Best In Show. So it has the humour, but it has some serious issues dealing with chosen family.”