Vulnerable moments

Nate Dushku, Amnon Lourie and Michael Emery on Birder

by Paul Risker

Birder
Birder

Nate Dushku's directorial feature debut, Birder, from a script by producer and screenwriter Amnon Lourie, imbues queer cinema with an unrelenting darkness. The story revolves around a serial killer, who penetrates a queer nudist campsite on the edge of town. Manipulating the population's vulnerability one-by-one, he solicits the consent of his unsuspecting and trusting victims.

Birder represents the first collaboration between Dushku, Lourie and the film's lead actor, Michael Emery. It's a powerful meeting of creative minds that results in a provocative queer work about vulnerability and the need for people, both queer and non-queer, to safeguard their wellbeing. Unapologetic about its oppressive cynicism, Birder stands out as a distinct and jarring film. It's a meeting of point of art and narrative, that threads together erotic, suspenseful, dramatic and humorous tones.

In conversation with Eye For Film, Dushku, Lourie and Emery discussed the theme of consent, how Birder serves as a cautionary tale, and the care taken to not imprint traumatic experiences on the actors or the audience.

Paul Risker: Birder is a provocative and challenging film that can be experienced from different points of view. It strikes me that it may be the type of film to subvert audience expectations.

Michael Emery: The shock value is there, but going to see a film that's judgement free, based on sexuality and adventure, I hope people go into watching this film with an open mind and don't expect anything. Expectation is always the killer of joy, I say. Going to watch a story like this is freeing. It's something that is so unique and unlike anything else.

Nate Dushku: I love movies because I love being surprised, and that's what I love about this. Birder is our first collaboration, and you don't know what you're making until it's done. You have signposts and a lot of ways to get where you want to go, but then, when it comes together, it takes on a life of its own. That's my favourite part of the process and even in the casting, when you have an actor read the lines of a scene for the first time, and you have that moment of, 'I didn't think it was going to do this.'

Birder
Birder

Everyone wants to categorise everything, and that's what the film is about - identity. We're always trying to categorise ourselves and other people. I welcome that because I welcome anybody's ability to choose who and what they want to be, but it's also a cautionary tale. There are ways it can go wrong and just because someone's in the same category as you, doesn't mean you always know what you're going to get.

Birder has been programmed as a horror. An erotic thriller is a good way to describe it, but it's a drama. It's dark, and it's twisted, it has humour and it's also queer. It's not necessarily a story on the surface about queer joy. With our protagonist and the first-person thing, it's like what a monster or psychopath sees when they look in the mirror. Is he queer? I don't know. Think of it what you want. But it turned out as a dark and twisted tale and hopefully there's some humour in there as well.

Amnon Lourie: At the inception of the film, we didn't want to tell people how they should think about this community. […] We wanted to have a little conversation about what it really means to be a part of a consent dynamic that results in horrific moments.

There's an allegory for the world at large with this idea of a marginalised community being susceptible to this particular kind of creature or kind of person on the edges of society. We wanted people to think about what the moral of the story is, and whether there is a moral - or is there just chaos? Or is there something you should be looking out for?

I don't think it's quite clear to any of us in the writing of it or in the finished film, but the one thing you should take away, is, before you say yes to anything or anyone, you need to make sure you know who and what you're saying yes to, because things can shift pretty quickly.

PR: Thematically, the film is about how impulsive human beings are. We fail to scrutinise our sources of information, are quick to believe what we're told, and we impulsively commit to things. In keeping with genre cinema, the themes and ideas effortlessly emerge while entertaining the audience with its provocative sensibility.

AL: I was drawn to Aesop's Fables to try to figure out how to frame what this is about, and given it's a very simple world, to make it as simple as possible. It's people who like to cavort by a lake, get naked, have sex and pursue free love in a town that's on the edge of society.

Michael brought this character to life in a way that I hadn't imagined before the script made it into his hands, which is the really cool part of filmmaking. But at the end of the day, it's a very simple dark fable. Even if you don't always understand the world it comes out of, you should feel a little uneasy about the moral of the fable because it says good things are never going to happen.

[…] It has a dreamlike escape too, which I love about the finished product. What I hope to do with every film is give the audience a window onto a world they might not usually see. The composition, the landscape, and the animals have a dreamlike quality, and just the fact that these people are in this secluded place with lots of psychotropic drugs where anything can happen. Hopefully, that transports the audience into this world, and you go along for the ride.

PR: The story doesn't have to be complicated. The characters and their emotions, as well as the audience's response to the characters, themes and ideas can create a complexity.

Birder
Birder

ND: It takes trust and that's where the actors come in. What's unbelievable about what Michael did in this film, is the words are floating on top of whatever type of emotional life he has brought to the character. I directed Michael and seeing what he was doing with the character, we could just let him do his thing. Once we sat down with the editor [Ian Holden], we knew he was going to take the audience on a ride. We were lucky to have actors and an editor to do that.

AL: We've played around the world now at film festivals and audiences have responded to the film differently. They laugh at different moments and large groups of people will find different beats. There are some moments that are universally finding their hit, but it is interesting how much of the storytelling itself becomes a part of the story and the audience are a part of the storytelling. So, yeah, we're hoping there's an audience for the film out there and the story provides some moral to someone that can help them think about the situations that we as a people and they as individuals face.

PR: There are roles that require actors to bare themselves emotionally and physically. To appropriate the cultural belief that a photograph steals a part of a person's soul, do you believe, Michael, that a part of you can be taken or left behind?

ME: Oh yeah, I left a piece of myself up there for sure. I had one scene where I had to leave after we shot at night and go back to my hotel room - it's a challenge. You don't see what goes on behind the scenes, but for an actor, and Nate knows this, being an actor himself, you go into it wanting to give everything you have in your soul to a character. When you do that, you leave a part of yourself up there. You're literally baring yourself, emotionally, mentally and spiritually to this process. But that's what you sign up for; that's what we do and that's how we make this real. At the end of the day, it is about telling the truth and if I can tell the truth, then I feel good about what I did.

PR: Birder is essentially a film about vulnerability, and one of the progressive decisions in cinema has been the role of the intimacy co-ordinator. It engages an emotionally intelligent approach to storytelling that, in the case of this film, values the emotional and physical vulnerability of the actors.

AL: As the writer, I had to do a lot of internal work to figure out how to write about this particular kind of trauma. When I was nine-years-old, I was molested by a family friend, and I've done a lot in my life to come to terms with that. But it isn't something that, even if you heal, you can just say, "I'm going to put this on the table and infuse it into the work that I make, and everybody's just going to have to live with it."

It's important that Nate and I have people who help us recognise when and where you have to pay close attention to the moments that could hurt other people. We do it in every other part of the craft. You have a safety officer because a saw blade might fly off a machine and kill someone. These are things that are important, and we didn't want to take the traumas that we were discussing and imprint them on the people that work with us, or even on the audience. We wanted to make this a way to observe it without passing it on.

ND: The idea of what kind of film this is - is it horror? Is it a drama? One of the greatest things about being part of this queer cinema movement or moment in time and using an intimacy co-ordinator is that instead of creating a film that's horror camp, or yeah, we're calling it an erotic thriller, it's also hopefully deeply felt. The only way we were able to create this vulnerability and create these characters and space for the actors to really give us all these emotions, was with an intimacy co-ordinator. It allowed the actors to be free and infuse the material with everything they had.

Birder poster
Birder poster

Looking back at some of the great erotic thrillers, Basic Instinct always comes to mind. There has been a lot of talk about what went on during the filming. Sharon Stone is a strong actor, and she's amazing in that film, but we can't expect actors to just go in with their guns blazing. This used to be a man's world, and it pretty much still is, but things have changed. It's wonderful because it has allowed us to explore the darkness and those things that we don't always get to explore. That was what we set out to do. We wanted to create this dreamlike tapestry and give the audience so much to process, and then let them go gracefully or not so gracefully.

AL: That leads to no collateral damage.

When you say the word vulnerability, it's a key phrase. In the kink of the dom-subspace, vulnerability is one of the essential elements in the sexual intercourse or actions between the dom and the sub, who are playing on and going to the edge of vulnerability. That is a very sexy and interesting space for some people. Others don't like it, but it is there, and it's very much the flavour of the intimacy that Christian engages in. He takes people to the very edge of their most vulnerable moment and, unfortunately, he works with hypoxia, which is reducing blood flow to the brain, and they can't wake up. But it is essentially about vulnerability.

Let's face it, this is a movie about the queer experience today and there are a lot of things going on in the world right now that are scary. In some ways, we've gone backwards and some people's approach to that is to infuse queer cinema and art with joy and positivity. That's wonderful, and I love that, but we wanted to do something a little different. We wanted to show the dark side. We wanted to dip our toes into these dark truths, and it takes vulnerability to do that.

Birder is released on DVD and On Digital on June 24th 2024.

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