Watch out world! We’re being invaded by aliens from the planet Zots! Thankfully though, they come in peace in the form of the fun B-Movie comedy CO-DEPENDENT LESBIAN SPACE ALIEN SEEKS SAME which is out now on DVD from Peccadillo Pictures and to celebrate the occasion our very own B-Movie Maniac Stu Willis chats with filmmaker, director and playwright Madeleine Olnek about making the movie in our SGM exclusive Spotlight Interview…
Stu: I’d like to start by congratulating you on the film. It’s a fresh take on serious issues, and a very stylish homage to a type of film very dear to my heart.
Madeleine: Thank you very much! I’m delighted you enjoyed it. I’m glad also that you caught it was a take on serious issues. I think that just because something is a comedy, it doesn’t mean that it can’t contain very rich and deep ideas. I sometimes think that the sillier you make something, the more dramatic license you have from an audience to look at large ideas.
Stu: Can you explain how the concept of the film was borne? What came first: the decision to shoot in a certain genre style, or the themes?
Madeleine: The themes, or rather the premise, of a planet where feelings widen the hole in the ozone came first-- of course it had to be campy sci-fi with that idea at its heart! But I also wanted it to be an earnest romantic comedy, with us routing for the main character, no matter how ridiculous the situation was. The story and the premise definitely dictated the shooting styles.
Stu: Speaking of themes, can you elaborate on the social and personal concepts being explored by the film?
Madeleine: Well, there is the obvious, which is that if you are an outsider, you can be made to feel like a weirdo. But the flip side of it, which I think the title expresses, is a kind of "every pot has its lid" idea. And we are also looking at widely accepted courting rituals which are often prescribed behaviors that no one ever quite questions. One of the concepts I think in any film with either aliens or foreigners in it as characters, is that they provide a new set of eyes through which we can observe things we otherwise don’t question. One of the things that was interesting to me-- especially with these characters who are government agents who are closely tracking the love life of one the aliens-- is the way in which retro- style paranoia can be so funny. The one agent's uncomfortability with the rampant lesbian activity of the aliens on Earth is obviously about his own unresolved issues. And then there is also a way in which gayness is now accepted in society, homophobes are objects of ridicule with most modern people, but there are still all these very retro-laws that make gay people second-class citizens. That retro-sci-fi that can seem so funny to us, so dated, is just like homophobia-- it is ridiculous and dated-- and yet, it still very much exists.
Stu: Would I be right in observing that the inspiration for the people of Zots came from old TV serials such as "Flash Gordon"?
Madeleine: I did watch "Flash Gordon" when I was little, and found the awkward silences and flat, proscenium shooting style to be mesmerizing. They had a lot of those stock alien characters. I was also taken with a little research fact I came across about the typical-- can we even say stereotype?-- of an alien that appeared in the B-movies. That stock character was bald because of images from Hiroshima in the collective unconscious. That was very interesting to me, because the movies themselves were so popular among B-movie genres because of fears of a nuclear attack during the cold war.
Stu: And … the language used by the aliens. Is that English recorded backwards?
Madeleine: Well, actually, (and this is a spoiler, in a sense) it isn’t just English recorded backwards, it’s the entire video played backwards! We had recorded it all forwards, but it didn’t seem alien enough on the outer-space planet to have them speak in flat monotones the way they do after they land on Earth. I wanted the actors to still be saying it, rather than dub it in and have a disconnect between their acting intention and what you hear audio-wise . At one point, Curtis Grout (the editor) and I had ALL the alien scenes subtitled (so we were editing a lot of backwards running footage into forward playing scenes!). But that was so many scenes; it seemed like too much reading for an audience, so we decided that even when two of the aliens were together on Earth, they would be speaking English to make sure that they always blended in. That cut it down to just a couple subtitles scenes-- which I think nicely book-end the movie.
Stu: The lo-fi special effects are wonderful. Can you let us into some secrets of the trade in this respect?
Madeleine: I was lucky in that the artist Bryan Heyboer designed our spaceships for the movie, both the tiny one and the large one everyone is in at the end. It was quite a huge project for the crew to build that! I thought it came out great. In terms of the lo-fi approach, I took my cue from the B-movies of the 50’s-- there was no digitization then and the special effects were hand-made, and had a kind of charm coming from that. I would recommend, to anyone who is interested, the film, "Earth vs. The Flying Saucers" which features the work of the special effects expert Ray Harryhausen. He would turn the tiny flying saucers frame by frame to ultimately make them look like they were spinning through the air-- his work is amazing! What we did for our movie is we actually walked the camera towards the spaceship, so that’s how it looks like it is flying towards you. So the special effects really were a collaborative effort between our Director of photography Nat Bouman and our special effects supervisor Eugene Lehnert.
Stu: A lot of the dialogue (Zylar and Barr’s clumsy dating techniques; the banter between the men in black) appears to have been improvised. Is this correct? And, if so, how much of it ended up as outtakes?
Madeleine: We used some improvisation, although there was a script. "Codependent.." was initially a play that enjoyed many performances and was well-received. And for outtakes-- I have a lot of outtakes even when we are doing a scene word-for-word. There is something about being in the actual physical location that the performances need to bend to. In theatre, we have months of rehearsal and performance on set before it is open for review; in film, actors are expected to "get it" the first time in a location and costume--and give a nuanced, layered performance-- which I think is unrealistic. This is true especially for us since almost all the movie was shot in locations that were open to the public! So there were many takes, and many drives were used up in collecting all of our footage. I remember one take in a restaurant we couldn’t use since it caught another filmmaker at another table who was recording his own actor performing a monologue. I was so annoyed!
Stu: Tell us a little about the cast. Who are they, how’d they get involved in the film, and so on.
Madeleine: I think the cast is exceptional. Many of them: Dennis Davis, Lisa Haas, Cynthia Kaplan, Rae C Wright, and Susan Ziegler, have been in my plays in downtown New York as well as in my other movies. I’ve been so lucky to work with them! They have the kind of acting abilities you only get from doing live theatre year after year. Susan was even in the play version of "Codependent.." I think my casts make my movies. And I think you get something from working with the same actors over and over-- the collaboration can go farther because they trust you. Another thing that makes the cast exceptional is that they also create their own work, write their own plays, do solo performance, etc, as well as act in other peoples plays. I think there is something about people who traffic in language, who think about it, that they come to the project with a more highly refined and specific approach.
I was also lucky that we were joined by two more actors, Jackie Monahan and Alex Karpovsky. Jackie is a professional stand-up comedian we found online. I thought her stuff was hilarious, so I emailed her and asked her to be in my movie. Alex I had met on the festival circuit, and had seen him in many, many movies-- he’s an indie-film star so we were all very excited to work with him!
Stu: How has the film been received so far? Are you finding that it translates to straight audiences more than your average ‘queer cinema’ offering? I imagine that to be the case.
Madeleine: We’ve gotten off the hook reviews-- from major publications. It has been quite a ride and very exciting. Because it’s comedy and because it references B-movies, it does translate to a straight audience. I don’t really want to compare it to an "average queer cinema offering"-- since I do think queer movies are often all lumped together when they are different from film to film. But I will say this much-- my movie is NOT a drama. Watching any kind of drama-- gay or straight-- is not something I would wish on my worst enemy.
Stu: And finally, what’s next for you?
Madeleine: We have already been shooting another project, a comedy. We are looking for financial support if anyone wants to get in on the ground floor-- now’s your chance to be part of the glamorous film world! We are using many of the same cast members and it is even more over the top than "Codependent.."
Stu: Thanks very much for your time, good luck with the film.
Madeleine: Thank you! We are very excited about our UK release. I want to direct folks to our facebook page and our website for our latest info about screenings!
CO-DEPENDENT LESBIAN SPACE ALIEN SEEKS SAME is available now on DVD from Peccadillo Pictures, Special thanks to Madeleine Olnek and Ollie at Peccadillo Pictures.