Always a great supporter of the Indie filmmaking scene, SGM's very own Stu Willis was thrilled to take time out to kick back with upcoming filmmaker Alex Bakshaev to discuss his latest production NAKED TRIP and the ups and downs of low budget independent filmmaking…
Stu: Can you tell us how the idea for NAKED TRIP came about?
Alex: Around Christmas 2008 I had just completed shooting my short film "Bittersweet" starring Peter Halpin, Andrew Cullum and Gary Halliday. However, it was not to be edited for a few months because my editor of choice (and good friend) Kemal Yildirim was busy working on "Rose", another short which I wrote for him. I didn't intend to stay out of action and decided to do another film in the meanwhile. I was dying to shoot a feature this time. Bittersweet was properly scripted, had half-decent production values and a reasonable budget (for a short). As for my intended feature, I had nothing, except the title, "The Trip".
Stu: Does the title refer to anything in particular?
Alex: To answer this question I have to tell you that "Naked Trip" isn't a standalone film. It's one of the two films I shot back-to back. "Naked Trip" is an alternative, trashier companion piece to my picture "The Trip" which is coming out next year from "Exploitation Pictures". Both films utilise the same cast and locations, but they also have alternative scenes and completely different endings. I was inspired to do that by some of my favourite European genre films, such as Jess Franco's "Exorcism/El Sadico de Notre Dame" and Renato Polselli's "Delirium/Delirio Caldo".
"The Trip" is a title I borrowed from Roger Corman's 60's picture which I never actually watched. But I thought "The Trip" sounded intriguing, so I had to use that title. The "sexy" version of the film got completed first, but I still had no title for it. Me and Jason Impey played around with a few ideas, and in the end settled for "Naked Trip". It sort of echoes our previous co-production, "Naked Nazi". It's also a slightly absurd title that relates the nature of the film well.
Stu: In terms of influences, the most obvious are signposted at the start - Godard and Franco. What were the other main influences?
Alex: Godard and Franco had influenced my picture enormously. I have great respect for both of these "Film outsiders". Incidentally, today they both went digital, although perhaps for different reasons. Originally I planned to shoot my film Dogme-style, but I very quickly gave up. I'm too much of a stylist to go completely raw. But whenever we had some technical glitches with the film, we brought up Dogme-style as our excuse!
I was inspired to do alternative versions of the same story by some of my favourite European genre films, such as Jess Franco's "Exorcism/El Sadico de Notre Dame" and Renato Polselli's "Delirium/Delirio Caldo" which exist in hugely different cuts. It would be hard to point out other direct influences, at least conscious ones.
Stu: Explain your background as a film fan, the films and filmmakers (aside from the above) that best help demonstrate your own attitude towards filmmaking.
Alex: Like most indie filmmakers today, I was first a film fan. I discovered and fell in love with cinema via videos and later DVD's. I've only been to the cinema some 50-odd times in my life, and the experience wasn't always magical. The only film which really emotionally moved me at the cinema was Bertolucci's "Il Conformista". God bless those little art-house places which still manage to get good films on once in a while! At the age of fourteen I discovered the world of Italian horror thanks to Fulci and his "Zombie Flesh-Eaters". That film (in a cut Vipco version) and "City of the living dead"(gloriously uncut from Rene Chateau) will probably remain the most-watched films of my life. I was shocked by how crude they were yet they both shared an unflinching, gloomy outlook on life which was very close to my own. Even in Fulci's later, weaker films such as "Touch of Death" and "Nightmare concert" there's a trace of that universal doom. I don't know of other director who could repeatedly transcend generic, dull scripts and stamp his mark all over the resulting films. That magic wasn't in ridiculous stories, it was definitely in Fulci's touch. Before Lucio it was Coscarelli and his "Phantasm" that "did it" for me. Parallel with gory and surreal European Horror films I have always enjoyed watching works of Takeshi Kitano (especially "Violent Cop"), Verner Herzog ("Aguirre" -what a film!), Tarkovsky ("Stalker" is his haunted masterpiece). I still cannot decide which side is dearer to me and have since ceased to segregate "art" and "genre" films. I think this attitude to mix things up is evident in "Naked Trip".
Stu: There are some canny homages in the film, such as Jason Impey's character being called George Eastman and the obvious early references to "Taxi Driver". Which other homages can you point out to us?
Alex: As you noticed, all characters' names are references to (mainly Italian) actors and filmmakers. The philistine DVD-distributor (Karl Rhodes) is named Louis M. Fuller, for instance. The only character with non-film name is the one I play, Kees Popinga. His name actually references the hero of "The man who watched the trains go by", one of my favourite books by Georges Simenon. The mafia thugs (Nick Stoppani and Darryl Lane) are my version of the two killers from NY scenes of Umberto Lenzi's "Cannibal Ferox". There are also loads of visual references to just about everything: "Alphaville", "Nightmares come at night", "Peeping Tom"...
Stu: How much was the budget for "Naked Trip"? Its low budget is obvious but it still feels very stylish with its black-and-white photography and various locations.
Alex: -"The Trip" and "Naked Trip" were shot back to back on about $1000. That's including everything: catering, post-production costs, and the endless Marlboros' I had supplied my main star with.
I knew I didn't have a riveting story to grip my audience with so I had to come up with something else. The plot may stand still, but the editing is snappy and locations change frequently enough to maintain the feeling of motion. That's the reason I like such great trash films as "Hell of the living dead" and "Mad foxes" - they never stop!
Stu: Where and when was the film shot? Was it a problem-free shoot? If not, what problems did you encounter and how were they overcame?
Alex: The main bulk of the film was shot in and around Milton Keynes. We also went to South End to film the ending and picked up a few attractive locations along the way. Problems arise on any shoot, no matter how basic or well prepared. We had some sound issues when during night shoot away from our base the radio microphone had died. Replacing wasn't an option so we went on using the in-camera mike. Luckily, the occasionally dirty sound fitted with grainy, DOGME-wannabe appearance of "Naked Trip".
Stu: Was there anything you wanted to include in "Naked Trip" but couldn't, due to time or budgetary constraints?
Alex: Originally I wanted to open the film with a quick montage of a POV of a speeding car, a full-blown sex scene and some footage of animals getting slaughtered. After ringing up a couple slaughterhouses we didn't manage to get the permission to film. We were offered some butcher's scraps but that wasn't what we wanted. So we barged into some seemingly deserted farm not far from actor Stoppani's house. It was vast and abandoned. Round the back, behind the rows of empty kennels we found what something nasty - in a blood-splattered bathtub, stiff bodies of two sheep lay. They were beginning to rot, but it simply wasn't cinematic. On our way out we had encountered a shady-looking farmer. In the best redneck fashion he had dismissed my polite attempts at conversation as a load of bullshit and watched us leave with great suspicion.
The original finale had George and Sarah come back to the City and discover that everyone has vanished. That would have been a nod to the ending of Demons 2. But it was not to be as we were too knackered following a gruelling 48-hour cross-country marathon to get up sufficiently early for the scene to be filmed in the still-empty streets of Milton Keynes.
Stu: Describe your working relationship with Jason Impey. How was it directing him, when he's used to being the director?
Alex: I cast Jason Impey because I saw George Eastman as a deranged indie filmmaker. Why cast an actor when you've got the real thing? There weren't many lines for him to learn, but he was very keen to improvise, even if his language may seem a little too obscene for some viewers. I never saw anybody else as George Eastman. Also, the fact that we were both filmmakers had eliminated a lot of unnecessary explanations. After a few brief words Jason knew exactly what I was going for.
Stu: You've done a little acting yourself previously. Is it something you're comfortable with? And which do you prefer - acting or directing? Or producing, even?
Alex: I love acting, and try to get bit parts is films on which I work as a crew member. Directing/producing a film depresses you, endless worries and uncertainty can be too much. For me it feels like a holiday to be on set purely as an actor. Also, acting engages a different part of you. Directing demands tremendous stamina and ingenuity. You also have to be quite political at times to keep the whole thing from going down the pan due to tensions. Above all, a director should never assume a vulnerable position. With an actor it's in some ways the opposite. A performer should be a "naked man", expose his inner state and that, of course, involves a degree of vulnerability. That's why you get the best results once you manage to establish a link of trust with an actor, so he can relax and do his best job for you.
Alex: I also am totally in love with writing. That's the creative side. It's a very tiring and time-consuming activity, requires to "step out" of life in a sense. I think writers suffer the most in the industry. Not only are they overworked and underpaid, their stories get mercilessly altered by the time they reach the screen. Producing? It's about making a lot of phone calls, really. That's it.
Stu: Can you tell us a little about your other film "Bittersweet"?
Alex: "Bitterseet" is my "baby", a short film that took 9 months to shoot on and off and another three to edit. Most frustrating of experiences, but I'm pleased with how the film turned out. It's a story about impossibility of communication between people. But it's told in a detached and roundabout manner which brings in many adjacent themes along the way before reaching an ambiguous climax. It's in some ways the flip side of "Naked Trip". "Bittersweet" is a carefully arranged short, crammed with a feature-length load of ideas and messages. "Naked Trip" is a haphazard, disorganised film which seems overstretched at just 45 mins. running time. Hero of "Bittersweet" (Peter Halpin) is reflexive, gentle, talented. George Eastman of "Naked Trip" is blunt, cocky, reckless. Yet both are stubborn artists, both seek escape from rejection in their work. In "Bittersweet", it's rejection by a woman, in "Naked Trip" - by mainstream audience.
Stu: What other experience do you have behind the camera? Are there any short home movies etc lurking in the archives?
Alex: Since the age of 14 I've been shooting loads of shorts using various camcorders. I remember editing a 2-minute slasher using 2 VHS recorders. I was immensely proud when I discovered I could lift music from other films and dub it over mine, and would sneak in tunes from the likes of "Buio omega" and "Manhattan baby" into an innocent documentary I shot for my friend. I haven't re-watched any of that stuff since I shot it. Also in 2006 I had a whole year pass without making any films because I didn't have access to any camera, however basic. It was during that year that I seriously took to writing. Between 2007 and now I have worked in various capacities on roughly two dozen no-budget short and feature films, some of which will hopefully see some sort of release next year. For example I'm really glad to have been involved with "Stalked", an impressive student film by Andrew Warman, with whom I had previously worked on Jason Impey's "Tortured". It's a visually very evocative film which resembles a more poetic version of Romano Scavolini's "Nightmare". Also, it was great writing "Rose" for my friend and colleague Kemal Yildirim. I gave a feeling that film will go far.
Stu: How do you fund your films? And where do you get cast members who are willing to, for example, simulate sex scenes for you?
Alex: All my films have been self-funded. Every penny comes out of my own pocket and although the resulting productions are extremely cheap, I value the freedom that comes with being one's own producer. It's a good skill for any filmmaker - how to make things cheap without them looking dire.
The two sexual encounters George Eastman has with the prostitute in "Naked Trip" were an afterthought. We did the rough cut and realised that we were short of running time to reach the coveted 45 minutes feature minimum. The same night we went out and shot additional inserts. The prostitute was played by Sharon Alcock, Jason Impey's girlfriend. Of course, the fact that the two were comfortable with each other had helped when it came to filming sex scenes. The only "proper" nudity in the film came courtesy of Michelle Young (of Ben Dover fame), who at the time was a regular in our productions. She starred in "Tortured" and appeared in "Cut & Paste", "Naked Nazi" and another short Nazi film Jason did which has too long a title for me to remember.
Stu: Speaking of sex, the montage sex scene early in "Naked Trip" is quite lengthy. How long did this take to shoot?
Alex: I have to apologise to my viewers for the overlong sex scene which never quite passes into the hardcore realm. It was shot purely to pad out the running time. It was filmed in two long takes in just over an hour. In fact, when I had to trim the film for the US screening, I shortened the scene, so the American cut is a bit more merciful. It also lacks the opening credits shower scene. There are at least three different cuts of the film around!
Stu:..And how many cigarettes do you think Jason went through during the shoot?! Was this a requirement of his character, or something he brought to it?
Alex: I think Jason suggested the character should smoke, and I agreed. The fact he's a chain-smoker was my nod to Jean-Paul Belmondo's character in "A Bout de Souffle". This guy smokes through his every scene without ever catching a breath! Towards the end of the shoot both me and Jason were "full-time" smokers... Blame the stress! It took me a considerable amount of time to ditch the habit afterwards.
Stu: Can you tell us a little about "Naked Trip"s score? There's some wonderful jazzy moments on there.
Alex: The jazzy, spaced-out soundtrack was written and performed by Alexander "Fle" Zhemchuzhnikov. He's a Moscow-based multy-instrumental musician. He and his band "Brom" are quite popular in jazz clubs and music venues of Russia's capital. I don't think he has ever seen a Jess Franco picture, but his tunes helped evoke atmosphere that I thought was reminiscent of "Blue Rita" or "El Mirón y la exhibicionista".
Stu: Where do you intend the film to be set? I quite liked the way it never gave this away, just referred to the original setting as "the city".
Alex: The story didn't have any particular connection to England, it was based on my hazy memories of various European pulp films. "Naked Trip" was born of a shapeless but strong desire to make a film, and the resulting landscape remains suitably abstract.
I did feel the film perhaps held back a little on exploitative elements. But then, too much would've possibly harmed it's ambience. Was it a conscious effort to curb the sex/nudity to an extent and allow for an arthouse vibe?
As I said earlier, what little sex there is was mainly an afterthought. What you see is what I managed to get at the time. Anyhow, I've had enough exposure to sleazy imagery this year. I must have been present during filming of at least three rape scenes! I may have to lay off exploitation angle for a bit, it's becoming too much of a good thing!
Stu: What have reactions to the film been?
Alex: I've heard a lot of contradicting opinions on "Naked Trip". Most people seem to like the visual style. I hear some praise the improvised nature of dialogue scenes while other viewers condemned the film's poor performances. In this film I purposely used mainly untrained actors. Impey is more known as a filmmaker, for Jenny Newland it was a first big part. I wanted rawness after working with TV and film professionals "Bittersweet". Jason and Jenny are the heart of the film for me. It's them as people I am watching, other characters serving as framing device. What surprises me is that nobody had objected to lack of any story. I mean, a 45-min film from an 8-page treatment? Someone's got to notice!
Stu: What's next on the agenda for yourself - as writer, actor, producer or director?
Alex: I'm currently developing my skills in the writing department. I'd played around with plotless films for a while, time to get organised again! I've a couple of short scripts complete, but they'd be impossible to film without funding. There's also a low-budget spy film from my script that's supposed to go into production soon. Like most filmmakers, I've got loads of projects, it's more a question of which ones are more realistic to do right now. Still I'd like to think that I'll shoot a couple of films in 2009, no-budget as usual. Also there might be some acting parts for my friends from "Exploitation Pictures".
Special thanks to Alex Bakshaev