Few films could score a scene of a woman’s sexual awakening with a dog to a romantic, ridiculous Pino Donaggio-like synth score, and pull it off, but in Fourplay, director Kyle Henry creates a moment that’s as sensitive as it is funny.
In Fourplay, a feature anthology of four short stories of sexual intimacy, the protagonists (half of home live in middle-class cities cities, like Skokie and Tampa, that have rarely been associated with sex), all face life-changing sexual encounters.
In “Skokie”, a closeted lesbian woman dog-sits for her minister’s wife, and her repressed desires result a special relationship with the dog. The more subdued “Austin” concerns a couple struggling whether or not to have a baby, while “Tampa” (an audience-favorite when it screened as its own short at Sundance) is an gleefully outrageous, dialogue-less sexual cartoon in which a shy man cruises a mall bathroom, is presented with a variety of possible sexual partners. Finally, in the Romantic with a capital-R “San Francisco”, a cross-dressing sex worker is assigned to a quadriplegic man.
The protagonists and scenarios in Fourplay are are impassioned, ridiculous, and strange, and directed with empathy and humor by Henry, completely human. As Megan Abbot asks in the preface to Florida Gothic Stories (a collection of noir short stories about strange lust and love, including one about a woman’s affair with a dolphin), “Who are we to judge these damaged souls, who rise higher than we do because, in the end, they care more, need more, grasp for it, because for them, everything matters so much? These are dreamers, yearners, and even in their pettiest desires… they are beautiful.”
Fourplay will screen at festivals throughout the fall, including this week as one of the opening night films at Out on Film in Atlanta on Thursday, October 4, and on Friday, October 5 in Austin as the Centerpiece Austin Gay and Lesbian International Film Festival.
I was really moved by Fourplay, unexpectedly.
Where were you moved?
I was moved by “Skokie”, surprisingly. It’s very noir in a more open-ended definition, not with how we typically consider it. It’s about people with kind of extreme desires and acknowledging that there is some kind of moral center, but then veering off. There was love for each character and I feel like a lot of movies about sex are kind of couched in non-judgment rather than emotional engagement.
That was one of our goals and that was what we did not see a lot of in terms of films that are being made right now that involve sexual content. I won’t mention any titles by name, but there are things in films that we saw that we were like, “Why can’t you engage with this behavior which is just one aspect of our lives and give it its due and importance in the story and not have it be diverting or T&A, or a morality tale where the person is lost inside the judgment of the act.
And, for example, people come away from this film saying “wow it’s complicated and it’s amazingly diverse in the experiences but I see myself in these people.” For me, a major film was the Schlesinger film Sunday Bloody Sunday (1971) which I got to see very early in my life on VHS, and there’s nothing being made right now that deals with this sort of complicated relationship between Peter Finch, a young man, and Glenda Jackson. The main character is this young bisexual kid, Murray Head, who is an art student who I don’t think went on to do anything else.
“Skokie” felt queer obviously but do you see the dog as a vessel for her to transfer desire, or is it something else…
I don’t know if I could… and this isn’t a cop-out but I want these films to be open ended enough to be vehicles of one’s own unconscious. But I think genre films do this when realism doesn’t allow it – if something’s very heightened and expressionistic and has a kind of fakeness there is a unconscious reaction that helps people relax into it and unexpectedly sink deeper in the same way that great theatre [does] – we all know it’s incredibly fake up there but there’s something about its immediacy and its phoniness that allows us to sink into a story, like a fable, that can hit deep on a subconscious level.
Is the woman really having sex with the dog? We used a stuffed animal for the sex acts you know? It’s not clinical what’s going on down there with her and the dog and hopefully that allows you to stay with her and feel her shame and embarrassment and confusion and what really is going on, what is her attraction. The screenwriters said that the dog is just an awakening for her animal side, and that being a good girl all her life and locked into this Christian milieu, has gone unrecognized by her.
When you’re working with writers do you come to them with an idea?
I come to them with a general idea. I knew I wanted to do four short films about sex and I wanted them to pick a genre and we could discuss what mode they were going to be working in, but they pitched me ideas and stories and I would get excited if they were excited and I’d say “yeah, write a draft. I’d love to see it.”
How’s working with Carlos Treviño [writer of Tampa, Austin, and San Francisco] writer of Tampa] different than Jessica Hendrick [writer of Skokie]?
Well, Carlos is my partner and I think we had to come up with ground rules. If you’re romantically involved with someone – you’re there with unconditional support so when you have to come up with a working methodology that somehow separates zones.
We had rules in the beginning, like I would only email him written comments and not talk because my tone of voice or inflection would come off as judgmental whereas with the writing he could be distanced from it and then he could process it and then come to me and talk about it. And I think any romantic/writing team… I think we’re past that now and can kind of say anything to each other. I try to respect anyone I’m working with so I’m not coming off as “bad, bad, bad” or “hmm… that’s interesting but…”
I’m really proud of him too. Being romantically involved with someone and seeing them create something – it was his first screenplay that he’s written.
Are his stories autobiographical?
No but I think they’re inspired by his interests, like this Tom of Finland cartoon where these perfect bodies, replicated/copied bodies, are having this ridiculous gang bang in a bathroom and his reaction to that was “why don’t we do this but with normal bodies and then let’s take it even further to outrageous, historical, fictional characters?”
..A lot of us who are queer don’t match up to this ideal that’s being sold to us and the sad thing is that a lot of people who are gay now are dealing with the same body issues that women have been dealing with for years in the way that advertising and idealized body images are being sold to us over and over again to shame us into buying shit.
Why did you choose to a set a story in ”Tampa“?
I’m interested in that every city has its own, whether we know it or not, little mythologies and topography and with Tampa we just wanted to come up with a place that had a Hispanic community that maybe had not been put on film but also has a quality of… have you been to Florida?
There’s a quality and a style going on there that is all its own and at times it’s outrageously inappropriate – the mix of colors and architecture – so we wanted to find a place where almost anything could happen and we thought Tampa.
Had you been to Tampa before?
I had been to Tampa but when I went back to shoot some of the B roll that we used at the beginning of the film I found it to be way more crazy than I had imagined. Like, there’s a guy who owns a chain of strip clubs that keeps running for mayor there, it was one of the biggest sites of the real estate boom and bust so there are all these brand new condos that are completely vacant – or at least they were 2 years ago, and there are some really glamorous marina areas mashed up next to horrible poverty and slums. It’s a really bizarre city.
And then “Skokie”…
Skokie … that was there because I got a job at Northwestern [University], and I wanted to shoot something close by and sort of started exploring all of the communities nearby. Skokie just seemed so normal beyond belief in that Chicago area and I thought the name sounds funny – forgive me Skokie Chamber of Commerce!
Digital video formats changed significantly over the several years Four was . and the segments were shot shot on different digital formats, and digital photography changed . Was there an adjustment required?
I don’t know. I think PJ [Raval, cinematographer on all 4 segments] talks about each of these cameras… you treat them like film stock and you treat them like changing from one stock to another so one might have more grain, one might have more saturation, or the curve is slightly green or slightly red and we would often cast cameras to the material.
So at the time we shot we shot Tampa with one that had an incredibly shallow depth of field because we knew we would have a lot of these trick shots where things would be in and out of focus and a confined space and I wanted to shift focus and that’s when it just became natural to evolve from something like the Sony EX3, which is… a camera with a deep depth of field, to these wonderful DSLR which you can put these really long lenses on and really throw things out of focus. But for me I don’t care so much about aesthetics of what’s going on in front of the camera as what’s worth looking at. For me, what’s worth looking at is people engaged in actions that cause conflict and internal conflict within themselves and there’s something going on in their face that is almost is like ESP being transferred to us, this interior emotional state.
Do you have another feature in mind?
Oh we do. We have an Emily Dickinson biopic.
Yeah – and now for something completely different! And, unlike trying to be one of these big sweeping historical things, it’s a very specific period in her life where she fell in love with the woman who would eventually would become her brother’s wife… it’s a story of forbidden love and an artist also going their own way in a very radical way.
She’s avant-garde in her way of doing things that weren’t visited again until – dear God, like T.S. Elliott, you know? And she was in this small town all alone getting zero support; no one published her work during her lifetime. I think she had five poems published in her lifetime in these little, small-town newspapers or journals would re-edit her writing. So I am interested in that. I am interested in what it’s like to be a failure in your own lifetime as an artist but be true to yourself and know at the end of your life that you made the work you wanted to make. That’s, I think, a powerful story that needs to be told.