Sex, Smoke And Mirrors: An Interview With 'Seeing Heaven' Director Ian Powell
Titillating subject matter aside, this is no David DeCoteau fluff, Powell is a serious filmmaker concerned with serious issues. Making the transition from adult movies into horror has been a formidable challenge for Powell, but one that marks him as a determined director with something worth saying and a real flair for creating striking images and compelling stories.
The forthcoming DVD release of Seeing Heaven, courtesy of Breaking Glass Pictures/QC Cinema provided me with the perfect opportunity to catch up with Powell to chat about the forthcoming release of his film, the enduring influence of Italian horror and the real horror of exploitative producers that currently haunt the adult movie industry…
|Ian Powell and 'friend'|
What was the genesis of Seeing Heaven? How did you come up with the idea?
It sounds strange to say this but I have wanted to make a feature film my whole life, so when you finally get a chance, elements from your whole film watching and book reading experience create a kind of soup of influences; everything from Ken Russell and Nic Roeg movies, to the stories of Poe and the wonderful Hammer movies that I illicitly watched as an 11 year old kid. I love movies where people are searching for something and driven, also where they are drawn into their own dreams. That was the primary genesis of the idea for Seeing Heaven. I had always loved movies that dwelt on the dream state, everything from Altered States to A Nightmare on Elm Street, via Bava and Argento’s work, which is often almost just a complete evocation of a dream state and a world of the subconscious.
The original idea for Seeing Heaven started way back in 1988 when my first horror screenplay Changer was in preproduction with the effects guy from Hellraiser, Bob Keen. It was before I came out and the original treatment was called The World Within the Flame. Over the years the script ended up containing many different elements and ideas. I went through a lot coming out, and I think the script changed as that happened. For instance I had been shooting gay porn films in the mid 2000’s when condom use began to disappear and we had the fetishization of bare-backing (unprotected sex) in the community, and even in some extreme cases ‘bug chasing’ (slang term for the practice of pursuing sex with HIV infected individuals in order to contract HIV). So this element got worked into the main plot. Seeing Heaven was always intended as a horror movie of sorts, but all my pre-occupations kind of became fuzzed together. The idea of the twins in Seeing Heaven is kind of an autobiographical exploration of my own past.
What was the writing process for you? How did the idea change as it made the transition from page to screen?
The writing process was a long one. I had a full working script around 2001 but put that on hold while I developed my porn company. Then in 2009 I went back to the script and completely re-wrote it to include the discussion of safer sex.
The film is basically a fusion of several different ideas. In searching for his brother Paul is partly searching for his self in these dark dreams and in the reckless life he pursues. There is a lot of playing with reflections in the film, both in mirrors and in puddles, and of course in the film within the film; its all about image. I tried to play a little with the themes of ‘The Picture of Dorian Gray.’ The idea that an image on video preserves you forever. The figure in the mask is both pursuing his twin and a comment on the darkness and danger in Paul’s own life, hooking up with violent clients and pursuing anonymous sex in clubs. The nightmare world he strays into in his dreams and the world he actually inhabits begin to merge.
With the exploration of sex and spirituality in the film I was hugely inspired by Clive Barker and David Cronenberg, and the intension was to have a little of Cronenberg’s debate about the body and the mind in the film. The idea that goes back to the heart of religion – that the mind is pure but the body is corrupt and dirty. For Paul sex is a pure way of having the visions and has a kind of spiritual purity; hence the faintly blasphemous title Seeing Heaven. What if you could experience a high like religion through your senses and sex? But that spiritual purity kind of gets perverted by the bad porn director DeLeon. In the original script I had intended to shoot heavenly visions to contrast with the nightmares. But budget and time restraints meant we had to restrict ourselves to shooting the nightmares. I felt though that they had a kind of Bavaesque beauty that partly suggested they were beautiful as well as bad.
How did you go about casting the film?
Gathering the cast took a good six months. It was chiefly difficult to find a young guy who would have the vulnerability to play Paul and would be someone all the other characters would be obsessive about, which is part of the plot. Plus he had to be able to give a sensitive nuanced performance. We knew Alex was the one as soon as we saw him, but it was a leap of faith. The image that sums up the film for me is the one of Paul green lit, with a bloodied lip, looking haunted and vulnerable, almost like a vampire. Romero’s Martin is a favourite of mine. It has real underbelly and depth. I wanted Paul to have a little of the qualities of Martin, even though his needs and motivation are very different. Like Martin, Dorian Gray and Poe’s hypersensitive heroes, it is all about being “The Other”, being outside society, and in Paul’s case being desired by everyone for something within yourself you don’t actually understand.
The film has quite a striking look – what were your reasons for shooting it this way?
I always wanted to make a film that would create a very intense visual style. Growing up I was obsessed with the films of Sergio Leone, who I still regard as having the best eye for composition of any director. I also tried to use the framing very consciously, for example the early bar scene, which is backlit in blue and which mainly has the two characters on the very edge of frame conversing in profile. It wasn’t about being showy, but it is often the visual look of a film – especially something like Argento’s Inferno – which seduces me above all else and makes me connect with the story. I think horror works best when the darkness and the horror is matched by an intense, hallucinatory beauty. For me, that’s why Suspiria and Inferno, and the gothic’s of Mario Bava work so well. I really wanted to tell the story visually, through colour and shape and texture. Another huge influence on the film is Don’t Look Now. The thing about that film and Nic Roeg’s visual style that I most admire is how he creates a story that is like a broken mirror or mosaic. The film makes sense through the connection of its main images, a splash of blood, spilled wine on a slide, the shape of an ornament. But these elements only really come together at the end. It a technique that the giallo also use a lot. We tried to do something similar. I like films that work on a poetic level and create and immersive dream world. Our dream world needed to be striking.
Had it always been your intention to pay homage, visually, to classic Italian horror movies with the shooting style of Seeing Heaven?
Yes absolutely, and I was hugely fortunate to find Alessio Valori as cinematographer for the project. We discussed Suspiria and the work of Mario Bava. I wanted the dream world, glimpsed in mirrors and puddles, to be a homage to Bava especially. But Alessio imbued all the scenes with a distinctive style and we were careful to echo the main colour palette of the dreams (red and green) in small elements in the reality scenes in the film.
They are true film makers, poetic film makers. Its their ability to totally pull you into a dream world, which is patently un-real but utterly convincing. There is just something in Argento and Bava’s best work which connects deeply with your subconscious, an element of the fairy tale. This element of dark fairy tale works in Argento’s films in a way that, for me, doesn’t in Tim Burton’s films for instance. Argento seems to incorporate this fantasy element into him films in an effortless, unconscious way, it is just part of his universe. I also wanted my film to work on that visual level, even if bits of the story may not be understood by some of the audience. I love the way Argento plays games with you, hiding the identity of a killer in a painting – or what you think is a painting in Deep Red – for instance. In these films the dialogue often doesn’t matter as you are dealing with stories told directly through visual poetry. A key element of Seeing Heaven is the identity of the figure in the painting Griffin has left in the studio where Paul sleeps. An indistinct figure which suggests the man in the white mask, who is himself very Argentoesque, but who was always a natural part of our story.
I have always loved stories where a character is trying to understand an event in his past, but it is only half glimpsed. He or she saw something that was out of place in an otherwise ordinary landscape but can’t quite place what it is. This is a big part of Argento’s work from The Bird With the Crystal Plumage, onwards but also of course of Blow Up. And it is a trope that carried on through numerous gialli.
It is such a central theme in horror, that quest to understand the events around you and through them yourself. Poe says at one point “It is evident that we are hurrying onward to some exciting knowledge, some never to be imparted secret, whose attainment Is destruction”. To me that is the key sentence that sums up all horror and most art
Also I loved that the gialli are about archetypes. I love the idea in Blood and Black Lace, for instance that the faceless killer is essentially standing in for the viewer, or an embodiment of all our psyche’s. In Seeing Heaven the man in the mask, could be one of several people Paul encounters, and the end of the film also posits an entirely different explanation for both him and the figure in the painting. He is chiefly a figure from the subconscious who as well as many other things, represents my fear of being tempted into unsafe sex and the risk of catching HIV, which is kind of anonymous and faceless if you think about it.
Certain aspects of the script are taken from your own experiences as a director of adult movies. How challenging was it for you to move outside of this sphere of filmmaking and attempt to direct something such as Seeing Heaven?
I had directed a horror short, Lonely Hearts – also about a masked man – before directing this and that was well reviewed in Time Out and played with Richard Stanley’s Dust Devil for its first London run at the Scala cinema. And in my twenties I had written a lot of spec horror scripts. Moving into adult films was really just a way of expressing my gay sexuality when I came out and is something that happened after the short films and scripts. I wanted to make a film that was around something I knew. Making porn can very quickly become a slightly soul-less production line. It can also be exploitative, but there is a part of it that is about capturing someone’s youth and beauty before it gets spoilt. The character of Baxter (Lee Chapman), the porn director, is essentially me, trying to rationalize why he is doing what he is doing and trying to make something that is a serious exploration of beauty and sex. But the studios want him to shoot bare-back.
How difficult was it for you to write and immerse yourself in the production of the film given the more personal events that lay in its origins?
Its personal nature wasn’t the difficult thing, but because the script went through various drafts over about ten years, you have to take care to ensure that you are giving the audience enough clues and that you aren’t assuming they know things that have been excised from the current draft. When the story is so personal there is a tendency for it to seep into the directors subconscious. It is important to ask yourself what the audience actually know at the various parts of the story and to check this with people who aren’t familiar with the script.
What was it about the horror genre that you felt equipped you best to tell this particular story?
Horror has always been my favourite genre. I love gothic’s and films that explore the mind in an overblown, expressionistic way, like the Robert Wise film The Haunting. I love Poe’s idea of a heightened level of sensitivity that makes the sensations of the senses almost too much to bear, as in ‘Fall of the House of Usher.’ Seeing Heaven references Poe and some of his pre-occupations. When I was writing the script I also read and re-read Oscar Wilde’s ‘The Picture of Dorian Gray’ which remains as fresh, powerful and relevant as when it was first written. The idea of Narcissus in my film, of the beautiful rent boy who is desired by everyone but lost to himself, comes from this. And we have two characters almost competing for Paul’s soul; one encouraging him to create something beautiful, the other to take dangerous risks in order to see into another world. And I believed I could meld these ideas into a story where the main character saw into a Bavaesque inner world, another world where his long lost twin lived.
Given some of the more ‘explicit’ scenes depicted in Seeing Heaven (the drug use and rape scenes in particular) – Was there anywhere that you were quite hesitant to bring the story? Anything that might have made you think, ‘is this too much?’
I guess I was a little worried that the concept of Paul glimpsing what was happening to his brother, and his pursuit by the Man In the Mask through sex, was pretty strange, but it really is about him experiencing through all the senses and not just sex. I didn’t want people to think it was a film about incest. Although it is only when he can be re-united with his brother again, that he can feel whole again.
To be honest, the rape scenes are, if anything, a little too soft. I found myself giving them an edge through the flashes into the dream sequences. As I shot the film I felt a responsibility towards Alex in particular and to Chris (Grezo) who plays Griffin, to shoot the sex scenes with sensitivity. I didn’t want them to feel that I was exploiting them or that there was material in the film they would later regret.
The film does take a very negative, almost melodramatic attitude towards bare-backing, in the way that it kind of parallels Paul’s being tempted towards unsafe sex with Saul’s pursuit by a faceless serial killer. I am kind of out of kilter with the general attitudes that now seem to exist in the gay community, where although unsafe sex is to some extent discouraged, it is becoming frighteningly prevalent. Young people who didn’t grow up in the Eighties and didn’t experience the deaths can now see the drug cocktails as a mere inconvenience. For a small group of people contracting HIV is now seen as a lifestyle choice and once it is out of the way you don’t need to worry about it any more. So I was conscious that making the statement I do in the film risked turning off my core audience. But bare-backing in porn is a kind of elephant in the room, that hasn’t really been discussed or debated properly by the community.
Seeing Heaven was obviously a labour of love for all involved – not least yourself. What challenges did you face whilst working on such a low budget film? Any scenes or shots that proved quite difficult to realise?
The first week of the two week shoot was spent in a Nightclub/warehouse location in Islington which we used for about 5 different locations, the bar and club but also the porn studio and the locations for the dream sequences. That helped a lot. It was a slightly unnerving place, as there was no natural light and it was a real maze of passageways and rooms filled with old props and junk. I want to go back there in fact to shoot my Jack the Ripper movie. That location really helped to speed things up. We had a great crew, too. But it was tough. I hardly had time to think, I just had to remember all the scenes we needed and go for it. Working at that speed you just go with your instincts and it is bang, bang, bang. But it was a challenge to get it right and not miss anything out. That together with all the scenes we shot on the candlelit stairs was then the totality of our dream sequences. So my overall memory of the film is that some complex sequences we took too long over, but many others came together very simply and effectively.
My real hope with Seeing Heaven is that people will see what we were able to achieve on such a tiny budget and with so little time and give us the chance to make bigger more complex movies. It is not the linier of films, so I hope the audience is able to just go with the flow and immerse themselves in the dream images, and take something from it on that level. The thing I am most proud of, is the look we achieved, together with the really beautiful score from Ken Watanabe. I wanted to make a film that succeeded on the level of dreams, to have a little of Argentos’s Inferno about it – although on a very low budget level – and I hope we succeeded. I fear making a full blown giallo is probably not commercial anymore, but the pre-occupations and style of this film are something I want to take forwards. I don’t see myself making a kitchen sink drama or a rom-com.
Glad to hear it! What ideas capture your imagination most as a filmmaker? And ultimately, what were you trying to say with Seeing Heaven?
I really like dark subjects. I like horror films that have a level of social comment about them and have a real underbelly, like George Romero’s work. But I also like movies that are operatic and tell their stories through the visuals. I go back to the quote from Poe (“It is evident that we are hurrying onward to some exciting knowledge, some never to be imparted secret, whose attainment is destruction”). I think as film makers we are trying to understand ourselves and our own dark obsessions and through that the world around us. The dream and the ambition is to be able to find the funding to do that.
George Romero, Dario Argento, Mario Bava, Nic Roeg, Ken Russell, because they are filmic poets who care more about the sensual effect their films have on you than just a three act structure.
What is next for you?
We may do another gay themed project, but I also want to move more directly into producing pure horror films. I have a particular project in mind about a bunch of screenwriters that has a unique take on the Jack the Ripper legend. I have to admit of recent horror movies I most admire films like The Orphanage, The Devil’s Backbone and The Others, and that’s definitely the kind of direction I want to movie in. But I also want to explore further the Cronenbergian idea of how the mind effects the body and vice versa, the spiritual and the physical and the sensual. It was the subject of my first co-written attempt at horror, Changer, and those pre-occupations are still with me. More than anything I would like to movie into Suspiria territory, to do some sort of Old Dark House movie that really pushed the boat out and scared the audience on a primal level, but that could also be baroque and stylish. However, I am likely to be working again on a low budget, and talking to a company recently who specialize in horror movies it seems to be chiefly about keeping it simple, but also doing something that is truly and darkly terrifying. The audience has to be truly scared!
Seeing Heaven is released on DVD on 7th Dec, courtesy of Breaking Glass Pictures/QC Cinema. You can pick up a copy here.
[All photos by Anton Z Risan and Michele Martinoli]