What elevates a filmmaker to the status of ‘artist’? Is it creativity, innovation, inspiration? A certain disregard for convention and popularity? The ability to hold the viewer spellbound from the first frame to the last? Director Paul Black has all that, and much more. The maverick auteur, along with his wife and directing partner Ilona, produces the most unique, disturbing and darkly erotic movies I have ever seen – and they’ve got me hooked. They fascinate me, they unsettle me, and they make me feel dirty… in a good way!
I first interviewed Paul Black in December 2014 (you can see that interview here on the blog), and since then Paul, Ilona and their assistant have been busy settling into their new studio and shooting some amazing new movies for us. On our sister site The Life Erotic, the gently humorous ‘Rainy Monday,’ the arresting imagery of ‘Short Circuit – Autumn Syndrome’ and the frankly mind-blowing ‘Lost’ have all hinted at new directions and a more complete realization of their vision; and in my opinion the stunning forthcoming TLE release ‘Scarecrow’ is among their best yet, although naturally, perfectionist Paul is very critical about it! I was delighted to have the opportunity to ask him some more questions about their work…
Paul, how is the new studio working out? Last time we spoke, you were just settling in. Is it enabling you to shoot the kind of movies you want to make?
PB: We are still very busy at the studio. The primary objective is to create a stationary recording studio, which we currently don’t have, which makes the audio recording process even longer. At the moment Ilona and I are working on our latest movie footage, so we don’t come to the studio often. But our assistant works there, he builds new interiors for future movies, buys new props. We can’t fully use the studio yet and do what we really need in there – first of all to increase the scale of our movies, to step out of enclosed room spaces and predominant close ups. We need time to collect the necessary materials. The process is ongoing.
What draws you to the broken-down look of the sets you create? There is a feeling of poverty and deprivation – does this have a special meaning for you?
PB: We worked in this genre even before our first attempt at pornography and erotica. I personally learned to shoot using similar subjects. Same for Ilona, whom I didn’t know then – she did photography in this genre. This style is what brought us together. At the moment it is a part of our genre. Our love for vintage things is not accidental. These objects have their own history and figuratively speaking, can talk. They are as much the actors, as the models are. Modern objects look quite ‘inexperienced’ on the shoot! Moreover – vintage pieces have interesting textures, which makes them look really good in the frame. Also we don’t see similar objects in everyday life. This fact alienates us from reality. I always liked art that is distant from reality. As an experiment I decided to use my original taste and experiences for erotica. ‘Inanimate objects’ are a big part of our films. In some cases they help to convey a sense of a scene, in others – to convey an atmosphere better. Besides, from the beginning we shot movies about quite simple people. There are not many glamorous women in expensive penthouses.
You seem to be moving away from the real-world situations of your earlier work into a more complete, and often disturbing, fantasy world – is this deliberate?
PB: I don’t entirely agree about the statement of my early work being based on real-world situations. If you look at my first experimental film ‘Sin Mirror’ on The Life Erotic, the story in this film is far from direct reality. It probably is similar to what we do now. The same goes for ‘Short Circuit’ and ‘Dark Water’ too. Everyday – as we call them – films (meaning ‘real life’) – get created from lack of time to write a good script, rather than from lack of time to build a good interior. When we started to shoot our movies in Czech Republic, we didn’t have an opportunity to shoot what we really wanted. And we were somewhat obliged to shoot ‘everyday, simple films.’ That was the reason we stopped going to Prague and started to develop the studio in Latvia. It’s hard to find the time and the money to build new interiors every week in a foreign country, in a strange town. That’s why it’s difficult to organize something bigger than just to shoot in a hotel room. Initially we worked in the genre of surrealism and we will keep developing this in future.
Your work is technically very complex. How much time is spent setting up a shot such as the swinging light bulb in ‘Short Circuit – Autumn Syndrome’? Is there a shot you are particularly proud of?
PB: Hmmm…Well, the swinging light bulb in ‘Short Circuit – Autumn Syndrome’ was not that difficult! But I think it took around 30 minutes, not because it was a lot of hard work, but because I shoot these types of frames slowly, without any rush, constantly fixing small details such as the angle, light, camera settings, speed and amplitude of the light bulb, as well as the flickering that should then match the pace of the music. Although, I think that no one else will notice these sorts of details, haha! I do it more for my own satisfaction. Sometimes the frames prove to be quite challenging and can take all night to shoot. But again, it’s not because it’s a grand shot or there is a lot of hard work involved, but rather because we simply have to experiment as we go, which always takes more time and is worse than if we were to work on these details theoretically. Other reasons are technical issues, lack of real professional shooting techniques and the necessary team. Sometimes it’s a lack of people and there is not enough technical equipment to shoot everything quickly and to a good standard. You asked about a shot I am particularly proud of – I don’t really know. We always strive to shoot every frame in a good way, as far as the time and technical means allow us. For more dynamic frames we need to completely change our equipment. I think I haven’t made my best frame yet!
You seem to be playing more with different genres of movie in your more recent work; there is a lot of black humor in ‘Scarecrow’ [coming soon to TLE] particularly. Are you inspired by comedies? Do you think people see the humor in your films?
PB: We would like to try other genres, but you need to know how to do a lot of things. It’s quite hard to add the same format in different genres. It is of course possible. But as I said – you need to know how to do it and if you do it, do it well or don’t do it at all. We have an experimental idea about almost a ‘musical’ movie, but we can’t take this on yet. It requires quite complex shooting, many people, dialog, shooting on location, symphony musicians. It’s a very difficult project for us now. We have a lot of ideas. But we need to be realistic. Our film ‘Scarecrow’ is of course a ‘joke from the author!’ Which, by the way, we aspire to continue. Initially we planned this as a series. It was an experimental version. For this we specifically built a ‘house for a scarecrow’ in the studio. The next version will be more atmospheric. Ilona and I both like dark English humor. We were raised watching ‘The Muppet Show’ and ‘Monty Python’! I think there is a place for humor in every movie we make. And there are people who understand it and there are people who only see it as ‘stupidity.’ In ‘Scarecrow’ we purposely made the humor very direct, so no one blames us for being ‘stupid!’
I find your work mood-altering – it stays with me for a long time after I watch it. Do you think your work takes on its own life after you release it? Do you have an idea of the effect you want it to have on the viewer?
PB: To be honest, we don’t really aim to ‘have an effect on our viewers.’ We just do what we want to do. Sometimes, when we read the criticisms about our movies being ‘non-erotic,’ we think about how we can improve that and pay more attention to the theme of ‘erotica.’ But when it has to do with the script or with an idea about a new film, our opinion changes. These films should be as they are. Otherwise, it will be ‘something else.’ There are enough people who can shoot regular erotica. Why would we do this? Our movies are ‘mood-altering.’ We don’t aim to please everyone, at all. We make them for ourselves, as it were. I’m more than certain that if we started to shoot movies just for everyone to like them, we wouldn’t be shooting erotica, we would work in another genre. We care about the fact that we, and the MetArt Network, like what we do. And we must say, MetArt gives us free rein.
Did anything specific inspire ‘Lost’?
PB: Everything was quite simple with the movie ‘Lost.’ We had an interior ready, but we had not yet written a script. Ilona and I couldn’t think of anything for a long time. The initial idea was very different. The model was meant to sleep in this place on a metal bed and the plot was quite simple, but we still didn’t like our idea. What we did is we took a photo of this place and stared at it together, lying on the sofa. And at some point we both came up with the same idea that it had to be a ghost, a phantom. She has to be standing still wearing a hospital gown. We both had the same idea at the same time and the script was done in one hour after that. It’s a figurative film: mind games and wandering thoughts of a young girl, who (possibly) is somewhere in a completely different place – perhaps underground or maybe she is in a hospital – and (possibly) she craves sex and needs to go to the toilet!
What inspired ‘Scarecrow’?
PB: The initial script was written about a girl and a rubber doll. Quite a simple and everyday script in a simple home setting. I was writing the script all night and kept changing it, I couldn’t quite get it right and feel satisfied with it. And we needed the script to be written ASAP. I found the script quite unexciting, so I kept making it more and more complex. In the morning the script was ready, but I had one question – “where do we find a rubber doll in one day?!” I’m not a big specialist in the area of rubber dolls, so I decided to check out what kinds there are out there. I went on a sex shop website and was quite disappointed – the dolls looked quite bad! I had a different image in my head. Then I thought: “Why don’t we make a doll ourselves?” And if it’s not a rubber doll, it should certainly be ‘the scarecrow.’ I totally erased the script I wrote and we got on with making the scarecrow. Because of this, we had to postpone the shoot and then I wrote a new script that matched the scarecrow. Initially the face of the scarecrow was taken from my own face (we did the plaster mold). But plaster was not really a suitable material and the face turned out quite ugly! The arm of the scarecrow was molded from my hand though! Actually, the scarecrow itself is barely shown in this first movie. Many details didn’t make the cut. The second arm of the scarecrow (the one you don’t see in the movie) is kind of an adaptation from Tim Burton’s ‘Edward Scissorhands.’ That’s the reason we had the animation for the titles designed that way. Overall we thought the movie was quite unsuccessful and we wasted our time making the scarecrow, we didn’t quite pull off the atmosphere, the interior, didn’t quite work out the angles and lighting right. Moreover, the model was going to leave in the middle of the shoot to go back home to Prague! But we do aspire to continue this series. I think the next movie will be more about the initial idea and the scarecrow will shine in all its beauty!
You seem to create a sense of ritual when showing masturbation, for example the shaving brush and the jug of oil in ‘Short Circuit – Autumn Syndrome.’ Is ritual something that interests you?
PB: Probably they are rituals! But they are not planned, they come about unconsciously. Although our everyday life is quite ‘non-ritual’ – we sometimes sleep during the day and sometimes at night, we don’t always celebrate even our birthdays. We don’t follow any traditions or religions, so you can hardly say that I like rituals. Probably, rituals like us!
A recurring theme in your movies is the cataclysmic power of the woman’s orgasm, indicated by some type of explosion or breakage. In ‘Rainy Day’ we see something gentler – the opening of an umbrella; is this showing a softer side of your personality?
PB: Haha! The reason for that is possibly because the script for ‘Rainy Day’ was written by Ilona! Probably that’s why the orgasm is much softer than in my scripts. I like it when it properly smashes!
I know you are a perfectionist, but are you closer to being happy with your more recent movies? Do you have a film you are most proud of?
PB: The latest movies are done better than the older ones. But there are more emotions in the older films and the reason for that is the models. Lately we worked with Czech models: firstly, we don’t speak the same language, and secondly they are not used to starring in this kind of movie. I have not been satisfied with the quality of our movies for quite a while now. That’s due to outdated shooting equipment and we don’t have either the money or time to change it! We must achieve a new level of quality and make the shoots more complex. Static close ups that take up 90 percent of the whole movie are becoming quite unexciting. I’m not particularly proud of any movies, but I find ‘Red Vinyl’ to be quite a successful one. It was all created by coincidence. A simple initial idea turned out to be quite a good story. But this success had its reasons – a local model, who spoke our language and who starred not only for the money.
What are your ambitions for your work with the MetArt Network?
PB: We have plenty of ambitions and goals. The primary thing is to fix productivity: to release more films. It’s profitable for us and for MetArt. But at the moment we can’t afford to release many films, as it’s just the three of us covering a vast amount of work. We didn’t have a good result from trying to get a team together and to rid ourselves from stuff like editing. I am very critical about small details and am ready to do everything myself until I find someone to whom I can pass on some work with peace of mind. We’ve had this issue from the very beginning. I can’t look at shooting films just as a way of earning money. It’s probably a big drawback of mine. I even tried to get rid of my perfectionism – in psychology they say it can be treated! But the more I thought about it the more I understood that I’m doing everything right. The issue of productivity needs to be dealt with not by getting rid of perfectionism, but rather by having a team full of perfectionists, professional and responsible people. I’m not ready to sacrifice the quality of movies for money. Otherwise, I’ll get tired of this job. In future I would like to develop a proper studio to be able to shoot more complex and interesting films. We’ve already started this process. Also in the future I would really love to shoot a different kind of movie with the financial support of MetArt – with a festival, game-oriented format.
Whatever the future does hold for Paul and Ilona Black’s work – and I can’t possible guess where their fertile imagination, ever-evolving creativity and dark humor will take them – I want to be along for the ride. You can see their movies exclusively here at SexArt and on The Life Erotic. If you haven’t seen them, check them out – your idea of ‘erotica’ will never be quite the same again…