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An Interview with Filmmaker Paul Yates
by Christine Leahy

Paul Yates' latest feature film, originally called "Porno," is now titled "Alien Sex Party" -- because Target and Blockbuster won't sell a DVD by the name of "Porno," even though the movie, which takes place in an adult video store on Christmas Eve, is a non-pornographic "rated PG-13 comedy," and its executive producer is marketer's dream Moby. The DVD will be released on September 23. Meanwhile, the New York based Yates is busy working on several more screenplays, plotting his afterlife, and collaborating with German techno personalities. I met up with Yates at a graveyard near the city and asked him to bend my ear.

Christine Leahy: So where I want to start is, I want you.....

Paul Yates: You want me to say, I, Paul Yates, of my own free will, being of sound mind and body, do hereby -- ah, I don't know, do hereby state on this tape that I answer my questions freely and without malice or whatever. Go ahead. There's not a gun to my head. Is what I'm trying to say.

CL: OK now that we've got that out of the way, um, I was hoping that you could introduce yourself to the readers of FREEwilliamsburg. Tell us who you are, Paul Yates, and what you're about, what you do.

PY: So I'm Paul Yates filmmaker. I've been making films since I was about eight years old. And I started making films with a little Super-8 camera. Actually when I was eight I was given a little model kit of a Kodak still camera, and it had like a hundred and twenty eight pieces and the two pictures that I took first are of me, of course, they're in a mirror, and I still have them, out of all my crazy life I still have those two pictures. So, I started making super 8 films and one of the first things I did was I wanted to imitate how you would appear and disappear, like on "Bewitched." So I would have my mom stand in the backyard and I figured out that if you stopped the camera, had her walk off and continued to film in the same spot it would look like she disappeared, so I would have her snap her fingers, appear and disappear all over the yard and that was the day I realized I was a filmmaker. I thought, I am a mad scientist. I'm in control. I am the king. And so that's how I started making films. You're going to have to ask me more. Cause I can talk, but a lot of this is -

CL: OK. When did your adult film career begin?

PY: My adult film career began . . .

CL: Or your mature work.

PY: I don't know if I've ever made mature work. But I would say, when I was sixteen, my girlfriend and I had broken up, it was my first ever girlfriend and I was depressed as hell. And suicidal. And I would wear ink on my face in the shape of tears, but like big dripping blue ink off of my eyes. It looked really cool and people thought I was insane. Moby thought I was funny and his boss thought I was insane.

CL: How do you know Moby?

PY: We went to high school together. And we met in the AV room. Which was our little punk rock clubhouse. But in 1982 a punk rock clubhouse was much different than the punk rock clubhouse now. So anyway, my uncle was a filmmaker, my uncle Jerry Yates, and I would work with him, like, helping him edit, or helping him shoot or starring in his little films about a rubber hand that attacks a kid and strangles him, or driving down the street, tied to the roof of a car, I would do all these crazy films with him. And so I asked him to help me make a film. So I made a film about a kid who's in a bedroom, dancing his head off, sort of punk rock dancing in place, to the Sex Pistols song "Bodies." And then the camera goes down the hallway, tracks down the hallway from this kid dancing, to the same kid in a bathtub, cutting his wrists. And so I built this elaborate little tiny razor that would squirt blood when I cut my wrists. So that person dies in that bathtub, and it's cut with a couple of scenes that I shot off the television with "A Clockwork Orange" -- at the end of the film the lead character Alex is having sex in the snow in a fantasy, but it's a fantasy that everything's alright, and so I contrasted that with the character dying, and then the camera cuts back and the character's still dancing in the room. And so this was a little five minute piece, but I guess that would be my first mature work. I guess I was only sixteen, but I made many other immature works after that.

CL: What's your most recent mature work?

PY: My most recent mature work would be "Porno," which is now called "Alien Sex Party." I've done some things since then, but I guess it's the piece that's being culminated, finished now, which is a feature film that takes place in a porno shop on Christmas Eve that is all about non-judgmentalism, or it's all about anal sex, or something like that. And it's a feature film that is having a small theatrical run that is going to be on DVD in a couple of weeks, and that is executive produced by New York's own Moby. It also has song and dance numbers and musical interludes.

CL: For most people, when they think non-judgmentalism, an adult video shop probably isn't what springs to mind; how did the two connect for you?

PY: Well that's exactly why I did it, because inherently there's nothing wrong with sexuality and inherently there's nothing wrong with pornography, and there's so many taboos about it but inherently naked pictures are pretty, you know, people having sex is pretty, but with our standards in society as it is today, sometimes pornography and porno stores get judged very harshly and the truth is, it's a comedy, and I hadn't really been in a porno store since I was like thirteen or fourteen, so my porn education ended then, but we knew it would be very funny to have the lead, Joe, be a porn store owner, because he seems like he would be the opposite of a porn store owner, like he wouldn't even understand it, and that leads to humor. Fish out of water stories can be very humorous. And then there's the woman who works there, Tina, who completely understands what everybody wants, and is completely nonjudgmental towards them. Like no matter what you want to stick up anywhere you want, she understands how it works and she'll show you how to do it. And be very calm and kind about it.

CL: Tell me about this main character Joe. It seems -

PY: I'm listening. I've got a wild strawberry for you. For those of you at home I just picked a wild strawberry in the cemetery. We're in an awesome cemetery - we're not at my mother's grave because it was too hot and bright there. Not metaphorically, it was just too hot and bright, and now we're in this beautiful cemetery in the middle of Greenwich, sitting on probably what's worth -- a several million dollar gravestone right now.

CL: And Paul Yates, why did you want to conduct this interview in this spot right now?

PY: I just think it's pretty. I think this cemetery is awesome, and if I could build a little house here I would. They wouldn't let me, I don't think. Although there are several little houses that are masking as tombs.

CL: What do you want your gravestone to say?

PY: I want my gravestone to say . . . Well first of all I want to be buried in a suit of armor. Because I'm so noble. All humility aside. And I want the gravestone to say four different things, and one of them is like, I want a piece of my diary, one of my many diaries, to be on one, because I think your gravestone should be all about you, so like people come and they see like, John Smith, loving mother --

CL: That would be an interesting story.

PY: That's maybe what I want it to say. But, you know, those get, those are boring. I want mine to say, "Paul Yates died trying to save the earth from alien invaders." Because it's true. And there probably should be this little table there, so people can play checkers or chess, or like discuss my philosophy heatedly. Maybe two swords so they can duel if they get into a big argument about it.

CL: Who do you think's going to come to your gravesite?

PY: I don't know who's going to come, but, in the films that I make, I think of them as like, messages in bottles, and so I'm trying to say my piece, I'm trying to say, this is what I want, this is who I'm looking for, and perhaps somebody will understand that, and there's gotta be those people out there, who get me, who get what I'm trying to say, and they'll come to it.

CL: Have you already had some responses to your messages in bottles, from complete strangers?

PY: I have, mostly for my short films. My short films are much different than this feature, at least to me. One of my big short films which is actually going to be on the DVD is called "Space Water Onion," and that film is about gnostic space travelers who understand each other so fully and so completely that they basically don't have to talk to each other; they love each other, they understand. And, they end up on a desert planet, where there's no water whatsoever, and one of them somehow gets taken over by this water demon thing, and they have to kill him, and then they wake up, and that may have all been a dream, or may not have been a dream, but they are on their rocket ship, and their rocket ship is slowly filling with water because the environmental systems are broken and they are definitely going to drown. And there's nothing they can do about it, so it's all about their acceptance and how they deal with their own deaths, their own mortality. And then they drown. But it's actually a happy ending.

CL: OK so we were talking about messages in bottles and then you went into your short films.

PY: All of my works are messages in bottles, and even in the new script I'm writing there's a message in a bottle. And I actually, I used to throw messages in bottles for an old girlfriend.

CL: Hoping that she'd get them, or at her request?

PY: Hoping that she'd get them but not really assuming that she would.

CL: What did they say?

PY: Oh - you have to find one. If you find one, if somebody finds one, they'll know what they said. But they say the same things that my movies say. There's a beautiful story by a man named Theodore Sturgeon, about a message in a bottle.

CL: Would you ever want to make a film of one of his works?

PY: I have shot a short film of one of his works. The story was called "The Other Celia." I was just the director of photography on it. I'm not sure, I love his work, I love his work to death but I like to do my own.

CL: So there aren't any other works of literature that you'd want to do on film?

PY: Tons. Well it's hard because I don't want to give away my secrets. But right now I'm working on a script about my life. About my life and it's all about betrayal. And the working title is "Yates & 1/2"

CL: What are the other things that you're working on right now?

PY: I'm about to make a short film starring all finger puppets. As I get ready to make my next feature I have to make a short film. So I'm making a short film that stars finger puppets and there's a finger puppet man and woman, and the woman gets taken away by the devil, and the male finger puppet has to go on a journey to hell to get her back. And it's all based on music by this band called Schaumgummi, this German techno band.

CL: Tell me about Schaumgummi.

PY: Schaumgummi's a band that I did a music video for - their song is called "I Like Marshmallows Oh Oh Oh Oh Oh Oh Oh." And so we built this giant marshmallow costume, where a man runs around the city as a giant marshmallow, and the German singer and musician play.

CL: How did you meet these people?

PY: I was shooting a feature film called "Modulations," which is a history of techno music, which just came out on DVD as well, and it was in Sundance and Berlin and everything, and we shot a lot of it in Berlin, and because of my Berlin contacts, I met this crazy band. And I think they're about to have an album released.

CL: I was actually going to ask more about Joe [the lead character in "Porno"], beforehand, because it seemed like Joe came first before any of the other ideas about pornography and so forth. So, why Joe, who is he, how did he come to you?

PY: I was working on that film called "The Other Celia," which is based on a Theodore Sturgeon story, in Boston, and Joe had asked the director if he could sit in on the film and just take notes during production, so they said yes, and he would ask me questions like, "why do you take so many takes of the same shot?" And he said, "well why don't you just use cue cards?" And then he would say why do I use so many lights to light the movie, and I would say because film needs more light, it's not as sensitive as our eyes, and you sculpt a mood using different gels and different placements of things, and he would say well why don't I just use fluorescent lights, and I would tell him that fluorescent lights are basically green and they're very flat and it looks like an office. And I realized that he was listening to me, being very polite, but he had his own ideas about how films were and I wasn't really changing them. So I figured he didn't know which end of the camera to look through, but he was a very charming guy, and he had a funny Boston accent. So Moby and I would imitate him all the time, not really make fun of him, but we thought he was precious, we would always laugh about him.

So he called us six months later and said that he had taken his life savings out of the bank, he had worked at Fenway Park, for eighteen years selling hotdogs at this point, that was his only, as far as I knew, source of income, except for doing some temporary phone work at offices, and so this guy had taken his life savings out of the bank, which was about $12,000, and made a feature film. And the film is brilliant. It's all cue cards and all fluorescent lights, and it's called "Phoneboy" and Joe stars in it as a guy who answers phones at an office. It looks very intentional, and it looks very specific and very artistically directed, like he knew what he was doing and his thumbprint is all over it and it works.

So we were so impressed, and Moby and I were at Sundance for that film "Modulations," and my friend Jon, who is the director of the film that I was shooting that we met Joe on, emailed me saying wouldn't it be funny if Joe opened a porno store, because we talked about Joe all the time, we would always put Joe in different situations in our head, and I riffed off that and Moby said, "if you make that into a film I'll pay for it." (And Moby was never really that forthcoming with money, he would always take me out to dinner, but as a matter of fact he's still never paid me for a music video that I made for him years and years ago, cause he would always say that it was good for my reel.) So we did it. And we had a cast and crew screening at Show World, the epicenter for pornography for the entire planet, which is on 42nd and like 8th or 9th, and it was awesome, and then we had a premier at a club called Sugar just a week ago.

CL: Do you like being interviewed?

PY: I like being interviewed, yes, because I get to - who doesn't like to be interviewed, does anyone really not? It's fun, cause you get to talk about yourself, and about your work, and then you can kind of . . . when I make my work it's sort of an organic process, I don't always think about it, I just do it. And when I'm interviewed for it, I sort of reassess what I've done, I have to put it as badly as I can into words, and sometimes I get better at that, and that's good, so basically when I'm interviewed I figure out what I was actually thinking when making something.

CL: What's the worst movie that you've seen this year?

PY: The worst movie that I've seen this year? I don't know. A lot of movies are terrible. When you see a bad film, when I see the worst film, it's like there's a lot of hype around it, and a lot of Americans like it, so that to me usually makes me not like it. Like, for example "American Beauty," I think is a terrible film. "American Beauty" is like a watered down version of "Happiness" and "The Ice Storm" blandly boiled together for American consumption. That's when you want to insult. You want to insult things like "American Beauty," you want to say, this is a bad film, and if you like it, you're probably not as deep as you think you are.

One of the funniest movies I've seen in a long time is "Jackass." I'm not sure how terrifically cinematic it is, but the story is awesome, like it's about these, you know, semi-indestructible knights who are proving their manhood to each other, and really amazing, funny, brilliant, society-rejecting ways. But a brilliant film that I saw, I saw a Japanese film called "Pistol Opera," which is basically a surrealist film about a gang of assassins who are trying to outdo each other by killing each other, but you sort of have to make believe that that's the actual story, because a lot of it is just shots of poppy fields and little tiny girls that are naked taking baths.

CL: I want to go back to "Porno" for a minute, and I am curious to know what is your favorite scene in the movie.

PY: My favorite scene in the movie obviously changes, cause I've seen the film like three hundred times. But right now, there's a scene where Adam, the sort of ex-boybriend of Tina, the sort of very sexy sassy store manager of this place called Amazing Video, they take a car ride and they go to the store where "Clerks" was filmed, the actual store where the movie "Clerks" was filmed, and we have Brian O'Holleran, the actual star, Dante, of "Clerks," reprise his role as the clerk in the store, and it's shot in black and white. It's my favorite scene because I think it's very clever.

CL: What do you think the people who haven't seen "Clerks" get out of that scene?

PY: Well, it's a weird scene - most of this film takes place in the porn store, when they leave it's a very weird magical journey, and then you're in this other store, and it's in black and white, and it just feels like, it's another world, and the same things get discussed, you know there's always this non-judgmentalism, and in that scene actually, it's revealed that Tina has allowed her dog to lick her to orgasm, much to the dismay of Adam, but not to the dismay of the store owner who understands her. So, basically you get humor out of any scene, hopefully, that's I guess the point of a comedy, this being my first, quote-unquote, intentional comedy, although I did make a comedy about my mother's funeral.

CL:What do you think is your weak point as a filmmaker?

PY: I have none! No, I, um, I'm not really worried about my weak points, because I keep making all different types of films. My next film will be a feature, after this short film about finger puppets, the next feature's going to be about a group of kids who take drugs, and who are connected to each other in sort of an unsaid way, and it's a beautiful sort of romantic tragedy, that takes place about five minutes into the future. So I don't really worry about my weak points, like every time I think I have a weak point, I tackle it. I would have thought a couple of years ago that comedy would be a weak point, because I'd only made very straightforward, or very surreal films.

CL: Have you had any mentors in your life?

PY: Well I'd say, like I was saying before, my Uncle Jerry was a mentor. Like at one point we found a box filled with one thousand four inch diameter blue rubber mats, in a garbage can, and we covered his woods with them and had me walk through it as if it was a post-nuclear holocaust and that's what would happen. It was sort of understood when we found this box of a thousand blue rubber mats, little round dots, that it would become part of a film. And we got to a point where we would just understand each other like that, or I would understand his vision very quickly. And so he was a very important mentor. And the other mentors are like, they don't exist, like Johnny Rotten, or like André Breton, I sometimes think of them as my mentors, because I don't think of them as heroes, I think of them as like cool non-existent friends of mine, that if I met I probably wouldn't like, but absolutely like their work and what I believe to be their theories and their ethos, so, I sometimes think, like, what would Johnny Rotten do? Or, what would I do, if I was me, reading about myself a hundred years from now? If I was the same person I am now, reading about a guy just like me, would I be inspired and/or respect what I've done? Or, you know, that's . . .I hope you're going to remove all my ors, ums and you knows, that would be good. But would I respect or be inspired by someone like me? And I hope to, I hope that's what I'm doing. The message in a bottle is basically to me in a hundred years.


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