Interview with Filmmaker Paul Yates
by Christine Leahy
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
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
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
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
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.