Monday, March 31, 2008

SOCKETThe Evening Class Interview With Sean Abley

At the time when I spoke with director/screenwriter Sean Abley, congratulations were due because Socket had just been picked up by TLA Releasing, which launched the film's DVD release on March 25th (here's the trailer).

Abley spent the better part of the 90's in Chicago writing, directing and producing theater for his company, The Factory Theater. He then moved to Los Angeles where he spent time writing and producing more reality TV than he'd care to admit. "No names," he jokes, "to protect the not-so-innocent from slanderous accusations and libelous intimations." Thankfully, children's television rescued him and helped him develop a handsome resume of writing gigs for the Disney Channel, ABC, and Fox Family. In the "Where Does This Belong?" category, he wrote video segments for the "Men In Black—Alien Attack" theme park attraction at Universal Studios Florida starring Rip Torn. He's likewise rendered several queer readings of the horror genre for The Advocate.

Along the way he started producing films. After aiding and abetting the slaughter of young teens in Butcher House for FatKidFilms/Idolik Entertainment, and writing the screenplay for the horror flick Rope Burn for Moving In Pictures (soon to be released on DVD), he graduated to directing his own feature horror script, Socket, for Dark Blue Films and Velvet Candy, LLC.

TLA describes Socket as "an erotic sci-fi fantasy like no other" where "a pair of gay lovers literally get a jolt as they plug in for pleasure." They synopsize: "After being struck by lightning, Dr. Bill Matthews (Derek Long) receives extra special care from a mysterious, sexy hospital intern Craig (Matthew Montgomery). Having survived the same natural accident, Craig introduces his new recruit to an underground group that uses electricity to reach ecstasy. Soon the two develop an insatiable appetite for wall sockets and each other, but it's not enough for Bill. Using his gifted talents as a surgeon, this doctor will stop at nothing to find the ultimate charge!"

Socket received a favorable review from Fangoria's Jeremiah Kipp who praised it as "a thoughtful, imaginative slice of low-budget filmmaking, where the big ideas transcend the limited means of production." The film's "excellent performances" bring "identifiable humanity to the unusual ideas."

The official Socket DVD release party will be held Wednesday, April 2, 8:00PM at MJ's Bar, 2810 Hyperion Boulevard, in Los Angeles, California. Socket will also screen Monday April 14 at 7:20PM as part of FilmOut San Diego's "Thriller/Camp Night."

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Michael Guillén: Socket has been making the rounds on the Gay film festival circuit?

Sean Abley: Yeah. It had a fairly short run. We got started kind of late with the festivals because we wanted to premiere at Outfest and the Philadelphia International Gay and Lesbian Film Festival, so we held out. Then we basically did the rest of the festivals after that. I guess you would say we had half of the season on the festival circuit.

Guillén: Congratulations on being picked up by TLA Distributing. Was that for DVD distribution and/or theatrical distribution?

Abley: Basically everything except theatrical. DVD, pay for view, video on demand, all the downloadable technologies. It will also show at festivals and special screenings.

Guillén: I am hoping you'll bring it to San Francisco, possibly through Dead Channels, as I'm sure folks here would love to see it on the big screen. I know I would.

Abley: I would love to come to San Francisco with the film. Sadly, Frameline was one of the few festivals that rejected us this season.

Guillén: That's unfortunate; because Socket is a deft piece of queer horror, yet stands quite well without qualifiers as a solid contribution to the horror genre in general. Definitely the Cronenberg influence is there, which is fine by me as I'm a great fan of David Cronenberg. Can you talk a bit about how you developed the story for Socket? Where it came from?

Abley: Sure! The initial idea was actually quite a long time ago; it was probably over 10 years ago. I was living in Chicago at the time and I had started a theatre company and was sort of feeling cocky enough that I thought, "Well, if I can start a theatre company; I can make movies!" I'm a gigantic horror fan and, of course, a Cronenberg fan, and I had just read J.G. Ballard's Crash and became interested in taking something not sexual and making it sexual (although I now know that people do use electricity during sex; though—at the time—I had never heard of it).

That was the impetus—the visualization of putting something into your flesh (the light socket came up pretty quickly)—and definitely I wanted to do something Cronenbergian about the body, biological science fiction. Then, I started mapping out the bones of the story and decided to make it gay for some reason. I'm not exactly sure why I decided to go in that direction; but, once I did, I decided that was important to the story that there be a gay science fiction out there but it was not important that their homosexuality was part of the plot. I tried to keep that almost secondary.

Guillén: Though I'm aware you have discounted that Socket is not a direct reflection of the methamphetamine pandemic within the gay subculture, I maintain the film effectively lends itself to that interpretation. Would you agree?

Abley: Yeah; but, it's more about general addiction than specifically meth. I don't hide that fact at all. There was one review that came out that made it seem like I was trying to be too clever about it and not reveal that it was about addiction; but, no, it's completely about addiction. I see Socket as an addiction movie, it's also a vampire movie (in the sense that someone preys upon someone else), and—when I was structuring the story—there was a point where I decided quite firmly that it was going to be an addiction story. I sat down and I wrote out the beef of what an addiction story would be regardless of what the substance was. It followed out when I wrote the script.

Guillén: Socket certainly captures the allure of addiction and how exciting and fun substance abuse can be at the beginning. It's exciting to watch your characters get hooked up at first and then sobering to watch their gradual decimation physically and socially. You handled that depiction responsibly.

Abley: Thank you.

Guillén: Though you discount that methamphetamine abuse was not your immediate or particular focus, I believe the film can be very helpful to gay communities struggling with this issue. I don't think you'll be able to avoid their applying this understanding onto your film. As a lesson on the hazards of addiction, it's very well-done.

Abley: Thank you. One of the things that I did specifically want to do along those lines was to point out how addiction isn't fair or democratic. In the movie I specifically made Bill (Derek Long) the lead character the one who can't handle it. Everybody else seems to be able to handle it. It's like how some people can drink and some people can't. There's no rhyme or reason to who has an addictive personality and who doesn't. That's my outlook on the plot.

Guillén: When Frameline rejected Socket, did they give you any reasons why?

Abley: No, none. I know there was another science fiction film that was trying to get into the festival that they also didn't program—though the two films were very different—but, that would be the only reason I could guess. Some of the reviews have been pretty harsh. I think the reason for that is we're not giving people who are primarily focused on gay film what they're expecting to get. It's not about young boys, it's not a coming-out story, and the lead character isn't likeable, he's into destructive behavior. When people who are a little bit narrow-focused don't get what they normally get, they decide that it's not for them.

Guillén: There is, however, a longstanding precedent for queer horror. I'm pleased that you're contributing to that field. Do you intend to continue in that direction?

Abley: Absolutely. I'm producing a project right now that's a gay thriller and the next thing that I'm shooting as a director and writer isn't necessarily a thriller—it's more of a gay Russ Meyer flick—but, yes, definitely, the producers that I worked with on Socket—John Carrozza and Doug Prinzivalli—and I all share the same ideas and goals as far as making movies. If I could make gay horror movies for the rest of my life, that would be great.

Guillén: When you decided to make a gay horror movie, surely you realized it would be an uphill battle for distribution? Thus, its being picked up by TLA Releasing is a godsend. Were you aware, however, that Socket might not have the market you wanted it to have?

Abley: We were cocky enough to think that if we created something different, people would snap it up. We were very idealistic in that sense when we made the movie. We actually didn't think it was going to be hard at all to get a distributor or to get into film festivals or get good reviews. We've sort of been proven wrong on two or three accounts. TLA was enthusiastic from the very beginning and that was great for us. They're the company that we really wanted to pick up Socket. The fact that they did, is great.

Guillén: I haven't had a chance to research the film's critical response; you're saying you've received harsh reviews? Would that be because you're creating a gay image that doesn't align with the more commodified images of gay characters?

Abley: Part of it is that definitely, plus the fact that we're giving people something that's different. There's always got to be a first one and often times that first one is not looked on well. The other thing is that Socket is being pushed as a horror movie and I don't think it's a horror movie; I think it's more a science fiction film. People are expecting to be scared when the film is actually more weird and creepy and disturbing than scary and that's what the bad reviews we've received have criticized.

Guillén: From my standpoint, your depiction of pleasure as horror is quite edgy. It trips into a taboo region. People don't like to think of their pleasure as horror.

Abley: That's very specific to the gay community. We live in a gay culture where no matter what your fetish is, you expect people to say it's okay, no matter how out there or destructive it may be. So, sure, if my movie is thought of as something that is making pleasure or sexuality the bad guy, then that probably pushes some buttons.

Guillén: I've not researched this, but, I would be curious to know how Cronenberg's Rabid was initially received? I'm sure some of his reviews weren't favorable either.

Abley: I don't know. I love that movie and it's so prevalent in my mind when I think about his films; but, I would love to know too. Something must have clicked because he got to make more movies after that.

Guillén: I'm surprised to hear you say some of the critical response to Socket has been tepid because I found it solidly produced and acted. But I guess it goes without saying that in this genre especially critical response is not as crucial as, say, word-of-mouth or shelf life, which ultimately gives life to a film like Socket.

Abley: It's a niche-market film. The people who are interested in this kind of film will find it. That's the important part. Film festivals are fun and it's a thrill to participate in them, but we always saw this movie as either a midnight movie and/or a big DVD release.

Guillén: Dark Blue Films is your production company?

Abley: Yeah.

Guillén: Your production diary for Socket is an interesting read and provides great insight for up-and-coming filmmakers. I strongly recommend that they take a look at it. I'm amazed that your shooting schedule for the film was only nine days.

Abley: Yeah, so were we. I think the original schedule was for 12 days, but because of budget we were looking to make that shorter. Within the production we found four locations that doubled for all the locations in the movie. I think we did a pretty good job. I don't think you can tell we're in the same place all the time. That helped out a lot. Quite honestly, when we got to the eighth day and realized that the next day, the ninth day, was going to be our last day, we were all shocked, pleasantly so. We did have about one extra day of pick-ups and insert shots though that process was spread out over several days. We'd work for an hour and go shoot the hospital and then wrap it up for the day. Then the next day we'd shoot the arm insert and that kind of thing. But it equaled out to about one extra day.

Guillén: I was intrigued by the ninth day's "run and gun" process. Is shooting without a permit a real problem in L.A.? Once people see the film, if they identify a location, is it a problem?

Abley: Once the film is done, once you've shot and left, you're fine for the most part. It's while you're there that you could get shut down. I've never been shut down for all the stuff that I've shot without permits so I'm not exactly sure what the penalty is. I know the cops can make you stop shooting. I know they can fine you. We did have a cop show up one night but, fortunately, it was a night when we had a permit.

Guillén: That's good! I also wanted to commend you on your gender parity. I admired your representation of the lesbian couple. A lot of times when I go to see a gay film, especially if it has a male protagonist, lesbians are nowhere in sight.

Abley: Thank you. It was very purposeful. I really wanted to have a broad spectrum of people in the film and, again, when you see a lot of gay films they're either all-gays or all-lesbians and I really wanted to mix it up. Isn't that how we live? It's how we should live. I did that with the races of the characters as well. When I wrote the script, I specifically kept in mind that it should have a mix of races. I try to do my part along those lines. Alexandra Billings (who plays Dr. Andersen) has been a friend of mine for ages. She's a transsexual actress and every part that she plays on screen is a transsexual and I think she's just a better actress than that. I decided to cast her in a role that had nothing to do with her being transsexual. Hopefully, that's the first of many for her and for other transsexual actors.

Guillén: That gender and racial parity also amplified the horror because, as you mentioned, addiction is not fair, it can hit anybody irregardless of sex, gender, race, age. All that being said, I'm curious if you think you'll find a straight audience for this film?

Abley: That's a good question. My straight friends who have seen it have all enjoyed it. The moments of full frontal gay nudity and sex scenes haven't driven them away. I think that if straight people see Socket, they'll enjoy it and I would love it if it caught on with a straight crowd. Honestly, the characters aren't all gay. That group of people that Bill finds himself in are omnisexual. The label that I believe it's being released on at TLA is the "Danger After Dark" label, which is straight across horror. So, hopefully, it will find that audience. I would love it.

Guillén: So what's up for you next? You're working on the thriller Pornography?

Abley: Yeah, I'm producing that for my editor actually, David Kittredge, who edited Socket. He's also a writer-director and this is his first feature. He's written a gay paranormal thriller set in the world of gay pornography and it's really a great script. It's really smart. Where I'm influenced by David Cronenberg, he's influenced by David Lynch. To describe the plot is almost impossible because of the twists and turns and the timeshifts; but, it's basically about the disappearance of a gay porn star and the people who are trying to figure out what happened.

Guillén: What will you be directing next?

Abley: The next thing I'm directing is called Wildcat Road. It's sort of a departure for me. It's like a gay Russ Meyer road flick. It's sort of a gay Faster Pussycat, Kill! Kill! It's funny, violent and sexy. We're hoping to shoot that in April because most of it takes place in the desert. Once you get past April, it's a little unpleasant out there. The producers, the Velvet Candy Entertainment guys, came up with the idea and asked me to direct it for them. We're working together again on that.

Guillén: Please keep me posted on that. As an aside, have you ever had the chance to meet David Cronenberg?

Abley: I haven't. But it's funny you should ask that. When I first moved to Los Angeles 10 years ago, I was temping at CBS in the business affairs department and I got in the elevator one day to go up to the executive offices for some reason. We stopped at a floor inbetween and the doors opened and David Cronenberg walked into the elevator. So I rode the elevator up to the executive offices with David Cronenberg and, of course, I was absolutely too terrified to say anything because I'd only been in Los Angeles about a month.

Guillén: Aw, that's too bad!

Abley: I know! I should have said something.

Guillén: Absolutely!

Abley: I think it was the same elevator ride that we stopped on another floor and Fran Drescher walked in. So here I am, 30 years old, in an elevator with David Cronenberg and Fran Drescher!

Guillén: [Laughter.] You have definitely paid great homage to Cronenberg through Socket and tweaked his style of "body horror" into a fresh, contemporary inflection. This is a bit difficult for me to phrase, but, another aspect of the film that I found entertaining was the sheer implausibility of its images of body horror. Socket is right in there with the syringe coming out of Marilyn Chamber's armpit or the entry ports for videotapes and program disks in Videodrome and existenZ. Implausible but engaging!

Abley: I also love J-horror. One of the reasons Socket has such an enigmatic ending and why I don't "explain" the science is a direct influence from J-horror, where they never explain why things happen; they just take you for a ride. I love that mindset for filmmaking. My job is to present it in such a way that people don't question it. They suspend disbelief and go along for the ride. I knew that—if I tried to explain the science—the film would just unravel. Because, obviously, it's impossible; but, I set it in a world where it just happens.

Cross-published on Twitch.

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