Todd Verow’s 1995 feature debut Frisk elicited strong reactions, resulting in a near riot, when it world premiered on as the closing night of the 19th San Francisco International Lesbian & Gay Film Festival (now Frameline) at the iconic Castro Theatre, before going on to screen at Sundance, Berlin and Toronto. Based on Dennis Cooper’s infamous gay serial killer novel, Verow’s adaptation featured an outstanding indie cast including Craig Chester, Parker Posey, Alexis Arquette, and actor-turned-editor James Lyons, with a score by British experimental band Coil. The confrontational tale of murder and sadism, which used a mix of 16mm, Super8, PXL vision and video formats, secured him a spot alongside filmmakers such as Todd Haynes, Derek Jarman, Tom Kalin and Gregg Araki in the unapologetic, often subversive New Queer Cinema movement.
The following year the Maine-born Verow established his own production company with creative partner James Derek Dwyer, Bangor Films, going on to produce, write, direct, photograph and edit over forty narrative feature films, documentaries, shorts and experimental works, all made independently, with minimal budgets. Verow was named one of the first Digital Directors To Watch by Variety in 2000 and his early vow to make ten digital features in four years saw the story make the cover of Time magazine. Notable features include Little Shots of Happiness, Shucking the Curve, The Trouble with Perpetual Déjà-vu, A Sudden Loss of Gravity, Once and Future Queen, Take Away, Anonymous (in which Verow also stars), Vacationland, The Final Girl, Between Something & Nothing, The Boy with the Sun in His Eyes, Bad Boy Street, This Side of Heaven, Squirrels, and recent LGBTQ film festival hit Age of Consent (co-directed with veteran queer filmmaker Charles Lum); a documentary exploring the history of London’s Berlin-style leather sex club, The Hoist. As well as lensing all of his own films, Verow was the cinematographer on Jon Moritsugu’s early 1990s features Terminal USA and Mod Fuck Explosion, and he lit Gregg Araki’s Totally Fucked Up.
Todd Verow’s latest narrative feature Goodbye Seventies will world premiere at Out on Film Atlanta’s LGBTQ Film Festival on Monday September 28th, and have its European premiere next month as the closing night selection of the 15th Pornfilmfestival Berlin (PFFB). Set in the world of New York’s creative gay adult filmmaking scene of the 1970s, PFFB calls it “a nostalgic and melancholic homage to the Golden Age of Gay Porn”. Ahead of these screenings The Queer Review’s editor James Kleinmann spoke with the filmmaker about why he admires the gay adult filmmaking of the era, his guiding principles for making a period movie, why he chose not to make it a sexually explicit work and the impact William Friedkin’s Cruising made on him when he first saw it in the 80s.
James Kleinmann, The Queer Review: What is it that interests you about that golden era of gay pornographic filmmaking in the 1970s?
Todd Verow: “Well, I’m interested in it because it’s the beginning of it as far as making real films is concerned. I mean there was certainly pornography before that of course, but this is the beginning of making real films that would play in cinemas for an audience, rather than loops that people would watch at private parties for instance. It was after Stonewall and gay liberation was happening so there was more visibility and more of a sense of community about it all.”
Are there any filmmakers who you think were doing particularly creative work back then that elevated it beyond what people might expect when they hear the word pornography?
“Yes, Peter de Rome and Wakefield Poole immediately come to mind. There were a lot of different filmmakers who were interested in making films that were interesting in themselves, regardless of whether they were pornography or not.”
Interesting movies that didn’t shy away from the fact that they were sexually explicit I guess?
“Yeah, exactly, and the filmmakers weren’t making the films for a profit, they were making them because they wanted to make them, and also they were themselves unafraid to be associated with their work. Whereas in the straight pornography world I think it’s kind of the opposite. Anyone making straight pornography was doing it to make a buck. Yes, they might be doing interesting films too, but at the end of the day they’re still interested in making money. Whereas I think a lot of the gay pornographers of the time when they actually made money they were kind of surprised and shocked in the early days! That’s what interests me about it, the fact that they were making these films because they were passionate about them.”
And those are some of the things that we see play out in Goodbye Seventies, but was there anything in particular that sparked your imagination when it came to writing the screenplay?
“Well, I mean in a lot of ways it’s a culmination of my work from the very beginning. My very first short film, V is for Violet, was in some ways similar because it was about pornography through the decades. I feel like I’ve actually been doing research for this film for about 30 years. So, in a lot of ways all of my films have led up to this one.”
Tell us about casting the film, what was your approach?
“As far as doing a period film I didn’t want to fall into the trap of having everyone look like they were from the 70s because not everyone in the 70s looked like they were from the 70s, you know what I mean?! So, I did a broad casting call and I saw a lot of different people and I just cast who thought would be good for each part. Then I adjusted some things and even rewrote some stuff based on who I cast. Chris Rehman who plays Bradford, the writer and director in the film, I had worked with before on my movie Squirrels, and so I thought of him because he’s a dancer, and he also does drag performances and other kinds of performance art. He’s from a small town in the Midwest and he just had a lot of the characteristics of the character. Then Ken Kaissar plays Bradford’s best friend Vinny. He just had this enthusiasm and this kind of slyness to him that I thought would be perfect for that character, but also a real heart to him, and Vinny’s really the heart and conscience of film.”
“Justin Ivan Brown plays Horse, one of the stars on the films Bradford’s making. Immediately, the second that I met Justin I thought, that’s Horse, he’s perfect for it! And he was perfect for it. Ashlie Burgun plays Beth, a budding makeup artist and part of their filmmaking family. That role was actually really hard to cast and I saw a lot of different people and nobody really had the right tone, but then Ashlie came in and instantly I could tell that she understood who Beth was. Fatima Lewis plays Melody, a permanent fixture at the Times Square theater where Bradford’s films play. That was another role that was hard to cast, but Fatima just got it and she also brought something extra to the character, there was an unexpected shyness and quietness that I wasn’t thinking about for Melody that really opened up my mind to something different. I’m really happy with what she brought to the film. Andrew Cawley plays Matt, one of the porn performers in Bradford’s films and he’s actually the character that goes through the biggest transformation. Andrew was fantastic, really great to work with and he was just ready and willing to do anything and just go with it.”
“New York actress Marie Smalley plays Esta, and not only is she Vinny’s mom but she’s also the surrogate mom of everyone. When Marie came in she really understood the time period, because she lived through the 1970s, and she understood the character really well too and brought this sort of earthy quality to it, but also a sense that she’d been around the block, a protective sort of hard edge that was needed and helped elevate the character. Julie Chapin plays Lexxy, the owner of the porn theater in the movie. She’s based on a real woman who owned a bunch of porn theaters in New York in the 70s. She’s a really interesting character and you could make a movie just about her. Julie came in to the casting room and immediately she got it. She understood the character completely and she was a lot of fun to work with and always really willing to go the extra mile. Everyone in the movie becomes a family so I needed there to be that dynamic between all the actors, so it was a bit of a puzzle and it was difficult to get everyone together, but I was really happy when I did because they really did feel like a family and I think that comes across.”
You’ve also got some legendary downtown figures in the film haven’t you.
“There are also a few people in the cast that I’ve known for a long time like Jack Waters who I met back when I first moved to New York in the late 80s. I’m a big fan of his work so I definitely wanted him to be in it. Hucklefaery, a prominent Radical Faerie and Sister of Perpetual Indulgence, I’ve also known for a while and I knew he’d be great. Also the legendary New York drag queen Flotilla Debarge is in it. I’ve been an admirer of Flotilla’s for a long time and the character that she plays is inspired by the underground cable access TV of the 80s.”
You mentioned that family dynamic that you wanted to create, was there anything that you think helped the cast to bond, aside from just being on set and making the film?
“Well, I definitely wanted to shoot all the scenes set in the porn theater first partly for that reason. We found this great movie theater in Providence, Rhode Island, the Avon cinema, which had actually been a porn theater for a while back in 70s. It’s impossible to find a theater like that in New York City, because they’ve all been renovated, but the Avon still looks like a theater from the 70s. So I had most of the cast come to Providence for about a week and that was a really good bonding experience because we all stayed in a hotel together, we’d rehearse and go for meals and go out dancing at night. That really helped create a sense of family on and off screen I think.”
Obviously most of the characters are involved in making gay porn films but the film itself isn’t sexually explicit, how intentional was that?
“It was always my intention that Goodbye Seventies would be about the making of the films and this family that develops, so I didn’t want it to be explicit at all. Ultimately the explicit sex that they’re filming isn’t the important thing, the important thing is that they made the films and that they were successful. I’m certainly not someone who shies away from explicit material, but for Goodbye Seventies I wanted it be about the filmmaking and the characters rather than the sex.”
Let’s talk about your guiding principles for creating that 70s look in terms of production design, costumes and the cinematography.
“Going back to the very first short film that I made just over 30 years ago, V is for Violet, that was a period piece and I’ve always been sort of a cultural anthropologist and really interested in different time periods; what people wore, how they thought and talked, what kind of films they watched and what the architecture was like. That’s always been something that’s really fascinated me and I love doing the research. It was a lot of fun working with the younger actors who hadn’t lived through the period, getting them to understand how to talk, hold themselves, how to wear their costumes and how to interact with other people. Essentially how a lot was different back then. I think the problem with a lot of period films is they tend to focus on the period in a way that can end up feeling like a costume party, but really in the 70s people were still wearing clothes from the 60s and the 50s and other time periods sort of have influences over them as well. So I didn’t want everyone to have long hair and moustaches and wear bellbottoms and have polyester shirts because that’s not what people looked like in the 70s.”
“When it came to the cinematography, I’ve always been a big fan of star filters, and that’s something that was popular in the 70s, so it was a good excuse to pull out a star filter. People don’t really use them anymore, but I still use them quite a bit anyway. I didn’t want to do a lot of zooming, because I think that’s become sort of a parody of the 70s. With the lighting I wanted it to reflect what the 70s felt like, not necessarily what movies from the 70s were like. Originally, I wanted to shoot the whole thing on Super 8 film and I was actually in contact with Kodak about a new Super 8 camera they were developing. I was going to be one of the people who got to test it, but the camera never ended up getting made. So in the end I decided to shoot all of the movie-within-a-movie stuff on Super 8 film and then everything else digitally, but with the same aspect ratio as Super 8 film. So that was my artistic decision, but I also wanted it to look and feel sort of like a documentary as well, as if a lot of it was found footage. The whole film is structured as two interviews one in 2000 and one in the early 80s about what happened back in the 70s, so that was my framework that I built off. When it came to the costumes and the props it was a lot of fun finding old phones and clothes, and props; things like a vintage Crisco can! And we found this great vintage fashion collector in Maine who really helped us out. And then it was fun finding things like unopened underwear, which was pretty great because even if you never see them on screen, for an actor there’s nothing like wearing 70s underwear and 70 socks! Small details like that help you get into character I think.”
And also there’s some archive footage from the 1970s?
“Yes, Jack Fritscher was kind enough to let me use some footage that he shot on super 8 in 1970, which was fantastic. I also used some footage from my own super 8 films as well. That really helped sort of set the tone for the period I think.”
And although you weren’t very old in the 70s, you’re recreating a time period that you actually lived through and have a personal connection to rather than just a remote idea of what it was like purely through research.
“Yes, exactly, I do think that helps a lot. I’m a child of the 70s so it’s a time period that’s very vivid to me. I can remember my aunts and uncles, and my parents at that time. And I think the period is fascinating because this sexual revolution is going on and gay liberation, but at the same time there’s a naiveté. It’s easy to say, ‘oh, they were so naive back then’, because then AIDS happened, the 80s happened and everything changed. But I think even at that time there was a sense of, you know, we’re living on borrowed time, this isn’t gonna last, so let’s just enjoy it while we can. That is really interesting to me, that there was this sort of naiveté, but also the self-awareness. There was freedom, but it’s a fleeting freedom, it’s also a kind of irresponsible freedom because there was a lot of negative things that happened then too. So the film is partly about that, and it’s also about how AIDS changed everything and drugs changed everything and how money changed everything. In the porn industry, and in the culture as a whole really.”
Finally, what’s your favourite LGBTQ+ either film, TV series, play, book, musical, piece of music or artwork? Or it could be a person. Someone or something that’s had an impact on you and resonated with you throughout the years.
“I would have to say William Friedkin’s Cruising. I remember when it came out in 1980. It shows so much of New York from the end of the 70s; the leather scene, and leather men, and just the city’s gay scene in general at that time. It really is a time capsule. I mean, you can hate it for the plot or because of its political incorrectness, but if you look at it as a time capsule of that period it’s fascinating. And, I’d have to add Wakefield Poole’s movies as well because Boys in the Sand and Bijou are both works of art and capture that time period and that sort of innocence that’s lost.”
By James Kleinmann
Todd Verow’s Goodbye Seventies will have its world premiere at Out on Film Atlanta’s LGBTQ Film Festival on Monday September 28th 2020 followed by a cast and filmmaker Q&A. For more information and to purchase tickets head to Out on Film’s official website. The European premiere will be the closing night of the 15th Pornfilmfestival Berlin on Sunday 25th October 2020, with tickets going on sale October 1st.