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Donkey Punch - Olly Blackburn interview

Olly Blackburn

Interview by Rob Carnevale

OLLY Blackburn, the director of Donkey Punch, talks about the surprising ease of getting it through the censors, triumphing against adversity while filming and why he can’t wait to see it with an audience…

Q. Given its name and subject matter was it a tricky film to get made?
Olly Blackburn: Yeah it was, it’s not exactly under the radar. But the producers never questioned it. They all completely got the type of film we were trying to make, which was a very provocative, intense thriller that was also grounded in a reality that people in the audience of that age could relate to. So, that side of things wasn’t tricky at all. They thought it was a worthwhile film to make. But certainly in terms of the filming, we had a very long casting process because a big part of this was finding the right people – and by that I mean not just people who were right for the roles, but actors who were willing to do them. There were some who found it a bit too much. So, it had to be a very careful process. Ironically, financing it was fine because Warp X films are all pre-financed. So, whereas you would have thought that the UK Film Council would have been hard to convince, because they’re a partner of Warp X they had already agreed to green-light the film.

Q. How about the censors? Did you have to make any cuts?
Olly Blackburn: Amazingly enough, no. Having said that, it may be a different story in America because they’re more prudish and the full frontal nudity may be an issue there. Here, though, it passed through the censors very, very easily. But I think what they do here is they look at the generality of the material and the film is clearly not condoning or glorifying violence, or anything like that. It’s not torture porn. It doesn’t enjoy the torture or glorify.

Q. You’ve mentioned before in interviews that you were interesting in pushing the genre. Do you think you achieved that?
Olly Blackburn: Well, that’s not really for me to say…

Q. But in light of what you just said about the censors and being surprised, do you think you could have pushed it further? Or are you happy with the finished version?
Olly Blackburn: Personally, I’m very happy with the film I’ve made. I didn’t feel like I got forced to do anything I didn’t want to do. But the point isn’t to make a film that’s going to freak out the censors and become an X [rating]. It’s got to be true to what you want to do. The important thing was everything in the film is shocking but it’s there for a reason. The sex scenes are integral to the story and we didn’t pull that stuff out of thin air. It’s already out there – it’s out there in the culture, in news stories, in urban legends. I would hope people don’t call it gratuitous.

Q. In that regard, do you think that it paints quite a bleak picture of youth culture and by that I mean heavy drinking, drug taking, wilful participation in orgies and the like? Do you think it’s designed to provoke the question why this is so appealing in the first place, as well as highlighting the dangers that come with it?
Olly Blackburn: I’m not sure. The first part of the film is meant to be very uplifting and funny. I wanted to replicate the experience of being young, going on holiday with your mates and meeting funny, charming strangers and creating connections and really living… listening to music, taking drugs and enjoying yourself. Until the sex scene takes its downward spiral, it’s not meant to be a judgmental scene. These people are in a unique situation where it feels like they’re away from the rules and restrictions of home life… that they can do these things without having to worry about the repercussions. Where it goes wrong is in the kind of fucked relationship between these two particular guys, as one of them isn’t very mature sexually and doesn’t really understand what it is he’s doing.

Q. You recently got to interview one of your heroes, Nic Roeg, who told you to take each disaster that comes with filmmaking as a blessing. I gather you had a few mini-disasters while filming Donkey Punch, so did you take his advice?
Olly Blackburn: Yeah, some of the cast suffered hypothermia and we were filming on water and in the tight confines of a boat. But you have to stay positive. Filmmaking is organised chaos… even more so when you’re in an uncontrollable environment like the ocean. You have to roll with the punches and take what comes. We were shooting in just 24 days and there was no wriggle room or ability to say: “Let’s wrap today and get it tomorrow.” We had to shoot five or six pages a day or not have a film. But you feed off that energy.

I’d say it to the actors a lot if they were having difficulty with a scene or something they had to do. I’d say: “Use the frustration to power yourself and your character; your character is in a bad situation, they’re not happy, so use that frustration.” You really have to think on your feet and be prepared to throw your plans away. If the boat’s about to capsize, it starts to rain, or the tide changes [as happened at various stages], you can’t just stand there and complain; you just fucking move on and make sure that you have a plan B, C or even Z if necessary.

Q. In that sense, I guess you must have learned so much more from making your first feature film?
Olly Blackburn: Absolutely. But I’ve directed a fair amount of stuff in the past, such as music videos, commercials and short films and I believe that the best way to learn in this industry – I mean, you can go to film school and that’s good – but ultimately, the only way you’re ever going to learn is through raw experience.

Q. You did actually go to film school in New York, didn’t you? How was that?
Olly Blackburn: I trained at graduate school at New York University. I got a full work scholarship to go there and it was with people with a bit more experience, who’d done a few things already. I love New York films, the work of Martin Scorsese, Spike Lee and Woody Allen. The whole New York indie style of filmmaking inspired me when I was younger. So, it was amazing to be making films in that environment. In fact, Spike Lee had gone there five years before me. But they teach a very specific type of filmmaking there – it’s very indie and self-reliant. They teach you to write, direct produce, edit, record sound… everything and you kind of have to learn on your feet. It’s great training because filmmaking is about being sharp on your feet.

Q. Which other filmmakers inspired you?
Olly Blackburn: Oh, lots and lots of people. But I suppose my mega heroes are the films of Michael Powell and Sam Peckinpah. I would have loved to have looked over their shoulder. I’m a bit of a cinephile. I love cinema. It’s an amazing medium. I can go and watch anything from very, very arty films to huge Hollywood spectaculars and everything in between.

Q. Given the positive response to Donkey Punch by some critics, have you noticed whether it’s got easier for you to make films?
Olly Blackburn: Well, I haven’t made my next one yet so let’s see how easy it is to make [laughs]. But people are taking my calls. I’ve been around for 10 years, so it’s good to have been on both sides of the coin. Having had a few years when it was tougher, it makes it all the more sweeter when you finally do get one through. But for me, the big thing is seeing how audiences will respond to the film. The whole point was to make something that delivers the excitement and intensity of those really great Hollywood genre films, but that would also appeal to British people. And that’s the big test… whether Donkey Punch will.

Q. Will you be sneaking into the back of any cinemas on opening weekend?
Olly Blackburn: Definitely… when you make a film like this – which relies on suspense and shock and action – it’s all about creating a direct connection with the audience. When we showed the film at the Sundance Film Festival, American audiences were screaming and shouting and yelling at the screen. And that was brilliant because that, for me, is what’s great about cinema.

Q. Are you working on a follow-up project at the moment?
Olly Blackburn: All I can say is that I’m actually right now completing the script. It’s on my computer screen in front of me. It’ll be a genre film but very, very different to Donkey Punch. Although like Donkey Punch, it’s going to break a few rules.

Read our review of Donkey Punch