Guest Post: Filming Into the Mirror

By Lukas Kendall and Robert Nathan

‘Lucky Bastard’ is an NC-17 found-footage “porn thriller” inspired by adult websites that match regular guys with porn stars for sex. Can you believe such sites exist? (They do—we were shocked!) We wrote and executive produced (Robert directed) a “what if” scenario taking the premise to its brutal and logical extreme: when one “average Joe” fails to perform and is humiliated on camera, he goes on a murderous rampage in which he repurposes the porn site’s documentary cameras into weapons to film his revenge.

Lucky-Bastard-PosterWe had specific reasons for making a movie about the making of a documentary—the hijacked footage of which becomes the movie itself. (The staff of the website appears to be shooting the story to put it online.) On one level Lucky Bastard asks the audience to find common humanity with people who make porn for a living. But a deeper subtext is about created “reality”—specifically so-called “reality television”: American Idol, The Biggest Loser, Blind Date  and their wildly popular, yet to us profoundly disturbing, cousins. To one degree or another these shows package and merchandise the shame and humiliation of regular people. We made, superficially, an exploitation film. But for us, Lucky Bastard is an art film about the television camera exploiting willing but often uninformed victims.

Far loftier films than ours have been set against the backdrop of making a film; Truffaut’s Day for Night comes to mind. But in staking out “reality television” as our territory, we found what seemed the perfect form for nailing the Zeitgeist without calling attention to what we were doing. We took care to script moments where the characters make asides to the camera—“don’t film me,” “shoot everything,” “I can’t use any of this.” Other times they flub, comment on, or outright rebel against their “lines” or “roles” in the “reality performance”—for example, quitting before being talked back into participating. We wanted the audience to become suspicious of anything that pretends to depict “reality.”

For example, in one scene “Dave” (Jay Paulson)—the average guy who will eventually flip out—arrives wearing a blue T-shirt with a “pixelated” center (blurred out in post-production, as we’ve all seen). Mike, the website proprietor, starts to “perform” the introduction of Dave for the audience, then notices the shirt: “You can’t wear a Dodgers T-shirt! Major league baseball will sue our asses off!” Dave goes away and returns moments later, having changed his shirt. They do the “introduction” again. Which is to say, they enact a “reality” recreated from a reality that was false in the first place.

Our cast found the found-footage or mockumentary format uniquely challenging. Film actors are taught to ignore the camera. We asked them to do the opposite. We were awed as Don McManus, playing Mike, masterfully glanced into the camera in the midst of complicated dialogue and blocking; his character is always trying to move the action forward and “emcee” the proceedings. His subtle nods and eye-rolls reinforce this at the most opportune moments.

All of our actors were determined to create fully realized people. Often their characters are consciously “performing” for the camera. At other times they’re swept up in a behind-the-scenes argument and forget the camera is there. Then they’re behaving as “themselves”—until they remember they are being filmed and try to excuse their “unscripted” behavior.

So when is the character “himself” or “herself”? Is the staged “self” performing for the cameras the real “self”? Our actors were so good that they either consciously devised or instinctively knew how to delineate this. In some cases it required careful analysis not only of a character’s motivations (which is done for any role), but also how that character “stages” his or her idealized self. At one moment Betsy Rue, the resourceful actress playing Ashley-the-porn-star, stares into a mirror. The camera behind her, which is visible in the mirror, depicts three realities at once: the real one of Betsy Rue, the actress; the “reel” one of her character, Ashley, acting a role she’s been hired to portray; and the “real” one of her Ashley character struggling with her own emotions.

To confuse things further, the actors appear to be making the movie, sometimes cross-shooting each other with a camera facing a camera—when of course every shot (with a few exceptions) was made by our brilliant cinematographer, Clay Westervelt. The actors’ cameras aren’t really shooting anything.

Our ultimate point was to deconstruct “reality” as something that we all stage—mostly to our advantage. At one point, Mike tells Dave, who’s starting to chafe under the website’s demeaning rituals, “Pretend you’re an actor, okay? You’re playing this guy from Oxnard and he looks like you and he sounds like you…but he’s not you. He’s a character.” This line was inspired by a friend of Lukas’s who years ago had a job conducting telephone surveys. A naturally cheerful person, he rationalized his role by becoming an “actor” whose “line” was, “Would you like to take a survey?” and the recipient’s—the other “actor’s”—line was, “No, fuck off.”

The anecdote struck us as particularly evocative of modern (or postmodern) life, especially on social media. Anybody who has a Facebook page knows that you present a profile with your name, photos and opinions. But is it really you? Or is it a “character” that you would like the world to see as the “real” you?

We thought we made this point in a dynamic and original way. Many have commented that it is part of the film’s appeal. Yet to our surprise some critics and viewers seemed oblivious of it. Others were so hostile to the film that they didn’t so much review it as attempt to nullify it. We can only assume that for some people the results of making a modern-day “film-within-a-film” are either too obvious or hit too close to home.

Lukas Kendall is the founder of Film Score Monthly. Robert Nathan is a Peabody Award-winning and Emmy-nominated television writer-producer who has been on the staffs of many acclaimed television series, including ER and the three series in the Law & Order franchise. Lucky Bastard is distributed by CAVU Pictures. It opened New York on February 14th and in Los Angeles on March 7th, with additional cities throughout the spring.

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