By Tom Ue.
Blake Mawson is an actor and writer, known for his performances in Freddy vs. Jason (2003) and Poison Ivy: The Secret Society (2008). His short film “PYOTR495” earned the Best Emerging Artist Award at the Inside Out LGBT Film Festival. Set in Russia, in 2014, the horror film follows Pyotr (Alex Ozerov), who goes out on a date only to find himself baited into a dangerous situation. We discuss Blake’s research for the film, his views on the horror, and how the cast and crew tackled its challenging content.
Congratulations on “PYOTR495”! Although this is your first film, you have acted both on TV and in films. Did your acting experiences inform the kind of film that you want to make? How so?
Thank you. I think it’s incredible that an LGBT Festival like Inside Out would curate a genre section which would allow them to show films that tell stories in darker and more nonconventional ways. We feel very lucky to have been a part of that program.
And yes – I do feel that my time acting in film only helped to fuel my love for genre film. Early on, I was fortunate enough to witness some very talented filmmakers bring to life their horror and sci-fi visions in a big way. I was shown that those concepts could be executed with an underlying message (and sometimes without much of one at all) and it definitely left a lasting impression on me. I was also taken by how those films allow a filmmaker to deliver an expression beyond reality, and in a very vibrant and fantastical way.
You had said in an interview with Calla Camero that the film was written in January 2014, following a succession of attacks and abductions against the LGBTQ community. Tell us about your research for the film.
I, like so many others, was (and still am) extremely disturbed and frustrated having seen the many videos posted online of these targeted anti-LGBT attacks taking place in Russia, and was initially interested in finding out what motivated the abductions. I began by familiarizing myself with the different vigilante groups, and I wanted to understand the logic behind them targeting LGBTQ people, and how Russia’s newly-enacted LGBT Propaganda Law had aided them in carrying out the abductions without having to face any repercussions.
I spoke with both LGBTQ and straight-identifying Russians, and I found that their perspectives were divided at times. Surprisingly, some straight Russians I spoke to actually told me that homophobia wasn’t really an issue at all within Russia, and that the rest of the world gives Putin a hard time and a bad name, though many of the LGBTQ Russians I spoke to had experienced discrimination or had friends who had upsetting or similar experiences.
Have your views changed through the process of making this film? How so?
No, I think my views are really based within the idea that all people, regardless of their race, gender or sexual orientation, should be treated as equal. I continue to take issue with any place, person, or movement that strips people of equal rights and ignites unnecessary fear-mongering or oppress minorities. It’s important to note that this type of behavior isn’t just relative or finger-pointy towards Russia either – this message applies to our society as a whole, on a global scale.
How did you know when the film is ready?
I suppose it’s ready when I can look at the film as a whole and see that it touches on the key things I had hoped to get across to audiences while creating it. Only then would I feel like the world is really ready to see it!
“PYOTR495’s” phenomenal success illustrates how it resonates with a lot of viewers. Indeed, the film also speaks to some of dangers of Internet dating in general. Was this intentional?
While I wouldn’t say that ‘the dangers of internet dating’ was really at the forefront of the message I was trying to convey within this film, there is no denying that the scenario that plays out for Pyotr and for other targeted gay men in Russia would warn that you should always be careful when visiting a stranger’s home. It’s obviously much safer in particular cities than in others, even in the US, but you really never know who you’re getting into bed with, which is why you should always be safe (in every sense of the word!).
Let’s talk more about the story. The film is self-consciously in the horror genre: it even opens with Pyotr watching one. What attracts you to the genre?
There are many reasons, and so many different eras and films that I love for their different qualities. Everything down to their scores or their ability to send a message in a different way. Growing up, I definitely related to many of the characters. The Elephant Man, Dr Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, The Hunchback of Notre Dame – all of these films featured characters who were feared because of what made them different, and as a LGBTQ person, I think at some-point within your life you can definitely relate to feeling like that. There’s also the part of me that loves the camp aspect of Vincent Price, Elvira & Linnea Quigley, but that’s a whole other story!
The film stars the wonderfully talented Alex Ozerov, who is now best known for his work in Natasha (2015). Tell us about the casting.
Alex was introduced to me via a producer, Lyvia Cohen, with whom I was working during the time of our application process for the film’s funding. We met at a café: he was two years younger than he is now, and had just starred in his first feature, Blackbird, as a young juvenile delinquent, and from that one performance and upon meeting him, I instantly knew that he had that duality and fire within him that it would take to portray Pyotr in the film. He was the most affable, open, motivated and focused guy, and I instantly knew I wanted to cast him.
The violence in the film is quite over the top. Was this intended?
Yes. I wanted the audience to leave and ask themselves, “How sensationalized was this?” – only to discover that details of what happens to Pyotr at the hands of his abductors are actually very accurate representations of the type of documented, ritualistic violence and torture that LGBTQ people there have faced. I hope that, in doing that, it could possibly open up a conversation about LGBTQ rights in a place or genre festival where you may not normally be so likely to consider this type of thing.
Despite Pyotr’s ability to defend himself later on, we do find him in a state of immense vulnerability. How did the cast and crew handle this?
Most of our crew and all of our cast were aware of the subject matter and were very sensitive to the type of focus that Alex was going to need on set to maintain while portraying these moments so vulnerably. Our crew made preparations to have a closed set for those moments for which we only got one shot at getting and as you will see when you watch the film, there were things that could only be done once.
Sound mixing plays a major role in the film: the disco music is juxtaposed with the sound of thunder and heart thumping. Tell us about your decisions there.
Sound design and score has always been a huge part of the successful horror experience for me as an audience member. We wanted to incorporate many of the classic tropes of the genre for “PYOTR495” purposefully, which is why you find thunder setting the tone in certain moments, the heartbeat, and so on.
For our original score, I worked closely with Berlin Techno producer Konrad Black to bring forward the tension within those darker moments, and in the case of the disco track that plays at Pyotr’s liaison’s lavish upscale apartment, I asked Konrad to create something that could truly come from the golden days of disco – something that the vigilantes would play to keep up their facade and make the gay men they lure there feel at ease within their surroundings, so that they never expect what’s coming. I’m very pleased with how it turned out.
What is next for the film? Would you develop it into a feature?
“PYOTR495” is heading down to Frameline40 next in San Francisco, and plays at the legendary Roxie Theatre on June 24th, and then it will screen as part of LA’s Outfest on July 9th at the Harmony Gold Theatre. We have some huge, exciting, horror-related festival announcements very soon, so please keep an eye out for upcoming dates via our Facebook page.
Yes, I would absolutely be open to exploring Pyotr’s story as a feature. He has friends, a life, and a whole world outside our evening within the short: there just wasn’t time to tell the whole story!
What is next for you?
Aside from screening the film in festivals globally this year, I’ll continue to develop a number of screenplays and concepts that I’ve been working on, and with any luck, I’ll meet some folks along the way who want to help see some of it come to life!
Tom Ue was educated at Linacre College, University of Oxford, and at University College London, where he has worked from 2011 to 2016. His PhD examined Shakespeare’s influence on the writing of George Gissing. Ue was a Visiting Scholar at Yale University and at the University of Toronto at Scarborough and the 2011 Cameron Hollyer Memorial Lecturer, and he has held an Everett Helm Visiting Fellowship. He has published widely on Gissing, Conan Doyle, E. W. Hornung, and their contemporaries. Ue is the Frederick Banting Postdoctoral Fellow in the Department of English at the University of Toronto at Scarborough.