Wednesday, June 16, 2010

Queer Cinema: An Interview with David Briggs

In honor of Buttplug Awareness Month (AKA Pride Month) I'm luridly eyeing the hallmarks of Queer Cinema. Today: A grown man who plays with dolls!

David Briggs is the director of yesterday's entry Karen Black Like Me. I interviewed him a couple years ago for (now defunct) horror movie website Surfin' Dead. I'm reprinting that conversation here.

When Karen Black Like Me first came out, how was it received?

Okay, well since you asked, here's the story. I made the film as part of my course work while in NYU's Graduate Film Program. It was the first full-length short I made before moving on and making my final "thesis" film there.

Surprisingly, Karen Black Like Me was not your typical NYU Graduate School film. At my screening for my Faculty review, they shut off the projector before it was over (it wasn't supposed to be longer than 12 minutes), and then proceeded to trash it, basically saying that it "didn't succeed". It was actually kind of devastating, since they'd all supported me through the development, shooting, and dailies screenings. So when they said it ultimately didn't work, I was a little daunted.

Luckily, the next day my entire class had organized a marathon screening of all of our films for our friends, casts, crews, and each other. The place was packed. Well, KBLM (as I like to call it) tore the roof of the place; the response was overwhelming. So I felt encouraged and vindicated.

The film had its official public premiere at Newfest, New York City's gay and lesbian film festival, and from there went on to play in nearly every major gay and lesbian film festival throughout the world. Shortly after, First Run Features acquired the rights and released it theatrically in their shorts collection, Boys in Love 2, where it is still available on video. First Run later released it in their DVD collection Best of Boys in Love.

To my knowledge, mine was the only film made that year at NYU that ever received a THEATRICAL release, so the faculty can kiss my ass. Needless to say it's not one of the achievements that ever got any attention in the NYU alumni newsletters. But I'm not bitter.

Actually I even benefited from some of the negative criticism I got from the NYU faculty. Originally I had "voiced" the dildo King Dong in a comic, goofy way; it came off more like a hungry, slobbering, playful St. Bernard. Someone on the faculty thought the monster should have a more frightening sound, so I brought the fantastic character actor Reed Birney back into the studio and re-invented King Dong's "performance"! So I always listen to negative criticism, sometimes it can be useful, even at its nastiest.

I've been thrilled by the response to the film, and am really happy it continues to have a following, however small. I had the opportunity to attend some really fun screenings during it's festival run, and I took my mom to the theatrical run in New York at Cinema Village (she loved it). And of course I was honored and flattered that you included it on your site!

I promise all my answers won't be this long.

If there were a message in Karen Black Like Me, what would it be?

Be yourself. Truly.

And if a big dick is fully engorged, don't remove the cock ring.

Is it hard finding financing for a movie about a giant, killer dildo?

Well, since I paid for it myself with student loans and credit cards, the answer is no.

Why do you think Trilogy of Terror had such an effect on people?

For me, and, as I discovered, for other gay men of my generation, it was one of those films that scared the pants off me when I saw it on TV as a kid, then made me laugh hysterically when I got older; the perfect camp horror film. The 3-story format was very satisfying to me, being a big fan of shows like The Twilight Zone and Night Gallery, and the classic "Amelia" killer doll episode is definitely the first film I can remember that employed that Puppet POV shot. Those shots from the monster's perspective along the floor were very frightening to me.

So it combined a lot of great elements that a lot of horror-obsessed gay kids find appealing: puppets, dolls, and of course, Karen Black. She's in top form here, so beautifully over-the-top, yet she plays it with ultimate conviction. It's that career turn that gay fans have a particular affection for: star-actress-diva-turned-scream-queen. She was carrying on in the great tradition created by gay icons like Bette Davis and Joan Crawford.

Of course you don't have to be gay to love Trilogy of Terror (or hopefully my film either!), but I did discover that there was definitely a queer connection with it.

Do you know if Karen Black has seen your film?

To this day I don't know if she's ever actually seen it. I would think someone's made her aware of it by now (I finished it in '97), but I really don't know. I would hope she'd have a sense of humor about it, though she may not care for the shot where the dildo flies through the air and smashes into her picture on the wall. But it was meant as a loving tribute!!! I'm a huge fan of hers. She was really disturbing in Rob Zombies's film House of 1000 Corpses. She's still got it!!!!

I understand Karen Black Like Me was originally conceived with a much different ending. Care to share that?

Fans of Trilogy of Terror will of course remember the final image of Karen Black as Amelia, transformed and possessed, rocking on her haunches, wielding a huge knife and grinning that horrific smile. But what people forget is that she's waiting for her oppressive mother to come over. She's going to murder her mother!!!!

Well, in my original script, I was slavishly devoted to the source, so in my original ending, Emil, now transformed and possessing a huge schlong, was waiting for his mother to return… he was waiting to fuck his mother. And presumably give her what she'd really been craving. Not TOO Freudian!!!!

At the time I was working as playwright Edward Albee's personal assistant; he read my script and gave me a valuable piece of advice. Basically he told me that poor repressed Emil had gone through enough throughout the piece, and his transformation should be more celebratory; he should be rewarded. I loved that, because ultimately I was really just using Trilogy of Terror as a springboard for a little satire on the gay closet. So it only seemed fair to let Emil have a good time once he finally "comes out".

Where is King Dong now?

There are many King Dongs, all in storage. They had different duties; one could "shoot", one could turn, move around, and bend sideways (we had a great puppeteer), one was battery-operated (the wriggly one in the towel when Emil says "Die motherfucker!!!"), and one was built solely for the flying-through-the-air shot. The original (with which the mold was created) was returned to its owner with a happy face painted on its head. Oh, and there's one still under my bed. Last time I checked.

The Trey Billings Show is very different from Karen Black Like Me. Why such a departure for your second film?

The Trey Billings Show was my NYU Thesis film. A lot of the legitimate criticism I received on Karen Black Like Me is that it has a stagy, "presentational" feel to it. I had directed a lot of theatre before switching to film, so for my next film, I really wanted to try to break away from those influences and take what I'd learned about filmmaking and "break out of the box", so to speak. I was determined to try to create a piece of queer camp that was more "film-ic", something that could only exist in the film medium. I was going for a kind of hyper-reality. I'm really proud of how it turned out, I like to think I succeeded.

One thing I didn't realize while watching The Trey Billings Show was that the two leads were actually played by the same actor. Is that something most people don't notice, or am I just dense?

No, you're not dense. Many people have had the same experience, we're actually really flattered by that. I think David Drake is amazing as both Trey and Dodie, and in all his other little parts as well; he's another brilliant character actor. And Reed Birney, the voice of King Dong, appears as Mr. Hiney. I think all the performances are comic gems.

By the way, the Tranny Tramps in Diapers commercial really did freak me out. This isn't a question, I am just letting you know.

It was meant to! I really hope fans of local cable access will check out The Trey Billings Show. (And thank you for featuring the DVD it's on, Queer as F**k, on your site!) My inspiration for that commercial came from watching a LOT of late-night Manhattan cable access; there were a couple of queens who had similar chat shows to Trey, and their sponsors were always porn-phone lines. So that's where that came from.

By the way, that's me as the red-head. But you knew that.

Who was the inspiration for Dodie?

Primarily Lucille Ball, with others thrown in. We wanted to parody the trajectory of many of the female TV and film stars from her period. But we (me and my co-conceivers, David Drake and Carl Capotorto – Little Paulie on The Sopranos) were definitely fascinated by how Lucy had turned into a cigarette-voiced, unfunny, ornery parody of herself by the end of her career.

Jeffrey's Hollywood Screen Trick can be read as a satire of the gay club scene, with all the emphasis on "perfect" bodies and anonymous sex. Is it easier to make a serious point by wrapping it in a silly medium?

Absolutely. I like to think of my type of humor as "humane satire"; I love people, I just hate how most of them think and behave.

All of your films toy with gay stereotypes in one sense of another. Was that intentional or just the byproduct of being smart-assed and gay?

Probably a little bit of both. In my creative work I like to address repression and low self-esteem, as well as vanity, self-absorption and narcissism. So gay people are perfect targets.

Does Queer as Folk suck?

I can't honestly say. I only watched a few episodes in the beginning, and it struck me as being a pretty cheesy soap opera, and certainly not representative of any "gay lifestyle" that I or any of my friends were living. I like The L Word a lot though. Those bitches are hot.

Where did you get those muscled dolls? They sure don't look like any Ken I know.

They're all "Billy" dolls, a gay 90's phenomenon; I don't think they make them anymore. They came with different outfits, and the Hispanic version was named "Carlos" and the African-American was named "Tyson."

Except for Jeffrey; I think he was some kind of G.I. Joe type thing. I loved that he had a miserable self-body-image as compared to the Billy dolls, because of course he's a little hottie in his own right.

Do you find it easier to write for dolls as opposed to live actors?

No! I love writing for and working with real human beings. Actors are some of the most fascinating people walking the planet, so I love working with them whenever I can.

I did do the sound design, however, for Jeffrey's Hollywood Screen Trick, and I will say that sound editing for animation is a lot more fun than for real life. I was particularly proud of creating the cat's "performance" in that film.

So, what are you doing these days?

I'm very busy and very happy. I'm part of a two-man musical collaboration called "Confirmed Bachelor" – think Pet Shop Boys meets Magnetic Fields; we should have our first EP of original songs coming out soon. My partner is Quentin Chiappetta, the very talented guy who composed the music for both my short films, KBLM and Trey. Our website is

Aside from that, I make a living as a professional sound editor; you'll find my name in the credits of cool indies like You Can Count on Me, Hysterical Blindness, Saving Face, and the upcoming Teeth, an indie horror flick that you are going to LOVE! It's about a teenage virgin who soon discovers she has teeth in her you-know-what. Lots of dismembered members.

Any plans to direct a full length feature?

Yes, I've got a couple very gay-themed screenplays under my belt that I would love to bring to life. I'm workin' on it. The only thing that compares to the feeling I get when directing and making a film is the feeling I get when my husband shoves King Dong up my hole. While dressed as a Tranny Tramp. Both of us.

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