Interview: Jake Yuzna On “Open”

Jake Yuzna, the nephew of horror film director and producer Brian Yuzna, was born 1982 in Minneapolis and today works and lives in New York. I already mentioned his debut movie “Open” in my little tribute to Genesis and Lady Jaye Bryer P Orridge – the film premiered at this year’s Berlinale and won the special award of the “Teddy” section. “Open” could be called an “inner-city road movie”, it portrays two emerging love affairs of people that all don’t really fall into the frame of traditional categories of sex and gender (click here for the Berlinale info sheet). The great thing about the movie (and at the same time the reason why I asked Yuzna right after seing the film if he would give me an interview) is that it is not a “problem film”, but rather the opposite. The athmosphere reminded me a bit of the more abstract movies of Gus van Sant.
Here’s the interview with Jake, I had to shorten it up a bit. I interviewed him in the lobby of a library next to Berlin’s Potsdamer Platz.

“Open” is a very intimate film, which I think has especially to do with the fact that the characters are played by non-professionals. Where did you find these people, did you already know them personally?

The original concept of the script was that there were going to be five roles, a trans man, a trans woman, a biological gender person and a pandrogynist couple. I interviewed a lot of people for the script and talked with them about their experiences. During the process of interviewing I began to realize that I should start asking them to be in the film, because I didn’t want it to be something like “Transamerica” where a transgender person is portrayed by an actor. The first one I asked if he wanted to be in the film was Morty Diamond who played Sid, I knew him through a queer festival I worked at, he directs trans porn. I met him when I was in New York interviewing Genesis P Orridge and then I interviewed him and I just asked him and he said yes. Gaea Gaddy who played Cynthia I had already seen doing a couple of spoken word things and for some reason she was the person in my head when I was picturing the character she finally played. So I went up and talked to her and when I gave her the script she said that the sort of emotional experience the character is going through was something that she had just recently gone through herself and that she really liked the idea of trying to play it. So we worked on the script together and changed her character together. I think for her the whole shooting was a very carthasic experience. Through playing the role she was sort of reliving things of her live that were hard. She was able to release her emotions in a healthy way. Tempest and Jendeene who play Gen and Jay are based on the real-life couple of Genesis Breyer P Orridge and Lady Jaye Breyer P Orridge, who were the founders of this whole idea of Pandroginy. I had Genesis interviewed for the script and she had also agreed to play in the film, but unfortunately about six months before we started filming she got walking pneumonia and wasn’t able to do it. But I found another couple, Tempest and Jandine, who are a real couple, who’d really gone through surgeries as well and they were kind enough to kind of step in and play the roles.

Can you tell me what from your perspective this whole idea of Pandrogynie is about?

Well as I said it goes back to the ideas of Genesis who has always been really interested in the idea that technology and medicine enables us to break some of the boundaries of biology, that we can sort of move past them. I think it’s about finding better ways of being a person and about the idea that changing the body allows people to love in new ways, that it improves the old model. So she and Lady Jaye had come to this idea that they were two halves of one whole, because their love was so great. Genesis was really inspired by William Borrough’s idea of the “Cut-Up” and the idea of cutting and pasting physical bodies to reflect the fact that they were not two people but two parts of one whole.

Everytime I tried to explain the storyline of “Open” to friends I had to realized that it was kind of hard for me to find the right words for the identities shown in the film. Using an oldfashioned word like “Hermaphrodite” felt kind of wrong here. Was this part of your idea when you wrote the script, to somehow represent certain people that don’t really fit into the old categories of sex and gender? Was representation an important aspect?

Yes, sure, I mean our generation grew up in a time where we benefit from certain things other people had to fight for. And because the generation before us really had to struggle for not being beaten in the streets basically, they also had to really define their identity, whereas I feel now it kind of flips to the negative parts. Some people are only able to understand who they are through identifying with the gay community and with with all these weird definitions what it means to be gay. Especially in the US it’s like that. If you’re gay, you’re supposed to act in a certain way, to do certain things and when someone doesn’t fall into that stereotype it’s like a surprise that people are different. I think life is more interesting when you don’t define yourself by those things. That’s why I’m so interested in the individual people in this movie, in their individual experiences and in their politics and ideas.

Is that also why you named the film “Open”?

“Open” ended up to be the word that captured most aspects of the film because all the characters are either theoretically, politically or emotionally struggling to open up to new things and new experiences. Also, the film makes is possible for the the audience to open up to new experiences. And it was my perspective as a film maker to try to break conventions that were going on in the American film making at the time. I mean when it comes to cinema we are all living in the shadow of Hollywood, especially in America, and even a lot of contemporary independent films from the US are pretty close the Hollywood model. It’s usually the same sort of thing – there are romantic comedies or horror movies, action movies, buddy movies, only with a slightly different aesthetic or geared towards a slightly different group of people, but with a very similar idea of what dramatic tension and rising and falling means. So I wanted to break free from that conventions and to open the film up to new things on different sorts of levels.

But wouldn’t you say that there are other movies or directors that influenced the way you’re working?

Of course, I love movies and I watch them obsessively and that’s definitely bubbling up in there somewhere. There were a few film makers that were touch points to get to this project, I think the whole road trip aspect for example came from the earlier movies by Gregg Araki and then this sort of quietness of it came from the first two films by Sebastien Lifshitz. Those movies were the ones that really impressed me I was younger and saw them for the first time.

“Opening up” in the film also means to discover and rediscover certain places. Your characters seem to visit places that seem forgotten, places usually no one would go.

I more or less grew in Minneapolis and I came to the realisation that it’s kind of my home town in a way and that I really love it. There are all these special little spots and when you’re a teenager and you haven’t gotten old enough to find the more interesting scenes that are going on you find yourself wandering around. At least in the middle-west of America it’s like that – you have all these weird places little concrete playgrounds or abandoned malls that are maybe still around, but there’s only one store left. I wanted to capture a lot of that and when I started to search for all these places I began to realize that a lot of them had this element that they had to do with all the hopes and dreams of America in the 20th century and I liked the idea that the characters were able to travel through these different places and these different ideas while they were trying to get to something else.

What were the first screenings like? I mean when it comes to transgender issues a lot of people still seem to be kind of insecure, even when they are from an alternative kind of backround.

They reactions were good. I feel like this sort of audience we have at the Berlinale are people that are actually interested in the movie. They all seemed very happy, we’re getting a very postitive feedback here. There are of course some people from a more conservative background coming to the screenings who just don’t really realize what it’s necessarily about. And you’re right, I’m still surprised how uncomfortable these issues make a lot of people, even when they’re from the queer community. If we talk to people who are buyers for example and talk to them to get the movie out there and get distribution they’re like, well, it’s hard for us to figure out what to with trans content because predominantly gay male content is what sells. If you really want to be successful in this part of the movie marked you need a bunch of good-looking naked boys lolling around.

Thank you for the interview.

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