By Gary M. Kramer
Todd Verow makes great gay films—intimately shot low budget features that depict raw sexuality with humor and heart. The writer/director/actor tends to make—and star in—extremely personal, often autobiographical stories about his experiences as a hustler, or his various past relationships.
Yet the soft-spoken filmmaker takes a completely different approach to his latest film The Final Girl, an erotic lesbian drama about the title character (Wendy Delorme), a woman in Paris who discovers a mystery woman’s (Véronique Lindenberg) diary. The film takes up another of Verow’s favorite themes—that of a missing or lost person. The Seattle Gay sat down with Verow to discuss his new film, which is now out on DVD.
As a gay man, who makes explicit gay films, why did you choose to make a film about lesbians?
After my movie Anonymous, I had a lot of lesbians come up to me and say, “You should make a lesbian movie.” And I thought that was strange, and not something I really thought of. But then, I started thinking about it, and thought, “Maybe I should try something different.” I met Wendy Delorme (the title character) in Berlin, and I saw her perform, and that got the ideas rolling and it really became a collaboration with her.
What are you saying about gender and sexuality?
I definitely had goals in mind—I wanted it to not be glossy, feminine—often when you see men making movies about lesbians, it’s all very pretty, and sensual. I didn’t want it to be sensual. I wanted the sex to be hard in it. You don’t see anyone kissing in the movie. Of course, the girls are beautiful, but they are doing things you wouldn’t expect beautiful girls to do.
You shot The Final Girl in Paris, Berlin and Chicago, not New York or Maine as you usually do. Moreover, the dialogue is mostly French with subtitles. Yet anyone familiar with your work will recognize your aesthetic/style. What made you deviate from your typical location and aesthetic?
I wanted to do something different. I wanted to film in Paris because my actors were French. There’s a very interesting post-Feminist scene happening in Paris with Émilie Jouvet, another filmmaker, who is an influence of mine, who has a small part. These girls really interested me, so I wanted to shoot something in Paris. Chicago made sense—I didn’t want the other girl to come from New York. Chicago is mythologically an “outlaw” town, so it made sense for her to come from there. Berlin I know well, because I go there every year. Paris and Berlin—if you’re on the run, you’re going to end up in either of those two places.
You return to your favorite themes—prostitution. The title character uses sex to make a security deposit on a room; later she’s paid by a stranger to masturbate. What are you saying about the exchange of sex and money here?
I don’t think it’s so much [sex for] money; it’s more the way sex gets used when it’s not used for romantic things. I wanted the sex to be hard, but I wanted it to be playful. I think especially—when she is paid to masturbate—it’s different because it’s not to get the other person off, it’s because the other person wants to see her get off. So that throws her for a loop—because someone is not actually paying to masturbate to her, they are paying her to masturbate because they want to see it. The idea of that interests me, as does the fact that [the client is] a transsexual who wants to see what an orgasm looks like on a real woman’s face.
The sex scenes in The Final GIrl are pretty, typically raw—again, you feature an erotic scene of bondage and control, which is a strong component your previous films, and you show explicit female pleasure (as you did, memorably, in your film titled XX). Why are you so confrontational with sexuality?
I think sexually, you are trying to figure out what the other person wants, and you are playing a role for them. And that’s what she’s trying to do. She pushes the limits of different things and sees what works, and what doesn’t. But in a playful way. I didn’t want it to be ominous sex. I wanted it to be hard, but playful—they both are getting something out of it.
The mystery woman wants to escape/be free. What prompts you to address this issue, which is another recurring theme in your films?
Everyone is always trying to get something from her, and not necessarily through sex. Is she left with anything in the end? That, to me, is the theme. What do I have left, after everyone has taken everything from me?
The film pivots on the diary being kept, found, and read. First, do you keep a diary? And second, why did you use this device to link the narratives?
For this film, the idea of a diary interested me because I don’t keep a diary. But if I did…in a way, my films are my diaries. My thoughts, my ideas, things that go through my head—and that to me is what a diary is. It’s not necessarily this is what happened, it’s this is what could have happened, this is what I’m thinking about. To me, a diary is interesting because it’s not a document of what you did but thoughts going through your head. In this movie, you’re not sure if this is real, or not, or what’s going on. That fascinates her, too because she is trying to figure out who she is and what she wants, and where she’s going and all that stuff, too.
You eschew a formal narrative for a meandering plot, with little dialogue/conversation, and no dramatic payoff. Your work is generally experimental, but you’re really obfuscating with your dreamy aesthetic. Why did you take an experimental approach to telling this story?
I was really inspired by Paris. Whenever I go there, I spend a lot of time wandering around, lost in time and space. Something about that appealed to me for this. I’m not a big fan of plots. I like things that are meandering, that make you think, that make your mind wander. You bring your own experiences into the characters. The characters are not necessarily explained or fleshed out for you—you have to do a little bit of work yourself. Especially in doing a lesbian movie, because you know, I’m not a lesbian. I relied a lot on my actors to help me communicate this stuff. I was inspired by Celine and Julie Go Boating and Chantal Ackerman, movies like that, where plots are not important. [laughs]
One character questions her belief in love. Are you a romantic, or a heartbroken cynic?
I think anyone who questions their belief in love is a romantic. By romantic, I mean Byron-esque. Love is a big, grand amazing thing. Does love exist any more in the world, and can you find it? So, yes, I am a romantic, not a cynic.
The film opens with a striptease and closes with a disappearance. Both elements have a sense of teasing about them—the naughtiness of a woman revealing her nudity and the mystery of the woman who removes herself from other’s memories of her. What connections did you make with these themes and characters?
Wendy and I talked a lot about the striptease in the beginning. We wanted it to be a wedding striptease because of the conventions of what a woman should be—she throws them all out; she strips down bare. The disappearing character—does she disappear, or does she re-emerge? Is she free, and what does that mean?
The cinematography here was very impressive. You paid particular attention to shapes, colors, textures and use black and white very effectively. Can you discuss your visual scheme?
I definitely wanted the diaries to be black and white, very contrasty—like dirty film. There is a scene in the fountain that I love because instead of water, it looks like scratches in film. That’s really weird, because she’s a figment of these characters’ imagination, and her reality is very dirty, and very colorful; things are always closing in on her. It’s an aesthetic thing. People often associate good cinematography with pretty shots of mountains and trees. To me, cinematography is so much more than that. It’s a way of storytelling. My films tend to be about grittier, dirtier subjects, so I like my visuals to match that. I purposely degrade them, or use consumer products, available light. These are aesthetic choices. I’m not doing these things because it’s low budget, it’s because the story dictates that. I don’t think that kind of cinematography gets the credit it should.
What about Heather Nova’s songs on the soundtrack? They work quite well. How did you get her to participate in this film?
Heather and I went to Rhode Island School of Design together, so we’ve known each other for a really long time. By chance, she happened to get in touch with me and say, “When are you going to use some of my music for one of your movies?” It was that random. I really do like her music, and I thought it would be perfect for this movie. She sent me a whole bunch of stuff, and I picked these songs because these lyrics related to this story. I really like her music, and I like her—because she’s so feminine, so sexual, and so unapologetically sexual. The thing I found in a lot of lesbian movies is that they have a hard rock soundtrack, and I wanted something female-sexual. The music and her songs are a third character.
Another difference between The Final Girl and your previous work is that you don’t have a cameo. Was this deliberate?
I didn’t really even think about it! There wasn’t really a place for me.
So, how do you think this film measures up against the rest of your work? Is it an experiment, or a variation on you favorite theme?
Every [film] is related to each other. Even if it’s someone else’s story, or someone else’s script, it’s still me making it. So I have to put something of myself in it. I wouldn’t say it’s a continuation of my stuff, but it’s another chapter.
© 2010 Gary M. Kramer