An interview with Mark Wilshin, the director of ‘Sodom’

Following the tentative relationship that forms between two strangers – a twenty-year old footballer and a slightly older concert pianist – the new romance Sodom is coming to Dekkoo on August 30th. While we’re waiting, enjoy this interview with the film’s writer-director Mark Wilshin.

Pip Brignall and Jo Weil in Sodom – Coming Soon to Dekkoo

Where did the idea for the story for Sodom come from?

Well, as a first-time writer-director, I was very conscious of the fact that I had to write a film that could be produced on no budget. So the idea of the huis clos was there from the beginning, a very simple story of two men, one night and one location. But distilling into that night, two pivotal moments in the lives of two very different men. I’ve always admired this kind of intimate, quietly emotional film, and it seemed like it was something that would also be possible on a microbudget, while putting performance and emotional narrative to the fore.

For the title, you make no direct reference to the biblical story of Sodom. Why this title?

Well, in previous versions there was a biblical quotation, and even a brilliant quotation from Pauline Kael about watching old movies “Like Lot’s wife, we are tempted to take another look, attracted not by evil but by something that seems much more shameful – our own innocence.” But in the end, I decided to leave the interpretation of the story of Sodom and Gomorrah up to the audience. I was also quite fascinated by it as a title. It’s perhaps reminiscent of Pasolini’s Saló – powerful and provocative, but also conjures up images of Oscar Wilde and the 9th Marquess of Queensberry and the slurs that have been cast against the gay community for hundreds of years. It’s because of these connotations, that the title remains something of a taboo – Matteo Garrone, for example, chose Gomorra instead. There’s something implicitly “gay” about it, and so I felt it was important to kind of own that, by examining the darkness at the heart of sexuality. Which, for me, has nothing to do with sex, but with internalised feelings of homophobia that as individuals and as a community, we may still have to overcome.

Pip Brignall in Sodom – Coming Soon to Dekkoo

So, in what way do you think Sodom reflects the issues facing gay people today?

I think there is the feeling that, as we reach gay marriage and equality throughout the western world, that for gay men and women living in Europe there is nothing left to do. But I don’t agree with that. I think there is still a lot to do in terms of gay rights, particularly to do with how gay men perceive themselves and how they feel they are perceived by other people. But when Michael says, “I just want straight people to realize I could be you and you could be me”, that says as much about gay identity as it does about society. I think there’s a perception of tolerance, and while there is a general consensus of tolerance, as we’ve seen in the UK post-Brexit, hate crimes are on the increase.

The silent minority are revealing their true feelings. And silence doesn’t mean tolerance. We can’t be happy with just a majority, we have to keep going. We can’t stop until it’s not even a question any more. Despite its subject matter, Sodom wasn’t written for a gay audience; it’s a universal film designed to show some of the emotions and conflicts that we might have. I can’t speak for what other people may have gone through, so I wrote about my own experiences. And I hope for that reason it’s a very honest film.

It’s an autobiographical film then?

The film is autobiographical in many ways, but there are a lot of fictional elements woven in. Both the characters and stories are very personal in many ways, but it was the guts of the story – of a gay man living a straight lie – that was an important subject for me to broach. It’s very easy to be judgmental, but I wanted to try to be sympathetic towards the men and women who end up living those lives. And I wanted to bring Will as close to the other side, as close to self-acceptance or truth as possible. At the beginning he’s not really aware, you know. He’s young, having a good time and he doesn’t think too much about it. It’s not a big issue for him. And there’s a generational difference here between Michael and Will. As much as he says it’s not black or white, it’s much more like that for him, while the younger generation is perhaps more interested in the grey.

Perhaps that’s part of Will’s inability to embrace the label “gay”. Although for me, that isn’t something we should obscure, but rather something we should challenge ourselves to accept and be proud of.

Pip Brignall and Jo Weil in Sodom – Coming Soon to Dekkoo

But it’s not a gay film?

Sodom is a lot to do with these internalized feeling of homophobia and confusion. And in one way, it’s just a very simple non-coming-out story. But it’s also set in a time and place that is universal. We see modern gadgets such as mobile phones, but through the styling and costumes, we tried to keep it to a minimum to show that this is a universal story that keeps recurring. Of course, it still happens in the West. But even if it doesn’t happen in this unnamed city in 2016, it did still happen here previously. And if not here, then somewhere else.

In terms of Sodom being a universal film, yes, we see Will battling his demons and trying to find the courage to come out as a gay man. But it’s also a universal story of courage, about finding the courage to be who we are and to be true to oneself. I wrote a lot of the script about my journey towards becoming a filmmaker, and the invisible walls I would have to hurdle to make it. Coming out makes for a nice metaphor about realizing one’s dreams, about self-belief and trying to escape the confines of other people’s expectations. Trying to escape the closet of daily life and go beyond that, trying to cast myself out of that role and into a different one.

In that way, Sodom is about change and the ability to change. And while it’s not always easy, there is hope that change is possible, as long as we have the courage to see it through. I don’t think I could have made a film if my first feature hadn’t been about courage in some way. There are so many insecurities and doubts when making this kind of fundamental life-change. But I was always confronted with a story reminding me not to give up. Or turn back.

Like Lot’s wife, you mean?

Yes, this idea of turning back is central to Sodom. It comes of course from the biblical story of Sodom where Lot and his wife are chosen by angels to leave their sinful town of Sodom before God destroys it. They head for the hills with their daughters, and when Lot’s wife looks back at the destruction, she is turned into a pillar of salt. Perhaps for disobeying a command from God, perhaps regretting the life she’s leaving behind or perhaps unable to take her eyes off this divine destruction. But this idea of looking back is very important to the film. It happens throughout the film as Will hesitates between staying and leaving. Even at the end, when he makes his final decision to leave, it’s not 100% final. He doesn’t go back this time, but he looks back and sees the destruction he’s leaving behind. And he sees the attraction in another man’s eyes. He crawls back into a life that no longer fits him, but that night has become part of him. And it’s a part of him he can no longer deny. Something in him has died. His innocence perhaps. Like a metaphorical pillar of salt.

Pip Brignall and Jo Weil in Sodom – Coming Soon to Dekkoo

Salt is more than just a metaphor in the film though?

It’s a strange metaphor – that can have a lot of (often contradictory) meanings all at once. There’s Patricia Highsmith’s “The Price of Salt” for example, the novel that Carol is based on, but salt in the novel is barely even mentioned. And yet it’s something to do with courage, identity and sex.

In Sodom though, salt is littered throughout the film. There’s the salt of the tequila, and the salt they both reach for. And in some ways it refers to the biblical use of salt – as a sign of hospitality. But it’s also to recognize salt as a life-giving force. Without it we have no ability to move our muscles or send electrical impulses to the brain, so it’s a very important element in terms of human activity, both for the body and for the mind.

The saltwater fantasies tie into the idea of the pillar of salt that Lot’s wife is turned into. Both Will and Michael become infused with salt, and these moments that flash before their eyes only occur when there’s an intimate exchange. They both exist on this other plane beyond the goings on in the apartment, this sea of love, which petrifies in Will as he heads down into the underground.

And so Michael is destroyed, like the Cities of the Plain?

Yes, only not by God but by man. Michael tells us a lot about his coming out and his perceptions of being gay, but there are other parts of his character that remain hidden. Michael doesn’t reveal himself. He’s a private person suffering from his own grief. And we’re never quite sure how much of his story about Peter is true or not. Before he meets Will, he’s picking up straight tourists on the street – the very definition of non-committal. But through Will he’s able to open himself up to relationships again. Still, it was important for me that his partner had died. As within this apartment, which may or may not even exist, there’s a whole encapsulation of gay culture, and death is part of that. Whether we lived through the AIDS crisis or not, it’s still present, and still part of the culture that we take on.

It was also important for me to have a kind of fraternity between them. The suggestion of a kind of gay community through their mentor-protégé relationship, which seldom exists in the gay world, but which could be a positive force for good for young men and women coming out. There’s the possibility that Will and Michael could be two halves of the same person, the younger self and the older self. In a way, it’s an internal conversation between two halves of the brain about what as a younger person you might want to hear from your older self.

Pip Brignall and Jo Weil in Sodom – Coming Soon to Dekkoo

We almost see that when Will’s reflection overlaps his vision of Michael on the balcony.

Yes, and it comes at a pivotal moment after Will is no longer able to deny the truth. It’s slightly cruel of Michael to force Will in this way into accepting himself, but there’s also a long history of gay men being tested with fantasy images to uncover their hidden sexuality. And these fantasies also tie into a wider theme of seeing and vision in the film. We see Will wearing eye makeup from the beginning. Yes, he’s on his stag do, naked and tied to a lamppost, stripped of the wedding dress he would have been wearing, but the makeup highlights his eyes. And seeing is a theme that recurs with things like the lights on the ceiling or Michael’s references to cinema, also on the balcony and when Will is handcuffed to the stool. He alludes to cinema a couple of times which, for me, was a way to position the film within its own fantasy space, but to also highlight the film’s intentions, somewhere in between naturalistic, observational drama and something more story driven. Michael says to look through the windows into the darkness and there’s an idea that Sodom, or cinema in general, isn’t all about the bright lights of action and activity. But it’s the small stories in the dark that are important, that reveal something about who we are.

Is this how you see the fantasies? As a film within a film?

I think the fantasies are a little unconventional in this modern age of naturalistic cinema. But for me it was very important to include them, because I think the way sexuality is developed is largely through fantasy and visions of desire. Sexuality is a construct that comes first through mental processes before finding its way into action. And the fantasies relate to that. Will’s sexuality develops through fantasies of Michael, but also through seeing himself as an object. The way that we see him at the lamppost. And in Sodom there’s a conscious objectification of men, through each other, as a kind of re-balance to the objectification of women in cinema. I don’t think it’s possible, where desire or the sexual gaze is concerned, to prevent people from becoming objectified. But I think we can accept objectification as a corollary of desire. And it can become equalized in terms of sexual relationships, where we are simultaneously both subject and object.

Jo Weil in Sodom – Coming Soon to Dekkoo

There are a lot of dialectics in the film. To what extent is Sodom a European film?

I think for Will, Michael and his apartment represents a world he couldn’t even dream of. But that’s perhaps more a question of their class difference than their nationalities. I think though it is possible to read Sodom as a post-Brexit film, as the story of a British man who comes to Europe, flirts with it, but who ultimately is unable to enter into a relationship with it.

The film itself though could hardly be more European; I’m a Brit, living in Berlin; the film is both German and British; and the crew was made up of people from all over Europe – Ireland, France, Italy, Switzerland and Russia. More than that though, I think Sodom challenges perceptions of gay and straight. We know nothing about Will at the beginning, except that he’s wearing make-up. So maybe we make assumptions about that. Already within the script, the film broaches the subject of being gay and looking gay, and this idea of conforming to the straight model – whether that’s through echoing straight ideals of family and marriage or the current trend of hyper-masculinity. We might think Will’s just in denial, but I think it’s more complex than that. I think both characters challenge the black-and-white thinking of sexuality in different ways. At least I hope they do.

So what’s next? Will we see a second feature?

I hope so. I’m currently working on a screenplay, similar in many ways, only perhaps even more stringent – with one principle character rather than two. It takes place over one day, the last day in the life of Montgomery Clift. And while Sodom is a film about courage and shame, this will be a film about pride. It’s about the conflict between wanting to be out, and the impossibility of it. As in this case, it would blow away an acting career. Which of course, is an issue that still exists today. It’s the conflict between doing what you want and being who you are. Which of course, nowadays is a conflict no-one should have to face just because they’re gay. But the self-hatred then was so internalized, it caused personalities to splinter.

 

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