Donkey Punch
Donkey Punch

Director Olly Blackburn talks Donkey Punch

Michael Gillespie talks to up-and-coming writer-director Olly Blackburn about his debut feature, Donkey Punch, released on DVD November 10.
Feature by Michael Gillespie.
Published 10 November 2008

Donkey Punch is a low budget British thriller named after a rather extreme sexual practice. The film is one of a recent slate of dark, provocative but hugely accessible British genre movies, and even sparked a Daily Mail outcry. Its director Olly Blackburn has, for the last ten years, been one of the most respected and in-demand directors of music videos and commercials. I asked him about logistics, the pleasures of genre, the cultural climate, and a little bit of sex and violence.

How did the project begin?

A lot of it was a combination of luck and experience, from doing commercials and music videos for ten years. I had other things – a few feature films which didn’t happen – and I’d written films for other filmmakers, one of which will be out in the new year (Vinyan). I just happened to be in the Warp X offices, trying to get some TV work with Robin Gutch (Warp X co-founder), when I thought of the idea. The company’s mission is to make edgy genre films with a twist, so my co-writer David Bloom and I pitched the idea and they loved it.

The film was to be quite edgy, but were you met with any resistance, or would you have been if you were pitching to a different body?

Like you said, it was meant to be quite edgy – very edgy – and Warp X embraced that. They’re well respected, they have integrity, and they want that from the people they work with. The film is edgy and provocative, but we wanted it to have integrity, to be intelligent – as crazy as that may sound to a lot of people who have seen it! We didn’t just want to dive into this onslaught of tits and blood: everyone, from myself to Warp to the actors, wanted something with integrity.

Trailer: Donkey Punch

Did the success of Nick Love’s films help, in that they are edgy genre movies which reach a large, working class audience?

I hope so. To be honest, any British genre film helped. I think the likes of The Descent also helped. Nick Love proved that British films made on a budget can have an audience. I remember talking to someone from the Film Council who said it was remarkable that the film went out on 150 screens and the characters all speak with regional accents. Now that’s not everything, the story dictates it, but I think it’s significant. There’s been a huge cultural shift in the last five years or so.

That’s something much larger. If we look at the success of Lily Allen, The Streets and the Arctic Monkeys, there’s a much stronger acceptance of regional identity, something the film taps into.

Yeah, and I think we have a very mixed culture now. I’m from a generation who knew nothing outside their Southern upbringing. Then I went to Oxford, a posh university but it was very mixed. There was a time when it was unusual to have an Asian friend, or a Northern friend, now it’s an everyday thing. I think we now live in a very mixed culture, yet film and the like have taken longer to catch up with this cultural shift.

This is obviously a genre film with a lot more to it then. If we look at the history of genre films in this country – by the likes of Terence Fisher and Michael Reeves – they always had higher aspirations. They were thought of as trashy, yet they were often rooted in literary or mythological traditions. Is Donkey Punch a film in that tradition? What were your inspirations?

At that level, I think so. I love films, I eat, sleep and drink them, and genre definitely had a huge impact. If I was to talk about my favourite filmmakers, I’d probably say Sam Peckinpah and Roman Polanski, things like Straw Dogs and Rosemary’s Baby especially. I hate it when people talk down genre. Guys like Romero, Carpenter, they took genre and did things with it that are really powerful. I mean, Dawn of the Dead is one of the most prophetic and disturbing films you’ll see, and I challenge you to find anyone who can find another film from that era which provides the same level of social commentary.

Trailer: Dawn of the Dead (1978)

You’ve talked about making something edgy, with explicit sex and violence, though you never go as far as some films have in the last ten years. I’m referring to films by the likes of Gaspar Noe and Takashi Miike, or films, to give British examples, like Intimacy or 9 Songs. The sex is unsimulated, the violence more extreme. Is this something you considered exploring, or would consider in future, or are you happy to hold back?

I think in the right context, in films like 9 Songs or Larry Clark’s Ken Park, it was necessary. I would have liked to have done the film that way, but I was contracted to deliver an 18 certificate film, and this wouldn’t have been possible. Also, I’d made a promise to the actors that we wouldn’t be making a porn film, that they wouldn’t do anything they didn’t want to. In the script, the sex scene was written very graphically, it wasn’t an easy scene for actors to read.

I’m all for taking an audience by the lapels, and I think a film like Audition is brilliant, Irreversible is a powerful piece of work, and I look up to guys like Michael Winterbottom. But there’s been this pornographication of culture in the last few years, it’s everywhere. You have children growing up whose only knowledge of sex is through porn. The scene was inspired by that – people videoing themselves, the football roasting scandals, we wanted the scene to reflect on that culture as it is. Also, it needs to be powerful, because it is, in Hollywood terms, the inciting incident. I mean, if I put a scene like that in The Duchess, it would seem a bit out of place!

What about the logistics of making the film, you were out on a boat with a short schedule and a limited budget.

We had 24 days.

Right. Why, then did you choose to shoot in South Africa? Was this for budgetary reasons, or was it because you knew and liked the location?

We were greenlit to shoot in February. There’s no sun in the northern hempisphere, and we needed that, so we had to go south. We found that our money went further there: we wanted the film to have a high standard of production values, and there’s a great filmmaking culture in South Africa. They have the technicians, they can work quickly and cheaply.

The production values are indeed high. You’ve mentioned before that low budget films can look better now thanks to grading technology and post-production effects. Is digital the future, or would you like to work on film?

Of course there’s still a place for film, I love film, just because it looks beautiful. I was trained on film, I edited film with a knife! I love working on film, but I had such a good experience of working on HD here. If a low budget film uses this technology, the limits are endless. Much of that comes from working in commercials, you find yourself in the cutting room wondering what this button does, or that one. If you have the right people working on a low budget digital film, you can come up with amazing things. I’d recommend it to younger filmmakers.

What do you think of the current filmmaking climate in the UK? What are the key challenges, and what advice would you have for new filmmakers?

It’s the usual stuff. Getting things made is a long process and can be painful. I tried to get things made for years and couldn’t, and then there’s someone like Paul Andrew Williams, who tried for years and then just thought sod it, and made London To Brighton. So you really need perseverance. By the time I pitched Donkey Punch, I was just about ready to give up. You have to be true to yourself, and really want to make films. You need good reasons for that, it can’t just be to f**k a load of actresses!

So what’s next for you?

I can’t really go into detail, but I have another British genre film, set in the early seventies, which I’m making with Little Bird productions. And David Bloom and I have been exchanging ideas and talking to Warp X, so we’ll see what comes up.

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