Blackmail Boys, a genre-busting, sexually explicit, black-comedy
noir photographed by Birmingham filmmaker Adam Wingard, won a Special Jury
Award at the Indie Memphis film festival in Memphis, Tenn., last weekend.
The judges in the narrative features category—nationally known film critics Elvis Mitchell and Aaron Hillis—praised the film’s “combination of genre mix and playful indie spirit.” Awards were announced by the festival in news releases this week.
Blackmail Boys won both the jury award and audience choice award
for best narrative feature at the SHOUT Gay & Lesbian Film Festival in
Birmingham in September, where the film had its world premiere. The movie was also screened on October 19 at the Seattle Gay & Lesbian Film Festival.
Blackmail Boys is a tale of both true love and extortion with a touch of dark humor. After moving to Chicago for art school, Sam (Nathan Adloff) turns tricks to help pay his bills. He is soon joined in Chicago by longtime boyfriend Aaron (Taylor Paul Reed), who wants Sam to stop tricking. When the two decide move to a state where they can get married, their need for money becomes even more urgent. Then Aaron sees Sam with a prominent client whom he recognizes as an anti-gay religious figure (Joe Swanberg), and crazy cut-ups ensure. The film was directed and edited by Bernard and Richard Shumanski from South Africa. Harry Shumanski was music supervisor.
“I think [Blackmail Boys] is interesting because it’s such a gritty, soft-core, sexual movie, and really strange, but also very light-hearted and ultimately really likeable,” Wingard said over the phone after the Indie Memphis award was announced. “Everybody I watch it with is taken by the sweetness, but with the dirty grittiness mixed in.”
Wingard is a Birmingham writer, director and cinematographer whose horror films are known for their violence and disturbing imagery. His feature Pop Skull won awards at film festivals in Boston and Indianapolis in 2008. He recently directed A Horrible Way to Die, which premiered at the Toronto International Film Festival in September.
Bernard and Harry Shumanski appeared at the Indie Memphis screening at Studio on the Square October 23 with cast members Adloff and Danny Rhodes. The idea for the film, according to Bernard Shumanski, came from what he called the "kind of religious figures in America who do this shit a lot—contantly having sex and then denying it because they are so insecure."
Shumanski also explained the unblinking portrayals of sexual activity in the film. "A lot of films will get to a certain point and cut away, but our imaginations are dirtier than reality," he said. "So we don't cut away. We just show what the imagination would dream up anyway."
At the Q & A following the SHOUT screening in Birmingham,
Shumanksi discussed the film’s intriguing mix of dark subject matter with a
lighter emotional tone. “That’s a message that we
hope to convey, that a lot of fucked-up shit happens in the world, but it’s
better to try and put out a positive message,” he said. “We’re in the theatre
for 67 minutes, hopefully you leave with some positive message.”
Wingard became involved with Blackmail Boys through Swanberg, who appeared in A Horrible Way to Die. “Joe asked me to help him shoot Blackmail Boys, which had a different name at that time. He pitched the story to me. I said, ‘That’s crazy. OK, let’s do it.’ I recognized the genre elements. I had not done anything like that. I thought it would be really fun. It was also my first time working as a DP [Director of Photography].”
According to Wingard, he finished shooting his feature and went to Chicago almost immediately to shoot Blackmail Boys. “I was there seven days and left,” he said. “Such a quick little shoot. I almost don’t even remember it happened.”
Shumanski called Wingard “an incredible genius,
artist with the camera” during his remarks at the SHOUT Q&A, and credited
Wingard and his brother Richard, who did not attend the screening, with helping
to create the film’s pacing and style. The cast members had a significant role in shaping the story of Blackmail Boys through a workshop process using email and Skype that took several months, according to Shumanski.
According to Swanberg, who took part in the SHOUT Q&A, the unique style of Blackmail Boys was partly the result of creative choices and partly a function of a low budget and tight shooting schedule. “The genre aspects of it were part of the fun for me [of] acting in it from the beginning, and [telling] a story in a really direct way. I think in the end, in the editing, Bernard used a lot of new techniques with a computer to really flesh out the story, but I just like how fast it moves, how it sort of jumps from one scene to the next. With the sex scenes and the violence, I was reading [film producer] Roger Corman’s book and thinking a lot of about the hippies in the 60s and how they had no money, so it was [about] the most basic ways to tell this story. How can we do it in the fewest shots possible and also in the shortest time possible? And also how do we do it in a realistic way?”
An audience member at the Q & A asked the cast members if the sex scenes in the film made them apprehensive. “The awkwardness for me sort of fell off pretty early on,” Adloff said. “I’ve done a lot of acting in a lot of similar scenes with Joe on a web series and a couple of other projects, so I felt pretty comfortable pretty early on.”
“My wife and I produce a web series called Young American Bodies than started on Nerve.com and moved to IFC.com,” Swanberg said. “And Nathan’s been in that show. We’ve done four seasons. So he and I have done a lot of sex scenes for that, not together, but we met in college [and] we’ve known each other for a long time, so that was kind of easy.”
“But that was the first time you kissed a guy, right?” Bernard Shumanski asked Swanberg.
“Yeah,” Swanberg said.
“So he went from kissing a guy to having an erect penis with a guy for the first time in his life, for a couple of minutes,” Shumanski told the audience. “Let’s applaud him, a straight ally.”
Another audience member asked Reed if he had a problem with being nude on film. “Absolutely not,” Reed said. “You have to just not think about it. Once you get it out there for like two seconds, it’s old news anyway.”
According to Reed, he saw Blackmail Boys for the first time the evening of the SHOUT premiere, and had never watched the other two films he’s appeared in (Jon Morgan Fox’s OMG/HaHaHa and the Shumanski Brothers’ Wrecked). He was asked if he was uncomfortable seeing the film with an audience. “I was really nervious at first, but I was really surprised at myself that I wasn’t leaving the theatre and throwing up or something,” Reed said. “I feel much better now, because I hadn’t seen myself in anything before, because I’m so self-conscious about that sort of thing”
Also appearing in Blackmail Boys are Rhodes and Tamara Fana. Rhodes brings great warmth and humor to a small role as a doctor who is one of Sam’s friends and clients. Fana plays Tucker’s long-suffering wife.
Mitchell has written for Spin, Esquire and The New York Times, hosted programs for Turner Classic Movies and the Independent Film Channel, served as a juror at the Sundance Film Festival.
Hillis is based in New York and writes for, among other publications, Variety and The Village Voice.
Jesse Chambers is a Birmingham Weekly contributing editor. Send your comments to email@example.com.