Interview: Paul Etheredge-Ouzts Talks HellBent

Slant Magazine sat down with the director to discuss the making and politics of HellBent.

Interview: Paul Etheredge-Ouzts Talks HellBent

Can you talk a little about the initial germ of the idea for HellBent?

When I first joined on the HellBent project, the producers already knew a little about what they wanted. They gave me three mandates: the film had to be gay, it had to feature the West Hollywood Halloween Carnival, and the killer had to wear a mask. Then they turned me loose to create the story. Although I’m a horror fan, I’m pretty squeamish about gore and sadism—frequent attributes of the slasher genre. My challenge was to write a slasher movie that was palatable to me.

What’s your relationship to horror films? Any favorite directors working within the genre?

I prefer psychological horror, body horror, thrillers—or even creature features—to most of the “butchery” flicks. As I said, I’m not turned on by sadism. Even though HellBent is a slasher, I think it’s infused with a hopefulness and humanity that’s unusual for the genre. As for favorite horror directors, I find David Cronenberg consistently interesting. His horror is smart, it has complexity. Even if I don’t respond to all of his films, they’re always worth discussing later. Not the case for most recent horror films—once the theater lights turn on, the ride is over.

The film is being marketed, successfully so (at least in the sense that it seems to be getting people’s attention), as the first gay slasher film. Did you actively set out to make such a film and who’s decision was to market the film as such?

We were aware from the beginning of the project that—regardless of the quality of the final product—we had a built-in marketing hook: the gay horror film. As HellBent is a micro-budget picture with a tiny advertising budget, we exploit every advantage we can to make us distinctive in the marketplace. Creating audience awareness is half the battle for an independent film.

Though HellBent is unique for playing out in many ways like your average horror film, do you think this marketing approach risks pigeon-holing your work? Or do you accept that a wider audience, even your typical art-house crowd, which is contemptuous of horror films in general, isn’t ready for HellBent?

Audiences are maddeningly impossible to predict. My hope is, if the film succeeds with gay and horror audiences, positive word of mouth will attract more mainstream audiences. But I’ve prepared myself for the possibility that many outside of our niche markets won’t bother to see the film. At least until it’s on DVD. The film market is incredibly competitive these days; it may be a challenge to hang on at the theaters while word of mouth builds.

The title of the film is provocative. What made you decide on it?

I struggled for two years to come up with a good title for this movie without success. Finally, we held an Internet contest to name the film. After wading through the thousands of submissions like Boy Meets Knife, A Fagulously Bloody Night Out and 28 Gays Later, I found HellBent. I immediately knew this was the title. Simple, aggressive and without a trace of camp. I also appreciated the (wholly coincidental) play on devil imagery and gay slang.

Equally provocative is the emotional baggage attached to the film’s death sequences. Personally, what were you trying to sort out, or what did you feel like you wanted to say about gay culture with these sequences?

I simply wanted to make the characters and their death scenes interesting for myself. I wasn’t casting these characters (and their issues) as representatives of the gay community at large. In the traditional slasher movie, murder is portrayed as punishment—often for premarital sex. In HellBent, I didn’t want the audience to equate gay sex with death (premarital sex is all we gays have). Instead, I opted to give each of the characters a specific fatal flaw that my killer exploits: use of sense-deadening recreational drugs, addiction to attention, flight-instinct overwhelmed by romantic bliss. I certainly don’t judge their behavior—they’re just kids, after all. No one’s getting punished for their human failings, in my mind. The killer simply takes advantage of any opportunity he sees. That said, I think directors make poor interpreters of their own work. This is the role of the critic—to examine a film and its themes in a larger context.

The film’s killer is something of a silent threat. What was your intent by making him feel so anonymous?

People’s fears are so varied and personally specific. With this in mind, I chose to keep the killer something of a blank slate, allowing the audience members to interpret the killer for themselves. If I assigned some motive to the killer, half the audience would immediately reject it as ridiculous. Similarly, if I had the killer speak, a portion of the audience would find his voice unfrightening. I found that each detail I added to the killer robbed him of menace; the best approach was to define him as little as possible.

The film is sexy in spots, but there isn’t a sense that the characters are being objectified. Compared to work like Three Dancing Slaves, the characters show very little skin. Was there ever any pressure to make the characters take more off, or were you actively trying to fend off this trend in gay cinema today?

I’m not opposed to including sex or skin in a film, but I need for it to make sense within the story. As HellBent isn’t about sex, I didn’t see the worth of including a sex scene that was glaringly gratuitous. Also, HellBent is briskly paced; a full-on sex scene would bring the film’s momentum to a screeching halt. While the producers reminded me that a full-frontal nude scene would increase our DVD sales by 10%, they didn’t pressure me to include one. I applaud them for their remarkable restraint. In the original script, when Eddie makes his first move to kiss the biker, Jake, his mouth grazes the boy’s fresh tattoo. Eddie licks Jake’s blood off his lip and savors it. It underscores the danger-lust of Eddie’s otherwise prim and proper character. One of the producers thought this erotic exchange was too irresponsible and insisted I cut it. Now I wish I’d fought to keep that moment intact.

What’s with Dylan Fergus’s Melrose Place-era hair in the film?

Yeah, I wish Dylan had sported a different haircut, but he was cast two days before principle photography began. I didn’t want to risk altering his hairstyle too much. He has very strong features—a bad haircut would have been disastrous. Dylan’s stylin’ wave is a case of us going with “the evil we knew.”

Ed Gonzalez

Ed Gonzalez is the co-founder of Slant Magazine. His writing has also appeared in The Village Voice and The Los Angeles Times. He’s a member of the New York Film Critics Circle, the Critics Choice Association, and the Latino Entertainment Journalists Association.

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