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Along with his creative partner John Lee, Vernon Chatman is responsible for some of the weirdest, most subversive televised entertainment of the last decade. The two co-created Wonder Showzen and Xavier: Renegade Angel, a pair of shows beloved of underground audiences, but often impenetrable to the average brain. There’s a filthy, boundary-pushing streak to almost everything they do, but Chatman’s new straight-to-DVD film Final Flesh tops them all. The premise: After learning about video-porn production companies that bring clients’ fetishes to life onscreen, Chatman wrote a heady-yet-nonsensical script and paid these companies to produce them. The result is a four-part omnibus that draws new lines between pornography, philosophy, and cultural anthropology. There isn’t any sex, it should be noted, in Final Flesh, but there is a naked woman washing herself with water from a jar labeled “tears of neglected children.” And a naked woman reading the Koran while on the toilet. And a whole lot of interaction with God. And lines like “It looks like Gregor Samsa will get the last laugh after all,” and “I wanted to use his blood to oil the machinery of capitalism,” delivered by sad-looking amateur porn actors. If it didn’t have a sense of humor, Final Flesh would wind up in an art museum. The A.V. Club spoke to Chatman about how icky it all made him feel, but why he was compelled to do it just the same.
The A.V. Club: Before we dig into Final Flesh, what are you actively working on?
Vernon Chatman: There’s some top-secret things boiling up. Top-secret only to us, because nobody else cares if we have secrets. We’re doing Delocated mostly, which is good, because it’s going to be in the summer. So we’re just mostly cranking those things out.
AVC: What’s your day-to-day involvement on Delocated?
VC: Me and John Lee write the scripts with Jon Glaser. Then we just produce, go through all the processes of decision-making of places and casting and dealing with network-ness.
AVC: Well, we’re here to talk about Final Flesh.
VC: America’s here to talk about Final Flesh.
AVC: Tell me about the genesis of the idea. How did you come to know about these pornographic production companies?
VC: No one will believe it if I say a friend told me about a porn site, but it’s true. A friend said, “Hey, there’s this porn site. They’ll shoot any fetish you want. You should make a music video.” But I immediately thought that I wanted to hear them talk, I wanted to see them do, you know, things. Everything. So I just wrote a script wherein it seemed like everything was a fetish, but everything was just insane. There’s no sex in it. The purpose was to have these porn-producer companies grapple with some shit. And hopefully it turns out funny, to grapple with scenes that I think are secretly comedy scenes, but they take sincerely as simple, noble porn.
AVC: Was it all one company that did all four segments?
VC: Four different companies. It’s a cinematic exquisite corpse. The whole idea was a blind collaboration with people whose job it is, in a really generous and sincere way, to take the script incredibly seriously, because it has a real purpose. Porn has a purpose, and they’re trying to serve its purpose. But then I’m just trying to make fun of shit.
AVC: Did you get to select the actors?
VC: I tried to leave it wholly up to them. I tried to make it a truly throw-it-in-their-court, let them do whatever they want, because I didn’t want to influence anything. There were a couple of the companies that wanted me to choose the girls, and I stayed out of it. I said, “Whoever’s the best actress,” or actor in some cases. But there was one that I couldn’t resist saying “Please use her,” because of her hair. She was the most porn-starry one of them all. She was the one who shook the jar full of meat until it became milk.
AVC: How much did you have to pay to have each segment done, if you don’t mind me asking?
VC: I’m horribly offended. This interview is over. The first one was $900, but then the guy called and said he would not give it to me. His actors wouldn’t leave unless he gave them another $100 each. So it ended up being $1,200. His section was 15 minutes, and they thought, in porn, 15 minutes of material is 15 minutes of shooting, basically. But this had setups and props and dialogue that you could screw up, so they were there all night, and the actors were outraged that they had to go through the process of acting. So I had to give them another $100 each, which I was happy to do. So it was anywhere from 12-hunny to—it went up to $70 mil, was the highest segment.
AVC: That was the 3-D version?
VC: Yeah. We got just a couple of ass shots of some Na’vi.
AVC: Would it have been more if they actually had to have sex on camera?
VC: No! They would much prefer to have sex. Get in, get out, get your money. That’s their bread and how they make their butter. And what they spread their butter on. What they use their butter to…
AVC: Did they give you any rules in advance? Was there anything you couldn’t do? Did they come back at you when you sent the scripts in and ask you what the fuck you were thinking? Or was it all just very much that they wanted to please you?
VC: Pretty much wanting to please. I made sure that they thought I was incredibly sincere about this being a fetish, so there wouldn’t be any attempts at comedy. The whole point of this is to try to create inadvertent comedy on purpose and get people to interpret something as sincerely as possible. So I played up a little bit of insanity and just told them that they had to stick exactly to the script. And no, there was nothing that I wanted them to do… I didn’t want them to do anything illegal. If you go to their site, they do horrifically outrageous shit that isn’t…
AVC: Can you give me an example so I don’t have to go there myself?
VC: I don’t want to rock their boat, but I think they do stuff involving fish and boats. There’s a fetish for everything.
AVC: But your thing isn’t a specific fetish. In the first one, there’s a lot of food.
VC: No, no, it’s not a fetish. I wanted to glide under, I wanted to go in the door of fetish, so there would be no judgment. That’s what’s great about it. They just think, “Oh, everything here is this guy’s fetish? This guy’s getting off on it, so we will commit to it with workmanlike precision.” There’s a lack of judgment mixed with a sort-of… I don’t want to say incompetence, but amateur sincerity.
AVC: So there was no back-and-forth where they said, “No, this woman doesn’t want to read the Koran on the toilet”?
VC: No, no, they were happy to do it. I don’t know, I can’t tell if they would just rather her sit and read the Koran on the toilet, or take two dicks in the ass. I don’t know which is a better work day for them.
AVC: That is a tough choice. Speaking of that, do you feel like you were exploiting these people in any way? Or do you think you were giving them a day off from taking dicks in the ass?
VC: I flipped back and forth. I felt like they were exploiting me, for one, because I was so creeped-out by everything. But I don’t know. I was just fascinated by the exploitation of it all. I don’t have an answer for that. I didn’t feel bad.
AVC: Were you involved in the post-production?
VC: We did some things to cover up some product names and to cover up some music they put in and stuff. They put in some new songs. Taylor Swift wouldn’t want to be associated with this.
AVC: Can you take me back to when you received each one in the mail?
VC: I don’t like to go to that place. That makes me feel like I have insects crawling over every inch of my body. I was actually skeeved out by the whole thing. So that’s why I did three more.
AVC: So you were originally only going to do one?
VC: I always thought it would be funny to do a feature film in that way, and this was the closest I could come—to do it in parts, because it’s more interesting to see different takes.
AVC: Which segment were you happiest with, or most skeeved-out by?
VC: The first one, just because it was the first time I had had that experience, and because I think it is beautifully executed art.
AVC: It is the most engaging one, I have to say.
VC: It’s all about whether they’re committing, because they’re grappling with this stuff, and the people in that one are committing the most, and doing the least trying to turn it into something else. They’re just mechanically executing that which they don’t even begin to comprehend.
AVC: The third segment was the worst, acting-wise. They were trying the hardest.
VC: That’s my second-favorite because there’s real sadness in that one, in everything, burned into the celluloid. And yes, it was shot on super-70mm for IMAX.
AVC: The last one almost seems to have professional actors. It had the feel of student filmmakers.
VC: That was just ambition. That one was clearly people who were more interested in erotica and putting a doily on their porn. Those people were in California, in Los Angeles. It ran the gamut. The first one was in Minnesota. The second one was in Florida. The third one was in Florida. And the last one was people in porn valley. Basically, if you see this movie, you don’t need to travel to those places. You’ve seen it. You’ve appreciated it. You’ve taken it into all your pores and cells, and just go wash and be done with it. Just live your life and die, already.
AVC: Is that segment a little less satisfying to you, because it almost seems like they’re in on the joke?
VC: For me, the whole exercise is to try really hard not to care. You know what I mean? It is what it is. What you get back is what you get back. And it’s also that there’s real variety… I still have no idea what they’re thinking, you know? Even if they’re really in on it. But there’s something when you’re sure that they’ve chosen not to think, that is fun.
AVC: Were you trying to get anything across with the project?
VC: I was trying to make an accidentally terrible movie on purpose, but I fucked up and made a brilliant piece of cinema that will change the way we breathe and the atoms in the air.
AVC: Have you gotten any fan mail from this?
VC: From real fetishists? If somebody sent me a piece of mail, I wouldn’t get anywhere near it.
AVC: So was your audience people like you, with dark senses of humor?
VC: I don’t think it’s that dark. You get to see generous people sharing themselves, and there are some heavy themes. You’re going to want some Kleenex. You’re going to want a box of Kleenex near your face and near your crotch. We’ve screened it a couple times with crowds, and it creates a genuine tension in the air that creates bigger laughs than almost anything I’ve ever done. It’s just a porn-prank-exquisite-corpse-song-poem for people who are into those kind of things. So I would say it’s a mall-flick. It’s a chicks-with-dicks flick.
AVC: There are no chicks with dicks in this movie.
VC: Yeah? Maybe you were the chick with the dick. You always have to look within. The movie should have made you look within.
AVC: Well it did tell me that it looks like Gregor Samsa will get the last laugh. You throw lines like that in there presumably because the people who are saying them will have no idea what they’re talking about.
VC: I hope it doesn’t come off entirely as making fun of people who don’t know what they’re doing. I just hope that the context is shifted, because I don’t know who’s gonna get it. The second group of actors, they look incredibly healthy and educated and together. I’m serious. Their house, or whatever house they used, is really nice. It’s way better than my place. There’s obviously some laughing at people. But hopefully, at least for me, you’re watching people grapple with something, but you sympathize, you identify with the person trying to grapple. You know what I mean? So if you’re a dick, this movie is mean, but if you’re a decent person, fuck you, this is a good movie.
AVC: So what’s the audience for this kind of pretend-fetish comedy movie with no real plot?
VC: There is a real plot. You have to find it.
AVC: Really? Will you tell it to me?
VC: No. I mean, would you ask The Beatles that question?
AVC: I would if they would speak to me about their fetish-comedy.
VC: I bet you can get Ringo on the phone in 10 minutes. So ask him and let him know. I mean, people who enjoy a nice evening at home, with the family, preferably around the fire—just set your coffee table on fire—and like to laugh, like to yuk it up. It’s gonna explore some heavy themes. You’re going to have to think. You’re going to have to think with your whole body. Your heart might throw up into your asshole, but it will age over time. It’ll stay there and something will come of it. Your life will get better.
AVC: So how many of these have you sold or expect to sell?
VC: I don’t know. I don’t know how many Drag City made. When you’re an artist, the business side is not really… It’s kind of bullshitty to ask me that question. It’s like spitting in the face of the Picasso that lives in my heart. I’m sure it’s in the teens. Like, how do you think you’ve changed as a person, having watched it twice?
AVC: I felt a little dirty, and also very amused, and then dirty again.
VC: And then bemused?
AVC: There are definitely some hearty laughs in there.
VC: And do you feel like you were able to transpose your amusement against your bemusement?
AVC: They’re always at odds.
VC: They’re like, fucking tigers and dragons fighting each other.
AVC: I was more curious if you had an idea in your mind when you were making this, even though I don’t mean to impinge your credibility as an artist.
VC: [Laughs.] Oh, credibility impinged! Heart broken, you know? Tears have long since evaporated. Who’s it for? I guess people who like the PFFR type of stuff, if they can handle it. I think it’s a challenge. And people who get disgusted by comedy that’s trying to be funny. There’s nothing more grotesque.
AVC: You’ve certainly come a long way since your more conventional days as a stand-up comedian and writer for Conan O’Brien.
VC: I still work on South Park. This is just what happens when you’re given opportunities. This is the dark side of freedom. I think it’s just so much more fascinating to try to amuse yourself. I’m not disinterested in bigger, more normal stuff. I love South Park. I love working on it. I’ve worked on a bunch of shows like that. I guess I can’t even say why someone who likes South Park wouldn’t like this, other than it’s horribly disgusting and antisocial, but get over it. Fucking revel in it. Roll around in it.