With science fiction story-lines and topics of sexuality proving to be big discussion starters here on Short of the Week, it would have seemed like an opportunity missed if we didn’t speak to emerging filmmaker Connor Hurley about his short film The Naturalist. Based around concepts of genetically altering sexual orientation and set in an unspecified dystopian future, we talked to the director about the influence of existing work on his narrative/tone and looked at how he went about creating a timeless aesthetic for his film:
It’s hard not talk about ‘The Naturalist’ without first looking at the concept – where did the idea for the narrative come from?
I remember I was probably around 12 years old, pursuing both my passion for filmmaking and facing questions of my own sexuality. After watching Pyscho, I wanted to know everything, and I came across stories about Anthony Perkins and his own rumored bisexuality. Apparently he wasn’t too happy with it, and someone attributed a quote to him—possibly erroneously—that if there were a “gay pill” he’d take it. The idea always stuck with me.
That’s what the film is really about for me—choice. The central question behind The Naturalist I think gets lost in the larger political climate of our times. “Choice” and “lifestyle” are part of a conservative rhetoric often thrown around—but what if it really were a choice? On the other end of the spectrum, I wanted to contend with the “born this way” argument, which I think is not only frustratingly simplistic but also potentially irrelevant among a species that is increasingly taking its evolution into its own hands. There is an almost HolyGrail-esque scientific search for “the gay gene.” What happens to this argument when this gene, should it exist, is found?
All that, yes, but REALLY, on a personal level: At the time of writing I had fallen deeply in love for the first time. But this unity was tested by a third party who came a little too close for comfort. I was ashamed of how I felt—how could I be threatened by a woman in a relationship between two men? From there, the concept that had always been on my mind took on the tone of a sci-fi/horror love triangle.
How have audiences reacted to the concepts and themes explored in the film’s narrative?
As far as audience reaction, some people respond to the intentions behind the themes of choice and sexuality. Most people walk away commenting on the tone and photography and all the beautiful actors – which is fine because it was definitely an objective for this to be an aesthetic experience.
I do think that the film gets misconstrued as a “gay rights” statement, an exaggeration of the hardships faced by gay people in modern times. That irks me a bit because that’s definitely not what I was going for, and if I could do it all over again I would do my best to move away from that. For me, it’s about the human condition – and all of the mysteries encompassed therein -underlying all of the politics.
The thing I appreciated most was the response that I got from other filmmakers. The film is definitely not a crowd-pleaser and I think the more abstract storytelling kept a lot of people at arms length, but I walked away from a lot of these festivals with really close friendships with other filmmakers. This was my first time on the circuit, and I was really nervous showing the film, so to walk away with a few close connections based around showing my work, made it all worth it.
It was interesting because we did the gay film festival, fantastic festival and mainstream circuit and I think the film actually got the least attention at gay fests and was most misinterpreted. In most mainstream fests we screened in gay-themed short blocks, which was great because it gave us a really dedicated, responsive audience. In New Orleans, though, we screened in a block called “Headspace” and I appreciated the recognition that The Naturalist is a film about a character’s conflicted interior state and being grouped with other films based on this more nuanced through-line. I can’t help thinking of Cate Blanchett’s recent speech at the Oscars about how films about women – and in this case, gay people – are not “niche” and people DO want to see them. With future work I definitely want to attempt to bridge this gap and explore more of that intersection between gay and straight worlds.
The Naturalist touches on just the briefest moment from this universe, were there a lot of other scenarios you didn’t use in the film and are there any plans to expand on this story?
There’s actually quite a lot of footage that was shot that didn’t end up in the film—special effects, gorgeous shots—really tough things for me to cut. The world is too expansive to fully explore in the short form, so a lot of it was cut to focus the story. But even the script was written like this, where we’re dropping in on intimate and important moments in the life of a couple, sort of like vignettes—it’s a style that I like and feels natural to me and something I want to explore in my future projects.
My initial intention was for this to serve as a precursor to a larger piece, and there’s a lot written in addition to all the extra footage sitting on a hard drive somewhere. But over the two plus years I’ve spent making this, I think my vision and aim as an artist is more mature and I’m itching to articulate that with new projects.
The film seems as much about tone as it is about narrative, was this something you had to work hard to develop at or did it evolve more naturally?
I kind of had a breakthrough when answering the first question here, which was that the central questions that inspired The Naturalist are un-answerable. The factors that determine sexuality–genetic, psychological, or environmental factors—science has yet to determine. The only way I can really tackle this subject is by trying to capture the emotions I feel when grappling with these questions myself.
I don’t intend for this dystopian world to be taken literally as a statement, particularly the ending—it’s more about capturing the headspace of the main character, who’s stuck in a swirling, dream-like fugue of pressures: love, attraction, the past, society, to name a few.
Tonally and conceptually your film reminded me of recent alternative sci-fi movie Upstream Color – were there any works (cinematic or other) that proved an inspiration when creating The Naturalist?
I’m really interested that you brought that up. I had long since shot The Naturalist when I saw Upstream Color, but I felt those tonal similarities as well—the drugs, worms, the aesthetic and abstract, ambiguous storytelling. From the beginning, I wanted to merge the high-concept, stylized excitement of a graphic novel with the intimate, unnerving realism more reminiscent of the work of Sofia Coppola, Terrence Malick, Lynn Shelton. Tree of life was a huge visual influence—visually, tonally, and the abstract, emotional/intuitive storytelling. Margaret Atwood’s writing (seeing beautifully handled feminist sci-fi, why not gay-themed sci-fi?), and, of course, the work of Philip K Dick, were huge influence as well.
Because we were creating an alternate vision for the future, we wanted to go timeless with the aesthetic. My background is as a painter, so I took a lot of cues from (classical) painters who inspired me growing up—the impressionists, John Singer Sargeant—which reinforced our decision to shoot exclusively with natural light. I also storyboarded out the film in its entirety, shot-by-shot.
For Eden’s world we took design influence from the modernists, kind of an homage to those optimistic, retro-futuristic visions of the future to counter all of the dystopia. I discovered Jean-Luc Godard’s Alphaville while researching and I was really inspired by the blend of new-wave realism and that distinctly mid-century fascination with the future.
What can you tell us about the shoot?
This was my thesis at NYU. My intention was always to make a really small sci-fi, prioritizing realism over special effects. But I never intended it to get as big as it did. Especially relying on a lot of volunteers, you don’t expect people to be that reliable. But we had an incredible, incredible crew that showed up and stayed for the long days. We used Cooke S2 lenses—they were popular in the 90’s so we felt we could counter the very modern digital realism-style of the RED one MX and evoke a more nostalgic, cinematic, epic feel reminiscent of a lot of the high-concept 90s films that inspired me growing up.
Filming took a long time. Our lead actress got tonsillitis in the week leading up to the shoot. With painkillers and tea she was able to get through the first day of filming but, during a key scene, she was rushed to the ER. This was a huge snag for us both financially and schedule-wise, so we regrouped, launched a Kickstarter, and finished the film. Kickstarter was an incredible – albeit daunting – experience, but it showed us that there was an audience for this film and people who really wanted to see it.
What are you working on next?
Immediately after shooting The Naturalist I started shooting my first feature film, Skook, which recently premiered at the New Orleans Film Festival and took the jury prize for best narrative feature, which was totally unexpected and thrilling. We’re working to get that out there to more audiences. Otherwise, I’m writing a lot and shooting when I can, working on getting another feature off the ground. Letting go of The Naturalist, though, which has been a 2+ year effort, is an insane thing for me. Short of the Week was a constant source of inspiration for me during the writing and pre-production, especially at the low points where I didn’t think I had the courage to go through with the film – so I couldn’t be more thrilled to have it at home here. I can only hope it offers some other filmmaker the push they need to finish their films, too.