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INTERVIEW: Keola Racela On Directing His Debut Feature ‘Porno’

Following the release of his debut feature film earlier this week, we chat with Porno director Keola Racela about the challenges that come with shooting a feature, how the film got its name, and the future of horro


This is your first feature film, how did you make the transition from shorts films into feature length?

I went to film school and had not made any films before so it was all kind of new to me. What’s funny is that your thesis film in school is a short film because obviously they cannot support you making a feature and all that entails. So all you really know in film school is short films, so making the jump is kind of tough. I graduated from film school and set about writing what I thought would be my first feature film, but it’s big unknown kind of thing. The great thing about going to school was that I got an opportunity to work on a feature film set as an art PA for a David Gordon Green film and it was eye opening. He makes films of all different scales, and this was quite a small film even though it stars Paul Rudd and Emile Hirsch. It was a very small crew, small film, small cast and the amazing thing about being on that set was the size of the production was not that much bigger than our thesis films in school. So it felt like an attainable thing, something I could imagine myself some day doing. But really, when I went to make Porno I thought this will be easy, and it will be like four short films back to back, because usually my
short films take about 5 days to make and to shoot, so I thought it would be 22 days to shoot… But it was a much more intense process and there’s a lot more to hold in your head. But I think you just have to do it to learn those things.

So you went in very positive! What were the biggest challenges that you faced going into the film?

Everything was a breeze and went according to plan… No, that’s not true *laughing*. Even though we wanted the script to be set at a certain level, the way the film was made there was a set amount of money and we were kind of writing to that money. So the idea of setting it in a single location and having a limited cast of characters was all built around this idea. But even then there are things – some of it comes from inexperience and some of it just comes from wishful thinking – where you just overwrite something without really having an idea of how it will be produced on screen. Once the script was done, me and the producers had to have a very real talk about what of this could actually make it on screen and it’s like an immediate kill your darlings process of them saying we will put money into this and we’ll loose this here and we can shoot this off screen, that kind of thing. It’s a gut wrenching thing because you feel like you’re the only one who cares about whether or not the movie is good or whether it will retain the elements that will make this script good. Yet the producers are just trying to make everything shitty. But really they’re just trying to make the movie makeable. They say this is a good idea but you have to be able to make this and be able to afford to shoot all this stuff.

That was the first challenge and the second was just getting used to the process… It’s a kind of marathon, like short films are a sprint and with this you have to pace yourself. We also only had one day off in between our weeks so we shot two 5 day weeks and two 6 day weeks which means it was nearly 22 days of shooting with only 3 days off. I was a little bit of a mess by the end but I think understanding what the pace of shooting one of these, the longer form pieces, kind of retrofitted our dreams to the reality of production.

Porno is associated with Fangoria – how did that come about? Had you worked with them before for anything?

I was certainly familiar with Fangoria! When I was a kid I was definitely afraid of it in the magazine aisle, because I wasn’t much of a horror person as a young kid. It only really came to me in my late teens. But yeah I was aware of Fangoria and was super aware of their relaunch which was kind of like this amazing rebirth, and an amazing film publication. We made this film independently, and just crossed our fingers when applying to festivals and luckily we got into SXSW which is where our premier was. After that we were just working with a sales agent and they were one of the people who were interested, so we were really lucky.

The film is of course called Porno, which makes for a tricky Google search! Where did the inspiration for that come from?

When we were in production the title of the film was called Untitled Teen Horror Film because we didn’t have a title that we loved. There was a running joke on set where people would just pitch titles and we turned it into a game with a running list of titles. Bill who plays Mr Pike suggested we should call it Reel Demon and I was like oh my god no. I love Bill but I just saw the feature lost forever if it was called Reel Demon. Someone suggested Children of the Porn and I thought that sounds like an actual porn title… So we banded about a lot of ideas but the idea is that these kids think they are watching porno and really they’re watching a satanic film so we thought that the title was funny. That’s basically it. Its kind of had a weird knock on affect where poeple watch the film expecting it to be super hardcore because it’s called Porno, but really it’s just a much more wholesome, gentler film than that, even though it has some gruesome gore in it. We were definitely asked to change the title many times, many times, but it felt right. Also there’s something about calling it Porno which makes it feel antiquated or out of this time, and the films set in ‘92 so it felt like the right vibe.

Porno talks a lot about sexual repression, and trying to hide those feelings. Do you think it’s a film that has more to say than it first looks?

Yeah I think so. I’m not always aware of how much people are absorbing of the film. When we first finished up we thought the film was dumb but if you get really drunk you might enjoy it. And I got really drunk and watched it and I wasn’t sure this was the exact film to watch drunk, I would watch John Wick really drunk. There’s a very heavy scene at the centre of the film and it’s kind of like a tonal shift, and one that I hope we get to in an organic way and if you are paying attention the film is like seeding all of these things leading up to it. It feels like the central scene to the whole film, and I feel that if you’re not on board or keyed into it at that point then you’re probably not going to like the film very much or understand the themes that were trying to talk about with the film. I don’t know, it’s hard to say what people are ultimately getting out of it overall but I do know that a lot of people have responded to those things in a super positive way.

There are a lot of religious elements to this that tie in with the repression, which I thought was an interesting way to do it with the teenagers as this isn’t seen as much anymore. DId you feel there was an importance to show this?

The idea for the film started with the setting which was a haunted porno theatre, and when we were thinking about what characters to put in there we definitely thought sexually repressed and inexperienced people would be the most affected by it. So that’s where that grew out of. A lot of the religious parts of this script, the dialogue and the prayer and stuff come from Matt Black who grew up in Oklahoma. Even though he grew up in an atheist household, he grew up in a very big evangelical community and went to church, and when you’re young it is part of your life. One of the great directives Matt had was to not make the easy joke about religion and peoples inexperience, their belief relating to ignorance. The idea is to not just dump on people’s faith and I think it gives the film a little bit of a different angle. They’re obviously in an extreme situation and all of the repression comes to bear but I think not going for that low hanging fruit was an important thing for us when making the film, and it gives the movie a different kind of feel.

Talking of low hanging fruit… There is a scene halfway through that is a pretty incredible gore scene. I would have loved to see more of the gore (not balls), what was the reasoning the gore was so shocking in the middle of the film and not towards the end?

I too would have loved to see more gore. Some of it had to do with resources and where we wanted to put the resources, and clearly all of that was around male genitalia… There was a lot of stuff that was written to be more graphic than it was, which we just didn’t end up doing. It was like you can spread it out and make everything look passable or you can pick a couple of things and make them look really amazing, so we went with the latter. One of the other things about our film is that there’s a pretty low body count, there aren’t that many kills and so there aren’t that many opportunities for gnarly gore. So we went for quality over quantity.

How was the atmosphere on set with the crew? There’s some great dynamics when it comes to the language and humour of the cast! (Some of the scenes are a little awkward)

It was great! Especially because I think it was set in a single location, it was a pretty small crew so you get a nice familial feeling. What was amazing and super successful was that the core actors, the five main characters just got along so well – I would creep over to the craft area and they would just be laughing together, so they had a real off-screen bond and I think that comes through in the film. They were all super fun to work with, and they were all super supportive of each other, and all in similar places in their careers. It was just a kind of alchemy that you hope for when you’re putting something like this together.

The film is set in the 90s, such a beloved era! Why did you choose that era to set the film?

In part because thats when we were that age, and the other part because our present day relationship with pornography and our access to pornography is so different than it was pre-internet, where it was like a quest to find some sort of illicit thing. In the US they had the PlayBoy channel and if you didn’t subscribe to it you could still turn to it but it would be like scrambling. So as kids you’d turn to that channel and you could make out something – it was these kinds of things that we were doing to try and see someone naked which was very silly. So it’s just completely different now, you can just type into any browser anything and see anything you want, so especially for these characters who are inexperienced and kind of ignorant, it felt important to be set in that era.

There is a lot of female nudity and my worry is that it feels a little male gazey in some ways. Was the purpose more about seducing the audience alongside the succubus?

I wonder about this male gaze a lot, especially because I’m a male filmmaker and I wonder if there’s any way to get out from underneath that. The idea of having a succubus who is supposed to be alluring and everything, especially because when she is nude, she’s encountering male characters so it’s part of the story and part of language. These characters are looking at her in this way and these characters are being seduced by her in this way, so there’s an inherent male gaze because they are males looking at her. There’s a part where Gillian’s character encounters the succubus as Ricky, and we try to shoot Ricky in the same sexualised way by panning up and down his body so we tried to treat that equally. I think for as much as we showed our succubus but tried to put in as much male nudity as possible to try and offset that. It’s a movie about a succubus, but usually in horror films there’s a trope where women are punished for sexuality, you know in slasher films, but in this film we tried to flip it a little bit. It’s the oppressed ones who get punished and it’s the men who get their dicks ripped off so you know, whether or not we pull that off it’s up for other people to decide.

Comedy horror isn’t an easy genre to pull-off, were there any that you took inspiration from?

My favourites are always Evil Dead II, American Werewolf in London and The Lost Boys, which is not really like a comedy per se but it just has so many funny elements to it. It was the horror film I watched the most growing up, even though I wasn’t into horror films, I was  watching that movie on a weekly basis. Matt and Lawrence would say Superbad is an inspiration, even though I don’t think we have Superbad humour in the movie because ours is a little bit weirder than that, but I think that those are the touchdowns. Also Ghostbusters. Those are the kind of things that were ingrained in me as a kid and I think I constantly go back to.

Finally, what do you see for the future of horror?

It feels like it’s becoming such a big genre again. It feels like it’s becoming a little prestige, bigger actors are drawn to it and so the amazing thing about horror is that you can enter it at all levels. With some effects and if you have the right amount of tension, you can make a very low budget horror film and it can still be wildly effective, and then also there are these bigger movies that have movie stars in them and you’re playing on the same field. It feels like the bigger and more prestigious the genre gets, it helps to elevate those smaller films which is super exciting and is not something you can see and say for other genres. You look at The Invisible Man which was made for like a pretty small budget compared to a Marvel film, and then you look at something like The Vast of Night and these are two amazing films and one was made for a very small amount of money with a bunch of friends and the other was made with Moss and Leigh Whannel and makes hundred of millions of dollars. It’s a broadening of the field, and opens up the door for all filmmakers and the fans of horror are the ones that benefit as more and more people make it.


Zoe Smith
Zoe has been writing for JumpCut since the beginning of 2019. She has written reviews and interviews and has covered festivals such as FrightFest. With a strong focus on the horror genre, she also has her own podcast on extreme cinema, and bylines at: Scream Magazine and The Horrorcist, as well as being a Rotten Tomatoes approved critic.

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