Writer/director Bret Wood admits that his new, homegrown film Psychopathia Sexualis will never be an obvious choice to play alongside Cars and X-Men at your neighborhood multiplex. "One person characterized it as a silent movie that's not really silent, and a sex movie that doesn't have any sex," he says.
Psychopathia Sexualis -- in its quirky aesthetic, its heady, kinky themes, and its shoestring budget -- may be quintessential film festival fare. The 30th Atlanta Film Festival contains dozens of similarly creative and provocative labors of love and/or obsession, and the locally produced Psychopathia Sexualis qualifies as both a representative example and one of the strangest among this year's lineup.
Because Wood happens to be the husband of Creative Loafing film critic Felicia Feaster, it also raised an ethical quandary in our headquarters. To avoid any appearance of favoritism, should we avoid writing about Wood's work outright? Or would we be remiss in our duties as local A&E journalists by ignoring Psychopathia Sexualis, a film plugged in Entertainment Weekly's summer movie issue and populated with many of Atlanta's best stage actors? Is it fair to deny a filmmaker attention just because he's married to a Creative Loafing movie reviewer? After much debate, we decided that Wood's work was worthy of coverage on its own merits (Feaster did not participate in the debate about this article).
A producer and designer of film distributor Kino International, Wood's produced short documentaries and in his spare time, made films for such Atlanta grassroots filmmaking forums as the 48 Hour Film Project and the Dailies. In 2003, Wood achieved national critical notice for Hell's Highway, a feature-length documentary about such notoriously gory highway safety films as "Signal 30."
Having examined the self-appointed guardians of American children's safety in Hell's Highway, Wood next found inspiration in Psychopathia Sexualis, Richard Freiherr von Krafft-Ebing's landmark 1886 text about sexual pathology. Inspired by both vintage silent films and the dreamlike narratives of Guy Maddin (director of such cult films as Dracula: Pages from a Virgin's Diary), the film features interlocking vignettes that feature dominatrices, mustache-obsessed homosexuals, would-be vampires and even a shadow puppet interlude about necrophilia.
During pre-production, Wood and producer Tracy Martin needed to be clear that Psychopathia Sexualis was an art film and not an "art film." "At auditions, we had copies of Krafft-Ebing's book and Hell's Highway's reviews to show we had some legitimacy," Wood says.
Wood and Martin cast the film almost entirely with seasoned Atlanta stage actors -- the credits could be a who's who of Atlanta theater, including Bryan Davis, Daniel May, Patricia French, Daniel Pettrow, Lisa Paulsen and many others. Wood, who had never made a film using actors before, describes working with his cast as his favorite part of the process. "In the story about the guy who sucks blood from his maid's fingers, Anne Towns plays the maid," he says. "On the page, the part amounts to putting on a maid's uniform, and sticking a finger out. Towns invested that character with so much personality that she practically pops off the screen."
Wood finds some common ground between the creators of highway safety films and Victorian-era sex researchers. For the Highway Safety Foundation, no one asked whether kids should be seeing films of dead bodies on the side of the road. "They were doing something atrocious but thought they were doing something great," says Wood. "Meanwhile, Krafft-Ebing documents cases of sexual deviance, and attempting to do a scientific catalog maybe ends up making moral judgments. In the book, if you're a fetishist or a homosexual, you're right there next to the rapists and the murderers. It's like the road to hell is paved with good intentions."
As a filmmaker, Wood admits to being fascinated with sex-related themes, which he attributes to his upbringing in a Pentecostal family in Chattanooga. "I came from a very repressive, religious, politically conservative background," he says. "You always dwell on the things you're denied, and I was told never to think about sex. Now I'm thinking about sex. I'm wondering why it's such a forbidden topic, and why it's so volatile."
Wood self-financed the film, partly by pouring all his royalties from Hell's Highway and his other film projects into a Psychopathia Sexualis fund. He discovered devoting his spare time and weekends to filming a period piece with multiple storylines was nearly an insurmountable challenge that took roughly two years from pre- to post-production. What gives Psychopathia Sexualis a leg up, compared to many of its fellow films at the AFF, is that it already has a national release, being scheduled to play short runs in about 12 cities. Most entries go into film festivals praying they'll find a distributor when they come out.
Whether bringing his film to film festivals or art house cinemas, Wood acknowledges that Psychopathia Sexualis is not for everybody, and he's one of dozens of filmmakers who'll be at the Atlanta Film Festival holding his breath and hoping his film connects. "I think I have pretty realistic expectations," he says. "I know Fox Searchlight is not going to buy it and distribute it. The aspiration is that it'll interest an investor for my future projects. Comparing it to what else is out there, we'll get pretty beat up. But hopefully Psychopathia Sexualis will find its niche among people who appreciate its originality while acknowledging its flaws. If you go expecting porn, though, you'll be disappointed."
Psychopathia Sexualis. 3 stars. Fri., June 16, 9:30 p.m., at GSU Speakers Auditorium.
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