We had met Julia Ostertag, director and producer of Dark Circus during the Etrange Festival.
The Storyline of Dark Circus : Johanna is just twenty years old but struggling with her boring and aimless existence. Disturbing visions start the day she gets fired from her job. Soon Johanna is carried off into a different world beneath the city where people live in a parallel universe full of darkness and magic rituals. The denizens of this world are inspired and guided by a mysterious woman, The Mistress. Drawn into her cult through an extravagant initiation ceremony, Johanna encounters fascinating characters: People like Simon, the collector, with whom she embarks on an obsessive affair. As Johanna plunges deeper into the occult her old world slowly collapses…
First question: how did you find all the actors? Did they all come from the BDSM community?
First of all, I wouldn’t say the film is exclusively BDSM, I don’t even consider myself a part of that. I would more call it a kink fetish occult movie that transgresses boundaries and genres. I also think it has a big influence from the queer scene. I started it with a hardcore kind of crew that I knew would be in and would support me. The crew was really important as we had a really low shooting budget. The good thing about Berlin is that you can find almost everything, anyone doing stuff their own way, individuals who are small stars on the underground scene. They just liked what they saw, this beautiful artwork by a photographer who is also part of the king fetish scene. He also for example brought the ponies and one thing came to another and everything pretty much came together. I make a slight difference between actress and performers so part of the film is professional actors which was important for me because they had dialogues. But I notice that for example the Mistress was, at first, a professional actress but she had some problem with the extreme performance, because as you might have seen the suspension is real, and she couldn’t handle that so she stepped out two days prior to that shooting and everything booked like more than fifty extras and performers and that’s when the other mistress who stepped in and she’s just a performer. She’s a performance artist but she felt it and she gave the figure of the mistress a whole new power and energy that I didn’t have to explain to her. She had to learn the dialogues for sure, that’s was new to her. But you can practice that.
How did you get all the filming permits for BDSM clubs?
As I said there was a little buzz around the film. We shot within a few months during seventeen days. So people in the scene kind of heard about it or had an idea what we were doing from Facebook posts or knew somebody in the film and that helped incredibly. Actually two of the Berlin clubs kind of would support us because they thought it’s something representable that we had cool artwork that works for and within the scene. I am myself an underground person not only in the BDSM, punk or metal scene but I love all of them. My life is in the subculture. I know people that can trust me and that way it’s easier for me to have access to those places.
How was the production of the movie? What were the biggests challenges?
I think the biggest challenge was the scene with the really many people where we had just one day. We couldn’t repeat things: the suspension for example. It was pretty clear we didn’t have the budget to have more than one shooting day in those places. So let’s say, the one where we had a performer doing something we could not repeat and having all the extras doing that at the same time. I would say getting the people together in the right place, at the right time. The biggest challenge was among other to get the suspension scene working because even some of the actresses that hadn’t seen that before got a bit sensitive if they could see, not only the blood but the syringes, the instruments and you cannot interrupt these things, you have to keep it going. In a way all these bigger scenes were the biggest challenge of my filmmaker’s life
How many days did the shooting take?
We were shooting between April and September 2015, and as I said I couldn’t hire the whole crew constantly. We would have little blocks of one/two/three shooting days.
All the places are always in Berlin?
Yeah Dark Circus is shot in Berlin and surroundings which makes it easier because it’s hard to get the crew far out of the city. And the woods were we shot the outer scene were half an hour from Berlin.
Where do the sets and costumes come from?
Mostly from people who were involved in the film. I had the luck to meet performance artists who are also costume makers. They built their own costumes which I think is amazing. Louis Fleischauer who does the suspension, does that for twenty years and all the pieces you see are individuals. I had a big luck that he supported the project. We had a special deal that I could use them and take big care of it. We collaborated that way. And there’s this other girl with the Glass joggling. She did this amazing horn pieces. She does it for herself and sales them also. I just started to make round calls, posted on Facebook “who has this? Who has that?” Ponies for example that just comes on as full ponies. I would say that 80% of the people came with things they’d like to wear at least to some occasions and brought them and were actually happy to wear them in a movie.
In Dark Circus, BDSM isn’t judged but, in life if I understand well, you think that healthy way to express is dark side, am I right?
I think that fetish and BDSM is like a powerful reverse where people can live out fantasies in a consentual way without being judged and have the opportunity to be something different. I think the whole film is actually an expression of that: go over to parallel universe where you’re not limited by society norms. That why maybe I think it’s a dark circus but it’s beautiful. According to me the film is a lot about beauty and personal aesthetics and about being an individual. And I think I dressed it up a bit with this occult and spiritual aspect. I truly believe that you’re a happier person if you follow your bizarre, extreme, weird or dark side and turn them into something because they are a source of energy and power. To be honest I’m bored by the normal type of heterosexual sex. And I guess I express that in the movie but not with pornographic images, rather with stronger symbolic images. I think BDSM can be like a trip to another side of yourself.
You said you don’t want to make a horror movie. Actually, I have seen your movie like a psychological movie, do you agree?
Yeah, I think it’s a nice way to read it. But psychological movie or psychological horror movie ?
I totally like that thanks. That’s why I said yesterday to people “stay for the Q&A” because if you work for something for three years and then you go to festivals and have to give it some sort of genre placement. And I know it has horror elements but is not bloody enough to be gore, for example. Psychological aspect to me is important. And I am a person who thinks a lot, and reflects on what’s going on in their own psyche or others. I still find that the human psyche is like infinite but can be fascinating or terrifying. I think I pretty much come from post experimental film.
What’s your favourite horror movie?
That’s hard. I think House of thousand corpses by Rob Zombie. I can watch it over and over again and I just think the way the sets are made that you can tell the low budget, the story and the energy and the seventies references. I love that film.
My last question. I want to apologise for this question, it’s a little stupid but I prefer to ask this. BDSM isn’t on screen every day. What do you think about the Fifty shades of grey books and movie? And particularly about the influence of the saga on people in the mainstream vision of BDSM?
That’s a funny question. First of all, I read the book not knowing what to expect. I bought it on a holiday flight at the airport. It was the original version, in English. Because I’m not into mainstream culture, I only realise later that it was the blockbuster everyone was talking about. I think it’s incredibly cheesy. I said to my friends that one day I will twist the whole thing around and invent a gorgeous older lady that takes a younger boy. And see what people would say. The book is just cliché after cliché after cliché. And maybe the one good thing is that now people talk about BDSM. But what is super annoying is that everything gets referenced to it. And all of a sudden just because some Australian housewife got the weird idea to include “BDSM” … It’s just WTF.
In fact, it’s Twilight’s fan fiction
Yeah right I forgot that. What is described in the book to me is not BDSM and I’m not turn on bit. Just huge cliché but it’s kind of amusing but I don’t take that seriously.
Thanks to Julia, the Etrange Festival and Eleonore for the retranscription.