by JC Gonzo
After roughly 10 years of silence, cult-cinema director Jon Moritsugu is back with PIG DEATH MACHINE, scheduled for a release in 2011. His lo-fi, no-budget films and shorts are filled with punk rock, trashy glamor, crude humor and even subtle grace.
Jon’s visceral early work placed his name alongside the likes of Richard Kern, and since then garnering international attention. He’s been featured at Cannes, Sundance, MoMA, the Guggenheim and other venues around the world. Jon stands as one of the very few, rare underground filmmakers to have a prolific and successful career.
The majority of his work stars wife and fellow artist Amy Davis, an illustrator and actress who’s been recently co-opted into the world of filmmaking. After starring in 5 of Jon’s features, Amy has begun to appear in the credits list. She was the cinematographer and co-writer for 2003’s SCUMROCK and now has taken on the role of producer for PIG DEATH MACHINE.
Now as active behind the scenes as she is in-front of the camera, Amy says “It’s not easy!” It was undeniable that PIG DEATH MACHINE was a combination of efforts, and now they are referring to it as “A Moritsugu/Davis Film” in this “hot hot hot porky taster” teasers:
Keeping up with their underground music scene roots Jon and Amy cast Hannah Levbarg, front woman of the band Venus Bogardus. Also, Monte Cazazza is on the list of soundtrack composers. Other stars like Victor of Aquitaine and the film’s cinematographer Todd Verow flew out to take part in this 11-day shoot. You can find Victor of A in most of Jon’s films, and Todd Verow shot some of Jon’s early films like MOD FUCK EXPLOSION.
So PIG DEATH MACHINE is a 20 year reunion of sorts, and finds Jon and Amy in their middle age with the acquired knowledge and skill that comes from such constant practice.
The shoot went on with a sense of camaraderie that you rarely find on movie sets. “On this film, everyone’s a star. There’s no hierarchy between cast and crew,” says Amy Davis. You mostly see this balance in student productions, however what sets this apart is the sheer mastery of Jon and Amy’s guidance. Their experience in the field has granted them the ability to shoot low-key so successfully.
The usual overtime working hours, behind-schedule setbacks, and on-edge moods on film sets were absent. In fact, Jon & Amy were at times ahead of schedule, finishing up early. Although I was an intern on set and got to see this first hand, I was still curious as to how these filmmakers make their career so successful.
Now that Jon and Amy are in post-production and had some down-time, I was able to catch them for an interview.
JonnyCunt: What is a lo-fi, D-I-Y, punk film?
Jon Moritsugu: For me it entails being totally flexible and having tons of options. Whenever I commit to shooting in a certain way, like a certain format, camera or even crew, especially when you’re D-I-Y, things tend to fall apart…
For every production to work out it’s definitely about having alternative options, cheaper ways of getting things done, flexibility. It comes down to your energy, even though it’s a collaborative effort. A lot is relying on yourself, connections, family and friends… going from plan A to plan B, plan B to plan C…
JonnyCunt: Do you work this way by choice or default?
Jon Moritsugu: I started working this way because I had no other way to shoot films. But at this point I really like working this way. When you’re lacking resources, time, money or equipment it forces you to come up with really cool solutions in ways you might have never thought of before. I think every movie actually needs some of this creativity.
D-I-Y is a creative tool.
JonnyCunt: Restraint brings more possibilities…
Jon Moritsugu: Yeah! It’s like in music. Not being able to go into studios to record created this whole underground movement and then aesthetically it becomes an influence on everybody. It’s the same for movies, like the French New Wave. It was about limitations so they created this whole new aesthetic.
D-I-Y is affecting every Hollywood movie out there. They’re being forced to think differently. Their audiences are smarter now. They won’t accept the same old crap!
JonnyCunt: And PIG DEATH MACHINE is definitely D-I-Y…
Jon Moritsugu: When Amy and I started, we had the highest ambitions, like we do for every movie. For this one we wanted to get at least a 100,000 dollars to do a low-budget union type of picture. We wanted some known actors… that plan went out the window.
We had 2 or 3 ways we wanted to do this and each plan got smaller and smaller as we realized the money was harder to find. Our final plan was a small crew and our DP flying out to shoot for us. We were like “Wow, we have to shoot this in 11 days!”
We didn’t have 3 weeks.
But now that I’m looking at the footage, it looks like a much bigger crew made it, like a lot more money went into it…
JonnyCunt: You realized what was available to you without the high cost, like film students, the locals, Garson Studios…
Jon Moritsugu: In Santa Fe we found so many people who could throw themselves into this for 11 days. Like Hannah Levbarg who just said “I’m putting everything on hold for the next 3 weeks, I’m going to be 100% into the movie.” It’s rare to find an actor who can do that!
Even the crew, former students… and it seems like everyone in Santa Fe knows about film-making. Like in Seattle it was hard, people see productions like this strange, alien thing happening. When you go to a business or want to shoot on location people have no idea what’s going on. Here in Santa Fe there’s a familiarity with movies the people carry, it made it a lot easier to make this.
Everyone brought 100% to the table, and said, “How can I help?”
JonnyCunt: Is that why you moved to Santa Fe?
Jon Moritsugu: One reason was Pacific Northwest weather, we’d been there for 3 years and we thought we could handle the grey. I got so depressed. I wouldn’t see the sun for 2 weeks, so we moved away!
Then there’s the cool film scene out here in Santa Fe, like what Hollywood was like in the 30s according to some people. There’s enough big productions in town they they actually help out the smaller ones, open doors, and so on. The art school here [Santa Fe University of Art & Design] for example.
JonnyCunt: Tell me about the stars of PIG DEATH MACHINE. You snagged Hannah from Venus Bogardus for example.
Jon Moritsugu: Her role was originally written for a male lead. We talked to a couple of male leads but none really seemed right or were able to commit to it full time. So I talked to Amy and she suggested changing the male lead to a female lead, which turned her romance interest into a guy.
We thought it was totally crazy idea! We had gigged out with Hannah and she was a really cool and talented musician. She asked us if we had any roles for the movie open and wanted to audition. Theater was her thing in college.
Then Victor of Aquitaine who lives in LA and does these Hollywood productions was in it. He’s a SAG actor so we thought we couldn’t work with him, but we found out he’s international SAG or something and he had one more year of being able to work on small productions like this. He does like Telemundo and stuff like that, like he’s the voice of Domino’s Pizza for Spanish TV.
Yeah, and he’s in this Spanish soap opera where he’s some plastic surgeon who kills women or something, it’s like so crazy. And actually the day he got back, he got called to audition for Darren Aronofsky’s new movie and he couldn’t fly to New York to audition. Darren just asked him to Fed-Ex a tape to his office.
He also had this speaking role in this 50 Cent movie… like Get Rich or Die Tryin’ or something, and he’s some crack buyer on the street. So he gets some weird brushes with Hollywood productions.
JonnyCunt: That’s amazing, and he’s been in just about everything you’ve done.
Jon Moritsugu: Yeah, all the way back to Hippie Porn in like 1990!
JonnyCunt: You’ve mentioned that this is sort of a 20-year reunion, who’s returned?
Jon Moritsugu: We got Victor, and then Jason Rail was supposed to be a returning actor but he bailed. Amy is a returnee. Todd, our cinematographer…
JonnyCunt: And the new kids? Who else besides Hannah?
Jon Moritsugu: Tucker! Tucker Bennett. We’d never met him before. He’s a film student in San Fransisco who sent us his movie and a letter that said” “Hey man I’m a fan of your movies!” So we checked it out and there was this one actor in the movie that really got our attention. Turned out it was him! He directed and starred in it. We asked him and just took a chance! He was totally for it and we told him we couldn’t pay him, but we flew him out for four days… and that’s how he got the part!
His letter to Jon & Amy was handwritten, transcribed here:
“hey guys. my name is tucker and yall are my heroes! last year me and my friend zach made a feature called wyrw? it was shot for about $25 on VHS with a MIDI soundtrack. its deff influenced by your work especially Hippy Porn.
if you have time check it out, if not whatever you still rule
JonnyCunt: You mentioned “Amy’s a returnee” but she’s always been there really as a collaborator and in this one she co-wrote the script.
Yeah, this was her hugest collaboration. She’s co-written before for SCUMROCK and did the costumes for that but has never really been an official part of the production company. So when things got wrapped she’d be like, “I’m done acting, you guys are gonna finish the movie.”
For this new movie I told her I couldn’t produce it myself. I told her, “You’re always there on set, you should be the producer.” So this was our first official movie were we totally did it together.
It was so awesome, but it was hard for us to get to this point because both of us had some growing up to do. I’d be like, “These are my movies! This is my production!” She’d be like, “I’m an artist, I do illustration! I got my own career, I don’t need to keep doing this with you! I can act in your movies but I’ve got my own identity!”
Finally, we realized we’d been married for 15 years and our work overlaps all the time. It really is our movies and that’s what people always think of them too. So for this movie we really came together.
It was kind of great for me. Because, for example I’d be on the phone for 8 hours planning things and she’d always say, “Why are you wasting time on the phone? You’re not working. Producing? Anyone can do that! That’s baby work, you just go to meetings and eat out at restaurants…” Producing is hard work!
Finally with this movie after a couple of weeks of pre-production I had the best moment in my life! Amy came up to me and she was like, “Jon, I’m sorry. You’re right, producing really is hard work… I’m sorry.” I wanted to record it and post it on youtube, it was such a great moment! [Laughs]
Then she started to feel like the producer… stressed. She had to walk the line, acting in the movie and then producing at the same time. I’d be like, “Just focus on your acting.” She had to play both roles and got kind of schizophrenic. I told her to not produce while she was acting, just concentrate on her character…
JonnyCunt: It’s so hard to juggle those roles! But you know, you two collaborating really defines you as an even more unique.
Jon Moritsugu: We were actually trying to figure out how many other couple pairs are out there making work? I mean obviously there’s like Cassavetes and I’ve known of some gay male filmmakers who’ve collaborated with each other but again, it’s really rare. Collaborating is really a challenge. But we want to show that it is do-able and you can create stronger work with a better team.
She’d help keep me in touch with the big picture…
JonnyCunt: Where did PIG DEATH MACHINE come from?
Jon Moritsugu: It started out with us wanting to make a psychological horror movie. We always loved movies with a big transformation of the main character, like turning into something or someone else. We also wanted it to be funny, like a screwball comedy. We figured it’d be a good dynamic.
The original script was supposed to be shot in the Pacific Northwest and had a lot of forests in it. Really grey and dark, ugly scenery… depressing looking. But wow, we’ve seen that so many times. So we took the script with us to the desert in Santa Fe. Now that’s really scary shit, man.
And besides all that, I think all of our movies have a really good message involved. With this one, ‘watch out with what you wish for.’ A lot of what we want in life turns into big problems for us. Wishing for the lottery, or being more beautiful, or being smarter. Wanting more.
So for this movie we wanted these characters to be like superheros who eat a substance and get these special powers. Like Hannah’s character who eats pork and suddenly she’s superwoman and gets to talk to plants! Or Amy’s character eats pork and suddenly she’s superwoman and becomes super smart and can win a million dollars in a casino in one night. You know, these are things we think about and want. Like what if you could be so smart you could make a million dollars in two hours?
So we wanted these characters to make their dreams come true and turn the universe upside down to get everything they ever wanted. But it becomes a nightmare…
JonnyCunt: We get so self-critical when a lot of it is actually what defines many positive aspects of ourselves.
Jon Moritsugu: Yeah! So that’s our morality issue and our message. We don’t want to hit people over the head with it though, we want each person to walk away with something different. Some people may walk away with nothing, and that’s cool too.
JonnyCunt: A lot of your characters can be described as losers, outcasts, maybe even a little scummy or pathetic. But you show a sensitive, very humanizing side of them. Where does this love of the outcast come from?
Jon Moritsugu: We put parts of ourselves up on the screen… With all these losers, scruffy, rough-around the edges characters, I think it’s me up on the screen. I don’t think I’m that normal. I don’t think Amy’s that normal. I think we’re both putting ourselves up on the screen.
We’re showing the world that you don’t have to be a certain way. You get this idea that when you’re 25 you have to have a briefcase and own a suit, go to business meetings, work for a corporation… but with our characters in our movies we’re creating alternative singlets out there. Like our character Lipton, who’s a young woman in her late 20s who washes dishes for a living, but in her free time has a passion for doing research on plants.
I’ve been there, out of college, washing dishes for a living and in my spare time making movies. I think it’s totally valid. It’s a character who’s found a way to keep alive, pay her bills, and go on with her passion. I think it’s totally awesome.
I view these characters with a real humanity and just show love for them. If there’s anyone out there in the world starting out really insecure and just feeling like a freak, out of college, wondering what the fuck they have to do, if they have to get a real job and grow up. Anyone watching these movies will see these alternative characters and realize that life is wide open, it’s what you create. You don’t have to be a certain way, dress a certain way. Just because you’re in your 30s doesn’t mean you have to “grow up.”
These scruffy, rough-around-the-edges characters have some type of a heart, a soul. a spirit that’s keeping them maintaining on this life, this path instead of giving up. I think they give a little bit of hope to people out in the world, that “Hey man, the world is crazy, it’s all fucked up and doesn’t make sense but you can follow your dreams and your own happiness. Remember to do it yourself.”
As highly regarded as Jon is, he remains quite modest and is unafraid to mock himself. His films are filled with self-referential quips that are like little treats to the avid watcher, and Pig Death Machine is no different.
The title was briefly mentioned in 2003’s SCUMROCK, listed as part of the filmography of a fictional “edgy young filmmaker” played by Jon himself.
One might notice the re-occurrence of beagles, and not to mention Jon’s strange obsession with meat that has resurfaced in Pig Death Machine. For example, a fantasy sequence in MOD FUCK EXPLOSION features Amy elegantly tip-toeing her way through 800 pounds of raw meat–collected left-overs from butcher shops. What’s even more ironic is that during this production Jon and Amy became vegetarian.
In fact, the crew that made the fake meat props for the film (called “The Meat Crew” of which I was a part of) were two-thirds vegetarian. Most of the rotting pork seen in the film was made from vegetarian alternatives, which the cast found surprisingly delicious.
Don’t be mistaken, this is not an anti-meat film. As Jon said, there is a greater metaphor at hand.
Unfortunately, the day I interviewed Jon, Amy was unable to arrive. She had fallen ill that week and needed rest. She did, however, respond to a few questions in a letter (see below).
As winter came to an end in Santa Fe, Jon and Amy began to play live shows around town. This is where I first met them, and where they first met Venus Bogardus when they all performed at a show for The Process in Santa Fe. (Editor’s Note: The Process is a not-for-profit arts and music collective run by TEoB Editor Red Cell). Amy wore black lipstick and a shimmery sequined dress, Jon had his wild hair grown out past his shoulders. I didn’t know what to expect. The two had released their debut album as Low On High, the lead vocals performed primarily by Amy.
I asked her a few questions about the band. Here is letter I received in return:
JonnyCunt: Amy, I talked to Jon about his collaboration with you and how it has changed his artistic process. I am curious as to how it has affected your end, as you are an illustrator, an actress, and so on?
Amy Davis: When Jon and I decided to actually become partners…for real..in FILM…we freaked.
I freaked…he freaked .
Then the dust settled and we were all…DUDE I feel way better…I NEED YOU. I CANNOT do this with out you yaddda yadda…Very romantic..Very frantic.
Emotions aside it freed me.He freed me.I love my Jonny.
I was very solo journey…very get your film offa my art and Jon was the same.
I gotta give ya some back story pre uniting so you get why I’m chillin’…We are chillin.
When we met I knew I’d get known for Mod…Like I knew Jon would be a Star and all.Cocky maybe but sometimes you just feel it.Like true LOVE.
I was so bummed cuz I felt my acting for a star director would usurp my art career and boom I’d ONLY be known as HIS friggin actor…Part of the Moritsugu mania.Lost.
I loudly denied any attachment to being a nerdy thesp and and concentrated on being a nerdy illustrator.
Jon was already FAMOUS (to me and my freakazoidy underground world)and I didn’t want HIM making me.
I had to make MY NAME before he steals it for his damn films….This is my all constant chatter in my mind.
LONG STORY SHORT..I make it in art…get known…get $$$ and get a taste of a real MOMENT a signing.. a fete..PRESS all for ME and no friggin MORITSUGU! HAH! ahhhhh yeah baby… ALL ME ME MEEEEEEEEEEE!!!!!!!
And then BOOM.
It hit hard… I felt ALONE and EMPTY.
What was the point of getting FAMOUS alone. Rock shows with Jonny are more fun than this I thunked…even dare I say it… acting is mo better….LAME ASS ACTING IS MO BETTER!
and then it hit me.
I was suppose to partner with Jon.
He was shocked…I was shocked.
I felt like a loser…WTF> Like a POSEUR.
But I realized we made SCUMROCK together….and I liked it…Liked not being solo…liked being Numero 2 and loved being SIDE BY SIDE next my man. My King…I now feel like a Queen..Like in chess tho..heeeehehehee
WTF and YAY all in one breath.
Since we have been united …truly it’s been less than a year…actually it really just hit me like yesterday and no that ain’t me joshing…It hit hard.
We just cut a kickass trailer…I wanna do this forever.
And i didn’t CHOOSE it…I was drafted.I Thank Jonny and GOD and all that Universal letting go,growth stuff…it’s all true even if its; also all very LIFETIME channel/ Eat Pray Love stylee…And i am NOT condoning that FILM.horrid editing alone….
Oh yeah and I still draw only difference…Now it brings me joy not just $$$ and presssuuuurrrreeee.
And now i’m not only into acting i’m” INTO ACTING”…total ACTOR NERDO…Don’t get me going:)LAFF hard cuz it’s true…acting is friggin COOL!!! OMG i said it out loud. Jon saved me…for real….Dramatic…yes…cuz i’m all “actory” now.
JonnyCunt: About Low on High, a few tracks off the album can be heard in the films. (Such as “Babydoll” in MOD FUCK EXPLOSION). Did you always consider you and Jon a “band” or were you two just recording tracks for the movie? Were those future plans for a full album release, etc. always in the mix?
I mean I was raised in clubs my dad was MEL DAVIS the greatest JAZZ Trumpeter of all time but still I was a baby chicken girl.
Amy did, in fact, bark into the microphone during a live show. I couldn’t have been more pleased.
Come 2011, we will not only get PIG DEATH MACHINE, but a making-of documentary shot by Tetsuki Ijichi of Tidepoint Pictures and Carnival in the Night fame. The documentary will feature first-hand how a film of this nature gets produced. Currently, Jon is also on the judge panel for Interpretations, an independent short film competition created by Justin Lin.
Support Jon & Amy’s PIG DEATH MACHINE at their KickStarter page where you can get rare goodies like a MOD FUCK EXPLOSION zine, limited 7″, and even a speaking role in the new film.