A Film Company Tackles Tough Questions
“I’d like to say that I wanted to produce/write/direct from an early age — but I didn’t,” says writer-producer Christian Martin. “After a year of working in low-paid backstage jobs, I decided to go to film school. Once there, I got bitten by the bug and I’ve been in that groove ever since.”
Martin and his co-producer, Darren Flaxstone, are the driving forces behind Bonne Idee Productions, and they are responsible for some of the most groundbreaking LGBT films to come out of the United Kingdom in more than a decade — among them the film festival faves Shank and Release. Headquartered in Bristol, England, they’ve built a solid reputation creating films for thinking people — those who don’t accept simple answers, favoring instead more real ones.
After Martin and Flaxstone met in film school in the early ’90s, the first opportunity they had to collaborate was on a video for a local AIDS charity.
Aware that there was opposition to the building of a hospice in town, Martin recalls, “I went to them suggesting that what they needed was a video that pulled in all the patrons to talk on camera about their reasons for supporting the charity.”
While classmate Flaxstone handled the editing, Martin produced and directed the film. The two 21-year-olds’ ambitious project included everyone from Jeremy Irons to Derek Jarman in the video, they said.
The finished product was so effective that it was even sent to the Vatican, where permission was granted to a local convent-run hospital to offer its services to the hospice. Years later, Flaxstone called on his pal to discuss an idea for an online cooking show titled The Gay Gourmet.
“That show became ‘Shank’ by the end of the evening,” Flaxstone said with a laugh.
Acclaimed as “pulsating with untamed sexuality and aggression,” Shank involves a teenage thug fighting to hide his gay cravings from his fellow gang members — one of whom he desperately desires.
Their next film, Release, is even more controversial. In that movie, Jack, a homosexual priest, is behind bars for a shocking crime. In fact, we only learn the truth behind that crime in the final reel. Was it justified? That is left to the viewer to decide.
Translated from French, “Bonne Idee” means “good idea.” Flaxstone and Martin say that their story ideas come simply from talking about the world at large and trying to figure out where they, as gay men, fit into it.
“The ideas definitely are born of reality,” Flaxstone said, “something that’s either happened to Christian or myself, or something we’ve heard from people we know.”
Their stories are set in Bristol, but the overall themes are universal and identifiable with LGBT viewers wherever they may hail from.
“Frankly, they could be set anywhere,” Martin says. To illustrate his point, he says they recently received emails from filmmakers in the United States interested in remaking Shank — this time setting it in Brooklyn or Compton. “Likewise, someone in Poland wanted to turn Release into a stage play!” he said.
Bonne Idee’s distinct perspective is also enhanced by the fresh talent it employs. One such collaborator is Simon Pearce, who was chosen to direct Shank at the tender age of 20. After reviewing a few of his short films, the moviemakers quickly recognized the young auteur’s talent with a camera. Pearce agreed wholeheartedly with the innovative vision each had for the movie, and they quickly offered him the job, which marked his feature-film directing debut.
“Christian and Darren were very keen to break gay cinema out of the trend it seemed to be stuck in, where the majority of the movies tended to be inoffensive ‘girl meets girl,’ or ‘guy meets guy’ tales,” Pearce said. “They wanted to make something that was more compelling and original — about real people in real-life, tough situations, and I was very keen to do the same.”
Then for Release, Pearce demonstrated his talent in front of the camera, playing a small but pivotal acting role and serving as cinematographer.
How does this heterosexual up-and-comer feel about forging such a laudable reputation by making primarily gay-oriented films?
Pearce said that having the film’s two gay writer-producers on set didn’t hurt, but he also said that it’s exactly this outside perspective that has helped significantly.
“It’s important that these films cross over to a straight audience in order to make them more aware of contemporary gay issues,” Simon said. “If I can engage with a particular story — any story — and translate that successfully to screen, then I can help introduce it to audiences who wouldn’t normally be made aware of it.”
Since then, Pearce has directed his own short film titled Broken, about a female soldier recovering from a trauma during her tour in Iraq. However, he says that such opportunities would not have come about if Martin and Flaxstone had not invited him to be part of their films.
Ben Moorman is another talent making his mark with the company, now appearing in a thought-provoking short film produced by the duo. The provocatively titled Fucked is a powerful cautionary tale reminding everyone that the need for safe sex is still vital these days — particularly for younger members of the community.
“It’s a short, yet crucial message,” the actor said: “Use a condom!”
He elaborates on his character: “This kid is like the perfect guy. He’s got straight A’s, loves his mum and has the best friend ever, and one stupid mistake ruins everything for him.”
Like Pearce, Moorman identifies as straight, but he is quick to point out that the message of the piece transcends sexual preference. “Regardless of whether you’re heterosexual, homosexual, bisexual, transgendered, or whatever, it affects everyone!”
Heavy subject matter aside, though, Moorman found working for Martin and Flaxstone to be a breeze. “Having worked on loads of film sets before, I thought I knew what to expect,” he said with a chuckle. “But to be honest, I never expected a set to be so friendly. Both of them found that balance between having a fun shooting time and getting that level of professionalism.”
The team’s latest full-length feature, Buffering, marks something of a change for them, and it’s now also making its way around the international film circuit. “After the serious and emotionally draining Release, we needed to have a laugh,” admits Flaxstone. “And Buffering was the best medicine.”
The film takes a lighter-hearted look at a gay couple trying to make ends meet in a tough economy. The best way they find to do it is by creating a live sex website — with them as the unlikely stars.
“Coupled with this dilemma — the worldwide recession — we have woven in everyone’s favorite pastime — online porn — as a device that can potentially pay the bills for them,” said Martin, “but at what cost to their relationship?”
Peppered with sharp dialogue and snappy one-liners, Buffering walked away with the best script award when it had its world premiere in March at Madrid’s Festival del Sol. In the coming months, look for it to play U.S. cities.
Both Shank and Release are available on DVD from TLA Releasing and can be ordered at www.TLAvideo.com. To learn more about Martin, Flaxstone and Bonne Idee Entertainment (including upcoming films and those in production), check out www.bonne-idee-productions.com. More about Simon Pearce can be found at www.simon-pearce.co.uk.