New Zealand filmmaker Armağan Ballantyne is recalling the moment she decided to make her new film Nude Tuesday sound like gibberish. Literally. “Jackie woke up blisteringly early one morning and called me and said, ‘You have to come over, quick, now, because I want to tell you about this idea that’s completely bonkers.”
Jackie is Jackie van Beek, Ballantyne’s co-writer and Nude Tuesday’s star. And her idea, continues Ballantyne over a Zoom call from a wintry Auckland, was simply this: “‘We need to get the characters all speaking gibberish and get comedians to subtitle it.’ And I just thought, this is wonderful because it opens up a Pandora’s box of absurdity.”
She’s right about that. Revolving around a middle-aged couple (played by van Beek and Damon Herriman) who attempt to save their flatlining marriage by visiting a New Age wellness camp run by Jemaine Clement, cast here as a sexual healing guru called Bjorg, the film may sound a little predictable, yet the decision to have everyone converse in the made-up language of its fictional Pacific island setting of Zǿbftąņ ensures it’s anything but.
For starters, even Ballantyne and van Beek didn’t know what the characters would say in the final film until they started getting drafts of the subtitled dialogue back from Julia Davis, the Bafta-winning British comedy writer and performer they brought on board to translate their movie.
Weren’t they nervous?
“We were nervous,” she laughs, “but we were also excited by it too.”
Even so, it’s a risky move to hire a comedy writer – even one as accomplished as Davis – to do the script after you’ve already shot, edited and scored your movie. “Well, yes, it was a surprise,” agrees Ballantyne. "Jackie especially was like, 'Why the hell is my character saying this? I had no idea she had an affair.’ So that was very fun.”
Receiving its European premiere as the Central Gala of this year’s Edinburgh International Film Festival, Nude Tuesday’s concept isn’t without precedent. Woody Allen’s first film What’s Up Tiger Lily?, from 1966, was a recut of Japanese spy thriller overdubbed with dialogue that had nothing to do with the original’s plot. And the 1993 Australian comedy Hercules Returns pulled off a similar trick with an Italian swords-and-sandals epic. Ballantyne hasn’t seen either film, but nor does she need to worry about comparisons. With Nude Tuesday she's taken the more ambitious option of creating a wholly original film first and then messing with it.
To make it work Ballantyne says she and van Beek had to write a script in English first so they could rehearse the actors and map out all the film’s emotional beats and character arcs (they also used this to secure Clement). She also worked with a dialect coach to create “an umbrella of sounds” so that when the actors did come to improvise their parts in gibberish it would sound like a real language and not just random gobbledygook. “We designed it to be a little bit Scandinavian, but we were open to people bringing their own interpretations.
“The cast found it liberating,” she adds. “They really had to listen to each other’s body language rather than focussing on trying to remember their lines.”
It sounds a bit like that famous scene in The Wire when the characters work a crime scene using only iterations of the f-word. “I hadn’t though about that,” smiles Ballantyne, “but we were consciously trying to make a film that wasn’t reliant on dialogue.”
Crucially, Julia Davis wasn’t given access to any of their prep work or prompts. Instead she had to intuit what she thought the story was and then construct jokes and character arcs that would work within the tight parameters of the finished film. In other words, it was a proper screenwriting gig, albeit a weird one. “Oh yeah, she worked very hard. It certainly was not a first draft.”
Did Ballantyne know Davis before hand? “Not personally, but I loved that she’s so anarchic; there’s such mischief and irreverence in her work and she has stuck to her voice with this. She didn’t compromise.”
Davis is not, however, the only comedian Ballantyne approached. There’s also a version scripted by Australian performers Ronnie Chieng and Celia Pacquola that will play in some territories. “It’s completely different,” says Ballantyne who’d love to do other versions if the film takes off and more countries buy it. “That all takes money, but it’s a bit of a living organism.”
Part of the reason the conceit works is that it’s tied into the film’s theme of miscommunication. That’s also why they set it in a hippy-dippy, sexually liberated New Age camp, the sort of place where inhibitions are stripped away along with everything else, often in the chilly, unforgiving environs of New Zealand’s Southern Alps, where they shot the film in between lockdowns. Clement – who’d just starred in the Flemish black comedy Patrick as a zen rock star visiting a Belgian nudist colony – was completely at ease bearing all for the cameras, even when required to take a dip in a freezing mountain lake. “He got mild hypothermia, poor guy” says Ballantyne. “But he did offer to go in again.”
What did he and the rest of the cast and crew make of it when they finally saw the finished film? “We ran a few things past Jemaine to make sure he was cool with it,” Ballantyne says. “But because of the pandemic we couldn’t really do test screenings, so the first time a lot of us saw the finished film with an audience was with 1200 people at the Sydney Film Festival [in June]. We weren’t sure how it was going to go down, but people were very vocal and one woman yelled out, ‘I f***ing love this movie!’ It felt like people could be as silly as the movie, which was a really nice feeling to have in the audience.”
Nude Tuesday screens at the Edinburgh International Film Festival on 16 August. For more information and tickets, see www.edfilmfest.org.uk .