Wretched Things, The Gay Essential Interview

The feature film Wretched Things is made up of three separate shorts that are only connected thematically. “We men are wretched things,” writes Homer in The Iliad, and writer-director Gage Oxley throws each of his three leading men into an odyssey during which they become a kind of sex worker. Shot in Leeds, the films are powerful and pointed, each with its own distinct kick. Oxley and his cast sat down with Gay Essential to talk about the project…

Warren Godman

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Chapter One: The Model

The briefest segment, the first chapter is a single scene in which Ben poses for a photo shoot for a major gay magazine, coaxed by photographer Peter to remove his clothing and become increasingly sexualised. Oxley says this came from “the necessary conversations we’re having in our industry about the #MeToo and Time’s Up movements” as people have begun discussing the abuse of power. “We wanted to highlight that story from the perspective of a male model,” he says, “because in a lot of ways it’s harder for men to come out if they’ve been abused.”

Based on true stories from several actors, the short stars Warren Godman, a model who had never acted before. The idea was to cast someone who could bring the natural physicality of his modelling experience. “Playing this character was so different to what I’m used to,” Godman says. “It was challenging to put the emotions into a character, which I have never done before. I learnt a lot from doing this!”

Godman feels that the film’s premise is particularly resonant: “In film we often see scenes which feature nudity as sexual and exciting. But this scene is completely different, it’s about power and the pain of being naked. Thomas Loone’s character Peter really pressures Ben to strip further and further down, and he can tell he’s not happy to do it. But Ben’s in a position where he’s powerless, and he just keeps unfolding to this intimidating photographer until he’s practically naked.”

Loone agrees that the scene is packed with intensity. “I think that people like Peter are definitely the most dangerous,” he says. “They’re the ones who come across as really charismatic and friendly, but that have nothing but bad intentions. That was definitely something I guess I tried to do on the shoot, to try and slowly reveal the darker persona of Peter in dribs and drabs, before you suddenly start to realise he’s not who he presented himself as at all. He lures Warren’s character in, and I like to think he’ll do that with viewers too.”

To shoot an on-the-edge scene like this requires the actors to put their trust in the director, and both speak of how safe Oxley made them feel on the set. “Because of the nature of it, the idea of filming it was something I found a little scary,” Loone admits. “But Gage made me feel so at ease. He was always checking me and Warren were alright and never made us do anything we weren’t comfortable with. It made the whole shoot a lot more relaxed.”

Loone thinks that the film highlights an issue that is far too common. “These are young, really ambitious performers whose dreams are to become actors or models,” he says. “They’re living for their next job. They go months sometimes without getting paid work, so that by the time someone comes along who can offer it to them, they’re desperate. They’re vulnerable to being pressured into things they’d never usually do.”

And Godman hopes this scene will help these people find the strength to step forward. “I think this film shows them that it still happens and it is not right,” he says. “You shouldn’t be made a victim for something you love to do.”

Tommy Vilés

Chapter Two: The Performer

The second segment features just one character, Olly, a young man with self-image issues who discovers the freedom of exhibitionism as he starts putting on webcam shows for a growing list of fans. Oxley felt that casting this short was the most important part, because he wanted the actor to make the story more personally his own. “As much as I can write the characters, it will always be my voice,” he says. “And I want to get rid of that!” So for this film he turned to Tommy Vilés, an actor he had worked with previously on the short Pulse.

This is the most contained segment in the film, so Vilés had to build his character from the inside out. “Gage told me what he wanted from day one,” he says. “When I read the script I thought there were elements in my character that I could identify with Olly. There are issues here about mental health, but ultimately what I loved about Gage’s production was the way Olly is just a normal guy in the 21st century. He’s got the opportunity to go online and type in, ‘How can I make money online?’ And whatever comes up he can give that a shot. The whole world of chatrooms is real!”

In the film, Olly enjoys the power that stripping off and performing on a webcam brings him. And Vilés embraced this side of the character. “I did feel the empowerment thing,” he admits. “I think there was that moment where, you know, this feels good! I’m enjoying this, even if it isn’t who I am. But everyone likes to feel like they are in control, and I think that’s what Olly wanted the most. He’s getting a lot of attention – ‘I’m online and all these people appreciate me.’ Then he almost falls in love with who he thinks he is.”

As the story continues, these feelings shift, especially when someone in a shop recognises Olly from the chatroom. “It dawns on him that ‘this isn’t me, I don’t like this kind of fame’, that the whole world can see this,” Vilés says. “Olly had been compartmentalising this in his mind, thinking he was anonymous.”

Both Vilés and Oxley deliberately kept Olly’s backstory vague so more people could resonate with him. There are issues with money and self-image, but the point was to show how anyone could find himself in this position. “It’s not negative,” Oxley insists. “In fact a lot of people make a lot of money from it, feel empowered by it and don’t mind that their image is out there. That’s a fantastic thing. It just so happens that this character gets a brilliant boost to his self-image and makes a lot of money, but he’s not ready to be so public about it.”

Vilés says he had to keep this journey clear in his head, plotting Olly’s emotions out on a rollercoaster-shaped graph. “I think it comes back to how I identified with some elements of Olly – his self-esteem, confidence, the desire to feel appreciated,” he says. “It was about peeling back the script and looking at what being online like that can do to people, and how it can go wrong.”

For the climactic scene, Vilés was required to strip off both physically and emotionally. “I knew it would be challenging,” he says. “I felt quite fearful going in – I was stark naked! And on the set, the whole crew is there. But I think it’s a special feeling when you are able to dial into the character in full vulnerability. And then you also feel for the person you’re playing, because there’s someone out there who’s going through that.”

Adam Ayadi

Chapter Three: The Player

The third segment was meant to be 15 minutes long (after the 5-minute chapter one and 10-minute chapter two), but Oxley says that since it has a more freeform structure, they shot a lot more material. Then as they were editing they realised its intensity required more space to breathe. So in the end, this chapter is almost a mini-feature at 52 minutes. It centres on Louis, a loner who indulges in drug-fuelled sex in an effort to control his out-of-control life. He’s a self-loathing gay man trying to be seen as a straight alpha male.

Oxley found the actor Adam Ayadi in an open casting call, and realised that Louis needed to be less of an antagonist and more of an anti-hero. “Louis is the ultimate character to play, because he starts out as the villain,” Ayadi says. “Personally I want to get as far away from Adam as I can, and Louis is that! He’s powerful, charming, conniving, uses people in really disgusting ways, and I knew that I wanted to jump into that. I’ve been through some heavy shit in my life, but there was nothing I could find to put into Louis. I now know after playing this character that there’s not going to be a role that I’m afraid to play. I can’t imagine being quite as far out of my comfort zone as Louis.”

Ayadi admits that everything about making this film was a challenge. “There was one scene where I’m covered in blood, sticky and hot and riding (costar) Jack Parr, and it was uncomfortable,” he says. “But it doesn’t feel like I lived through that! We established quite quickly that we needed to speak frankly and openly about everything – there was no polite way of saying things. So when Gage was directing me, he would have to just say, ‘You need to cum in his face.’ And being naked as well. Being naked as an actor is what you strive for: physically and emotionally vulnerable, giving yourself to the truth of the character.”

Chapter three was shot in a flat during a summer heatwave, and there was no air conditioning, no windows that opened, and the cast and crew had to climb eight flights of stairs to get there. “It was intense filming in there for five days,” Ayadi says, then smiles, “although the fact that I was naked played in my favour! I was wearing only a modesty pouch most of the time.”

The heaviest scene was almost entirely improvised, because they had only a few days notice that costar Bruce Herbelin-Earle would be available during his filming schedule on the Netflix series Free Rein. “I think it’s the most shocking scene in the film,” Oxley says. “It was also the most creative scene, a chance to just think about how we would build the character and situation without boundaries. Let’s push these characters to the max!”

As costar Dale Monie puts it: “No one seemed to have any limits. We were all very open to finding the truth of what we were trying to make. We were trying to find the boundaries and the edges around the scene.”

Pushing boundaries was the whole point, Oxley says. “As actors and filmmakers, we wanted to see where we could go. Because if you don’t push yourself, how can you expect to push the audience? I think this film definitely makes people feel uncomfortable – vulnerable, aroused, scared. And that could only be achieved by pushing these wonderful people to their limits. Frankly, we were terrified making it!”

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All pictures reproduced courtesy of Louisa Rose Mackleston and Oxygen Films

Rich Cline

Rich Cline

Journalist
As a freelance journalist, Rich Cline has covered films and major events on five continents. The founding editor of Shadows on the Wall, he is vice chair of the London Film Critics' Circle, chair of the London Critics' Circle Film Awards, and a member of Fipresci, Online Film Critics Society and GALECA: The Society of LGBTQ Entertainment Critics. A native of Los Angeles, he grew up in Ecuador and has called London home since 1992.
Rich Cline
- 13 hours ago