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It must be fairly uncommon for someone to write a film that they then star in to only discover when watching the final cut that their character — just to reiterate, which they wrote and played — is revealed to have had an affair. And not just any affair, but a full-blown “Christmas anal fling.”
But then Nude Tuesday — being sold at Berlin’s virtual European Film Market (EFM) by Cornerstone — isn’t a normal film. Nude Tuesday isn’t even close to being a normal film.
Devised by its writer and lead star Jackie van Beek (best known for New Zealand comedies such as The Breaker Upperers and What We Do in the Shadows) alongside director Armağan Ballantyne (The Strength of Water), the feature could easily have rested on a winning-sounding premise involving a conservative, middle-aged couple trying to save a floundering marriage with a trip to a new-age relationship retreat awash in sexual liberation and — on at least one day of the week — extreme nudity. And with comic hero Jemaine Clement playing the camp’s charismatic and oversexed guru, it would have had all the hallmarks of being yet another wonderfully dry and awkward comedy that has become a Kiwi calling card.
But this wasn’t quite enough for the filmmakers, who after a year or so of working on the script decided that they needed to turn the lunacy dial up a few notches.
It all began with a brainwave van Beek had about the script after watching a number of foreign-language films at the New Zealand Film Festival. She immediately phoned Ballantyne.
“It was horrendously early, and she was like, ‘get in the car, I need to see you in person’. So I did and she said: ‘let’s have all the actors speak in a fictitious language, and then we invite comedians to write the dialog’,” says Ballantyne (who thankfully now lives around the corner from van Beek for any future early-morning lightbulb moments). “And I was like … brilliant!”
And so, one of the most delightfully bonkers comedies ever dreamed up came to be.
Set on a fictitious island (one that, funnily enough, bares an uncanny resemblance to various parts of New Zealand’s South Island), and shot entirely in this made up gibberish, the edited film was then given to British comedian Julia Davis (van Beek’s hero and known for her decidedly dark and sexual comedy) to add her own English subtitles.
It was only on getting the finished translation back from Davis that van Beek noticed that, in one scene, her character Jackie tells her husband Bruno (played by Damon Herriman) that she’d had a “Christmas anal fling” with her boss.
“I was like, oh my god, my character’s had an affair? I had an anal fling with my boss?,” she says. “Well, that kind of changes the dynamic of the relationship between myself and my husband!”
Much to van Beek and Ballantyne’s amusement, in Davis’ version (another has been written by Australian comedians Celia Pacquola and Ronny Chieng), she decided to give Jackie an ongoing issue with thrush (something that is discussed at great length throughout the film). And amid an avalanche of riotously OTT sexual language, she also throws in unlikely expressions such as “fun gusset” and “toothy vulva” (possibly for the very first time on screen).
Of course, when they were shooting, nobody had any real idea what they were saying. Although the cast was given an English script just so they knew the general gist of where the story was going (van Beek admits an early attempt at a dialog-free workshop “ended in chaos”), when it came to the rehearsals and filming, they talked in a nonsense language that, barring a few words, was mostly improvised. And, to the untrained ear, it sounds somewhat Scandinavian, with plenty of guttural, throaty sounds.
“We had this amazing dialect coach who helped invent the language, and she kept on suggesting really tricky words, and I said, no, it’s got to be simple, so for ‘fuck you’ why don’t we just reverse it, so ‘how fuk’,” says van Beek.
Speaking gibberish came with some distinct advantages. Able to switch off their brains from thinking about what it was they were actually saying, the cast could focus instead on the tone and emphasis of the emotional exchanges between each other. “It made it very visceral,” says Ballantyne.
And with no script, there was no real fear about anyone stumbling over their lines. “There is no wrong!” exclaims van Beek who says they were also able to speed up scenes they thought were too slow by literally just cutting out bits of dialog, knowing that it wouldn’t have the remotest impact on the story.
“So if Armağan wasn’t enjoying the rhythm, and it was, say, taking too long for an actor to get to the door, I could be like, well just cut this dialog out… it meant nothing!”
One issue did arise with the on-set arrival of Clement (a longtime collaborator of van Beek’s and a friend for some 25 years), who decided to give his dialog a unique twist by throwing in a few English words with a bit of an accent (including the phrase “maximum arousal”). The next day, the filmmakers noticed that the rest of the cast — perhaps in honor of their famous co-star — were all doing the same.
“So we had to say to them: guys, only Jemaine can do that, no one else is allowed,” says van Beek.
Although described as a “nudist romp,” the actual nudity in Nude Tuesday doesn’t kick in until the final act (but makes up for lost time by being very, very, very nude). Despite the humor and the farce of the project, the filmmakers did ensure there was an intimacy coordinator on set, and tried to “normalize” nudity, putting in place strict rules (“no one is to look down — everyone’s got to make eye contact,” says Ballantyne, who remained entirely clothed throughout). Van Beek says that after the naked scenes were shot, about midway through the production, she heard that people were going for skinny-dips in the lake near where they were filming. “There was a kind of liberation and camaraderie,” she says.
For Clement, it transpires that Nude Tuesday isn’t actually the first film he’s been in set on a nudist camp (2019’s dark comedy Patrick giving him a rare bare-bottomed double). But it is probably the only film he’ll ever make where the extreme demands of the nudity — in particular a scene shot by a freezing mountain lake (into which he wades) — resulted in hospitalization.
“He was diagnosed with mild hypothermia,” admits van Beek. “So we did have to do a little switcharoo of the schedule for the next day and tell people that Jemaine wouldn’t be able to work.”
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