Interviews | The Dark Horse: Robinson Devor on Zoo

By Rob Nelson

Robinson Devor’s Zoo—written, like his Police Beat (2005), with Seattle alt-weekly critic and columnist Charles Mudede—achieves the seemingly impossible: It tells the luridly reported tale of a Pacific Northwest businessman’s fatal sexual encounter with a horse in a way that’s haunting rather than shocking, and tender beyond reason. So, too, it’s hard to imagine a more cinematic film of this incident than Devor’s suitably crossbred doc-cum-docudrama, which weds the audio testimonies of the dead man’s zoophilic companions to speculatively reenacted, dreamlike visuals that feature both professional actors and real-life subjects—Arabian stallions included.

Zoo, wherein the departed is known as “Mr. Hands” (and played by Russell Hodgkinson), might well be the ultimate subculture movie. The 2005 Enumclaw Horse Sex Incident, as the story was known in newsprint, involved a secret community of a half-dozen men who conversed online and gathered periodically at a rural farm outside Seattle to practice and sometimes videotape bestiality (which wasn’t illegal in the state of Washington at the time). Disarmingly quiet and contemplative, challenging both itself and the viewer to sympathize with a rather different breed of animal lover, Zoo is the opposite of exploitation.

That’s not to say the movie isn’t perverse. Premiered at Sundance in the documentary competition category, Zoo hardly conforms to the standard practice of contemporary indie-filmmaking in any genre. Devor and Mudede began creating their shooting script by splicing a narrative together out of their many hours of audio interviews. (Most of the subjects insisted on anonymity.) The bulk of shooting took place last fall (in Super 16) after TH!NKFilm ponied up production funds for the doc, this on the basis of a mere five minutes that Devor had filmed in a bid to attract investors. Additional shooting and re-editing occurred in November after the film had been invited to Sundance, and Mr. H., the ranch hand, agreed to participate. The film’s chief provocation derives from the style rather than the subject. There’s very little humour in the movie with the exception of a few voiceovers; one “zoo,” as the group members call themselves, hilariously explicates his equine love by saying, “You’re not gonna be able to ask [a horse] about the latest Madonna album.” Pop culture seems to matter even less to zoos than it does to the filmmakers.

After the first Sundance screening, which seemed to render the audience almost hypnotically subdued, Mudede described the movie as a “thought experiment” above all. “If someone can do this [bestiality] physically,” he said, “I should be able to comprehend it mentally.” The film’s lush images of nature, some in slow motion and many in near darkness, are designed to compel the viewer’s calm consideration of the myriad issues that surround this bizarre case. Can an animal give sexual consent? Might a man who has sex with a beast be more human than the rest of us? And what does it mean to be free? The film is articulate in posing these questions even when its subjects aren’t. “Maybe I just want to grab a horse by his balls,” a zoo confesses. “Maybe I just want to feel his nuts.”

No wonder Devor, whom I interviewed on the morning after the world premiere, says the film was difficult to make. The marketing and distribution of Zoo would seem a tall order as well—to the film’s great credit.

Cinema Scope: Everything about Zoo, including the characters, seems to stand against strict classification. Are you at all uncomfortable with the “documentary” designation at Sundance?

Devor: Well, it’s funny. If someone started the Hybrid Festival and put Zoo in it, I’d maybe say, “You know, I don’t want the film to be a ‘hybrid.’” On the other hand, I could understand why someone would say that the film is pushing or even abusing some of the territory of a typical documentary. But that sort of discomfort comes with the challenges of the film, you know? When the subjects’ anonymity is a factor, and you’ve got a lot of audio testimony—that’s what you have to work with—the film is simply going to be what it’s going to be. We had discussions with people at Sundance about the documentary category. We pretty much anticipated that someone would eventually say, “Well, actually, we thought about it, and we decided you can’t be in the Documentary Competition.” But what’s the next step away from documentary? Docudrama? Zoo is certainly not docudrama. You don’t have real people in docudramas, you don’t have real voices going all the time. But I understand the perception that lines are being blurred. It came with the territory.

Scope: Do you think the film functions as alternative journalism? Were those original newspaper articles about the case just horribly sensational?

Devor: I don’t think they were that sensational, actually. But I think readers were coming to those pieces with a hankering for sensationalism. Charles, of course, is a journalist. And I, of course, am not. But I imagine that journalists and nonfiction writers have the kind of freedom to describe, that it’s equivalent to my desire and freedom to create an image. That feeling of latitude comforted me a bit, because while the film is based on actual statements, I’m really creating it out of my own world. I think artists should be able to create whatever they want. I don’t think there should be any rules in filmmaking. But with a film that’s going to be featured in a festival, there’s categorization. We thought we’d end up in the Frontier section—which would have been fine.

Scope: What was your chief motivation to make the film?

Devor: It seemed to be a perfect challenge on many levels. There are very few subjects anymore that are quote-unquote dirty to the average person, subjects that a filmmaker could endeavour against all odds to make beautiful. And this was one of them. I just felt there was some love in this story—some beauty and friendship and emotion. People could say we overaestheticized things. Obviously what happened is a tragedy. It’s not a thing to take lightly. So hopefully it’s not a frivolous beauty in the film, but a darker beauty. The need to strike that careful balance was intriguing—and the fact that no one was digging deeper into the case.

Scope: That’s what I was getting at with the “alternative journalism” angle.

Devor: I see what you mean. I don’t know how the lines of demarcation fall between journalism and filmmaking; it’s difficult to say. Certainly film functions in a way that journalism can’t really resemble, not even with pictures. I’m aware that the film is drenched in an aesthetic approach as opposed to a newsy approach. We’re visual artists. We wanted to try to excite ourselves cinematically. That was the goal, and sometimes that by itself is enough for somebody who likes film. And definitely we were tying to get to the soul of something that, for whatever reason, was not being captured in the news media.

Scope: You wanted to give some understanding and perhaps some sympathy to these people. Devil’s advocate question here: Why is that important?

Devor: Well, in the land of the free, it’s important that everyone has a voice, that people can be allowed to explain who they are. I’m not a flag-waver in that way, but I feel it is definitely valuable to let the audience look through the eyes of people who are different from them, to let them hear what might initially seem an outrageous point of view, to give voice to that point of view. Maybe this wasn’t the driving motivation of the film, but I do feel that it was particularly important to the people whose stories we were telling, because I think the perception is that these guys are sick, irredeemable people. And I just instinctually feel that that’s ridiculous.

Scope: The movie seems to position itself in various ways as a kind of exploration of unknown territory. Is that what you’re getting at with the moon-landing footage that the men are seen watching on TV?

Devor: There’s a couple of reasons for the moon landing footage. These guys forged a very strong bond around technology—not just computers and the internet. The man who died, Mr. Hands, worked for a very successful aerospace company. When the men got together, they would watch sci-fi movies, which are, generally speaking, about possibilities, about ways of expanding the mind. We couldn’t land the rights to a clip from a sci-fi movie, but we could at least get some lunar landing footage that they were interested in—one man in particular was interested in this footage. For a while we talked about running the opening credits over old footage of men walking on the moon. In the end, that seemed a little too self-indulgent. But the idea was to incorporate their love of science and science fiction. And the moon-landing footage is also a reminder that at one point somebody said, “You know, there’s no way that man is ever going to walk on the moon.” Maybe in the future, the story of Zoo will not seem so outrageous either.

Scope: Speaking of sci fi: The first images of the film are barely even images—they’re just colours, lights flashing, almost subliminal in effect. It’s like the Starchild sequence in 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968): this long tracking shot that works totally on the subconscious, pulling you through space in a way that gives you that feeling of surreal exploration.

Devor: That comes from Charles. His big thing is this: start a story from a place where you just don’t expect to be. So here we start under the earth, in a mine. It’s the idea of an exploration in the dark, yeah. The whole movie makes very deliberate reference—not in a biological way—to long chambers, stretches of space that one fumbles through in the dark. Confined spaces—with a small sliver of light—were really important to us when we were making the film.

Scope: Your cinematographer Sean Kirby, who also shot Police Beat, continues to work on film. Is it getting harder to stay away from digital?

Devor: Yes. For me, it’s all or nothing—and “all” means film, celluloid. “Nothing” is me sleeping on a sofa, waiting for those six months of pure pleasure when I’m immersed in a project. I’m not the kind of person who thinks about sustainable projects—about what will work commercially—so much as I think about just doing something that’s pleasing. At our level of the industry, we have fewer people pulling our strings, and that’s a great benefit. But it’s a struggle when you insist on working in film. I mean, it’s a struggle even to find good ideas for movies—that’s the biggest struggle. You want to find new territory that excites you, something you can be passionate about. But it just doesn’t happen very often. This movie gave us something to sink our teeth into for sure.

Scope: It’s unusual—particularly for a “documentary”—to land a distributor so early in the process.

Devor: That was great. That money [from TH!NKFilm] allowed us to make the movie. I was frustrated because the movie had been set to go with another company, but it was chopped, unceremoniously and without explanation. So we started shooting ourselves. We thought we’d try to put a reel together, show what we could do with it. We shot that sequence we call the “magic journey,” where the men are walking at night. That was the tone we were after: an aesthetic beauty wedded to this outrageous concept, this idea of merging with an animal. We went to L.A. to show footage to people, to set up meetings. Amazingly, it was well received. And that was a great thing. Often we come up with projects where we think, “Can we get local money? What can we do that people will go for?” And we did have some local people who invested. But it was nice to go down and be part of the system, to have a little bit of success in the system with such an odd project.

Scope: I imagine that having Police Beat on your resume would’ve helped.

Devor: The truth is, it was the exact opposite. Often what we’d hear was like, “Well, okay—just as long as it’s not another Police Beat !”

Scope: Zoo and Police Beat are similar in that they both derive from tabloidesque material, from an attempt to enrich that material, to bring another point of view to light.

Devor: Yeah. They’re different in that Police Beat has a protagonist and a kind of moral centre, which is something we sort of groped for in this. But yes, Police Beat was pulp—transcendent pulp. I don’t know if Zoo transcends pulp. Probably it does. We hope so!

Scope: Your original title for Zoo was In the Forest, There is Every Kind of Bird. Not exactly a “pulp” title, huh?

Devor: We had a feeling that title would be axed one day. But it was pleasurable to work on the film for a long time with that title, because it was a signal to the people who were involved that our approach was going to be thoughtful, gentler. It was better than having a movie called Horsepower or something. The title came from a comment I read on a blog, a comment about the case after it had been discovered. In this sea of outrage and laughter in the media, there was at least one person who said, “Well, in the forest there is every kind of bird.” He or she didn’t invent that phrase, but I thought it was a beautiful thing to say in this context.

Scope: Is sexual intolerance on a broader level something you wanted to address and maybe combat with this?

Devor: All you can really do is listen. I listened to these people and that’s very important to them. I’m happy to put their ideas into the film and into the culture. Seattle is a very tolerant place, I think, but there are always forces lurking. It’s an odd tolerance in this case, because you’re dealing with another species, so there are questions of abuse, things that are difficult to make clear pronouncements about. But any kind of intolerance is related to another, so it’s a good thing to work on that a bit. The thing is, those groups who might want to have more tolerance shown toward them wouldn’t necessarily want to be associated with this particular group and their mission. So these zoos find themselves on an island.

Scope: There’s a certain coldness to the film—I mean that as a compliment. The visual tones are cold blue, and the mood is one of loneliness and alienation. Did you feel these guys were seeking a kind of community that they couldn’t find in the human world?

Devor: You can’t necessarily think that, actually. The definition of a zoo is someone who may not need that human interaction as much as the average person. There is still a need for community. But it’s maybe a different kind of community. I think friendships are important to them—and positive human emotions, absolutely. But I don’t think loneliness is a part of that. In terms of the main character, if he’s going to go out in a field and talk with an animal—he would take his clothes off as a sign of solidarity, he would stay out and talk to horses for hours, get stuff off his chest—there’s a certain loneliness in that because you’re trying to connect with another species. It’s not necessarily that you’re lonely in human relationships and you need companionship with an animal. I think there’s loneliness simply in trying to cross over into that other realm of interspecies communication.

Scope: What does the style intend then, principally, if not the evocation of loneliness?

Devor: We were really trying to create a paradisiacal style. These were men who could come and be themselves. They could feel safe. Then the paradise was lost after the death of this person. There’s loneliness in that. But I think the style is trying to say, “Imagine a place—a garden, a field, under a volcano—where you could do the craziest thing in the world, and where there are people you could at least feel comfortable with.” It’s about not just the camaraderie of human beings, but about trying to go off and have a meaningful relationship with an animal. It’s tricky. Or maybe it isn’t so tricky.

Scope: Well, the sex is consensual, right?

Devor: I believe it is, yes.

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