Neo-Nazis, death threats and critical acclaim (in Russia): what happens when you sh*t on Brendan Maclean

Brian and Karl are an Aussie filmmaking duo based in London who made waves last year when they made a NSFW music video for Sydney’s Brendan Maclean, “House of Air”. Banned from YouTube (unsurprisingly) and sparking a wave of praise and criticism, the video recently appeared on the big screen as part of the SXSW Film Festival in Austin, Texas.

While on the ground at SXSW, I sat down with the pair to look back on their experience releasing the video – from the unexpected internal issues and negative response from some of the gay community, to the death threats, the Neo-Nazis (??), the Russians and what Hal Fischer really thought about it all.

Brian and Karl at SXSW. Photo: Larry Heath.

Well welcome to South by Southwest. You’re here showing your provocative video clip on the big screen. Have you seen it on the big screen before?

Brian Fairbairn: Medium screens? We’ve had full big screens and medium screens.

Karl Eccleston: Well how big’s the screen? That’s a good question, actually?

Brian Fairbairn: I don’t know actually.

Karl Eccleston: But we have seen it … the only place we’ve seen it with an audience and on a big screen was at the Berlin Music Video Awards, and that was actually kind of great.

Brian Fairbairn: Yeah. Some big reactions.

 I was about to say, I mean … I re-watched the video just … I re-watched it today because I hadn’t seen it since it first came out, and I got half way through the video and sort of tricked me again. I was sort of like, “wait this wasn’t as bad … this wasn’t as graphic as I remember it.”

Brian Fairbairn: Yeah.

And then it … at the end it was like, “Oh, yeah, it was as graphic as I remember it.”

Brian Fairbairn: Yeah.

Let’s start at the beginning. How did the concept come video about? 

Brian Fairbairn: Brendan came to us with this photo series from the ’70s by Hal Fischer, and he documented the gay scene in the Castro district in San Francisco, and the codes and signifiers they had. So, that’s where we got the captions from. That’s where we got the very literal approach from. But, what we did was kind of the opposite of what Hal has done. What Hal Fischer did is he had photos of various gay men, and then you’d go in close and read the caption and it’s describing an extreme sex act, whereas we kind of flipped that. Our gag was to flip that and to take that literal approach to the next level.

Karl Eccleston: But it was also too, I mean … we looked at “Look Around You” which is a BBC parody of the science documentary, so we very much imitated that style as well. It was a conscious reappropriation of certain stylistic approaches and also taking Hal Fisher’s photographs as well. It was a very conscious homage to him as well, which is why we have the apologies to Hal Fischer. We met him as well, and we can go into that.

Did you meet him before or after?

Karl Eccleston: After.

Brian Fairbairn: He emailed us. He was super nice.

Karl Eccleston: I wouldn’t say he was happy about the video.

Brian Fairbairn: He wasn’t unhappy though. I think it’s confronting to see your work reappropriated in such a …

Graphic way?

Brian Fairbairn: Yeah. Because his work was very much about not being graphic, and that was the humour in his work – the irony in his work – was keeping it “safe for work,” but upon closer inspection: filth – whereas ours was the extreme opposite. So I think he was still getting his head around that side of it. But, he’s a super smart guy and he definitely understood what we were doing. No, it was kind of interesting to meet him. Kind of great. He was very funny – very witty.

And, of course, that filth grows – almost literally – as the video continues. You kind of get half way through and go, “oh, this isn’t that bad.” At what part of the conversation was it clear that you were going to shit on Brendan?

Brian Fairbairn: The shitting came maybe two weeks into production … or pre-production. The initial concept was just to do a completely filthy deadpan. We wanted to do filth presented as if it was nothing – not a big deal. So, that was directing actors and everything, it was about not playing up to how extreme the sex was.

Karl Eccleston: Which, to be fair, compared to some of our own experiences in our own community, a lot of what we see in this video doesn’t even seem that particularly extreme. But, we did have some funny conversations with the production company. It was almost like scope creep from project, you know, kind of that corporate term? There was scope creep in this, so we’d have some of those conversations and they’d be like, “So, we’re doing oral sex, we’re doing anal sex … are we still doing fisting?” And we’re like, “Yeah, fisting’s gonna be in there.” And then, the next conversation would be like, “Fisting: are we definitely going with the fisting?” And we’re like “Yeah … yeah … yeah,” and then we were sort of at the point where we were like … you know, we sort of …

Brian Fairbairn: Well, that was kind of always part of it. We knew we were going to do the pissing and fisting, but it was very much …

Karl Eccleston: It was difficult.

Brian Fairbairn: It was just difficult not knowing how to end it, I think. It was sort of like, the video needed a full stop. And, ’cause we knew Brendan wasn’t going to be participating in most of the sex acts we had to do something for him and we needed a statement, and the more we thought about it the more it was like, “We’ve already gone three-quarters of the way, why not do the ultimate John Waters fantasy?”

Karl Eccleston: Yeah. Well, you had the brain wave. You were like, “It has to be … we have to end with … it has to be shitting on Brendan. It has to be the director’s …”

Brian Fairbairn: Yeah.

Karl Eccleston: We were channelling a lot of our feelings about the music video industry and how we’ve been treated, and I suppose a lot of artists can relate to that experience of like, “I’m just trying to get myself out there and I keep getting shat on and dumped on” and I was kind of like, “That’s it. That’s the perfect metaphor. We’re going to shit on Brendan.”

And that’s what I mean about … we always wanted to take it to an extreme funny place, but it was an evolution where we arrived at an idea and said, “That’s it. That’s how we want …”

Brian Fairbairn: And we were super nervous about asking Brendan. He didn’t bat an eyelid. We were on Skype, and he just said, “Yeah, that makes sense.” He was super … there wasn’t a single moment with Brendan where he thought we went too far or …

Karl Eccleston: Yeah.

I’m sure he’s done worse.

Karl Eccleston: Haven’t we all?

The result is, sure, provocative, but also from a production design point of view the style of the clip is beautiful – shit or not shit! Tell me about the creation of some of that design in the video.

Brian Fairbairn: We had pretty set references in terms of the Hal Fischer stuff, and I think we knew for this not just to feel like gimmick we had to pump a lot of energy into the creative to make it … yes, I know we probably had to be even more confronting if it was pretty and well made, but also …

Karl Eccleston: We were also trying to be authentic. We kind of wanted it to feel a bit like an artefact. Some of it … when you watch you could say, “This is found footage that has just been repurposed for the music video.” So, yeah, we were adamant that we wanted to shoot on film, and we worked with a production designer, Vicente, who was great, and we spent a lot of time and energy sorting all the props. It came down to where we decided to shoot. We obviously had the blue colour line in the background for the inside stuff, but the shoot took place in Camden, in London, and the area around the studio … when we saw it we were like, “We can kind of make this look like San Fran or The U.S.” Which, we thought, might be kind of challenging in London from the exterior, but it actually worked out okay.

Then I imagine having sex acts in a video … was it difficult at all navigating the legalities of that?

Brian Fairbairn: I’m not actually entirely sure what the laws are, but you can definitely make porn in England.

Karl Eccleston: There are totally laws though. I mean, look, it was basically … the bottom line was all about consent and making sure everyone who was involved was happy to be involved in the way that they were. I know we had discussions about consent.

Not everyone can take the fist… It’s a particular talent!

Karl Eccleston: I mean, that’s why we had Ashley Ryder who’s obviously a fisting porn star. It was funny because actually, we always knew he was gonna do the fisting, but then at one point we were like, “Shit, we actually need to have some regular, straight up anal sex in this.” And then, we kind of anguished about asking him whether he’d be open to doing just the anal sex because that’s not his thing. We were anguishing about whether he would be okay with doing what most people would consider a normal sex act. But no, there were a few legal and consent issues, which were all fine, but I think in terms of when we actually showed the film to the lab that was supposed to process the film and they freaked out, and said, “Hey, we actually found it quite disgusting and off putting,” and they wouldn’t … they didn’t want to do it. They’d been actually scanning the film once it had been processed.

It was like, “Oh, shit! Maybe this is why we actually should be making this music video,” because we did not expect the really visceral reaction to the …

Brian Fairbairn: And a lot of the crew took their names off it after they had seen it.

Oh that wasn’t just a gag…

Brian Fairbairn: You know, that is kind of the funny thing. You know, we cast porn stars and exhibitionists and they all do this in some capacity full-time, so it was actually pretty easy in terms of that. All the conversation was to make sure everyone was comfortable, so the pre-production and production was actually super smooth, and I’m not sure if you’d have the people in Australia to kind of … maybe you would. I don’t know much about the porn world in Australia. But in the UK it was easy to cast! We kind of knew or knew of everyone. Harry and Brendan are close friends, and yeah, it was pretty …

Karl Eccleston: And, you know, I worked with a life drawing circle, and I sent them models for that, and so it wasn’t too hard.

Brian Fairbairn: It was really the post-production that was an uphill battle.

And what do you think it was? Because it’s not like people don’t watch porn.

Karl Eccleston: I think it was the audacity. I mean, presumably they’ve been exposed to porn in the past unless they had their own little studio with their own little processing labs or whatever. But, it was like, no one has a problem with watching violence or … if we had sent a bunch of rushes off, and it was women being brutalised and all that kind stuff they would have just processed it no problem.

And, obviously, they couldn’t see the ensemble and they didn’t necessarily know what we were aiming for, but they had been briefed. They had seen the treatment. But, you know, even when you go through the rushes you can see people laughing and smiling and looking directly at the camera. So, there isn’t any effrontery about the video …

Brian Fairbairn: There’s no shame. Any of that. And it’s not presented as something dirty. It’s presented as something fun and colourful and upbeat and enjoyable. I think a lot of people are … yeah, almost the backlash to the video itself once it was out. I think that’s what upset a lot of people, that there was no sense of seediness or …

Karl Eccleston: It was unapologetic.

How long did it last on YouTube?

Karl Eccleston: Oh, I don’t know, 10 days?

Brian Fairbairn: 10 days.

More than you probably expected.

Brian Fairbairn: Yeah. Three quarter of a million views.

Karl Eccleston: And the videos that were being made protesting the video were ones that were removed before the video was removed itself. It was kind of odd, and I don’t really what was at play there but …

I mean there was probably homophobia.

Karl Eccleston: Oh, god. The comments were like … of course, you’re right, because a lot of the response itself was clearly homophobic… but then you wonder why the things they were talking about didn’t breach it, initially. I don’t know. It was very interesting.

It probably didn’t breach it until the pissing. Like, until then everything is censored enough to … it’s simulated until that point isn’t it?

Karl Eccleston: Well no, I mean, the sex is real and the cunnilingus is real. I mean, everything is … the only thing that’s not real is the blowjob. Which, was just logistical …

Brian Fairbairn: … we didn’t want to open on something explicit, like sucking an actual dick within the opening shots …

Karl Eccleston: I mean, we worked out that you could lull people in if you go in slowly. We wanted to people to watch the video.

But even with the anal you can … you don’t see anything… well, not much.

Brian Fairbairn: There’s no hole. *laughs*

Karl Eccleston: Well, if you press pause you can … but no, you’re right. I mean, there’s nothing much you can see, but there’s definitely dick going through the bathroom places.

I’m glad we cleared that up!

Karl Eccleston: Yeah.

Literally. So, what surprised you most about the response? I mean, obviously, there’s gonna be people who are just gonna be outraged for the sake of being outraged. But, what surprised you most about the response?

Brian Fairbairn: I think getting … No, I think we expected outrage from within the gay community because the video was kind of targeted to be within our echo chamber and we knew, especially in Australia, that the gay marriage debate was happening, and you see a lot of respectability politics come out when it’s that, and it’s all about putting the “right type of gay” forward.

So people didn’t feel like it was fitting into the narrative.

Brian Fairbairn: Yeah, so we kind of made it as a response to that mentality, so I think that was on our head. But, within the first month, the response was almost overwhelmingly from these 4chan, alt-right circles in America. We’re getting all these angry blokes …

Karl Eccleston: There were death threats.

Brian Fairbairn: Brendan got the worst of it because he was, I guess, the most public target.

I hope he replied and said, “Look, I’ve already been shit on once this week … “

Brian Fairbairn: Yeah. I mean, he’s used to being in the public eye so he’s had all sorts of it… but we found it very confronting. Like, on our work Facebook we had neo-nazis jumping in telling us about what they were gonna do to us…

Karl Eccleston: It was death threats. It was getting signed up to Christian newsletters and getting our inbox spammed with that…

Brian Fairbairn: We got spammed with a lot of KKK stuff.

Wow.

Karl Eccleston: Russia was interesting in terms of response, because we met them at the Berlin Music Awards, there was a band Little Big. And they kind of fell in love with the song and the video and kind of shared it… it really connected with Russia. And there’s been a lot of memes and copycat videos and references and imitations of it.

Brian Fairbairn: I think that’s the most surprising thing about the video, is that it’s …

Karl Eccleston: A Ukrainian cover of this song?

Brian Fairbairn: … pretty dominant there. We’ve had maybe, including YouTube, about 4 million hits. I would say easily over half of that is Russian.

Wow.

Brian Fairbairn: It’s big on Russian social media.

Karl Eccleston: And I think that says a lot about Russians…

I guess they love gay porn and videos of people pissing on Donald Trump?

Brian Fairbairn: *laughs* I guess it’s the boldness of it, because there’s no Russian media coverage because of the propaganda laws. But, just in terms of how they share on social media, it’s huge.

Karl Eccleston: I don’t think they really care. The anarchy – there’s sort of this anarchic spirit with Russians at the moment.

Brian Fairbairn: We’ve put out a Russian version. It’s gotten some hits, but they just seem to love the English version more than that.

Karl Eccleston: We bootlegged a version of it.

Oh, that’s cool, I like that!

Brian Fairbairn: Yeah, I love the Russian version. They love the English version.

Karl Eccleston: The Ukrainian cover’s great. Like, it’s a great song, so …

It is a great song! Perhaps that’s the one part that gets lost in this conversation is that, at the end of the day, you’re working with a really cool song and you’re being able to bring more life to that song through all this controversy and through all the things that have come out of it, which, of course, you knew you were getting into, to a point. And, looking back on it now is there anything you would have done differently?

Karl Eccleston: No.

Brian Fairbairn: No. I don’t know if we were naïve when we made it, but we definitely didn’t have any doubts making it.

Would you do a sequel? Would you play with that fire again?

Karl Eccleston: I’m not sure.

Brian Fairbairn: No, it would have to be the right … I mean, I enjoyed making it a lot and I’d love to explore sex in a different way…

Karl Eccleston: I mean, to me, it was kind of a period piece, as well. What kind of gets lost is that this song kind of does have a tangential relationship to the concept… and we didn’t talk about that very much, but, how severe is this club? No walls, no barriers, you can just be whoever you are, and that was San Francisco in the ’70s. It was after Stonewall. People felt liberated, but it was also before the AIDS crisis, so it was this moment when you could just be and invent your identity, and that’s why the Hanky Codes were exploring those identities that way.

So, for me, the interest was exploring that period. I mean, I’m not particularly interested in doing – or showing – explicit sex, it just kind of went with the … it felt like what this video needed.

Brian Fairbairn: I don’t know if we would have overthought it now. No, there’s nothing I’d change. It does exactly what it needed to do…

And it’s just going to continue getting you eyeballs, and I imagine new people continue to find it… before we finish up here, I want to talk about the peak of the video’s “gross out” factor I suppose, right at the very end when you decide to unpause the frame… the part after you shit on Brendan.

Brian Fairbairn: That’s the only bit that got us. I don’t know if you’ve seen the behind the scenes video but you can see that moment where that accidental bit of santorum came, and that wasn’t planned. That was just lube, it’s full of Crisco. We had to use a lot of lube to get the turd in his butt.

Yes. So, it was a prop?

Brian Fairbairn: It was chocolate and oatmeal and …

Karl Eccleston: It was funny because it actually smelt really nice. You know, because all of us knew he was gonna come, and it was like … rice, cocoa puffs, cocoa wheat, what do they call those things again? Whatever those things are that you make as a kid in Australia, that’s what it smelled like.

Brian Fairbairn: It smelled like a bakery.

Karl Eccleston: It’s not really …

Brian Fairbairn: A bakery in the ass.

Karl Eccleston: But it was just that thing where we were waiting to see … it just felt like, “Is there more of the fake shit up there?” And, it turned out, there really was.

Brian Fairbairn: If you watch behind the scenes you can hear us all squealing.

Karl Eccleston: It was a collective, “Ah!”

The fake shit, fine. But then it was like, “Oh … no!” That’s too much … that’s too much.

Brian Fairbairn: Yeah.

Karl Eccleston: Yeah, I don’t watch that bit. I turn it off.

No, I like that you kept it in though, because I think when – especially porn and everything – is so clean and … that’s kind of a reality of anal sex? Was Brendan expecting it?

Brian Fairbairn: No, it was a total accident.

Like, he doesn’t flinch, it’s amazing!

Brian Fairbairn: He flinched I think the first two takes, because it was hard to get the poo to aim right, so it hit … when it hit and it bounced.

It believe they call that “the Mr. Hanky approach”. So, what’s next for you guys? You’re continually creating from the looks of things, and I’m sure South By is a great opportunity to get in the faces of the industry – literally.

Karl Eccleston: Yeah.

Brian Fairbairn: We’re working on a short that we’re pretty excited about, still scripting, but we came to get back into the narrative world. That’s kind of how we started, and when we met people like Sarah Belkner back when we lived in Sydney, that’s how we ended up on that path. Then, we moved to London and did a few things for labels, but our best stuff has always been for that indie Sidney scene with Sarah Belkner and Jack Colwell and …

Karl Eccleston: And I think our shorts, too, even our independents shorts, I think we’re used to working outside the system. So, the next thing we’re working on is a short – a regency era period drama, which will be quite interesting for a short.

Brian Fairbairn: More queer history. A black comedy.

Karl Eccleston: Super excited about doing that at the moment, and really having a go at a slightly longer format.

Karl Eccleston: And also in English because none of our short films are in English, they’re either German, fake English, and Polari.

What’s Polari?

Karl Eccleston: Polari is based on what was used in Britain upwards to the 1960s, from the 19th century …

Brian Fairbairn: It’s an elaborate slang that gay men who were involved in the gay community … to be able to communicate …

Kind of like Pig Latin. With a very different objective.

Brian Fairbairn: Yeah, sort of a cockney rhyming slang – Yiddish/Italian combo. It was incredible. So we did a short in that three years ago, that did pretty well. Yeah. It’s more queer history, which is where our interest is right now.

Karl Eccleston: And then after that try to get ideas for a feature researching that, so that will be the next …

Amazing. I think that’s about it. I usually end when I talk to music video directors about your favourite music videos …

Karl Eccleston: Anonhi’s “Cut of the World” is a beautiful music video.

We’ve also always been fans of the Daniels’ “Cry Like a Ghost” for Passion Pit.

Want to see the video for yourself? Watch it HERE. And you can learn more about the directors at their official website