New Zealand-born and now-US-based actor and filmmaker Julian Shaw goes deep and dark with his new project, Use Me. That, however, is not exactly new territory for the multi-tasker, who didn’t shy away from the pain and trauma at the heart of his two previous feature documentaries. In Darling: The Pieter-Dirk Uys Story, Shaw’s portrait of the eponymous South African political satirist revealed a man wrestling a horde of inner demons and a nation split by animus and fear, while the sports doco Cup Of Dreams was as much about Shaw’s fraught relationship with his father as it was his home country’s love and obsession with the All-Blacks rugby team.
Now Julian Shaw (who incidentally worked at FilmInk for many years, first as a teenage intern and then as a highly valued features and review writer) wades into the weird and dangerous world of fetishism with Use Me, a canny mix of documentary and fictional filmmaking. The film revolves around Ceara Lynch, an online humiliatrix who verbally slaps down more-than-willing men for money, and also gets them off by spending their money, making them wait on phone-hold for hours on end (yes, it’s true), and ruining them financially. It’s a very strange form of sex work: there’s no actual sex involved, and in most cases, the impossibly alluring Ms. Lynch doesn’t even make actual contact with her transfixed clients. Shot in consistently and well-crafted documentary style, Use Me finds the film-obsessed Julian Shaw heading to the US to make a doco about Ceara Lynch, but he soon finds himself caught up in her tricky, sticky web, and has to deal with his own difficult past and shattered relationships. It might look like a doco, but what soon emerges is a trippy emotional thriller in which most of the performers are playing mined-from-fact-but warped-into-fiction versions of themselves against a dangerously real backdrop. Like a real world Eyes Wide Shut, Use Me will have you hooked right from the off.
Obvious question: how did you enter the crazy orbit of Ceara Lynch?
“I accidentally discovered her on YouTube. I’ll leave to your imagination what I’d been searching that led to YouTube’s algorithms suggesting a Ceara Lynch clip! I looked at her site and obviously she was drop dead gorgeous and intriguing, but that’s not enough to make you want to make a film about someone. I guess I saw an opportunity to explore her world which hasn’t been delved into in-depth before in a feature film. It’s a world that I already knew a bit about through, eh-hem, personal interest, so I don’t want to be misleading about that. In terms of why I thought a mainstream audience might be interested though…there was something extra about her, an intelligence and design to how she’d constructed her persona and how she used social media. I trusted my gut.”
Was Use Me conceptualised completely (in terms of plot etc) from the beginning, or did it change a lot along the way? Was it initially going to be a “traditional” doco? Like your previous films?
“It was only ever going to be a pure doco for about three days. That was when I first met Ceara in Portland, all the way back in 2014! I was pitching a TV series about Internet entrepreneurs to ABC, and I thought Ceara may be one of the subjects for an episode. But once I’d done several multi-hour interviews with Ceara and really taken a deep dive into her work and personal life, I knew that she had the x-factor to base a whole movie around. I very quickly had a hunch that I’d feel hemmed in by a traditional documentary format and I was already looking to branch out. She’s also too normal, well-adjusted and at ease with her life choices to offer the conflict I’d be looking for in a documentary subject! Her work blends reality and fantasy, so I realised pretty early on that I had a license to do the same, and that would, ironically, make for a more truthful film. It also meant that I could explore the inner world of her clients a little without there being privacy issues. I wrote a 90-page screenplay over a couple of years and the basic arc held true, though we added scenes as real life events occurred, such as the Kickstarter campaign for the film. The cuckold request/sex scene was inspired by reality. Every scene was scripted though.”
Did you find yourself at times “trapped” by your decision to frame the film in the documentary style? Particularly in terms of the plot, and how it moves?
“Personally, no. The only time I felt trapped was when I thought I’d be making a ‘pure doc.’ It was an exhausting balancing act though. My editor Ash Watson really wanted to keep it raw and realistic every moment, and my producer Jonathon Green pushed me to up the cinematics of it and resist being low key if a scene could be more dramatic. It was a knife’s edge to walk, but those are the kind of challenges that excite you as a filmmaker. To me it was a liberating format and only a straight doco felt like a dead end. I’ll tell you as well that no one has been correct so far in terms of which parts are ‘real’ vs ‘fake.’ There are also some clearly fictional characters in the film that may just be verbatim representations of real life persons, so the line is very blurry all round and no one has actually cracked the code yet.”
Some people get hung up about the definition of documentary…are you looking forward to playing with expectations? Also, are you happy for your film to be categorised as a “mockumentary”? Or does that not fit?
“The phrase ‘mockumentary’ has a comic sensibility to it, but I’m fine with that. I’m happy with whatever people want to call it; it’s out in the world now. The form makes people feel uncomfortable, but that’s what I was going for – there is an unease to blending fiction with reality. And even though I’m sex positive, love BDSM and fetishes, and believe consent is the only taboo, this world does make me uneasy. There is potential for exploitation in any kind of ‘sex work.’ In this case, the message does lie in the medium. I’ve never tried to trick people though. Audiences are too sophisticated. I’ve said that it’s a fictionalised film from Day 1. I guess I’ve been surprised by how some scenes that are totally constructed and fictional are considered ‘the documentary part.’ Anyone saying that the first half of the film is documentary and the rest isn’t are simply incorrect.”
You certainly put yourself out there in the film. Was that challenging? Um, directing yourself in sex scenes?
“Not to avoid your question, but I’ve never had an easy day on set directing anything. It doesn’t really even matter what the content is anymore. If you’re doing comedy, emotional drama, or a pack shot of a water bottle, it’s just always hard, and you’re always neurotically asking yourself as the director, ‘Could this be better?’ Doing a sex scene is honestly not that different. Oddly, I didn’t find it too hard to expose myself physically. Ceara certainly didn’t. By the time we shot it, we had a deep friendship and trust, so it was much easier. The sex scene with Ceara was challenging for me because I knew it was setting up the entire emotional arc of the film. It’s actually my favourite scene in the film because it moves our characters forward in a big way. It was such a balancing act getting it right in the edit; it took weeks.”
You’re playing yourself in the film…or a version of yourself. How much of this is the “real” you?
“You’d have to ask other people. You know me pretty well, mate, having shared an office with me for years! But I would say that it’s not like me day to day at all. I’m more upbeat than this Julian – this guy is like my dark side. I would never do some of the stuff that the on-screen Julian does in this film, but perhaps the impulse is there. I suppose by keeping my actual name, I’m saying that we are all capable of doing wrong and taking advantage of others and ‘who we are’ is actually a very flexible and malleable thing. I’m drawn to flawed characters, and I avoided attempts to make my character ‘more likeable.’ Once people meet me though, they seem to say, ‘I like you more than the guy in the film!’ I’d hope so. [Laughs] He makes terrible choices, which is hopefully why he is compelling for an audience.”
You include your family in the film…were they okay with how they were featured? Especially with your childhood trauma at the hands of your aunt, as presented?
“They love the movie and are happy with how it’s presented. My Mum doesn’t have a sister, for the record. They know that I’m telling a story and using pieces of reality almost like a found art object, including my relationship with my real life ex-girlfriend, Sarah. Because my friends and family and even partner lived through the process of making this movie over years, they were actually all crystal clear on what I was doing. ‘You’re blurring the line between reality and fiction, like Ceara does in her work – got it!’ I’d never put a family member in a pure documentary again though…I did that once, and the aftermath and disagreements about it made for one of the most traumatic experiences of my life. Fortunately, it all got resolved and I’m now closer than ever with that family member.”
And how much is it the real Ceara in the film? And her friends?
“That’s all her. She’s enigmatic and contradictory in so many ways. Despite her mean online persona, she’s done more for me than just about any friend in ways that I can’t even talk about publicly. When my life fell apart at one point, she was the one whose couch I crashed on.”
Ceara Lynch obviously has a considerable following and client base…how do you think they will react to the film? Have you had any feedback?
“I’ve met several fans at screenings, and they’ve been over the moon. It seems cathartic for them to see this world represented in a new light, so I’m proud of that. Other popular Humiliatrixes love it. They bought the Blu-ray and then would take pictures with it between their feet and tweet it out. That was some of the best viral marketing that we could ask for. It’s a very supportive community. Twitter has driven sales of the film more than any other app. One of Ceara’s wealthy clients cleaned out my Amazon wish list and bought me a new bed, a laptop, and a camcorder. I have a ‘coffee slave’ who buys me a bag of gourmet Stumptown coffee every week. My family think it’s amazing that I get these perks because I’m so close to Ceara! I’ll never say no to free coffee either. If people want to see how wacky things really got after we released the film, they should check out this vlog I made: Click here to see it.”
Have you gained an insight into why certain men use the services of Ceara Lynch?
“I already knew before I started making the film. If you want to engage in power play, she’s one of the best in the business. If you’re not into that kind of thing, no explanation could ever suffice. If you are into that kind of thing, there’s no explanation needed. Her job involves her talking a lot, usually in a disparaging and humiliating way, but the secret to her success is that she’s a great listener…she listens to exactly what men crave from her and she gives it to them, word-perfect. It’s the irony of being a great dom – you’re actually in the ultimate customer service industry where the customer is always right!”
Did you ever feel like you were in over your head in this world?
“I felt like I was in over my head while directing the large scale party scene which took place at a real fetish mansion party that we hosted in Vegas. I felt overwhelmed directing and acting simultaneously, and sometimes I felt frustrated trying to get the best performance from my leading man who happened to be me! Despite what you see on the screen, this is the most creatively in control that I’ve ever felt with a film project. I feel like I found my voice with this film.”
FilmInk founder and publisher Dov Kornits gives a great performance in the film. Was he difficult to direct?
“He was a nightmare to work with! And he kept hitting me up afterwards about reshoots and rewrites to ‘expand his character.’ Honestly, I’ve worked with a few divas in my life, but this guy takes the cake! PS. I love Dov and he totally got what I was going for…probably because he’s seen every movie ever made! And he actually did a great job, for the record. [Laughs]”
What’s next? Has this tipped an interest in purely fictional filmmaking?
“Fans of the movie will be happy to know that I’m re-teaming with [producer] Joe Reitman and Ceara for a bit of a follow up which explores the industry from a very different perspective and in a much more comic light. I have just been shooting that in LA this week, so watch this space. I feel that I’ve shown that I can tell fictional and non-fictional screen stories, and for me it’s about what is most emotionally compelling and fresh for an audience in terms of what I pursue next. I really hoped that this film would be a calling card and it has helped me sign with an acting agent in LA and audition for some projects on a much larger scale, so I’m enjoying throwing all my energy into that right now.”
Use Me will screen at Event Cinemas George Street in Sydney on Tuesday March 10 at 6:15pm, and will be followed by a very special Q&A session with director/star Julian Shaw and star Ceara Lynch. Click here to purchase tickets.
Use Me will then be available in Australia to rent and buy on Apple TV, Google Play, Fetch TV and YouTube on Wednesday March 11. Use Me will be available in New Zealand to rent and buy on Apple TV, Google Play, Sky Box Office and YouTube on Wednesday March 11.