No turning back after a night in Berlin
In his debut film, writer/director Mark Wilshin gives us Sodom.
In Wilshin’s film, English soccer hopeful Will finds himself naked and handcuffed to a streetlight in Berlin after his stag night goes awry. He’s rescued by Michael, who lives nearby, and the two head back to Michael’s apartment where the night takes both men in unexpected directions.
I spoke with Mark Wilshin for a behind-the-scenes look at the film.
You’ve written that the inspiration for the story of Sodom was shaped by your budget and logistics restraints. You’ve referenced Sartre’s play No Exit as an example of this form, are there any other films or plays that you’ve looked to in terms of how you wanted to execute the concept?
The chamber play has a long history in film, and there’s a certain tension created by having all the characters locked in a room - it’s no wonder this concept is used again and again in horror movies.
I’ve always loved these kinds of films - from Hitchcock’s Lifeboat or Rope, and Fassbinder’s The Bitter Tears of Petra von Kant, to Steven Knight’s Locke.
It’s not always easy to stick to the rule though, and Sodom isn’t entirely set within Michael’s flat, book-ended by scenes out on the street. For me, it was important that the apartment also function as a fantasy space - a kind of psychological ivory tower where Will is free to explore himself, above and beyond the real world.
Are you drawing on any personal experiences for these characters and their narrative?
It was the title and its themes, the dramatic situation, and the relationship between the characters that came first. I didn’t really set out to write a coming-out film. Instead, with Sodom for a title, I wanted to explore the dark heart of the gay experience.
For me, that dark heart isn’t so much about sex - as in Pasolini’s Salo or 120 Days of Sodom - but rather the psychological upheaval of coming out.
I wanted to make Will and Michael’s conversations as honest as possible, so I borrowed some thoughts and ideas from my own experiences, but for the most part Sodom is very much a work of fiction.
It’s an evocative title, which you’ve written references the temptation to look back. Do you think it’s possible to somehow reclaim the biblical story of Sodom as something empowering for gay men?
That’s my hope. Oppressed minorities have often sought to claim the slurs used against them, and there’s a power to the word Sodom that calls out for it to be reclaimed.
The biblical story is only quite brief, but the power it holds over our imagination and our lexicon is vast. The story of Sodom and Gomorrah borrows from the Orpheus myth, which is already a powerful tale of lost love that resonates deep within our psychology.
There are all sorts of themes and symbolism within the biblical story that I wanted to explore, such as looking and looking back, regret, temptation, sexual power and destruction. When Will chooses to return to his previous life, no longer innocent nor ignorant of his true feelings, he becomes that biblical pillar of salt. Perhaps Sodom is more of a cautionary tale.
What was the production process like?
I’d been thinking about the story of Sodom for some time before I finally put pen to paper. In the end, it took just over two years to write. It was the first time that I’d written a feature, so I was teaching myself all about ‘narrative arcs’ and ‘inciting incidents’ at the same time.
When I finally finished the script in March 2016, I made the decision to go straight into pre-production with filming set for that July. The warm summer nights were great for long takes on the balcony, but it meant we only had about six hours of darkness each night for filming.
We looked at several locations for Michael’s apartment, but I had a certain look and feel that I was after - a mixture of wealth, modernity, and soul. We rehearsed in the apartment for two weeks before the shoot began, and Jo Weil - who plays the role of Michael - moved in, which meant by the time we started filming, he really felt like he lived there.
We filmed with a skeleton crew for nine nights and four days over two weeks - which was utterly exhausting. For those two weeks we became a very close-knit family. There was such a great feeling on set that despite the number of scenes we had to get through every night, everyone pulled together to ensure we were able to get exactly what we needed.
What was the casting process?
Casting was hugely difficult, and something I’d be glad never to have to do again. Sending out the script to agents, actors, and crew resulted in a lot of wildly different reactions - both positive and negative. In the end, everyone who was on set, whether cast or crew, was there because they fell in love with the script.
With only two actors, there was a huge pressure to make sure they worked together, and it was impossible to cast one without the other. It was a huge learning curve for me - as it wasn’t a decision i could make rationally or logically. In the end, I had to rely on gut instincts for all my casting decisions.
We didn’t have the money to get Jo Weil and Pip Brignall - who we cast as Will - together for a ‘chemistry’ test. It was a huge relief when they finally met on set and hit it off from day one.
Why was it important for this story for there to be a generational difference between the two characters?
Will is a millennial. who doesn’t really care about labels - his world has come on leaps and bounds since Michael had his coming out. But still, when it comes down to it, it still isn’t easy for Will. I wanted Michael to be able to offer a different perspective - someone who is comfortable in their skin, and who has lived through a different gay experience - one in which the black and white of coming out was a matter of pride.
What does the film have to say about gay relationships?
From its denouement, you might think Sodom is another one of those old-fashioned gay dramas where the hero can’t possibly get the guy. But it’s more than that - it’s an opportunity for us to move on from the happy ending, and to talk honestly about what it means to be gay.
The film is more about conflicts of gay identity and masculinity than relationships per se, but I think Sodom can show how men can talk and support each other, given the right opportunity and space.
What do you hope that people feel when watching Sodom?
My greatest hope is that people engage with the film, its characters, dialogues, and intentions.
I wrote Sodom as a simple, classical drama that could take place anywhere and at any time - past, present, or future. It’s a universal story of courage. But I also hope it reveals to those who might not have experienced coming out something of the pain and confusion of it. I hope it gives courage to the men and women who need it to take the plunge and not look back.