Betsy Sussler's Menage

by Craig Gholson


Lindzee Smith

Menage is a S8 feature film in two parts. “The Story of Myra and Ian” was adapted from and shot for the centerpiece of a theatrical production of Rainer Werner Fassbinder’s play Pre-Paradise Sorry Now in 1979. The play was produced at the Performing Garage, an actors’ collective in Melbourne, Australia, by the theater ensemble Nightshift. “Scenes from Everyday Life,” was subsequently added. Shot in downtown New York, the film made its debut at the Millenium Film Workshop on East Fourth Street in 1981.

Written, Produced and Directed by Betsy Sussler

Starring: Lindzee Smith and Caz Porter; Also starring Robert Cooney, Michael McClard, James Nares, Lisa Rosen and Leslie Schiff.

With Babs Egan, Suzanne Fletcher, Lance Loud, Glenn O’Brien, Terence Sellers and Duncan Smith; and, in order of appearance: James Shuvus, Richard Bach, Amy McMahon, Betsy Sussler, Luther Thomas, George Mendez, Becky Johnston, Steve Mass, Craig Gholson, Georgia Marsh, Anna Schroeder, James Crosby, Kenny Angelica, Cody Murphett, Simeon Gallu, Carol Skelsky, Jacqueline Schnabel, Amos Poe, Vicky Galves, Duncan Hannah, Anita Sarko, Millie David, Haoui Montaug, and Eric Mitchell.

Camera: Betsy Sussler, Robert Cooney and Coleen Fitzgibbon.


Caz Porter

Craig Gholson When did you conceive of the idea of filming Menage?

Betsy Sussler I never conceived of a single idea that could embody the film—the first thing I shot as Menage was the centerpiece for a play called “Pre-Paradise Sorry Now” which is the story of the Moors Murderers. That section of the play was descriptions of the murders. There were no explicit murders portrayed, but recorded material from the activities of murder: screams,yells, gags, orders, choking, exclamations and more gags that had all been recorded on audio tape during the murders. This was coupled with discussions between Myra and Ian (the murderers) about what they had done that had been ineffective during the last murder and how they would conduct themselves for the next one. Essentially how they would correct their aesthetics and ethics towards a method of murder.

CG That was a play by . . .

BS That was part of an obscure play by Fassbinder that I shot as a film. But I didn’t like the rest of the play because it was too moralistic. Lindzee Smith and Caz Porter did a spectacular job with the staging and direction of the play. We worked the whole play around the notion of film so that everything was very flat and done against a screen. The characters in the play were supposed to be the most evil manifestation of people’s indifference to each other. And to a lesser degree every other scene in the play fell in line with this acceptance of a very clear cut definition of what is right and what is wrong. It was a foregone conclusion that anybody with power, anyone who was a murderer, was in fact immoral. Not even amoral. And somehow, I hated that.


Babs Egan

CG (laughter) So, tell the story of the Moors Murderers. These were English Moors Murderers?

BS Yes, it happened in the late ’60s in the north of England in Manchester, a factory town. Two very young lovers, Myra Hindley, aged 23 and Ian Brady, 28, killed several children and buried them on the moors. He was a clerk and she was a shorthand typist and they met in the office and fell in love. It was a long courtship. He would turn her on and be real chummy and then wouldn’t talk to her for three weeks. She fell madly in love with him and when he finally asked her out she was completely hyped for it. Right away he started telling her about his hopes and dreams which were basically to become a self-styled Fascist and rule a small contingent of followers and make her his Lieutenant. The final outcome of all this was the horrific murders of these young children who were samples of what they called The Unworthy, although they never developed an explicit definition of The Worthy vs. The Unworthy outside of the fact that their victims were Unworthy and they as the self-chosen murderers were Worthy. The beginning of all this was that he started her reading material on Nazi war criminals and then turned her on to pornography or books that dealt with sex and power, kinky sex, etc. He didn’t make any distinction between pornography, or any literature for that matter, murder, atrocities, or totalitarian governments. He was only interested in these things in so much as they all equated with the notions of power—power over other humans. And he thought that by mimicking elements of these activities, he too would become powerful. And of course, murder is a powerful medium, but I think the irony of it all is that it doesn’t take a very great talent to do it. Anyone can and Ian wanted to be an elitist, I think that’s why he was trying to perfect his style. Anyhow, he started Myra out on all this literature and then he got her into posing. He recorded everything they did: Myra in little black panties with her dog . . .

CG How many murders did they actually commit?

BS They only prosecuted them for three, but I think they committed more. They had one little girl who was a next door neighbor and was very friendly with them. She would come over to their house and sit around and chat about all these murders in the newspaper and drink wine with them. Wine is an important part of their rituals. Myra was very Catholic and some of the Catholic rituals seemed to be repeated in the murders.


Lisa Rosen and James Nares

CG What form did the murders take?

BS Well, there were two that were interesting besides being sensational. One was a little girl who was forced to pose nude, in pornographic poses and subsequently bound, gagged and murdered. Ian photographed everything (she’s in an attitude of prayer in one of them) and Myra recorded it. The last murder was staged as a spectacle. They wanted to start building an army so they tricked Myra’s brother-in-law into becoming an unwitting accomplice by staging it for him. It was a private piece of theater. They axed this 17-year-old boy to death. Her brother-in-law was in shock most of the time. He had to help them clean up and then ran home to his wife on the pretext of getting some sleep and the two of them called the police. The thing is that this is all downplayed in the film, I mean the actual murders. I didn’t want to exploit a 7-year-old girl’s death by making it a visual staple in the film. It’s only mentioned in passing in a voice over. But the activities surrounding it are part of the film.

CG So they ultimately got captured and prosecuted?

BS Yes. What happened in that part of the film actually happened. A policeman posed as a baker’s delivery boy and knocked on the door. Myra didn’t want to let him in so he forced his way past her and Ian was lying nude on the couch writing a letter to his boss telling him why he couldn’t come into work that day. The reason he couldn’t is because when he was axing this boy to death he hit himself on the ankle and couldn’t walk, so there was this cute little note he was writing saying he was run over by a motorbike. Anyway, the cop walks in and says he heard there was some trouble there last night and Ian tried to say it was a homosexual who had come on to him and they had a row, when really that’s how he lured the boy to his house in the first place—by posing as a potential lover. And the policeman kept insisting and finally Ian turned to Myra and said “It’s all up.” And that was it.


Betsy Sussler, James Nares and Luther Thomas

CG So how did you do research for this?

BS I didn’t start doing research on Myra and Ian right away. After I shot the film for the play (and you couldn’t get all the information from that dialogue) I wrote short vignettes about power struggles among groups of three because that’s what all the murders were, and shot some of these. It wasn’t until then that I started reading reports, journalists’ reports and books about the murders. You see, everything was done in pieces. I didn’t treat the film as a whole—actually complete a finished script, that is—until it was almost all shot. Most of the research went into the soundtrack. Some of the books were ridiculous. One journalist tried to use the events of the murders as a justification for getting pornography off the newsstands. The reasoning being that these poor innocent people who would ordinarily just be clerks and shorthand typists went around reading this material which induced them to commit murder. At the end of the book she said (this is a bit of a paraphrase, ‘’At the end of the trial we all felt let down because it was so unaesthetic. What we all really wanted was some kind of shootout, some blood, and what happened was simply an example of English justice—they went to jail.’’ Became invisible so to speak. And then this journalist said, “Do not think that this is a call for capital punishment, I would never ask anyone to do something I would not do myself (kill someone). I just mean (and these are very astute statements) that the Judge, Jury, and Press were all left hanging.” And it was the hanging from not having any visual impact to the end of a trial that they thought should accompany the denouement of these two people, characters’ actions.

CG There was no catharsis.

BS Yeah. And then somebody else said the person they really hated, even though Ian had instigated all of the murders, was Myra. They complained of her mask-like face all through the trial.


Glenn O'Brien and Babs Egan

CG So, in effect, during the trial they wanted similar scenarios to those that Myra and Ian had acted out.

BS Yeah . . .

CG Some equivalent, like in a theater piece.

BS Exactly. And this, in effect, was the basis for the whole film—to set up theatrical situations that had no denouement or an outcome(s) that was so deadpan it would become farcical.

CG Are they still in jail?

BS She was up for parole but they’re still in jail.


Terence Sellers

CG When did you actually start filming?

BS "The Story of Myra and Ian" was shot two years ago, maybe more. But I didn’t do any actual shooting for the rest for a long time because I was doing other plays and another film.

CG Myra and Ian constituted the first part, the prologue.

BS Yes, and then the other part of the film, “Scenes from Everyday Life,” I started shooting about 15 months ago. It didn’t take long to shoot. I just had to keep starting and stopping because of money.

CG Did you lose momentum?

BS No, it’s an entirely different sort of film. When I started filming again I thought about facets of Myra’s and Ian’s lives—catholicism, or the way they treated sex, their insular way of life, their expectations or whatever that also existed, or manifested itself in more common occurrences in other people’s lives. I treated each vignette as a one–three minute film in its own right, a scene from everyday life. And the only stipulation for myself was that three people would be in a struggle for power, no matter how ludicrous the scale seemed. So you get one where two girls are discussing this boy who’s standing right next to them. That sort of gossip happens a lot and while it’s not on the same level of intensity as two people murdering a third . . . Yeah, so back to the answer to that question, I stopped thinking about Myra and Ian. I was thinking much more about New York. After I shot those scenes I found that they were such banal and common occurrences in our lives that there wasn’t enough to sustain my interest. I needed something more dramatic. So that’s when I started shooting those scenes that were scenes from everyday life off the TV so to speak. I mean they were more overt. For instance Annie Oakley shoots Mae West for trying to steal her boyfriend. But very deadpan.


Robert Cooney

CG So how do you think they relate to Myra and Ian?

BS They don’t. (laughter) I mean we all have a common history, a common religion (Judeo-Christian) and, even though in the vignettes people are from different classes, a common culture, I think in the sources of any sort of power struggle you have some common ground. And some that isn’t but I never even tried to explain this to myself in a logical way. I picked up things that were quite blatant—sexual relationships, monetary relationships, friendships that were ambivalent, class relationships and juxtaposed them with another narrative that literally ran along side them on the sound track. These narratives seemed to coincide at times . . .

CG It was ambiguous.

BS Yeah, and paradoxical.

CG The ambiguity is reflected in the title Menage as well. The title has implicated within it menage a trois which involves three elements but it also has menagerie, like packs of wolves or tribal elements, sexual elements which are about tribes, menageries, a lot of people.

BS That’s why I chose it. In any sort of scene, for instance in an art scene where the people are socially, economically, and emotionally dependent upon each other, you do develop tribal habits and that exists in lower classes as well. In the upper classes, it’s a more insular family sort of tribalism. In the latter it’s an extended family.

CG You basically used that family in making the film as well. There are a lot of filmmakers or people who are “on the scene” in the film.

BS Well, I don’t know if I’d want to put it that way.

CG Well, it all goes back to a social and professional familiarity.

BS When I write a scene I usually have someone in mind but it wasn’t necessary to cast with those same people, but I have to think of someone even if it’s nothing like them in the end. I have written scenes for people, but then it’s because of how I think they could act in them.

CG What relationship do you think Menage has with your own work in the theatre collective, Nightshift?

BS Well, it’s a theatrical film. And Caz and Lindz had a great deal to do with the prologue. They were the only two actors in it besides a brief appearance by James Shuvus who was working with us on the whole play. But the film was shot as if it were theater in a proscenium arch and the acting . . .

CG The acting was very broad, theatrical acting. It wasn’t naturalistic.

BS No, I hate that. I like it to be as fake as possible. Sometimes the faker I’d have people do things, the more natural it looked. Which was a bit of a surprise.


Lindzee Smith

CG Your videotape, Tripe, also concerned elements of three.

BS Right—a man, a woman, and a dog.

CG So what is it about three?

BS Two is so boring. And once a third element comes in the situation is immediately activated. It becomes less clear as to who is fucking with each other or who is friendly with whom. The possibilities become greater. There’s not a one-to-one ratio anymore. Things shift, especially power plays, in a matter of seconds. Which is what happens in the film.

CG How did you direct the acting?

BS Well, I would choose two or three gestures and one attitude for each character knowing that when the script was actually acted out these attitudes would come into conflict with each other and have to change.

CG So do you think the actor has to know the motivation?

BS No, I hate that. And it wasn’t that sort of script. Well, that’s not entirely accurate. There was a subtext in some instances, but we never dwelled upon it.

CG That film collective . . . what was it called . . . a long time ago . . . where the films were shown on St. Marks Place?

BS You mean The New Cinema?

CG Yes.

BS It wasn’t all that long ago. Two years maybe not even that. It wasn’t a collective, by the way, even though it may have seemed that way. It was run by Becky Johnston, James Nares, and Eric Mitchell. Period.


Haoui Montag and Michael McClard

CG Well anyway, all of those people surrounding that, I was wondering how or what about that scene had changed.

BS Well, it was great because they had all these people with all this talent—acting, directing, making music, etc., and no one is making it yet but everyone thinks that they will and they have some time to give to other people and so what becomes possible is almost anything given the economic conditions, which of course dampen it a bit but also make it exciting. For awhile. And then you make a film that takes an enormous amount of time for everyone involved and you’re still broke and there’s no way to distribute it in a large way. And you can’t make a film without thinking of how to distribute it which was why New Cinema was begun in the first place. Also, making films under those economic conditions . . . okay, you don’t have to spend three years trying to get the money, but you don’t necessarily want to get tied to the aesthetics that a low budget film force upon you—one-to-one shooting ratio, no rehearsals, long shots, etc.

CG But you knew those ideas back then and you know them now. What changed? The approach?

BS But back to the point. One would like to spend more time on a film. I mean, film, like literature, like art, is a very serious medium and anyone would like to spend a few months developing a script. Which means they have to have money to eat while they are doing that. They would like to work with people over a solid period of time which means that you have to pay them . . . things like that. So making a film in a big way means channeling all your energies into that and that does not include working on someone else’s film.

CG Menage was shot on a very low budget and yet the acting and the camera work are very sophisticated but not precious or arty . . .

BS Halfway through the film I developed this thing against beauty and shot a few scenes and then decided that beauty had its place along with pleasure, etc., and got back into it. Did you think that the film was about a particular milieu? Because it wasn’t.

CG No.

BS I mean I do write from my life but then again I don’t write just from my life. There was one instance which was my private joke and that’s where Lindz Smith and Duncan Smith are talking to Babs Egan who is playing a whore. Lindzee is being obnoxious and Babs says if you don’t like it go home and do it with your wife. Lindzee tells her to leave his wife out of this and then Duncan tells her that his wife is really a wonderful woman. That was a private joke.

CG Not so private anymore.

BS It’s no fun if it’s too secret.


Michael McClard and Leslie Schiff

Tags:
Super 8
Homicide
Pornography
Production and direction
Independent film
BOMB 1
Spring 1981
The cover of BOMB 1
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