FrightFest 2023 - Interview with Onur Tukel writer and director of Poundcake

A quick chat with the acclaimed director

James Whittington
August 26, 2023

One of the best things about FrightFest is the choice of movie you can see as well as accessing challenging movies you wouldn't normally get to see. Onur Tukel's incredible film Poundcake is such a movie so we chatted to him about this powerful piece.

NYX: Where did the idea for Poundcake come from and how would you describe it?

OT: Like everything I do, it’s a mix of the neuroses I’m feeling and the films that I love. In this case, it sprang from a fear of being straight, white, middle-aged and irrelevant. The character I play, Robbie, certainly feels that the times are changing, and the world is moving on without him. The mad woman, Vanessa (Eva Dorrepaal), feels it too. Both characters are out-of-touch. One resists the changes, the other one embraces them.

So many films and filmmakers informed Poundcake. The great slasher icons of the 70s and 80s - Jason Voorhees, Michael Myers, Leatherface. I love the film idea of some lumbering phantom killing people indiscriminately.  But in this case, the killer is picking a specific target. Making straight white men the victims allowed for very some (hopefully) very funny scenarios and conversations.

Oliver Stone’s Talk Radio and Spike Lee’s Summer of Sam in particular, were both big influences on this movie. And I suppose I’m always trying to channel a bit of Woody Allen. In the 90s, I watched everything Spike Lee and Woody Allen made. They approached New York from two totally different perspectives.

NYX: There’s very few “satirical slashers” around, did you write with a cast in mind?

OT: I’ve cast Eva Dorrepaal in several of my movies. She plays Vanessa, the angry white mad woman. She told me that she prepared for her role by watching videos of bullfights. She didn’t study the matador. She studied the f***ing bull!

I wrote the role of the nerdy AI office worker for David Malinsky, who I’ve cast in several things. He’s not a nerd at all in real life. He’s got a c**k the size of a horse and seduces women with his vast knowledge of 19th Century French history.

I wrote the main character, Ben, the father of the gay son, for Ron Brice, who is fantastic. His storyline is really the heart and soul of the movie.

We found most of the cast through auditions and everyone was wonderful. There are over forty-five roles in this movie. I wanted it to be a true New York ensemble. The practical reason for having a big cast, though, is that if they invite enough friends to your premiere, you can get a good turnout.

NYX: It covers several incredibly hot topics straight on, how did you ensure that the social commentary wasn’t lost in the more horrific moments?

OT: I can never be sure what works or doesn’t work, what’s perceived correctly or incorrectly, what’s funny or unfunny. I mean, the movie skews so many aspects of the culture, from #metoo , free speech, to sexual identity, that I’m not even sure if the movie has a specific point-of-view. I believe that was by design. I wanted it to feel a bit all-over-the-place, because information is coming at us from all sides, at all times, relentlessly, and it’s a little hard to keep track of it all. I think I wrote Poundcake from a place of confusion. With so many opinions, so many culture wars, so many issues being launched like cannonballs, and everyone seemingly upset about something, and everyone walking on egg shells because they don’t want to offend anyone, I felt like I just needed to vent a bit and say “f*** off” to everything. So that’s what I did. But I wanted the movie to have a positive, uplifting, hippie-dippy ending, because you know, happy endings are amazing. Speaking of which, can you recommend any good massage parlors in London?

NYX: What was the atmosphere like on set?

OT: Organized, efficient and unprofessional as hell. I like to make movies with the smallest crew the budget will allow and surround myself with people I trust. Before we start shooting, I tell everyone that I’m going to speak to everyone like they’re a dear friend. This allows me to be profane, and silly and inappropriate, the way you might be with a friend. If I’m angry or annoyed, that friend is going to hear about it. If the cast and crew is annoyed, they can tell me to “f*** off,” like they would to a friend. The last place that should ever feel like a “work environment” is a film set. I’ve heard stories of film sets that are run like Catholic schools in the 1950s. Stern, authority figures making sure that everyone “behaves” themselves. Jesus, I wanted to be an adult so I could escape the tyranny of teachers.  

If you’re trying to make something honest and real, then everyone on the crew should be free to express themselves as if they’re amongst friends. That’s my belief, at least. In that sense, there were a lot of laughs on set, especially when I’m on all fours, getting buggered by my wife. But there was also some arguing too. I think the sound guy has a recording of the producer Solene and I yelling at each other. It was the middle of winter, three in the morning, and it’s freezing outside and we were all losing our minds!

NYX: What’s it like directing yourself?

OT: Directing yourself is kind of like playing with yourself in public. It feels good but you probably shouldn’t be doing it. I tried to cast other actors to play my character but at the end of the day, for better or worse, probably worse, I had to play the role. You’re very exposed as an actor, especially when you’re naked. And it’s very hard directing when everyone’s laughing. So, you know, it was a very tricky shoot.

Honestly, my sets are very collaborative, and I get a lot of feedback from my producers and the camera department, and the entire crew really. I’m always asking the cast and crew for ideas on how to improve the scene. So, directing myself is really no different than directing any other scene. We’re all trying to make a good movie. The problem is that on a low-budget movie with a tight schedule, you often have to move so quickly that there’s no time to celebrate when things go well. You have to move on to the next scene.

NYX: Was it all shot on location and if so, what issues did that present?

OT: Everything was on location. We shot the climax in a community garden with apartment buildings all around us. In the scene, one of the characters, a tall mad woman named Vanessa, is pointing at a white man and screaming “Rape him! Rape him!” at the top of her lungs. People in the surrounding buildings walked onto their balconies and started applauding. I suppose that tells you everything you need to know about the Lower East Side.  

NYX: Has there been any kick-back to the movie from people who don’t see its satirical message?

OT: We’ve gotten a lot of festival rejections but you know, that’s always the case with my movies.

At the Cucalorus Film Festival in North Carolina, an angry white man demanded a refund for his festival badge when he read that the festival was showing a movie that, in his opinion, was about “anti-whiteness.” The head of Cucalorus Dan Brawley jokingly responded, “I wish they sold anti-whiteness in an aerosol.”  

After our Cucalorus screening, a very intelligent man approached me and claimed he loved the movie, but after sitting through my Q&A, he decided that he hated it. So, maybe I should stop talking about this movie. I mean, I honestly don’t know why I made this movie. I think I did it because I was following the advice of some life coach who claimed you should “do the things that scare you.” Well, in this case, that was very bad advice.

NYX: Will there be a Poundcake Two with topics you wanted to cover but couldn’t fit into the narrative?

OT: I’d love to do a sequel. Poundcake wouldn’t go after straight white men this time around, he’d go after an entirely new group of people, like film journalists.  

NYX: Will you be nervous when the movie has its European premiere at FrightFest 2023?

OT: If the movie looks and sounds good, and the audience is respectful, then it’s a perfect screening in my opinion. I’m not afraid of what people think of the movie. People can walk out, tell me they hate it. That doesn’t bother me. Movies are supposed to be divisive, especially those that take risks. I worry about other things, like how many people will show up. Or technical fiascos. The projector going down, the lights going out, someone checking their cell phone, disrupting the screening, playing with themselves. Those things can ruin a screening. Maybe not the person playing with themselves, if they’re doing it quietly in the back row.

NYX: You’re a writer, director, actor, do you have a preference?

OT: I guess I’m a writer first. It’s difficult calling myself a director because my movies are made at such a low-budget, with such a tight schedule, that I haven’t really been able to show what I can do visually as a director. Some people see a movie and they think that all the creative choices are intentional, but often, making a low-budget film is just a series of compromises. I don’t have much of a vision when i make a movie because I’m honestly just trying to find the most practical, cost-efficient way to shoot and deliver the movie. I try to focus on the writing and performance. And if the DP can make it look good with our constraints, that’s just icing. I think the DP Alexander Sablow did an amazing job.

I’m definitely wouldn’t call myself an actor. I basically just perform my own personality on the screen. And since I’m writing the words, delivering them comes pretty naturally. When I’m cast in other people’s movies, it’s very difficult for me learning someone else’s dialogue. I try to get the director’s permission to tweak my lines a bit or say them in a way that sounds more natural.

NYX: So, what are you working on at the moment?

OT: I just produced a movie that my friend Ariel Kavoussi wrote and directed called The Next Big One. She was in my movie Catfight and she’s very talented. It’s a very very original, funny movie about a toxic cloud threatening New York, and everyone’s medicating with television and cookies. The cast is phenomenal. This fall, I’m supposed to make a roadtrip movie about a wonderful Czech puppeteer. I’m developing a cartoon series with a friend, that we can hopefully sell in the future. I’m illustrating a werewolf novel that will hopefully come out in the next year or two. I’m staying busy and doing whatever I can do to avoid thinking about the world’s end…and my own!

NYX: Onur Tukel, thank you very much.

OT: Thank you, James!