Interview: Birder director Nate Dushku, writer Amnon Lourie and actor Michael Emery on violent choreography and the importance of an intimacy coordinator

Consent has never been deadlier.

Winner of Best 1st Feature at the Melbourne Queer Film Festival, Birder is an erotic thriller that pushes the limits of queer sexual intimacy on screen and tells a compelling story about what it means to be queer, sex positive, and vulnerable.

Starring Michael Emery in a chilling turn as Kristian Brooks, a bird watcher whose secrets start to unravel as he invades a joyful sex positive community, Birder is the feature-length directorial debut from Nate Dushku and his partner, writer Amnon Lourie.

As the film sets its release in the US and UK, Peter Gray spoke with the creative trio about the origins of their story, if there was specific inspiration behind Emery’s chilling character, and the importance of working with an intimacy coordinator.

There’s a line in the film, and I could be paraphrasing, but it was “Expectations are not good for your health”, and it rang incredibly true with Birder.  As someone who loves horror, queer cinema, and doesn’t kink shame, it hit all the right boxes.  How did this project emulate for you, Nate and Amnon?

Nate Dushku: (Amnon), who’s my husband, we worked on a film before, and we thought, “Let’s do one together!”  He can write, I’ll direct, and (Birder) just arrived at a really specific time.  It was summer, we were up in Vermont, we were hanging out on the banks of this river where a lot of mostly gay men, though I would probably say queer people, would hang out.  It’s clothing optional, and the laws in Vermont state that that’s legal.  The sign saying “Clothing optional beyond this point”, and it’s just this really lovely, liberating experience.  It just feels like you can shed all of your insecurities and just live in your skin.

We thought what would be a horrifying experience, and then the pandemic hit.  We were staying in a house, and we thought we would write Clue in a house (laughs).  We wanted to do it outside, so we thought “Let’s do it in New Hampshire”, and that place has this other kind of element to it.  That’s the “Live Free or Die” state, and it was closer to home.  And then Amnon got to work and he just started writing, and he handed (the script) to me and I just loved it immediately.  I couldn’t believe he just banged it out!

This film took a lot of work, and we kind of workshopped it with each other, and then we found our financing partner, and everyone who read it pretty much jumped on board.  That’s the kind of project it was.  You’re either going to try and keep this at arm’s length because it’s too risqué , and I respect that, but enough people said they wanted to be a part of it.  That’s why the movie, I think, turned out, because it was just so much passion and a lot of risk taking, and a lot of sacrifice from Michael.

And Michael, what’s your first reaction when you read something like this? When you realise, “Oh, this is where it goes?” I will also just quickly say the ending to this movie is fantastic!

Michael Emery: Pure excitement.  It wasn’t even when I read the script, it was when I read the breakdown.  I knew I had to do this.  I was going through a time where I was really bored with what I was doing.  Just doing the same thing over and over again, and it started to feel stale.  It’s like reading the same book, almost.  As an artist, you want to challenge yourself.  You want to expand your horizons.  And when I read the breakdown for Kristian, it was just this huge, blank canvas, and I have so many colours I could just throw on this thing and make it into some type of picture.  My manager was then talking to Nate, and the ball just got rolling.  When I read the script I was even more excited, if that was possible.

When it comes to the script, was Kristian based on anyone specifically? Or is he an amalgamation of all these character strands in your head, Amnon?

Amnon Lourie:  I’m self-taught in terms of screenplay writing.  I was in the restaurant business, so the basis for my storytelling would be “Aesop’s Fables”, or children’s Greek mythology.  I was basing it a little on my ideas of mythological characters.  In this case, the metaphor that I thought was really good for this was Scylla and Charybdis.  Kristian has this Scylla element to them, where they’re this creature.  He would be considered a monster by most accounts.  But that doesn’t matter (here).  We’re telling the story behind that person.

And it’s not about moralising or making (his behaviour) acceptable.  But it’s understanding their journey a little bit, which is important.  You said something earlier that I was really glad (to hear) and it made me feel good, is the idea of not kink shaming, but also not identity shaming.  There’s this element of queer joy in our storytelling, but we also want to be able to tell the truth.  And the truth is pretty dark in general.  The truth is very rarely ever, “Hey I’ve got something to tell you, and it’s a good thing!”  It’s usually, “I’ve got something to tell you, and you need to be ready for it…”

It’s important to be able to tell the joyful stories about queer people in general, and all people, but just tell their story!  The story can be dark, as long as you’re not making the violence that happens to people their fault.  And that’s often the point in horror.  Like, if someone invites a vampire to a party, then there are vampires…it’s not your fault that someone killed you.  That was kind of the driving force behind Kristian.  Kristian is a little bit Scylla, a little bit Christian Bale in American Psycho, a little bit Bob from What About Bob? (Laughs), that movie is really about one of the most untold psychopaths.  Like, he ruins that whole family!  And everyone loves him because he’s Bill Murray.

Nate Dushku: And I will add here, Michael’s character, Kristian, is more a psychopath than he is queer.  I don’t even know if we can say he’s queer.  And that was intentional.

Amnon Lourie: It was never written that Kristian was gay or straight or queer.  He just partakes in activity which is deviant to the norms of what people expect.  The identity that he has is something different.  And that’s the genius of Michael.  He really created something different.  And he’s scary.  Kristian is scary.

Michael Emery: I never judged Kristian, really.  I never saw him as gay or straight or anything like that.  I just saw him as this entity that was just making his way through manipulating people.  That’s how I saw him.  I didn’t judge him.  I don’t judge any character I play.  He’s so lucid.  Like a water bug, just going through this whole maze.

Michael, was there any character, when reading the script, that you immediately linked to Kristian?  Someone that could be on his level? Obviously, we just heard that What About Bob? and American Psycho have links…

Michael Emery:  That’s a good question.  I went to the local library here in Jersey. and I just started reading books on psychosis.  I see a therapist too, so I was talking to a therapist at the time about different types of bipolar disorders, and different types of mental disorders that she hasn’t come across yet.  I was just constantly taking notes and watching documentaries.  But I just threw all that out when I started my prep process, because I didn’t want to model him after anybody in particular.  I just wanted him to come organically.

If you can take this as a compliment, you are unhinged here.

Michael Emery: Thank you, I appreciate it.  That means a lot.  It’s Amnon’s writing (though).  It’s incredible.  And there’s no improvisation at all.  I come from an improv background, and every word (here) is written to the tee.  It was just so surreal, because sometimes I’ll go off on a rant and do my own thing, but then (Nate) will do another take to work.  Everything was there on paper.

When it comes to the violence and sexual content, how choreographed is that? Is that distinctly mapped out with an intimacy coordinator?

Nate Dushku: We met with a bunch of intimacy coordinators, and the one we ended up going with doesn’t usually see (actions) written out in such detail.  I loved that Amnon did that, because it was telling her and informing her of the Why?  The action is so specific.  Why?  Why was it written this way?  Eventually she just got “it”.  I understood why every move was made.  Everything that Kristian did was intentional.  We had to take a few things out, for the sake of the camera and the budget to help streamline it, but, for the most part, every action, every scene, every bit of intimacy was choreographed and very carefully talked about.  We talked about why it’s important to have it in the film versus what you might see, like gratuitous nudity or violence.  The stuff that might do harm to certain communities.  And as a thriller, we’re trying to scare the audience.

Amnon Lourie: We also really wanted to land on this conversation about consent.  One of the things that doesn’t really happen in movies is the negotiation that everyone has (regarding that).  Where there’s consent you talk to the person, or you communicate through touch, or whatever it is.  There’s a give and a take, and two or more people figure out where it’s all going to go, and that conversation has to be choreographed in order for you to film it and be mildly compelling.

With gay men, or an orgy, or whatever, you don’t just suddenly go to (the act of) choking.  You feel your way there.  Or with the nature of the sub/dom space, you look at how rough it’s going to be.  That’s a negotiation.  You figure it out.  You talk it out.  And we wanted that to be very explicit.

And we had three intimacy coordinators (here).  They were an essential part of the team.  We really, really cared about that part of (Birder).  You can hurt people very easily when you’re asking actors to open themselves up to the world.  You have to make sure that you’re doing everything in your power to do no harm.

And before I go, looking at the realms of both horror and queer cinema, is there a title for all of you, in whichever area, that you look at as quite a formative title?

Michael Emery: I love Scream.  The whole Scream franchise is my favourite.  I think the first Scream movie is one of the best films ever made.  It has every genre in it you can think of.  I could watch that movie every two weeks.

Amnon Lourie: I’m a 2001: A Space Odyssey (person).  I saw that when I was too young, and it never left me.  It’s just as scary watching it today.

Nate Dushku: Anything that Christine Vachon produced, for me, in terms of queer cinema, I think she takes you to very dark, truthful places.  Boys Don’t Cry? I just remember being in high school and watching it, and kind of sitting in the back row and just being completely blown away by it and taken into that world.  I grew up in a pretty safe suburb of Boston, but I think that as a queer producer in New York she really leads the charge with new queer cinema.

I think all of us are going to go on and do more films, and I think mixing genres is also what’s so exciting about queer cinema right now.  Particularly with ours.  We’re calling it an erotic thriller, but I think it can be called what you want.

Birder is scheduled for release on VOD, Digital and DVD in North America and the United Kingdom from June 25th, 2024.

Peter Gray

Seasoned film critic. Gives a great interview. Penchant for horror. Unashamed fan of Michelle Pfeiffer and Jason Momoa.