Combustible Celluloid

Interview with Tilda Swinton

'Teknolust' for Life

By Jeffrey M. Anderson

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Sometimes reality works in mysterious ways. San Francisco artist and filmmaker Lynn Hershman-Leeson decided to make a new Frankenstein film, based on the Mary Shelley novel that spawned so many other dozens of Frankenstein films. It should have been a sure thing.

But the backers pulled out, and Hershman instead went on to make the far riskier new film Teknolust.

Like The Rocky Horror Picture Show, Teknolust is so smart and so odd it seems perfect for midnight cult status, with its colorful, clinical view of sex, technology and donuts -- as well as brilliant performance by Tilda Swinton as scientist Rosetta Stone and her three clones, Olive, Marine and Ruby.

The problem is that Rosetta created the clones without using any male element, so Ruby must sneak out into the real world, seduce random men, and bring back their sperm.

Swinton recently visited San Francisco and joined her friend Hershman to help shed a little light on the new film, which opens Friday at the Opera Plaza.

When the Frankenstein project fell through, Hershman simply did a little editing on her script. "I just kind of converted the genders and updated the issue and made a joke out of the whole thing," she says. "We're still creating life. What is a computer virus, but a new kind of life?"

The strangest thing about Teknolust is that it takes place in the present, yet it feels like the future, thanks to the different kinds of technology on display. "I don't separate technology from our environment. It's where we live. It's so much a part of our lives. Think about the idea of isolation, of how technology brings people together. All these issues are all dealt with in some simulated way."

Swinton had a great deal of fun playing the scientist and her three clones. She says that it's almost harder for her to play a single character in a film, and points out that she's played multiple characters in at least three other films: Orlando, Man to Man and Possible Worlds.

"It's a thing that I like playing with," she says. "The thing is that people behave differently all the time anyway. You can say you're playing a character who doesn't change names, but from scene to scene they can change completely. It depends what her energy's like, what's going on."

"There was one moment when I was very tired and I asked to re-shoot something because I had forgotten who I was just for a second," Swinton admits.

In one scene, all three clones perform a little dance for their creator, and Swinton performed all the moves herself, in front of a "green screen," which allows the background to be blocked out and painted over with other imagery.

Oddly enough, the three clones all appear in yellow during the dance number. "We had this very funny moment," Swinton says. "We were just about to do it and we realized that we had to change my costumes because one of me, i.e. Olive, would be invisible. So we changed it."

In addition to Swinton, Hershman managed to lure a top-notch supporting cast including Jeremy Davies as a neurotic copy shop worker, Karen Black (a staple in many cult films) as a private eye, James Urbaniak as a creepy FBI man and local monologist Josh Kornbluth, who turns in a very funny performance as one of Ruby's victims.

"I met Josh and I originally thought that he would be one of the people who would be seduced, but he was so good we just kept on expanding the role and making a part for him. Most of what he did was improv," Hershman says.

Another familiar San Franciscan also appears in the credits: Eleanor Coppola. Hershman enlisted her old friend to shoot some second-unit museum footage using her own camera, and every inch of her exposed footage made it into the final cut.

Hershman has been influenced by the Coppolas in mysterious ways. One day, years ago, Hershman, Francis and Eleanor Coppola were riding in an elevator. Hershman noticed that Francis was writing down everything the other people were saying, possibly for use in some future script.

For the Jeremy Davies character, Hershman didn't have to go much further than her local Kinko's. "The guy there actually did this long monologue about how terrible he was at what he did," she says. "You don't have to write scripts anymore."

August 18, 2003

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