Pixels, Porn & Power: Use Me with Julian Shaw & Ceara Lynch

Australian actor/filmmaker Julian Shaw began his career in short films and documentaries. His latest film, Use Me, sees the gifted young multitasker branch out into meta-fiction. Featuring a fabricated plot, yet real people playing themselves, Use Me captivates with its ambiguity. It takes a probing look at the seductive allure of pixelated reality, and the protagonists addicted to power, porn, and celluloid. I’ve had the privilege to chat with both Julian and his co-star, real-life “online humiliatrix” Ceara Lynch, about the perils (and masochistic joys) of virtual addictions. 

Julian, in the film, your camera-obsessed character reaches out to Ceara to make a documentary that would reveal the “real” Ceara behind her “online humiliatrix” persona. How did the two of you meet in real life?
Julian Shaw: In the movie, it is Ceara who initiates “us” meeting. In real life, I initiated it. I discovered Ceara accidentally on YouTube. I’ll leave it to your imagination how exactly I ended up having a pirated Ceara Lynch video suggested to me by YouTube’s algorithms (laughs). But it led me to her website, then her blog, and it was a mind-blowing experience for me. I was captivated by her charisma, her “x-factor” and the intelligent design behind the character she was portraying, not to mention being intrigued by “financial domination” and her unique business model. I thought it was a little cruel, but I was fascinated and full of ethical and moral questions. I had a gut feeling – I am going to do a film with this person. It was instant, certain, and it has never flagged in the years since. I’ve had that undeniable gut feeling three times in my life – and each time it turned into a film.

Ceara Lynch: Right. Julian reached out to me via email. I immediately recognized him from the marriage equality ad “It’s Time,” he did a few years prior that went viral. I actually posted that video on my Facebook before I ever met him because I liked it so much. So that notoriety helped. After some correspondence, we met, and he followed me around with a camera for a bit – and the rest is history.

I was captivated by her charisma, her “x-factor” and the intelligent design behind the character she was portraying…”

You have a palpable, sizzling chemistry on screen. Can you talk a little bit about how you prepared for your respective roles? Was there a lot of rehearsal?
JS: Well, I think initially we were actually probably a little wary of each other. I was coming at it as a documentary-maker – I’d made two one-hour documentaries before (Darling! The Pieter-Dirk Uys Story and Cup of Dreams), and each one took four years, and each one required digging deeper and deeper in order to get to the essence of the story and make something even remotely interesting. So I knew what I was in for. I met Ceara, and she was charming and natural, even sweet, but I was like: What is she hiding? What doesn’t she want me to see? Can I trust her? So we were a little cagy, and that vibe totally translates in the film in certain places and that edginess is real. As for our chemistry – I agree. It is there. We could both see it on-screen, and we agreed we needed to push it further to make the film as engaging as possible. Once we shaped the project and really developed our trust, I felt we could go anywhere on-screen together – sex, fights, arguments. From my point of view, it was built on our friendship and respect for each other.

CL: I agree with that. As someone who works in the sex industry, I’m automatically suspicious of anyone who wants to document me. The power of editing can tell whatever story they want, and I didn’t want to be the subject of another clichéd story about a victim or a freak. Plus, Julian has a charm about him that can come across almost too-slick, like he has ulterior motives. But I quickly learned that demeanor was really genuine. He’s really just a very enthusiastic and curious person. He was always transparent and honest with me throughout the entire process, and that built a lot of trust, which made our more intimate scenes possible.

Would the two of you describe yourselves as camera-obsessed, considering your lines of work?
JS: The ‘Julian’ in the movie is for sure an exaggeration, but it is based on a truth I see in myself and others – that small part of me that is focused on recording life more than experiencing it. It’s kind of like: you might be having a fight with your wife, and she says something hurtful, and a small voice inside says, “You should remember that, so you can use it in a screenplay one day.” It’s a cold and opportunistic voice, but most artists have that somewhere. My character takes it to an extreme by using his life merely as material for a documentary, which has disastrous consequences. It definitely is a commentary on how people use people in their life as fodder for their social media. But this concept came to me long before the controversy around YouTubers like Logan Paul. Initially, my idea about being addicted to filming your life seemed kind of abstract and not that plausible. As social media has overtaken our lives and we’ve all become ‘content creators’ it just has become more and more plausible and realistic.

CL: I think the ‘Ceara’ in the movie pretty much matches the real me. I wouldn’t say I’m camera obsessed. It’s just my job involves a lot of camera work.  But I wouldn’t record so much if I didn’t get paid for it. I actually have to remind myself to take pictures in non-work-related situations.

The power of editing can tell whatever story they want, and I didn’t want to be the subject of another clichéd story about a victim or a freak.”

Can you talk a little bit about your thoughts on the current digitization of society? Do you see it as more of a positive paradigm shift, or do you view it as ultimately detrimental to our collective cultural, intellectual, and social development?
JS: I see it as a ship that has set sail and is only increasing in speed. As a filmmaker, I am trying to stay somewhat ahead of, or at least on the curve, and be mindful of where technology is going and being an early adopter sometimes. But hey man, I grew up aspiring to the theatrical movie model. My whole romantic teenage fantasy of being a filmmaker has kind of turned on its head – however, you also realize that you are a storyteller and new technology enables you to tell stories in a fresh and interesting way. The fundamentals of a good story haven’t changed in thousands of years. So, look, there is no halting the progress of technology, but hopefully, a film like Use Me will make people examine their relationship with their devices, how they use social media and what is an honest and authentic use of these powerful technologies.  

CL: I’m not sure if it’s positive or negative. It could just be different. On the one hand, we are willingly giving up a lot of privacy, and people spend way too much time on their phones; on the other hand, we’re more connected and have instant access to more information than ever before in history. Personally, I’m quite thankful for it. The internet has empowered myself and countless other women to make their own money in the adult industry on their own terms and without a middle man who might exploit them. So for selfish reasons, I think it’s great. How it will affect society as a whole? I think only hindsight will say for sure. But I don’t buy into this doomsday fear that it’s denigrating us all. There are pros and cons.

JS: Very well put. It’s not a zero-sum game.

I saw some parallels with Steven Soderbergh’s The Girlfriend Experience: the blurring of fantasy and fiction, the probing-but-distanced study of human loneliness. Was that film an influence? What are some of your biggest influences, both cinematic and otherwise?
JS: Well, I appreciate the comparison, because I like that film, and I also get that Soderbergh saw some capacity in Sasha Grey that maybe wasn’t apparent to everyone. I kind of saw the same thing in Ceara instantly. But I had to convince my producer, and of course, the public who invested through Kickstarter, that, “Hey, this person can carry a movie – I know she is not an actor but trust me – this will work.” That was a big gamble. And frankly, it was a big gamble for me to be the male lead. I am an actor, but I’d never been the lead in a feature, so it was a double gamble. Ceara and I looked at The Girlfriend Experience for sure. I screened a bunch of movies to Ceara as I was developing the script: I’m Still Here, Catfish. Loved those as stylistic references. Also looked at Man Bites Dog. Story-wise was drawn to films like Nightcrawler because the protagonist is ‘unlikeable’ but god, is he compelling! Look, I went to film school, and I have read Save the Cat, and I know I could have done certain things in the first act to make my character WAY more likable out of the gate. But every time I tried that, I thought the film was less interesting. I love flawed, but driven characters. I get kind of bored by the heroic guy who never puts a foot wrong. Anyway, I also looked at all of the studio ‘erotic thrillers’: Fatal Attraction, Basic Instinct, Exotica, Body Heat. I studied those films and broke them down. At what point do the characters have sex? It seems to happen 20 minutes in. Why? There seems to be three sex scenes in all these films? Why? I had to understand the formula and why certain genre beats worked. Use Me initially had no sex scenes. My producer said that isn’t appropriate for the genre and it will let the audience down. And he was right. But I developed sex scenes that moved the story forward and revealed character. Our sex scene and the aftermath is personally my favorite scene in the movie.

Ceara, you delivered a highly confident, charismatic performance. How did you prepare for the role? Would you say your character in Use Me is similar to the actual “you” – and if so, in what way?
CL: Honestly, preparation for this role was really simple. I thought, “How would I act in this situation?” –  and then I did that. So yeah, the character in the movie is me (not to be confused with my humiliatrix persona, which is more of a seductress caricature.) Julian was a really great director and figured out quickly that I perform better if I wasn’t memorizing lines he wrote for me. Because I’d read his script and think, “I wouldn’t say it like that.” So he said, “Okay, so just say it how you would say it.” We came up with a really effective method where we came into every scene with a goal in mind and just improvised it. Unsurprisingly, this is how I film my custom fetishes videos. The customer outlines a loose fantasy, and then I just run with it. I will turn them down if they give me a script.

JS: I knew she had an amazing performance in her, and I just tried to facilitate that. She really is terrific in the movie. What was weird was I’d write a script but not even show her, and kind of feed the ideas or just ask questions and she’d actually end up pretty much saying every single line I’d written, or close to it. Over the years, we developed a pretty cool shorthand. It’s extremely rare in my experience and one of the best creative collaborations I’ve ever had.

The customer outlines a loose fantasy, and then I just run with it. I will turn them down if they give me a script.”

The character of Ceara Lynch does some things that some – including Julian Shaw’s protagonist – may find objectionable. Yet she seems unburdened, justifying those acts by saying that some people have to “ruin themselves” in order to “reach paradise.” What are your thoughts regarding the limits of the term “consensual?” 
CL:
I’m not sure that there are limits. An act is either consensual, or it isn’t. I think what you might be getting at is, “Do people always want what’s good for them?” From my experience, men want very different things when they’re horny vs. when they’re not. And I do think that’s uniquely male. Women can certainly enjoy sex and orgasms every bit as much as men, but there will never be a female equivalent to say, Anthony Weiner, who put their career, family, and reputation because their judgment was impaired by sheer horniness. So then the question becomes, “What is my responsibility?” I don’t chase my clients. They come to me. I don’t do anything that’s illegal. But do men sometimes ask me to do things in the heat of the moment that they regret later? Yes. Is it my responsibility to foresee their future regret and prevent it? If so, how do I do that? One man’s regret is another man’s fond memory. It’s a complex issue, and everyone is different. At the end of the day, I err on the side of personal responsibility.

JS: Consent is the only taboo. As for Ceara’s moral responsibility, it is indeed tricky, which is why it was such a rich area to explore through Joe Reitman’s character, Luke. Some people find his storyline obviously fictional, but let’s just say that I was inspired by reality and research when I wrote it. Ceara has always been ethical from what I have observed, but I think that this area is murky. I’m more interested in asking the audience challenging questions than being didactic though, and I am looking forward to a robust discussion of these issues in appropriate forums.

The film provides an explanation of the difference between “fetish” and “addiction,” and how one can morph into the other. While “addiction” certainly carries a negative connotation, what are your thoughts on fetishes?
CL: Fetishes color sexuality. Everyone likes different things, and that’s okay.

JS: I have a couple myself. And they are so deeply hard-wired that I sometimes feel like a stuck record. Male sexuality does seem to have this looping, repetitive nature that I have observed far less in women. I think it is pretty arbitrary what fetish you end up with, usually due to exposure to a certain stimulus at a young age. I also think it is quite compartmentalized and doesn’t really say anything about you as a person. If you get turned on by balloons, I don’t think that necessarily says much about what you are like as a family person, or if you are a courageous or moral person. Basically, I think fetishes are awesome.

The notion of “The American Dream” gets frequently brought up in Use Me. How would you describe it? Is it attainable?
CL: It feels like a very antiquated term to me. it was relevant during a time when economic opportunities were available to whoever was willing to work for them. You could go to college, start a family, buy a house, and retire comfortably at 65. That doesn’t seem relevant anymore. I’m incredibly grateful for the job I have because it seems like most people I know are drowning in debt and struggling paycheck to paycheck with no clear vision for their future. I’m curious what Julian has to say about this because I don’t think we’ve ever actually talked about it.

JS: Well that’s right, it’s a dated term, which is why I utilized it in the film because it kind of clashes beautifully with the cutting-edge, modern entrepreneur that Ceara is. I think the old meaning Ceara referred to has crumbled, but I don’t think a more modern definition has been arrived at and Use Me is sort of grasping at what that might be. But for sure, upward mobility and “sky is the limit” capitalism would feature in my definition. If the market will bear it, then go for gold. I have to admit that I un-ironically feel the intoxicating power of a certain kind of American Dream – I mean I moved here to make a movie, and for me making it in America in showbiz is still the Holy Grail. So I do feel that giddy excitement, but I wanted to show in the film how there is a dark side once you move past that initial excitement and that illusion of upward mobility and ‘sky is the limit’ thinking crumbles. I think the film asks: “Will you do anything to live your dream? And how does that change you?”

What are your next projects? Julian, will it be a documentary or feature? Ceara – any more films on the horizon?
JS: I’ve made the jump from documentary to narrative, and now I intend to continue in the narrative space. Some of my career inspirations are Joe Berlinger, who moves between doc and features, and Paul Greengrass, who has made big-ass studio action movies but rooted them in a kinetic, verite style. You can see his doc background even in the Bourne Identity movies. At film school, I tried making more obviously constructed and traditional films, and they didn’t connect – because they just didn’t come from my sweet spot. This movie is obviously connecting with audiences, and I think it’s because I’m learning to trust my instincts and bring the raw energy of my documentary work into a more controlled narrative style.

CL: I’m just going to continue making smut.

Use Me recently premiered at the Brooklyn Film Festival, where it won the Best Editing prize. Look out for Use Me on the festival circuit in the coming months.

 

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