Comedies don’t come much more unconventional than “Nude Tuesday.”
The brainchild of Armağan Ballantyne and Jackie van Beek — who also stars as Laura, one half of a couple who attend a new-age retreat run by sex-guru Bjorg Rassmussen (Jemaine Clement) to rekindle their marriage — it was filmed in a made-up language and then subtitled after the fact by Julia Davis. The cult comedy veteran’s prose is a frequently hilarious interpretation of the cast’s performances.
Speaking with Variety ahead of the film’s U.K. premiere at the Edinburgh International Film Festival (EIFF), Davis recalls why she agreed to the subtitling gig before she even saw the movie.
“I was a big fan of Jackie’s from a film she did called ‘The Breaker Upperers.’ We had a mutual fan type of thing going between us where we were emailing each other,” says Davis. “But then Jackie just emailed me and said, ‘how would you feel about writing subtitles for a film that’s completely in a made-up language?’ And I just said, ‘Yeah, sounds good.’”
Once Davis started working in earnest, she quickly learned about the technical learning curve she would have to surmount. “Because you’re limited by the amount of time anyone’s speaking, you’ve got a lot of technical issues with time codes and things,” says Davis. “And so initially it felt a bit like an exam that I wasn’t sure I could do.”
Indeed, the subtitling process is curiously precise; viewers need to read all the text and grasp their meaning while also taking in the visuals in just a few seconds. If the balance is off, the impact of any given scene is dulled. “There was a point where I think Jackie especially was saying if audiences are watching something with subtitles, they don’t really want more than, say, seven words on the screen at one time”, says Davis.
What helped her push through was the freedom to put her own stamp on the material. “I was like, ‘I’m really struggling with this sort of techno side of it, can I just have a go at writing and creating and then work it down to the right size?’ And that’s sort of what happened, really,” Davis says.
Other versions of the subtitles may have been even wilder. “They were trying to get me to really experiment even more. They were saying you could set it on another planet, you could do this, you could do that. I’m really up to trying lots of things, but I don’t think I can quite do that. I don’t think that would be my skill set,” Davis adds.
What is very much in Davis’ skill set is the New Zealand brand of humor, which the comedian — who grew up in Guildford, Surrey — says shares some similarities with British humor. “They have a similar sort of dryness, and a love of the suburban that I relate to from my upbringing,” says Davis. “But I do think perhaps there’s more of a warmth to what they do, or an innocence in a way.”
“Nude Tuesday” is not purely played for laughs though. Beneath the humor is an undercurrent of profound emotions that slowly but surely swells to the surface as Laura and her husband Bruno (Damon Herriman) try to get back on the same page. It’s a side of the film that Davis enjoyed exploring.
“One of my last projects, ‘Sally4Ever,’ had a love story between two of the characters that was nice — eventually — and quite romantic. But it’s not something I generally do, even though I think there’s a sadness under a lot of my work,” says Davis. “So I quite liked going into the emotional side of it, but I think you’re always trying to counterbalance it all the time with comedy.”
All in all, the subtitling process took much longer than Davis expected it to. “Jackie said to me, ‘Oh, you know, this will take you a couple of weeks.’ And I would say overall, it took about three months!,” says Davis.
As for how the cast feel about her work, Davis is especially nervous to hear the reaction of Clement, whom she’s a “big fan” of. But ultimately, she’s loved being a part of this experimental process. “It reminds me of that game, Consequences — where you draw a head, you pass it on to someone else, they draw a body, you pass it on,” says Davis. “It’s really fun to collaborate in this kind of bizarre way.”
“Nude Tuesday” has its U.K. premiere on Aug. 16 as EIFF’s central gala.