Filmmaker Alena Shevchenko is not shy when it comes to exploring female-centric narratives as we first saw here at DN with her ‘will she, won’t she’ monodrama I’ll Say It First. Her latest project Sorry I am late I was masturbating develops on the theme of female empowerment and explores the much-maligned subject of female pleasure. Split into three distinct parts which move from romantic light and dreamlike visuals to a sultry erotic sequence before culminating in a colourful explosion of nostalgic animation, Sorry I am late I was masturbating playfully opens up the communication around female masturbation. It’s a film which intentionally sparks conversation and provides licence to talk about a topic which shouldn’t be out of bounds. We sat down with the Berlin-based writer/director for an enlightening chat about the very surprising and unwelcome reception she received when scouting locations because of the film’s supposed ‘provocative’ title, how she went about securing her actress under some tricky circumstances and paying homage to her a childhood animation to give her climax scene an extra special edge.

I love the premise – it’s so open and playful, why did masturbation spark your creativity?

A few years ago I made a short film I’ll Say It First which centers around one woman’s hesitations embracing her female power and after that short I was inspired to tell more stories like this. I wanted to really start to investigate what is in a woman’s head, what she’s thinking about, what worries her, what she wants from sex and what kind of sex she wants. Naturally, after this line of inquiry, I came up with the idea to talk about female masturbation. I realized that the silence around this is an issue in society, male masturbation is totally fine, accepted and even heralded but female masturbation is still taboo. Sorry I am late I was masturbating is a manifest for female masturbation which I told in a funny and quirky way as I believe that humor can break the ice. Masturbation itself is one of the keys to finding your own sexuality and I therefore hope that this film helps to open up more discussions around this bizarrely shrouded part of life.

As you’ve pointed out there seems to be an unfortunately universal hesitancy when talking about female masturbation, did this mean you encountered any setbacks in the production of the film?

My idea was to shoot the film in Berlin where I’m based as I believed that this city was super open to this kind of topic however I faced some obstacles. I initially found an amazing character for the film, Linda Rohrer, but after the online audition she told me she wasn’t ready to play in ‘this’ kind of film. I was really disappointed but came to the realization that the film could only work with her. So four months later I made a very detailed storyboard, which was designed to persuade her to play in the film and she agreed to come on board. We then bonded over the very purposeful likeness of the character to her in my storyboard!

Sorry I am late I was masturbating is a manifest for female masturbation which I told in a funny and quirky way as I believe that humor can break the ice.

I also, lamentably, found that the title of the film attracts people and at the same time scares them. A few days before shooting we lost the location. As ‘the idea’ was too provocative for the owner. It took me some time to explain why it was important and how the film would be told and explained that it wasn’t a pornographic film and eventually we got the location back. It turned out that Berlin wasn’t as prepared for masturbation as I expected!

The offline premiere happened in a church. I think it was the best place to screen the film. People laughed and smiled and they started to talk about the topic without confusion. So my mission is completed. This is what I wanted.

I particularly love the mix of film and digital, where did this choice come from?

My DOP Daniel Obradovic suggested using 16mm for the apartment to achieve a stylised naturalism which we captured on an Arriflex 416 with 250D and 500T filmstock. We were willing to go with the imperfections and mistakes that come with working with film as they fitted with the whole look of the film. We also felt the 16mm helped to underline the naive and light mood of the character. We then wanted to make sure the dream world looked and felt very different with darker and more vivid colors which was best achieved digitally and in a studio where we used the Vantage One spherical prime lenses and one canon 16mm zoom.

The erotic scenes feel so natural and genuine, did you work with anyone in particular on these?

The Sexy Guru, Katja Weitzenböck, was our intimacy coordinator on set to help with some of the erotic scenes. It is so essential now that we are using these types of professionals. In preparation Katja asked me some very precise questions such as “do you want actors to kiss with their tongues or without? Fast or slow? Should they touch each other during the kiss or not?” Essentially, we talked in great detail about body language which massively helped both me and the actors to relax and feel comfortable on set.

I wanted to really start to investigate what is in a woman’s head, what she’s thinking about, what worries her, what she wants from sex and what kind of sex she wants.

The music is mischievous, retro and so fitting, who did you work with on the score and how did all the moving parts come together?

We basically have three compositions in the film which change with the main experience. In the beginning, the music is naive and shy. The fantasy part is sexy and playful with music by Ralph Castelli – Morning Sex. And the final part, the animation, is the overall moment of climax which was inspired by one of my childhood favourites, Sailor Moon. The composition was created by Moritz Staub and Staub Audio. When we were ready to put the audio into the edit, Moritz united and polished all three parts of the composition to make it feel complete, adding sound design and small playful sounds.

It turned out that Berlin wasn’t as prepared for masturbation as I expected!

The climax scene is incredible, after taking inspiration from one of your favourite childhood cartoons how did you work in this segment of the short?

Four specialists worked on the project from Fashion Illustration Studio to make the 16 second video (5 scenes and 371 shots for rendering) – an illustrator, a motion designer, a producer, and Art Director Alena Lavdoskaya. The first and most important step was to develop an anime character resembling the girl. We worked on modifying the girl’s body and outfit to make her look more natural, curvy, and playful. All the work was done digitally, we drew the illustrations in ProCreate and then edited the backgrounds in Photoshop and carried out the animation process in Adobe After Effects.

The most tricky part was to convey a smooth flow in her movements and it required frame-by-frame animation. We had so little time to illustrate each single frame, so Alena came up with the solution of phase-to-phase animation. We drew a set of body positions like full face, profile, and three-quarters and the software calculated transitions between the phases.

Do you have any plans to develop this short into anything more?

Right now I am developing a web series exploring love and sex. Basically, Sorry I am late I was masturbating and I’ll say it first are both proofs of concept for the web series which will be titled Sorry, I am not in love.

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