Chase Lisbon has tattoos of black roses on the back of his hands and a feather on his neck. He wears thick glasses and has wild hair. Amanda Pemberton has an elaborate tattoo of a woman spanning the top of her chest, three big black bars on her arm, and a witch on her thigh. They both have a punk sensibility that definitely did not fit in in the small town of Cotter, Ark., where they hung black sheets over the windows and had beds set up in almost every room of the house they rented.
They would drive three hours to pick up other wild-looking young women who flew from various cities to the nearest airport. "They come straight out of a city, then have to get on a single prop plane that holds nine people to fly to this airport, and then I pick them up and drive them for all these hours past all these churches," Lisbon says at a booth in the back of the Charles Village Pub, one of the few places, he says, that he is comfortable, despite the fact that he no longer drinks.
Lisbon compares Cotter to a country controlled by a dictator, in this case, a theocracy. "So it's like a community that is 99 percent white, probably 99.9 percent Baptist. It's kind of like the town of Footloose maybe, but with hillbillies, so there is a lot of oppression there from the Baptists-a lot. A very scary place to live."
Pemberton agrees. "It was scary at times," she says by phone from Portland, Ore., where she now lives. "We were harassed by police officers, we were harassed by store owners. When I was there, one lady refused to serve me at a register and another shop owner yelled something mean at me. We were outsiders there and everyone knew it."
So perhaps it was inevitable that the film they made there would be called We Must Remain the Wildhearted Outsiders (a title Lisbon used in tribute to Dexys Midnight Runners "And Yes We Must Remain The Wildhearted Outsiders" in the same way he lifted his nom de guerre, Lisbon, from the family in the novel The Virgin Suicides).
The film, which was released late last month for mail-order or streaming, is a moody, dialogueless poem about two lesbian women in love in a small community in the pre-internet age who begin to sell erotic pictures and videos as a way to earn enough money to escape and be together, but they end up tearing themselves apart. It is unique: Where pornography uses a story to introduce sex (or at least used to), Outsiders uses sex-softcore, simulated sex-to tell a story.
"It's definitely not a porn," says Pemberton, who stars in the film under the name Apneatic. "Sometimes it's confusing for people to understand, because there are simulated sex scenes and toplesss nudity, but that's just part of the narrative. That's really not the purpose of the movie." Pemberton, who has been modeling in artporn, or erotic films and pictures, since she turned 18, in 2003, says, "It makes me sad. But I know I'm desensitized to nudity. But for the average person, I can see them excited by it."
In fact, it is a very melancholy movie (the closest parallel in terms of the erotics and sensibility of sadness is David Lynch's Mulholland Drive). And it strangely mirrors the story of Lisbon and Pemberton as they made it, though both are quick to point out that there are no direct parallels or correlations between any characters and real people. Rather, as the movie took over their lives, their lives began to mirror the kind of breakdown depicted in the movie.
It wasn't an accident that they ended up in the Ozarks. Lisbon was born in Arkansas, where his father was a sound engineer for the band Black Oak Arkansas, and his parents lived with the band in what they called a commune. They moved away when Lisbon was 2 and his father began working for Foghat. Eventually, by the time Lisbon was in middle school, his dad was working for a sound company that dealt primarily with British artists. When Pink Floyd toured America, they left behind a video camera that Lisbon inherited, which he used to begin to make skateboard videos and comedies with his friends.
In 1999, he came up with the idea for Supercult, a website that describes itself as artporn. "I was watching a [porn] movie or something, and I'd see a girl and she'd have, like, maybe an old Black Flag tattoo or something," Lisbon says. "Even though she looks like Jenna Jameson, she must have some kind of street roots. I mean she's somehow has some connection to the underground. And at the time the underground was still not fashionable. It was not yet something that was like marketed like what pop culture was aspiring to be."
He didn't know anything about websites or photography, but he thought, If I could do this with all my friends and all the people that are normal people, we could do it in a way that is not degrading and make it less objectifying . . . and show people's personalities and [have] everyone involved be equal and have fun. In the beginning, he says "it was very fun and it was very innocent and it wasn't dark at all in any way."
He bought the domain name supercult.com, taught himself Flash and Dreamweaver, and put up what is seemingly the world's first altporn website, followed a few months later by the extremely successful Suicide Girls. "I had no business sense, no understanding at all of the market. I didn't know what to do with this."
But he did learn how to take photographs and began to film again. And, lacking professional equipment, he began to use flashlights for lighting and other primitive equipment, all of which is featured prominently in Outsiders, which is set in the pre-internet era. The lighting and other technical maneuvers give Lisbon's work a unified aesthetic quality that is unique and highly individualized.
Nerve.com noticed his work and hired him. He began to travel the country by train, shooting photos. This was when he met Pemberton. "Our very first encounter was at the San Francisco airport the summer of 2008. We were both traveling around the country and he invited me to travel with him by train for about two weeks from San Francisco to Houston, Texas, where I was based at the time. But instead of getting off the train in Houston and going my separate way, I canceled my upcoming flight, packed my things, and I kept traveling with Chase until we moved in together in Savannah, Georgia, about a month later."
From there, they moved on a bit more-living, for a while, in an airstream trailer on a tattoo artist's property in Iowa, where they shot guns and raised chickens-until they decided to go to Cotter, where Lisbon's father was now living again. There, they decided to film the short about a group of women who lived in motels that eventually became a feature and took over their lives in what would become a very dark way.
For one, the workload they took on was insane, trying to make a feature film with two people and actors flown in from all over the country (a blond woman named Lauren WK, who plays Pemberton's love interest, was the most common visitor). They made much of the movie in Cotter, but they also used motels in nine different states.
"What you have to imagine [for any scene] is I probably picked somebody up at an airport, took them straight to a motel," Lisbon says. "I came into a motel with really good-looking girls who all look really young, they all went into their room and put on makeup, and I start bringing in cart after cart after cart of my own televisions and all this old video equipment and strange lights. I don't have any professional lights. Any time you see the lights in the movie, those are the lights I'm shooting with, those tripods are what I'm using. It's not like I have good equipment hidden. It's all coming in these carts I set up while they're doing makeup and doing each others' hair-I don't have a person doing that-and we say, 'OK, at like 2 a.m., we start shooting.' And we shoot, and as soon as we're done shooting, we go to sleep and get everything together for our checkout, and I wheel all this shit out. And then whenever you're wheeling things, everybody in the hotel thinks you're stealing the television, stealing the phone, 'cause who would come to a motel with their own television and phone, right?"
The intensity of the work began to take its toll.
"Halfway through the making of it, everything in my life fell apart and I realized that in the last three years, shit had gone in a really dark direction," Lisbon says. "And after doing this for so long, it never had gotten dark, but in the making of this movie, things were dark. It was taking a toll on Amanda, I could tell, and it was taking a toll on both of us, and I was not going in a good direction. My intent and the person I was becoming-I was probably at the worst I've ever been as a person."
Though they didn't realize it at first, they were actually making a film about-and perhaps even against-the erotic industry (which Lisbon says ranges from hardcore porn to erotic pinups and strip clubs) they had been working in their entire adult lives. "When I was younger, it was a lot easier to get excited about things like titties," Lisbon says of the more graphic nature of Supercult, "before I got more desensitized." Around the same time they decided the film would not be a short, they also consciously decided that it would not be an erotic film but a film about erotic images and their toll.
"I was in a very weird position of making a movie about and within an industry that I was just starting to be over," Lisbon says. "The movie itself is kind of my thesis on this whole time within the industry. There's a lot about it that's connected directly to my life."
What had been fun and free at first now seemed to have a high psychic cost. "This industry, you have women fighting to prove that it's the best thing in the world and that it's empowering and you have people fighting against it, saying that it's a terrible thing and that it's objectifying," Lisbon says. "But the thing is, it can be both of those things, and people getting into that industry should be aware that there is going to be a period where, no matter how much they are advocating it, they are going to find some darkness. They're going to find a downside. Once you start having men talk to you a certain way, those letters that you see in the film where men are sort of ordering women like food, that's something that is going to start to grind away at your psyche, every time, you're giving a lot of yourself away to people."
Lisbon says everyone comes into the industry with lines they will not cross, things they will not do. And then they change those lines and do those things until, "at some point, you wake up and say, 'I don't even know who I am anymore.'"
That loss of identity is the experience of Pemberton's character, Marie, who finds her psyche unraveling in the movie as she got lost in travel and work-in a way that mirrors her own experience. "By winter of 2010, on most of my photo shoots I would end up crying or I was covering my face with my hair somehow," she says. "I couldn't handle it anymore. Even the regular modeling away from the movie was getting to me, it was too much, and I quit modeling in 2011. Something inside of me changed."
Pemberton says she went to the emergency room for panic attacks a few times and was taking large doses of Klonopin (which she has since quit taking). An early investor's contributions had been supplemented through various means, including Pemberton's modeling gigs and Lisbon's investments in precious metals (which had been a longtime fascination of his), but then they ran out of funds.
And so Pemberton left. "I was leaving to help myself because I was going crazy," she says. "But if I would have stayed, I don't think this movie would have come out . . . I really don't. We ran out of money, we couldn't get work out there. I was able to make substantially more when I left, and it helped production a lot."
Pemberton says she worked just as hard on the film-she is currently in charge of its distribution-after she left, but something was different. "I know it was all me," she says. "But it was during the movie where that change occurred. It really did change me as a person for the better," she says. "Before the movie, I wasn't 100 percent happy with my job but I could handle it and I was outgoing, and now I'm not. I, uh, I stay inside my house most of the time, I, uh, I don't even know what happened. Everything just changed."
Lauren WK, who plays Apneatic's lover, also felt the darkness. "I can connect to that in certain ways," she says. "At first-kind of like in the movie at first-everything seems like bright lights and happy future, new things, but as you move along, anything has its darknesses, and especially an industry that revolves heavily around aesthetics."
And that is part of what makes the film brilliant: the way it takes those aesthetics and turns them back on themselves with a brutal, if wistful honesty. Even if it might be hard for some people to decipher. "I can see how a lower denominator of people might just look at it and not be able to find a story in it and view it more as porn, and I know that is a concern of his," Lauren WK says of Lisbon. "But I think he is coming to a point where he is a little more comfortable with people not understanding, because I think he understands that if everyone understood it and liked it, then it wouldn't be anything special."
Lisbon, who quickly announces social anxiety upon meeting people like reporters, remained in Arkansas for a year, where he began to edit the 600-plus hours of film and put together the intense, droning score that, as much as the flashing visuals and grainy style, adds to the film's character.
During the editing, both in Arkansas and Baltimore, where he lives with his sister, Lisbon examined his own life, tearing down the persona he had been constructing for the last decade. "I realized I'm going to get old and I don't want to stay in touch with what's going on with 18-year-olds my whole life and I don't like the stress of that and I should really just figure out how to do something that stands out not based on topical content but based on what's inside of me, so I can figure out how to develop that so it's connected to me and timeless, so I don't have to keep up-to-date with what's going on."
Lisbon is deeply involved in mysticism, tracing a line from the Egyptian Akhnaton through the mystery rites, through the Essenes, and into mystic Christianity, the Rosicrucians and the Knights Templar. Lisbon says he didn't plan it, but the film is full of Rosicrucian and Egyptian symbols, from the pyramid on the DVD's cover to the tatoos on his own hands. At one time, We Must Remain the Wildhearted Outsiders may have seemed inevitable to Lisbon, but in retrospect, it seems something more like destiny, even if neither Lisbon nor Pemberton are sure what will happen next with it. "I just wanted to get it done," she says. "Now it's out there and I am happy."