Author Interviews
6:51 am
Sat April 26, 2014

A Pixie Explores Vintage Porn In 'The Good Inn'

Originally published on Sat April 26, 2014 10:30 am

He was born Charles Thompson — but you might know him as Black Francis, frontman for legendary alternative band the Pixies. And though he still tours with the Pixies, he's trying his hand at a new art form: he's co-authored an illustrated novel, called The Good Inn.

It stars a young man called Soldier Boy, the lone survivor of a 1907 munitions explosion aboard a French battleship — who goes on to fall for an innkeeper's daughter, and winds up in the story of what might be the world's first stag film. Francis tells Scott Simon that originally, he wanted to make a movie as a way to coax his band back into the studio. "That never really happened, but I did begin to write a song cycle ... and I decided that I would research the first official pornographic film ever made," a silent short also called The Good Inn.


Interview Highlights

On getting Soldier Boy from his battleship to the movie set

It was just all a matter of, you know, a little bit of Wikipedia and a little bit microfiche at the library ... this film that I was reading about was made in about 1907, I think it was, or 1908, so I just began to think about what was going on in France — this was in France — what was going on in France at that time, and I read about a ship explosion in the Mediterranean port of Toulon ... and so I decided that my character, well, not really my character but the character that I stole from this old porn film, that that's where he began his journey, so to speak, as Soldier Boy. He survived, and his superiors said, get out of here, there's an investigation going on, we don't want some lowly private hanging around here.

On what Soldier Boy sees in his room at the Good Inn

[He] perceives light and sound coming through this tiny pinhole — imagine a camera obscura ... He realizes that he sees not only his own doppelganger but other people that he recognizes, in essentially the same place as he is, an inn, a bedroom, a man, a woman. The only difference is that there are other people there, people with a tripod, for example, or a camera ... and so he is actually seeing the first porn film ever being made, but it's in a parallel universe, if you will.

On nitrocellulose and explosions

We fortunately discovered that the original ship explosion was because of a chemical called nitrocellulose, which is the same chemical that film stock at the time was packed in, so it was a nice kind of a coincidence, we have the metaphor of life and death and explosion, all centered around this chemical nitrocellulose. And of course he discovers nitrocellulose once again in his life through film.

On whether he's seen the original film

I've seen a couple of images on the internet that purport to be stills from the film. We've researched it, we've asked people in France and we've asked people at the Kinsey Institute, and people have sent me clips of other films that they think is what I'm looking for, but it never seems to synch up with the single images that I've found.

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Transcript

SCOTT SIMON, HOST:

Charles Thompson is our next guest. He's also known as Black Francis or Frank Black, the front man of the Pixies. Black Francis has a new project. It's an illustrated novel called "The Good Inn," co-authored with Josh Frank and illustrated by Steven Appleby. It tells the story of the lone survivor of a 1907 munitions explosion aboard a French battleship.

And he goes on to fall for an innkeeper's daughter and winds up in the story of what might be the world's first stag film. The young man known as Soldier Boy might make you wonder about how the lines we draw between loss, art, love and smut ever began. Black Francis joins us from Western, Mass. Thanks so much for being with us.

CHARLES THOMPSON: Good morning. Thanks for having me. I really appreciate it.

SIMON: In a way, does this novel, this project kind of expand on what you were trying to do with rock and the Pixies?

THOMPSON: Yes. A few years ago, I was trying to convince my band, the Pixies, to go record new music as they had not done for many years. And I thought the perfect way to kind of convince everybody involved was to piggyback onto some kind of a film production so that it wasn't our big return to the recording studio so much as we were tagging along someone else's artistic wave, you know. And that never really happened, but I did begin to write a song cycle at that time.

So I began to write a movie in my head in my hotel room in Los Angeles. And I decided that I would research the first, official, pornographic film ever made called - I'm not saying it so great but - "A l'Ecu d'or ou la Bonne Auberge." La Bonne Auberge is the good inn, as in, you know, a place of lodging. So I tried to imagine the arc of people's lives from that film from a narrative point of view.

SIMON: So how do you wind up, in your mind, tying the story of someone who survived a 1907 explosion into the first pornographic film?

>>THOMPSON Well, for me, it was just all a matter of a little bit of Wikipedia and a little bit of mircrofiche. And this film that I was reading about was made in about 1907, I think it was, or 1908. So I just began to think about what was going on in France at that time. And I read about a ship explosion in the Mediterranean port of Toulan, and many people were killed, mostly military people.

And so I decided that my character - well, not really my character, but the character that I stole from this old porn film, that's where he began his journey, so to speak, as Soldier Boy. He survived, and his superiors said get out of here. There's an investigation going on. They sent the shell-shocked boy off into the countryside. And that's how he ends up at the Good Inn.

SIMON: That's where he sees himself as a character through a hole in his room.

THOMPSON: I imagined a hole in a wall at the Good Inn where Soldier Boy perceives light and sound coming through this tiny pinhole. Imagine a camera obscura. And as he begins to investigate, he sees not only his own doppelganger, but other people that he recognizes in essentially the same place that he is - an inn, a bedroom, a man, a woman.

The only difference is that there are other people there, people at a tripod, for example, and a camera. And so he is actually seeing the first porn film ever being made, but it's in a parallel universe, if you will. He's attracted to the situation or intrigued by it enough because he's seeing himself and through a little whole in the wall. It doesn't make sense.

SIMON: Yeah.

THOMPSON: So he seeks out his doppelganger. And he actually passes through the wall actually.

SIMON: So you've never seen this 1907 film "La Bonne Auberge," right?

THOMPSON: No. I've seen a couple of images on the Internet that purport to be stills from the film. But we've researched it, we've asked people in France, and we've asked people at The Kinsey Institute. And people have sent me clips of other films that they think is what I'm looking for, but it never seems to sink up with the single images that I've found.

SIMON: Do you hope this gets to be a movie?

THOMPSON: I hope it does because I think it would be really fun to try and make this movie. But I guess these movie things take a long time so...

SIMON: Yeah.

THOMPSON: Well, we'll see what happens with the movie end of it.

SIMON: Black Francis. He's written a new novel - if that's what you call it - together with Josh Frank and illustrated by Steven Appleby, "The Good Inn." Thanks so much for being with us.

THOMPSON: Thanks a lot. I really appreciate talking to you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.