We’re used to films in foreign languages, but how about a film in a completely made up one? That was the challenge for the writers, actors and musicians behind Jackie van Beek’s very naked new comedy.
The title card for Nude Tuesday doesn’t actually read Nude Tuesday. It reads Nøken Tisdøg. If you happen to be fluent in a Scandinavian language, you know that it means… absolutely nothing.
That’s because the words “Nøken Tisdøg” don’t exist in Swedish, Danish or Norwegian. They do, however, exist in Zøbftańlik, the language specifically created for Nude Tuesday, the new New Zealand comedy about husband and wife Bruno and Laura (Damon Herriman and Jackie van Beek) who go to a couples’ retreat run by relationship and sexual healing guru Bjorg Rasmussen (Jemaine Clement).
Creating a new language for an entertainment product is unusual, though not unheard of – think of the Elvish languages in Lord of the Rings, or Dothraki in Game of Thrones. The truly wild thing about Nude Tuesday is that Zøbftańlik wasn’t created for occasional use in the film. Zøbftańlik is the only language used in the film – it’s spoken the entire way through, with viewers following the story through English subtitles. Getting that language from concept to execution and into the actors’ mouths on screen was a journey unlike any other.
Once Jacqui van Beek – the film’s star and also its screenwriter – and director Armagan Ballantyne had come up with their unique plan, their first port of call was Perry Piercy. The Wellington actor and voice coach was tasked with creating a brand new language from the ground up, and building a solid foundation for the actors to improvise on.
Unsurprisingly, this wasn’t something that Piercy had ever done before. “I went to my friend Google and tried to find out how to do it, but there were no tutorials or anything,” she says. “I couldn’t find that much material.” She then started to look at “conlangs”, artificially constructed languages like Elvish and Dothraki that are part of many sci-fi and fantasy productions.
“Those are coherent languages with grammatical structures, created by linguists who understand how language works in that way, which was obviously not my brief.”
Piercy calls what she ended up creating a “spolang” – a spontaneous language. While Zøbftańlik has been referred to as “gibberish” in the press, that’s not quite true. There are rules to it, just far fewer than in a properly constructed language like Dothraki. For Piercy, creating it was not just a linguistic challenge, but a performance one: She needed to create a situation where actors felt comfortable essentially improvising the language on the spot, and they all needed to sound like they were from approximately the same part of the world.
One thing she knew from the start was that the language had to be “Nordic feeling”, reflecting the film’s visual style. Piercy listened to spoken word content from that part of the world, noting down sounds that were specific to those languages, then identifying word endings and beginnings. This was all in the aid of creating a perimeter for the improvising actors to play within.
Piercy had time with the four key leads – van Beek, Herriman, Clement and Ian Zaro – to test ideas and introduce them to the concept during a week of rehearsals prior to shooting. “I’m a Fitzmaurice voice work teacher, so I used some of those exercises to free the actors up to make bold choices,” she says. “They had to feel like they could connect to this spontaneous language within this context, and from there, I had to build their confidence up with the language.”
They started with about 20 words, and both the actors and Piercy added more as they went along, noting down words that had some sort of recurrent significance in the film, either because they were repeated or named a particular object. “We needed some logical framework within all this beautiful randomness.”
One classic acting exercise was handy: Yes, No. In it, one random word (say, “nude”) means yes, and another (say, “Tuesday”) means no, and two people use those substitute words within in a regular conversation. The actors used their first Zøbftańlik words to not just help flesh out the language, but also to build their own confidence in it.
“It was really gratifying having those instinctive baby steps that I had mapped out embraced by the actors,” says Piercy. “You write this stuff, plan these exercises, and suddenly the actors create this whole world out of it.”
She credits van Beek’s initial script – which she also notes that will never see the light of day, for reasons that will become clear shortly – for being a jumping-off point for both her and the actors to build the spolang. “Nobody’s going to hear that, but what they will hear is the actors following the pattern that [van Beek] established, and the core of the exchange, and then they’ll see someone’s interpretation of it.”
One of those interpretations came from an unlikely source: Bafta-winning UK comedian, actor and writer Julia Davis. That’s because there’s an extra layer to Nude Tuesday’s comedy: the English subtitles aren’t written by van Beek at all, but by other, non New Zealand comedians – and what those subtitles say will depend on which country you’re seeing them in. Most countries are getting subtitles written by comedians Ronnie Chieng and Cecila Pacquola, but England and New Zealand are getting Davis.
Van Beek came to Davis with the offer to “translate” Zøbftańlik just as England’s first lockdown was ending – they’d first made contact after Davis reached out to congratulate van Beek and creative partner Madeleine Sami on their film The Breaker Upperers. “[Van Beek] contacted me and said, ‘We’ve made this film, in a made up language, would you fancy writing the subtitles for it?’” Davis says. “I would’ve said yes whatever it was.”
Davis watched the same film screening in cinemas now, but with no subtitles – or any story guidance at all. She never read van Beek’s script. She gleaned the basics of the story from the visuals, and though she was offered more information, she decided she’d rather go in blind. “It was all a bit kind of blase, [van Beek] said to me that it’d probably take me a couple of weeks to do it. It took me three months.”
An experienced comedy screenwriter – she’s the creator and star of a slew of award-winning British comedies, including Nighty Night, Hunderby and Sally4Ever – Davis says she found the fully-formed nature of the Nude Tuesday project somewhat overwhelming. She solved that by taking it scene by scene, attempting to write to what she thought was going on at that particular time, often inspired by the phonetic sounds of Zøbftańlik.
She remembers in particular an early scene she worked on featuring Clement as sex therapist Bjorg. “It sounded like he was talking about frogs sneezing, talking to a group at a retreat. I remember thinking what I wrote was quite funny, then I thought it was too weird and it’s not going to work.” (For the record: That scene, as she writes it, definitely does work.)
Davis says that, to her surprise, the film’s more serious scenes were easier to subtitle; in those, there was more of a story to follow, and an emotional through-line to write to. “The temptation that you could have when you’ve been given this job is just to write really funny, bizarre scenes,” she says. “But that’s not going to sustain a whole film. You’ve got to make sure all the time that you’re following a story arc, and remember the traditional ways of writing a film – having callbacks to jokes, things like that.”
That leads to another, purely technical, difficulty that Davis encountered: the amount of words that could literally fit on the screen. Having received some early draft subtitled scenes, van Beek had to remind Davis that most people can’t read more than a handful of words at a time as subtitles because, combined with the visuals, it’s just too much to take in. Davis would find herself structuring a joke – a great joke – and then realising that she’d written too many words for it to work.
“There’s quite a lot more logic and boundaries to it than maybe I’d realised.”
Despite those technical limitations, Davis says van Beek and Ballantyne, the director, gave her more freedom than she ever would have expected. “I kept asking them if they were sure what I’d done wasn’t too much, that I could rein it back in or whatever, but they told me to go for it.
“I suppose you’ve got to really trust different people. I think that’s what’s great about Jackie and Art, that they’re so open to the experiment of it and the game of it, in a way.”
There’s yet another layer of interpretation to Nude Tuesday. The guys from Moniker – the soundtrack-composing offshoot of Wellington alt-rock band The Phoenix Foundation – were approached not just to score the film, but to cover classic songs for it … in Zøbftańlik.
The songs the band were asked to cover included ‘Road to Nowhere’ by Talking Heads, ‘Time of the Season’ by The Zombies and ‘Sea of Love’ by Phil Phillips. “This is some of our favourite music of all time, and we’re getting to do fairly faithful covers,” says Moniker member Sam Flynn Scott, of their Zøbftańlik-language versions. “That’s not usually what we would do if we were doing a cover. We would musically try and distance ourselves from the original.”
Luke Buda, also of Moniker, says the challenges of performing in a made-up language meant they had to play each song fairly straight. “Because people, obviously, aren’t going to recognise it just from the lyrics.” Those “lyrics” were supplied to the band by the language’s originator, Perry Piercey herself.
“She was very professional, very clear with it,” Buda says. “She knew that the syllable count had to be the same, obviously, but it still took us a few goes to get past the feeling of utter absurdity.” Piercy would also be there to help the band adjust lyrics to make them more musical, while still working within the confines of the spolang.
“‘Road to Nowhere’ was probably several hours of me in the garage trying to get the words right,” Buda admits. Perhaps not surprisingly, given he’d already performed the whole film in Zøbftańlik, Jemaine Clement, who sings the song in the film, picked up the lyrics on the spot, performing it with what Buda calls “great authority”.
“He just sat down at the microphone, and he was straight into doing this crazy language with really cool, really catchy melodies,” Scott says. “Then he’d just bust out this flute.
“So yeah, there’s jazz flute from Jemaine Clement on the soundtrack.”
Ultimately, it all comes from the film, though. The idea of a made-up language sounds silly until you see Nude Tuesday, and how fully committed everybody is to making the language work, and the film. It speaks to the quality of the work, and the commitment to this language, after only a few minutes, you barely realise it’s a made-up language at all – it’s just like watching any other subtitled film. Maybe with a few more improvised ø’s.