FILM / Going for a Burton: It's kind of a gay, sci-fi Aids musical. With talking rectums. Sheila Johnston meets John Greyson, the director of Zero Patience

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All those voices which attacked Philadelphia as boringly bland are referred to Zero Patience. Billed as 'the world's first gay sci-fi Aids musical' - a record of sorts - its cast includes Patient Zero (the flight attendant who allegedly introduced the virus to North America), singing anuses, an African green monkey, the HIV virus and Richard Burton, the 19th-century explorer, who, for reasons unexplained, is alive, well and working as a museologist in modern-day Canada. It took some spiky reviews from UK critics, but was kindly received in America ('bizarre but likeable': Chicago Tribune), and proves, yet again, that low-budget films have an unfinished, ramshackle feel to them, but can also go for broke without risking millions.

'I'd always been interested in Burton as a contradictory figure,' says the director, John Greyson. 'On the one hand there is a popular mythology of him as the swashbuckling Victorian rebel. He claimed this sexual radicalism as the translator of the Arabian Nights, where he makes a lengthy and very eccentric defence of homosexuality. On the other hand, biographies, like Fawn M Brodie's which was published in the Sixties, present a complicated view of the man. She suggests that, despite all his celebrated successes, his life was defined by failure.

'He failed to find the source of the Nile, he failed to understand the implications of his anthropology, he failed to have any meaningful sex life: she argues that he was pretty celibate - there was a lot of talk and not much action. All those failures made him the perfect guy to fail in his search for the source of Aids. People in the gay movement keep saying, 'Why are you so hard on this poor guy? He was a real gay hero.' I go, 'Wait a minute - this search for heroes, we should have a little more complexity, surely.' '

Greyson's film fields the tortured version: in it, Burton plans to mount an exhibition on Aids and Patient Zero, but falls for his prize specimen - their romance is launched in an odd duet between the two men's rectums while the owners sleep. 'We assumed that there would be demands to cut that scene, but then David Cronenberg's Naked Lunch came out and suddenly there was this aesthetic of talking sphincters.' Cronenberg has not, as far as Greyson knows, seen Zero Patience ('although maybe one day we'll be at a sphincter film festival together and trade notes'). But, thanks to him, the all-singing, all-dancing rectums have secured certification and will, in the fullness of time, be performing on a television screen near you.

'Originally, it was a traditional dialogue scene. But as soon as you get into anal sex, walls go up. My strategy was to get the audience interested by turning it into a song and moving the dialogue 3ft south. The musical is avant-garde by definition. Fantasy, dream sequences, leaps of logic, direct address to camera - if you called these techniques experimental, people would stay away in droves. If you call them a musical, it's suddenly acceptable. But, in general, audiences prefer not to be condescended to. The worst thing movies can do is what Philadelphia did - explain Aids to them like they're three years old. But it was the number one film in America, and how can you ever take that accomplishment away?'

Much of Philadelphia's success was due to big-name talent: not only Tom Hanks and Denzel Washington but also Neil Young and Bruce Springsteen, who wrote keynote songs. Here is what happens when a low-budget picture, a picture which will never be Number One, anywhere, goes shopping for stars. 'We tried k d lang to be the African green monkey. Then we tried Sandra Bernhard. They both wanted an awful lot of money. It's a real problem because you never get through to the artists, only the agents.

'Then we approached Liz Taylor, because we had this character called Richard Burton, and the proposal was to have Liz sending herself up, but also doing a little recognition, because in her association with (the Aids charity) Amfar she's been quite radical.'

But the response was 'zero, zero, zero', and, for her first movie in over 10 years, Elizabeth Taylor did not select the role of Miss HIV in the world's first gay sci-fi Aids musical, but went off to play Fred Flintstone's mother-in-law instead.

(Photograph omitted)