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Sundance: ‘Pop-Up Porno’ Pokes Fun at Online Hook-Ups

Director Stephen Dunn pioneers a new form of adults-only documentary, "re-enacting" bad flings in pop-up form.

Imagine your most embarrassing sexual encounter, preferably one that started out on Craigslist or Tinder. Now picture how that cringe-inducing memory might look translated into an irreverent pop-up book. Yes, the same kind you grew up reading as a kid, complete with pull tabs, peekaboo shutters and elaborate 3-D fold-outs — cheeky, adults-only fold-outs.

That’s the idea behind Stephen Dunn’s Sundance-bound “Pop-Up Porno,” an infinitely expandable, viral-ready series of short films designed to scrub the shame from the nerve-wracking world of online dating. “I’ve been kind of perplexed lately by Grindr and this whole online dating world,” explains Dunn, who believes art comes from a place of vulnerability. “That’s where I get a lot of motivation for my work, as a way to overcome my own fears or insecurities.”

Last summer, as a break between projects, Dunn set about trying to collect the wildest online-dating confessions he could find, working with graphic designers to translate three of them into pop-up-book form. (Pop-ups had long been a personal obsession of his, featuring in the end credits for his short “Life Doesn’t Frighten Me,” as well as an array of arts-and-crafts projects.)

Over the course of two days, Dunn filmed disembodied hands paging through each book, turning the pages and animating the features, while the subjects narrated their own accounts. The sets, inspired by the stories themselves, were borrowed from a Toronto-based TV shoot. In the “m4m” episode, a giant Johnson springs up to greet the viewer as the narrator remembers trading dirty selfies with an uncomfortably familiar stranger. In “f4m,” a prosthetic boob bounces across the screen.

“I was originally going to include one of my own stories, but I just found three that were so much better,” explains Dunn, who is saving his own episode for a second wave of shorts. “My intention was to bare all and tell these embarrassing, hopeful and sometimes ultimately hopeless stories that I’ve encountered in my own experiences of online dating.”

Dunn, who is repped by WME, always figured that others would share his delight in laughing (and squirming) at other’s discomfort, but he didn’t anticipate anywhere near the level of early interest the project has garnered. After all, it had been conceived as a lark after shooting his first feature, “Closet Monster,” a semi-personal but also somewhat surreal coming-of-ager featuring, among other unique touches, a malignant, homophobia-induced ulcer and the voice of Isabella Rossellini as a talking hamster.

So, when it came to the shorts, “I submitted to Sundance just for fun, not thinking anything would come of it,” Dunn says. He’d only found time to edit two of the three-minute standalones by the festival’s cutoff, “but they got back to me saying, ‘We want to see the third,’” so he scrambled to deliver. All three “Pop-Up Porno” shorts will world premiere at Sundance, where the original books will also be featured as the objets d’art they are.

That’s a hugely exciting development for Dunn, who ties with the ever-present James Franco for most projects in Park City (the actor has “I Am Michael,” “True Story” and Slamdance closer “Yosemite”). But Sundance is just the beginning of his plans.

“It was probably my experience working with a studio on one of my last films, where they did not let you put your film online, but I’ve always wondered, what’s the point of just playing at 15 to 20 festivals, getting your film to an audience of maybe 1,000 people at most, and then just letting it die?” he says.

Dunn has already sent the shorts around to a few outlets, just to gauge the interest in continuing the project. Though he hasn’t committed to a specific deal, he hints, “Someone has approached us about turning ‘Pop-Up Porno’ into an online series, and also a platform for people to submit their own stories. This project is meant to be interactive and regenerate itself. People can literally share their own stories, and they might get turned into a pop-up book film.”

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