Matt Shea is a producer, director, and sometime-host for VICE. He produced and hosted the High Society series and currently works as a development producer, creating new formats and ideas for feature films and TV documentaries.
Finding people to star in Chemsex, the film I helped make about London’s intense gay drug orgy scene, was quite tough: getting high and group sex aren’t things that people tend to feel comfortable discussing on camera. My starting point as associate producer on the project was a new chemsex-specific sexual health clinic specially created by the NHS in Soho called 56 Dean Street. The fact this place existed confirmed to us that chemsex was seen as a serious issue on a societal level. As well as STI tests and treatment, some people would also opt to have therapy to help them with their drug use. I sat with some flyers waiting to talk to people who were obviously at one of the most vulnerable points in their year or life, even – they’ve just had a crazy weekend and are worried they might have a life-changing disease. Then I come over asking, “Hey, I’m making a film about being gay and doing chemsex, would you like to be involved?” Obviously a lot of people said no. But a lot of people did wanna talk and became contributors.
I sat with flyers, waiting to talk to people at their most vulnerable
David Stuart, the man who runs the clinic, was a big help at that stage and no one I met there was ever aggressive to me. The angry people came from other routes of casting – I had a profile on several gay dating websites and apps and would go to orgies and gay clubs and make inroads with people that way. Sometimes they were very unhappy to find out I wasn’t there to engage in the sex and drugs. You have to be careful when you’re making a film about such a sensitive subject, make it very clear right off the bat that you’re there to work and not for sex. For example, everyone else on Grindr is shirtless in their profile photo, but if I’d done the same, technically it could have been entrapment. Even then, some people who said they’d understood when I warned them I was only coming for research purposes would forget. You’d get to this drug-fuelled orgy and they’d be like, “Wait, what? Why are you not taking off your clothes?! Get the fuck out of my house!”
The orgies were often in very nice houses. Through a chemsex dating site, I got invited to one in Bournemouth. I was a little worried but it was actually the nicest thing ever; the orgy was in the organiser’s beautiful beach mansion and he’d given me and the crew a separate summer house to stay in that he usually rented out through Airbnb. The orgy lasted 48 hours and we could pop in whenever we liked – we’d got everyone’s consent beforehand, which was obviously crucial throughout filming – and there was a table loaded up with snacks. Cheetos, Doritos, chewing gum, drinks… and then also crystal meth, Viagra, MDMA and GHB for the participants.
The orgies were often in very nice houses
The way they did the GHB was the weirdest thing. They had a spreadsheet showing everyone’s name and the time they’d last had some, because it’s a very easy drug to overdose on. There was one person in charge of when the next GHB was due to be administered and he’d give it to everyone at the same time. It was extremely well organised – these were professional lawyers, doctors and highly paid professionals using an Excel spreadsheet to get smashed.
The scariest part? Bad things can happen at these parties. The line of consent becomes hazy when everyone’s on drugs, and there’s a self-destructive element to it where people really go hard. I heard stories of people who’d gone to a party and just lost two weeks of their life. They’d literally have no idea where they’d spent the last fortnight.
My friends started to worry about me not sleeping
While gruelling, the research could be fun as well. London’s gay community is central to the city’s nightlife and I went to a lot of gay clubs, to meet people and learn more about the chemsex phenomenon. Even if they weren’t interested in being in the doc I could still have a good night out with them, though my friends started to worry about me not sleeping and coming home looking haggard. It got to a point where I had to rein it in – I remember walking to a party at 11AM on a Monday with some guys I’d been up with all night when my boss walked past. I was wearing sunglasses but I think he recognised me – as he walked by I literally heard him say, “Oh. My. God.” under his breath.