Friday, February 17, 2006

Origin of my AROUSAL

Last year, I had a heated conversation with a fellow filmmaker about gratuitous sex scenes in films. Could a film be made where a guy was spying on a naked woman bathing and not have that scene be gratuitous? He maintained it was impossible... and I did not.

Hmm. Let me rewind a bit.

If there's one thing that bugs the shite out of me in Hollywood, and filmmaking in general, it's when a great story has a sex scene in it simply to sell the film—jarring non sequiturs like these rip me right out of the story, popcorn and all.

I'm not against seeing sex, or violence in films. Really. It's that nudity or controversial gore for its own sake is pointless and short-sighted. You want to show someone being murdered? You want to play voyeur on people in their most intimate of moments? That's okay with me—just make sure you integrate it into the story. If you can take out the T&A or the gore without affecting the story in any way, then that scene is unnecessary and nothing more than a snake oil salesman blathering on about how cool his new elixir is. Shut up, already. Stop showing me the form of the thing and let's see the function of the thing.

Here are some highly arousing, but very well-integrated, sex scenes:

Blood Simple
This film's sex scene is just long enough to suggest what they're doing (McDormand doesn't even take her clothes off) and any viewer who asks himself, "Why am I watching them having sex?" is swiftly answered with a shot of M. Emmet Walsh's VW Bug parked outside their house.

For Walsh to get pictures of the couple "dead", they must have sex... he can't do it any other way. Plus, once the audience knows that Walsh is nearby, the scene becomes less about them having sex and more about whether he's going to kill them, which—because they are at their most vulnerable—doubles the tension of the scene. The Cohen brothers could have simply inserted a sex scene to sell the movie better—after all, their passionate sex still (kind of) advances the plot, although barely—but instead they chose to integrate sex into the story, and the film is more memorable because of it.

Body Double
In order to force the neighbor across the street to witness a murder, the killer hires a porn star to routinely perform a masturbation scene disguised as the future murder victim. How else can the neighbor be guaranteed to be watching when the murder eventually takes place? What appears to be a gratuitous masturbation scene is in fact a carefully orchestrated bait and switch... and we got suckered along for the ride, too.

Six Feet Under
This series consistently delivers good drama, mainly because it's about an entire family of people with sex addictions and hang-ups. If you don't show the sex, or at least a glimpse of it, to illustrate the characters' consequent anguish, it would emasculate the point of the story.

Other films with cleverly integrated sex scenes:
Enemy At The Gates—a male and female soldier have sex in terrified silence because their soldier comrades are sleeping right beside them.
Eyes Wide Shut—Sex is a weapon, a dangerous lure, a secret society...
Vanilla Sky—How else can Tom Cruise know he's going mad than when the woman he's making love to switches identities while they're making love? (also a very arousing sex scene without any T&A!)

If anything should be called gratuitous, it should be the selection of a particular story to be told, not only the choice to insert random sex scenes to sell a movie. Boogie Nights, for example, is an excellent film about the porn industry—and you can't really tell that story without showing at least some sex scenes—but it is a film about the porn industry. Or take a film about a serial killer who becomes sexually aroused by the graphic maiming and torturing of his victims... and the filmmaker insists that the audience watch the torture because if they don't, the story won't make any sense... well, what is the driving need to tell this story above all the other stories out there? Other than lining the filmmaker's pockets with the Thomas Jeffersons of pre-pubescent Fangoria subscribers, how is the world aided by the decision to tell this story instead of, say, Se7en?

Sounds like I'm slamming senseless violence in stories, right? I'm not. We watch gory films to desensitize ourselves, to traumatize ourselves in a safe, dark room. Like cave painters envisioning themselves before bison, modern humans use lights on a wall to place themselves in very threatening situations to feel the dread as if it were real. We thrive on it. We need it. why? Because, like those cave painters, it helps us butress our psyche should we ever be faced with a similar, unspeakably horrific real-life situation.

Plus, we will probably never get to see a guy's head ripped off. Ewwwww!

Still, without a story, films with gratuitous sex or violence have a limited shelf-life. We will rewind the DVD to watch a gory scene a few times, and then we'll forget it entirely. But if watch characters we really care about get brutally murdered... it's a whole new ball of wax. Show me an Alien water tube like in The Abyss, or a relentless morphing assassin from The Terminator... these images get burned into our brains not only because they're cool, but because they advance the story at the same time in a dramatic and emotionally visceral way.

As a director, it's not my career choice to ask an actor to share their body with the rest of the world for no reason other than it makes good material for "private use". If actors are going to show us something that private, let's at least make sure it serves the purposes of a damned entertaining story.


Okay, so I'm having this provocative conversation with this filmmaker. He's maintaining that there are some gratuitous sex scenes which you simply could not integrate into a story, and I'm disagreeing.

"Let's say this group of hikers is in the wilderness," he says. "One guy spots a naked woman bathing and watches her. How could you ever integrate that into the story? It's impossible."

This guy wants a T&A scene in the film in order to make the film more marketable. As Daisy says, obvi. He's playing the producer role and it's important to focus on getting all your money back and then some. Sex does sell, right? But aren't there better ways, more creative ways, more... memorable ways?

And that's the origin of Arousal, my feature film concept. I had already wanted to do a horror film that would be easy to shoot (e.g. in the wilderness, meaning no location permits), would have sex in it to help make it sell, but would have every moment of sex and violence be fully integrated into the storyline.

To prove a point, Arousal would have exactly that scene my filmmaker friend was talking about and if it didn't, the film wouldn't make any sense at all. In fact, the story would have to hinge on the guy's desire to look at her... perhaps that would arouse him in some way... which would cause his next action in the story. I sat on this for a few months while writing Ghoti, and sketched out the vague details of a story. Arousal would have sex, it would have a lot of blood, and the sex in it would actually cause the murder and mayhem. Furthermore, I could even make a more profound statement on sexuality as seen from male and female perspectives...

Last weekend, I pitched the idea to my producer and he called me later that evening and said, "If you write that story, I'll produce it." So my producer gets a film with sex in it that will be easily marketable and I get to make a film where sex and violence are fully integrated into the story. And wouldn't you know it—I woke up at 7AM the next day because my brain was spinning with ideas on how many characters I should have, where we would shoot, etc.

My next task for Arousal is getting the treatment written. Then I'll pass it along to my trusty Story Consultants (the amazing David Roy, Susan Detwiler and Peter Jacobsen) for feedback, after which it will go to my producer for his feedback, then get it translated into a first draft (and repeat as needed until I get a Final Draft). Right now, it looks like Ghoti will be shot first, either for an hour long TV pilot, or for several 8 minute Podcasts, probably by April, after which Arousal will get shot.

Boat drinks, baby... one film at a time!

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