Most sex scenes are mere garnish. The climactic sex scene in Monster’s Ball, in contrast, is the fulcrum of the film it’s the moment a despairing tale of execution, suicide and racism gives way to a hopeful, passionately sexual love story. Billy Bob Thornton plays an embittered prison guard who unexpectedly falls in love with Halle Berry, the wife of the death row inmate he fastens into the electric chair. He realizes her identity only moments before he violently rips her clothes off while she plaintively moans, “Make me feel good.” It’s a stunning scene in a peculiar, deeply affecting film. I recently spoke with director Marc Forster to discuss the challenge of capturing raw sex and containing his crush on Halle Berry.
Rufus Griscom: I’ll start by revealing my bias: most sex scenes suck. What’s missing is desperation. A pinch of desperation is part of what makes the experience so powerful. The sex scene in Monster’s Ball has that there is an almost violent, carnal neediness about it that is stunning. Was that difficult for the actors to generate?
Marc Forster: When I talked to Billy Bob and Halle at the beginning, I told them very clearly what I had in mind. It was important that these two emotionally repressed characters start out the sex scene very raw and animalistic. Through this, they express everything that has been repressed for years. My main concern at the beginning was Halle; I wanted to make sure she felt comfortable with it and so I allowed her to have final cut over that scene.
RG: You told her in advance that she would have final say?
MF: Halle said, “Either you tell me every angle of the shoot” which would make it very stiff “or you just give me final cut over the scene.” I said that was fine. It was better because they didn’t have to worry about it and so we had more freedom. We shot the scene and then three of us went through the dailies. Basically it was decided from there what they wanted to cut or keep. When they saw the final scene, they were both very happy with it.
RG: Do you think your ability to render a sex scene in such a raw fashion has anything to do with you being Swiss?
MF: (laughter) Yes, in Europe people are much more open to nudity than in America and the sex scenes in European films reflect that. The more violent part of sex is there and in that sense it is much more natural. Actually, I am still amazed that the MPAA [Motion Picture Association of America] let me get away with an R rating.
RG: Are you attracted to Halle Berry?
MF: Oh, I think she’s beautiful, yeah . . . I mean, let’s put the question this way: “If you wouldn’t be attracted to Halle Berry, who would you be attracted to?” Are you attracted to her?
RG: Yes, but it is harder to admit that as an American (laughs). Actually, the only thing that I thought was unrealistic about the film was having this super model living below the poverty line in the country, but I guess that’s one of the things you wrestle with in making a film. Let’s talk about the scene in which Billy Bob goes down on Halle. That is not really something you see seriously portrayed in films these days.
MF: I totally agree with you and that was one of the reasons I wanted to show it. You see the opposite, but never a man going down on a woman.
RG: Do you think your film will increase the world’s supply of cunnilingus?
MF: (laughter) I hope so.
RG: The women in the group I saw the film with were definitely cheerleading that scene.
MF: Oh really? Do you know what I love about that scene? When he comes up, and she just looks at him and I stay on that shot, and the only background sound is the low wind tone. I just love that nothing really happens, and we just stay on that shot for like a minute.
RG: And he says, “Did that feel good?”
MF: Her eyes in that scene are just so good.
RG: It reminds me of Marvin Gaye’s “Sexual Healing,” in the sense that they’re tending to each others wounds through sex.
MF: I think sexuality is a very important process of healing and a healthy sexual life is important for a healthy being. That is what the film, to me, is about: the healing process.
RG: You mention in the Entertainment Weekly piece on Monster’s Ball that you studied the love scenes from Don’t Look Now and The Man Who Fell To Earth. What was it about those two movies that you liked?
MF: The scenes in The Man Who Fell To Earth were just so real and Nicolas Roeg was able to capture them so well. In Don’t Look Now it was more about style and editing; Roeg intercut the scene with the couple getting dressed. It was very elegant and beautiful. In both scenes he captured that need for sexual satisfaction, and the need for an emotional breakthrough, which is what I needed for Monster’s Ball. It is such a pivotal point in the movie and if it didn’t come across strongly enough, then the story wouldn’t make any sense.
RG: Are there any other films that come to mind that excel in the art of the sex scene?
MF: Obviously Last Tango In Paris, the European version; I never saw the American version.
RG: I never saw the European cut. Wow, I have to get my hands on that.
|ABOUT THE AUTHOR:|
| Rufus left his reliable salary and position as an editor and director of new media at Cader Books, a publisher of bestselling humor and entertainment titles, in order to co-found Nerve in 1997 with Genevieve Field.
Before working at Cader, he was managing editor for two years at August House, a publisher of contemporary storytelling and folklore. Earlier still, he was book review editor at The Free Press in Little Rock, Arkansas. His writing has appeared in Publishers Weekly, The Baltimore Sun and The Wall Street Journal, among other places. He graduated from Brown University in 1991.