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he attractive kids in the appealing new film Kissing on the Mouth (currently making the festival rounds) have laptops, lame jobs and well-groomed pubic hair. They bring their laundry home when they visit their parents, and can’t stop sleeping with their exes. They meander through post-college life in Chicago having sex — lots and lots of sex — which is captured on digital video in blinding detail, from foreplay to afterglow, with no fade-out in between. Yet it’s not pornographic, but rather like a Nature program, just about four Gen-Yers instead of gazelles.
Patrick (Joe Swanberg) is interviewing people about breakups and nursing a crush on his roommate, Ellen (Kate Winterich). Ellen’s using her ex-boyfriend, Chris (Kevin Pittman), for sex, and musing over the implications with her friend, Laura (Kris Williams). They’re all spinning their wheels, and no one gets what he wants.
Nerve spoke by phone with Swanberg, the film’s thoughtful twenty-four-year-old director and star (who ejaculates on camera in a shower scene) about why he and his three
co-stars / assistant directors chose to make a sweet indie film with tons of graphic sex. — Ada Calhoun
There is so much explicit sex in this movie! Has that been an obstacle as you look for a distributor?
I think Kissing on the Mouth has a lot of issues that are keeping it from making money aside from the explicit sex. Like the fact that nothing happens and nobody’s seen it. [Laughs] But yeah, it’s pretty much made any sort of TV deal impossible. Even the Sundance Channel and the Independent Film Channel won’t show erect penises. It’s some sort of rule they have.
Were the four of you friends before you started making the movie?
Yeah. Kris, who plays Laura, is actually my girlfriend of six years. We’ve been talking about these ideas for a long time. Kate went to film school with us, so we’ve known her for a few years. I actually went to high school with Kevin.
Kate and Kevin have several love scenes. Were they a couple?
They were not together, no. They sort of became together, and now I think they’re not together. But I’m trying to stay out of it as best as I can. We’re going to festivals and do interviews and stuff like that, so my fingers are crossed that they’re not going to explode at each other.
So they had all that hot sex for the camera, then started dating?
Yeah, the first shot in the movie where they kissed was actually the first time they ever kissed. I wanted to shoot that stuff right away. Most of their sex scenes were shot in one day. It’s sort of weird for about five or ten minutes and then it just becomes boring and hard like everything else.
As a director, how did you put them at ease?
I just stayed out of the way as much as possible. None of us are really actors, and essentially, the four of us were the whole cast and crew. That meant that there were never any weird strangers hanging around; it was a very friendly environment. Beyond that, the goal was to shoot it documentary-style and let an entire scene unfold.
How did it affect your relationship with your girlfriend?
There’s the shower scene where I have to kiss Kate, and my girlfriend was filming that scene. Moments like that were weird. We had to go get dinner afterwards and just talk about some stuff [Laughs]. Other than that, we’ve been together for so long, we’re both filmmakers, and I think the whole process is having a lot of times to just pretend for a little while that you don’t love them, to give them the space that they need to do the artistic things that they want to do.
How did your friends and family react, knowing that the four of you were making this movie where there was explicit sex?
Friend-wise, everybody was pretty cool, but parents-wise . . . Kate’s parents were the first to get a little freaked out. But since then, Kate’s mom came to the premiere at South by Southwest and really liked the movie. We went out to dinner afterward, and it was really good. My parents haven’t seen it. They know it exists, but I think they’re really afraid to watch it. I’m totally willing to show it to them, but I’m not going to make them watch it.
You do have an X-rated masturbation scene in the shower.
Yeah, I know. I think no matter what, they’ll have to see a toned-down version. They’re excited about my new movie, so I think they’ll really overcompensate if they like it.
What’s the new one about?
It’s called LOL, and it’s about relationships and technology — instant messenger, cellphones, email and online dating. Essentially my feeling is that technology just makes things different, it doesn’t make things better or worse. The character I play is sort of a workaholic, and in the film, he’s always on his laptop. But had it not been the laptop, it would’ve been something else — it’s a character flaw, not a technology flaw.
Is there a quality to relationships that are based or partially conducted online that you notice?
I’m pretty mixed on it, because I was the right age to experience a little of the pre-internet dating scene. Online dating bring people who have weird interests together. That’s nice, I guess, but also the tendency to want to meet people who are exactly like you becomes really boring. But now it’s the expected way — you either meet people at work or online.
When our editor-in-chief gave me your movie, he said, “It’s like Funny Ha-Ha with full-frontal nudity." Have you seen that film?
Actually, I’m friends with Andrew [Bujalski, Funny’s director]. I saw it with Kris a few months before we started making our movie. And neither of us really liked it. It has a lot of technical issues. But since then, I’ve met Andrew and I think his new film is really amazing, one of the best films of the year. Certainly one of the best films about young Americans.
You both make work about post-college life.
Yeah, he’s certainly working within the same framework. People our age grew up with technology to document things, which is why I wanted this character in the movie who’s essentially sitting down with people who are exactly like him and asking them things. He’s not this outwardly searching person who wants to sit down with people from African tribes and learn something about the world. Patrick matches our process, which is like, “Let’s make a movie about people who are exactly like us!”
Aren’t there enough movies about twentysomethings?
As much as we document ourselves, we seem so underrepresented in the mainstream media in a realistic way.
How would you qualify the generation of people currently in their twenties?
I think the idea of long-term relationships has almost become a myth — like, oh well, monogamy doesn’t work, and everybody’s just going to get divorced anyway. I think we approach relationships with that attitude. Marriage has become almost like dating now. You get married, and then you try it out and see if it will work, and if not, you break up.
Many of the characters define themselves by television. One guy has a lovely little speech about idolizing the man from the Bowflex ad.
I grew up watching a lot of TV. There’s sort of a place in your family for a lot of these characters. The Simpsons — there’s something amazing about being able to live with these characters for ten years of your life. It’s something that movies will never be able to do, which is why all these characters in the movie define themselves through these weird TV things and not through film characters. These weird, thirty-second late-night spots might not be all that much, but over the course of five years, they’re engraining themselves in you.
Do you think people in their early twenties today are more entitled than people who grew up in the less financially secure ’70s?
I think they grew up more with the myth of the American dream: you are a middle class American and you can be anything you want to be. When you hear that enough, it sort of sticks with you. Then you go to college and when you get out, you don’t have a job and you’re like, "What the hell? I can be anything I want to be! Why should I settle for something I don’t like!?" I attempt to fight it within myself, but I certainly see it crop up sometimes, this attitude of "This job is below me. I don’t need to put my full effort into this. This isn’t what I want to do. This isn’t my passion." Rather than having a mentality like, "Well, somebody’s paying me to do this and I should work hard and be grateful for what I have," it’s like, "I can’t believe they’re holding me down! I should be running this company!"
Do you think that sense of being owed something came with the myth of the dot-com boom?
I think it’s a mixture. Some of it is just kind of a youth attitude in general, which tends to go away I guess. It certainly annoys me when I see somebody who hasn’t worked at all on anything who’s complaining about something. It’s like, "Shut up! Go spend six months in your bedroom editing your movie, then complain about how nobody’s paying attention to you!" I think that’s the worse attitude: the feeling that you should be the thing people respect, not the work you create.
Should there be explicit sex in mainstream movies?
While we were making Kissing on the Mouth, I intently believed that this is what everybody needs to do, and the film industry is full of bullshit, and people need to be realistic about this stuff. I was waving that banner. Since then I’ve realized that I really appreciate sweet PG-13 things sometimes. Did you see that movie Fever Pitch?
I haven’t. But my mother’s obsessed with Adam Sandler.
There’s a makeout scene that’s just as cool as anything we did.
Wait, that was Jimmy Fallon, right? How embarrassing, I mixed up Drew Barrymore’s leading men.
Oh, they’re totally the same person. But that scene got me off the high horse that every movie needs to depict sex realistically. For me, there just needs to be balance. Kissing on the Mouth keeps getting compared to Nine Songs, and the two movies could not be more different. They have nothing in common other than explicit sex. That’s a sign of the times. I hope explicit sex in movies will at least become less shocking. That was essentially our goal — really, we wanted to be pretty straightforward and mundane. n°