Want to make a film for no money which gets theatrical distribution and launches you into the elite cadre of working directors? Do as Stephen Soderbergh did with “Sex, Lies and Videotape”, or Alfonso Cuaron did with “Y Tu Mama Tambien”. Write a script which is at least 50% people talking about sex.
“Sex has been a topic of unerring interest to mankind throughout the ages.” So stated Supreme Court Justice William J. Brennan in the opening line of his opinion which lifted the obscenity ban on James Joyce’s classic novel, “Ulysses”.
And yet, Hollywood never gets sex right. They rarely get it right when they show couples having sex, and I will explain why in a coming blog.
But they also almost never even dare to make movies in which people talk, honestly, and at length, about sex. Despite the hot buzz on the surface, this country is deeply puritanical down to its roots. So films about sex are risky, and Hollywood is risk-adverse. Yet, as Justice Brennan wisely observed, sex is a topic which people (including the puritans) the world-over, are, to say the least, fascinated by. Obsessed with, is probably more accurate. This opens up a huge window of opportunity for every no-budget filmmaker. Do as Soderbergh and Cuaron did. Put a sexy girl up on screen, talking honestly and openly about sex with a sexy guy, when the subtext is very clearly, “Are we going to have sex?” and people will pay good money to come see it. The successful release of “Sex Lies and Videotape” and “Y Tu Mama Tambien” proves this emphatically.
The hard part, as always, is the script. But, as I have explained in my previous blogs, make that which is at stake love. Create a likeable protagonist who, as the story advances, can either win or lose more and more good love. And have this take place in a believable human context which necessitates honest conversations about sex.
Soderbergh hits the sweet spot in “Sex, Lies and Videotape” by making his protagonist, Graham, impotent. So, as Graham (the very sexy and handsome young James Spader) openly admits to Cynthia (the very sexy and young Laura San Giacomo) he “gets off” video-taping women describing their sex lives. And then he tapes her. And Soderbergh puts it on film and picks up the Audience Award at Sundance.
In “Y Tu Mama Tambien” Cuaron lights the fuse on a sexual time bomb when his female lead, a beautiful 30-something woman, who has been diagnosed with terminal cancer, decides to have one last fling and gets in a car for extended road trip with two sixteen year old boys who have just one thing on their minds. They light a joint and start talking. Cuaron puts it on film and then gets hired to direct the next mega-budget Harry Potter flic.
People talking about sex costs next to nothing to put on the big screen. As anyone who has made a movie can attest, nothing is cheaper and easier to do than shoot static two-shots and close-ups of people talking. But that talk can propel a movie to greatness if a lot of good love is on the line, and the guy is sexy and the girl is sexy and the subtext is “Are we going to have sex?”