Riding the Shortbus

There will be a community of people who will never accept sex in the movies. We’re not talking about a forceful smooch between Bogey and Bacall, or even a moonlit arse shot of Mel Gibson. We’re talking sex. Actual Sex. As in, ‘Oh, they are really doing it!’

Like the reaction to Barbara Stanwyck’s ankle shot in Double Indemnity, onscreen intercourse goes a step too far. It’s cheap. Just a selling point. Right?

Maybe not. “A friend once said to me, ‘Sex is certainly something to be afraid of but not something that can be avoided,’” Shortbus helmer John Cameron Mitchell states. And John decided not to avoid it but puff out his chest and tackle it. Head on.

Look at the statistics. You’re in the pub with a friend, he/she has a problem with the other half. You know the gripe is going to be based around one of two things: money or sex. Plenty of movies are made about the realities of money and greed. Shortbus is neck-deep in the realities of sex and how it affects our interaction with everyone. Including ourselves.

It’s based around two New York couples: Sofia is happily married to Rob but cannot orgasm. James and Jamie have one of the steadiest relationships of all their friends but Jamie is clinically depressed. As a writer/director, Mitchell could have spent hours scribbling page after page to show how Sofia is happy, yet frustrated. Or, he could just open the film with her and Rob having sex, because in one 3 minute scene you can see how much love there is between these two people but also how Sofia simply isn’t able to let herself go. Surely something to be celebrated rather than condemned?

“I would think so,” says Sook-Yin Lee, who plays Sofia. “That scene says an awful lot about her as a person as well as what she is going through sexually. There is so much that can be revealed in character from the way people have sex, so much. Everything from whether they open their eyes or not, you know? You then don’t have to talk through it, the images and actions reveal character.”

In the case of James (Paul Dawson) and Jamie (PJ DeBoy), it’s the lack of sex that creates the core of their problem. We see Jamie masturbating but when it comes to intimacy between the pair, he shuns his partner. It’s a scene that could take another hour of screen time to translate to the audience if you removed the nudity, because, effectively, you would strip away the reality.

“That’s the best way I’ve heard it described,” PJ tells totalfilm.com. “That is exactly the point. There would be so many other ways of getting through to these characters but we cover it in one scene, where you see them not fucking each other. It’s the lack of sex, the inability to cross certain barriers and it’s expressed in one little exchange, without a word, using sex to express that.”

You’d be forgiven for wondering at this point, ‘how does a director get his cast to push these boundaries on film?’ We know. We were thinking the same. As excellent as Shortbus is, you wouldn’t be human if at some point you didn’t wonder how the actors managed to cross that controversial line but also how they made it believable – how they manage to sell you on it so completely.

“Well it all goes back to the director,” Sook-Yin tells TF. “He wanted to push the boundaries of onscreen sexuality but he didn’t have a script, he just had this idealistic theory. His process to find the actors was to ask us all to submit a video tape talking about something meaningful that happened to us sexually and that way he could get a sense of the people and the stories. He wanted us to be co-creators of the story and also in coming up with the characters.”

What followed was a two and-a-half year period of workshops and rehearsals in which the actors began to help shape their characters, the director began to pull together a script and a clear bond began to form. “It’s chaotic but extremely fun. You walk the line and jump off the edge.” Sook-Yin continues. “John would have us partying, hanging out, watching audition tapes. We would have to watch them and tell him who we were attracted to.”

This part of the process came pretty easily to PJ and Paul. PJ was a presenter of a gay sports show in Toronto and Paul was a New York based actor and though some might think that getting emotionally involved with a co-star you have to be intimate with would help the process; it can also cause pain.

“We were getting together just a little bit before the casting process,” PJ says. “We fell in love and it was a challenge because we had to play this couple that have been together for five years. It was also very difficult being in a relationship and having sex with other people at work.”

For Paul, it was the reminder of the personal aspects of his character that gave him the greatest challenge.

“It was trying to keep ourselves and our relationship distant from what we were portraying. Especially because what James and Jamie are going through was inspired by something we were going through during the time of the first workshop. Then a year later, we had to come back and deal with those same things but we’d moved beyond them. Then two years later we had to come back and deal with them all over again and you wonder, ‘was I really like that?’ I think that was the challenge, to remind each other that we’re not these characters.”

“Exactly,” PJ pipes up. “John said to me once, when I was very upset, ‘it’s just a movie.” “And it is,” he says smiling. “It really is. It isn’t us in that movie and that is why the workshop experience was so important.”

Ah yes, the workshops. Thirty-six months of stripping yourself bare in every sense and having to put it all back together again afterwards. All on a shoestring budget.

“In fact, we’d suddenly get a call and be told, ‘be in New York next week, we’ve got money!’ Sook-Yin laughs.

“And then an hour later, another call would come in if you had a sex scene,” PJ chuckles. “It’d be a producer. ‘Just to let you know, you’re going to have to be sexual tomorrow.’ Like a hurricane warning or something.”

The reaction to the film has been phenomenal. It’s a euphoric flick that is difficult to grab hold of and stick in a box.

“Seeing it with so many different audiences and seeing people leave the theatre in tears, it makes you very proud,” PJ tells TF.

“It’s true and I’m not even sure it’s the narrative that connects or if it’s something else,” Sook-Yin wonders. “At the London Film Festival, I heard somebody say it was like a Christmas movie,” she laughs. “I love that; it’s so right. It’s a beautiful chaos. A big, old, messy movie but somehow it is able to communicate something to people.”

The Total Film team are made up of the finest minds in all of film journalism. They are: Editor Jane Crowther, Deputy Editor Matt Maytum, Reviews Ed Matthew Leyland, News Editor Jordan Farley, and Online Editor Emily Murray. Expect exclusive news, reviews, features, and more from the team behind the smarter movie magazine.