The delightfully raunchy short Ex-Sex played ahead of our screening of Falling Overnight. We spoke to director Michael Mohan, about how he managed to keep the film’s sex scene suitably erotic yet refreshingly cliche-free.
Rooftop Films: Describe the film for someone who hasn’t seen it.
Michael Mohan: Ex-Sex is about the many flavors of heartache.
RF: What initially compelled you to make a film about wanting and having sex with an ex lover?
MM: I’ve had the idea for years. It’s really inspired by this one specific relationship of mine. I was dating this girl. She was really too good for me. She was smart. She was pretty. She laughed at my dumb jokes. I knew that I wanted to marry her. The only problem with that, I hadn’t dated that many people up to that point. I was afraid that I’d marry her, and like on my 40th birthday or something, way down the road, I’d start to wonder if there was someone else out there that was even more perfect for me. I know, it was dumb. I just didn’t have that much experience at relationships. So in the months that followed, as she and I would get together and secretly continue to hook up, I went on dates with a handful of people. All of which paled in comparison. She started going on dates too, and I got intensely jealous. It was rough, but I quickly learned my lesson, she took me back, and we are now happily married. Every once in a while, I wonder what would have happened if during that time we were broken up she decided to move on. This is that version of the story.
RF: The seamlessly polished way the film is shot contrasts wonderfully with the offbeat awkwardness of the interactions between the two characters. What made you decide to shoot the film in such a way?
MM: The last narrative film I made was in black and white, so in transitioning back to color, I really wanted to try to achieve just as specific of a visual palette. Elisha Christian and I looked at Juergen Teller’s photos for Marc Jacobs as our first source of inspiration. They’re incredibly sexy but also have this sense of nostalgia to it. There’s one specific photo that he took of Sofia Coppola in a pool that we kept going back to. That led us to the color scheme, which was inspired by Scrabble. The production designers, Cindy and Michele, worked hard to find objects and swatches of color that had double-word-score pinks and double-letter-score blues to place throughout the film. The main couch in the movie is specifically a triple-word- score red.
In terms of the shot design, I wanted the camera to mimic the relationship. So in the beginning, as the characters are distant and sober, we stay in wider, almost rigidly locked off shots. After they smoke a joint and put on some music, the camera loosens up, switching to a slight handheld. And the instant they sober up, the camerawork does as well.
RF: The film has an underlying sense of heartbreaking futility and there are several points throughout which convey so poignantly a sense of unrealized possibilities and missed opportunities. The film is beautifully pitched yet it feels like there’s a lot of potential to develop on the relationship, did you always intend on making Ex-Sex a short film or would you ever want to make it into a feature film?
MM: Thank you so much! Ex-Sex was always envisioned as a feature film first – in fact, I’ve just recently finished the 2nd draft of it. When we were conceiving the short version of this story I tried to lose all ties to the feature idea of it. I didn’t want to try to cram a 90 minute narrative into 9 minutes. I also didn’t want to just shoot one piece of it. In a way, I think writing the short film was much harder because a short film can be ANYTHING. With a short, every detail really needs to be fraught with specificity just in order to make it seem like the characters live really rich and detailed lives outside of the story of the short. Our environments really helped do this – just having one of the characters living in an amazing Eichler house, and the other living on a boat – you can’t help but imagine what their lives are like. It says so much about who they are. In a feature you can have scenes devoted to that.
RF: The idea of ex-sex has become almost clichéd through its overuse in romantic comedies over the last few years. Your film reworks the idea and the sex scene itself is refreshingly unconventional; erotic yet just awkward enough to feel realistic. Was it your intention to provide a kind of antidote to the way in which sex is all too often depicted in commercial movies today?
MM: I simply wanted to make the sex look realistic and beautiful. Not gratuitous and hokey. Not edgy and in-your-face. But playful. Innocent, almost. And of course, at the same time, hopefully the temperature will rise a bit in the screening room. Additionally, these scenes have so much subtext – there’s so many complicated emotions running through your mind when you’re having sex with someone who you used to be in a relationship with. Because it’s not like when you break up with someone, it’s not like every single ounce of love has vanished (unless your ex- girlfriend murdered your cat, but in that case you probably wouldn’t be having ex- sex with her). You’ve been through this I’m sure – there’s always some amount of residual love somewhere buried deep your heart, and jumping into bed certainly doesn’t make those emotions any easier to process. So finding that balance where the scenes are steamy and erotic without being gross, all while being true to the complex emotions that each of these characters have – that was the goal.
RF: Your characters are obviously young and unable to navigate between their emotions and their sexuality. What do you think your film says about the nature of physical desire and moreover about the connection between sex and emotion?
MM: This is a really good question, and I’m not sure if this is the best answer. But to me, physical desire is the best way to pick at your emotional scabs.
RF: What’s your next project?
MM: I am speaking to you from the production office for my next feature film. We start shooting two weeks from today! It’s called SAVE THE DATE and it stars all of my favorite actors: Lizzy Caplan, Alison Brie, Martin Starr, Mark Webber, Geoffrey Arend, and Melonie Diaz. I hope you all can see it next year!