Di Golding talks to Pretend We’re Kissing writer/director Matt Sadowski about the challenges of making a “non-rom-com” and how to film a perfectly awkward sex scene.
Is there something specific about the rom-com genre that turns you off, or made you want to make a non-rom-com?
Listen, I like movies like Win A Date With Tad Hamilton as much as the next lad, but what I felt was missing was romantic comedies that accurately show that not everything does work out. I felt that I could connect to a lot of romantic comedies until the final act. Because for me – and maybe other people too – I never really got a second chance when I screwed things up. The main movie that really lit the fire for this was, back in 2004 there was only Before Sunrise, it wasn’t a trilogy yet, and I really felt like once she (Celine) gets on the train and leaves at the end, I always felt like, if they hadn’t split up, if they’d spent one more day together, would they really have had that kind of connection? I totally buy that ten years later that fire is fuelled again. But after talking to a lot of people, everyone has had those flings where, whether it’s for a minute or an hour or a day or a week, you feel like “wow, we have everything going on,” and one thing can turn it completely off. I really wanted to show that.
Marketing a “non-rom com” film must be tricky. Who do you think the audience is for Pretend We’re Kissing?
It’s a little bit of marketing speak, but I really believe it’s a romantic comedy for people who don’t think they like romantic comedies. And maybe they don’t know why they don’t like romantic comedies. Maybe it is because they (rom-coms) have a kind of plastic coating to them, whether because of who they cast or a clichéd script or just a formulaic way of shooting it. I think some people, they know, and they can call it out. This is why I don’t make these kind of movies. But I think for some people it’s just a feeling that they have. And I really just wanted to make something that could make people feel just a little bit different and hope that they relate to it because it feels a little bit more real. And the problem with being real is that sometime you lose hope, and I wanted to make a film that kind of questions ideas about falling in love and destiny—but without being cynical about it, either. I think that’s sometimes hard to do.
You did something interesting that was not rom-commy: instead of doing a lot of close ups and soft focus, you did a lot of long takes and medium shots, and you just kind of let things happen. You let the actors act. Did you always know that you were going to film it this way?
There’s a certain style that people know, oh, that’s an indie film, and it’s this kind of handheld, finding the focus, documentary kind of look that really does work for a lot of films. But I felt like it wasn’t the right look for this one. The films that I was inspired by were films from the 70s and 80s, and if you look at those films, their frames linger and they last a long time and it makes you listen in a different way and it makes you expect things in a completely different way. I kind of felt like when you’re in a relationship and it’s going well, you don’t blink. That’s the essence of the vibe I wanted the film to have. I wanted it to be long, gazing looks to make the whole thing a little bit dreamier, because that’s how you feel. And I also feel like relationships aren’t very funny, they’re all kind of awkward, and holding on the frame brings the awkwardness. Not just from the characters – because Benny is pretty awkward – but finding your way on a new date or a new relationship is kind of awkward in itself, and I feel like a long take really helps that especially when you as an audience are now trained to know I’m not going to cut, or you’re not going to see an insert, or you’re not going get a close up, and we get to the sex scene, you kind of know what’s going to happen so you get on the edge of your seat in embarrassment before something actually does happen.
I’ve often heard about actors in sex scenes saying that they’re not as easy as they look, that they need to be very precise in how they’re filmed. Did you storyboard this and did the actors rehearse a lot?
I would say that was one of the scenes we rehearsed the most. I was also lucky that out of all the scenes in the script, Dov and Tommie really responded to that scene, more so than any other scene. Because other scenes were “Benny and Jordan walk down the sidewalk”, and that scene is very specific. “He gets on top of her, he moves his knee, he puts his hand on her hair,” so it was all inherent in the stage direction of the script. And I think that gave them a lot of confidence to just follow the script, because it read really awkward as well. So that will come across. And a little behind the scenes story as well is that you can’t shoot a sex scene without having a union rep there, and a union rep makes everyone more nervous. And that was Dov’s first romantic scene ever and I think he was already nervous, and then to have a union rep come in and be like, “Don’t do anything you’re uncomfortable with, these are your rights,” just put so much in his head, which halted production for quite a while, to be honest—but his character is so anxiety-ridden and in his head anyway that it kind of worked out for me.
Your last feature was a documentary (Don’t You Forget About Me). Did that make it easier or harder for you to direct your first scripted feature?
I think the doc was harder to make because I would say the only thing original about the doc was the idea that I had. But then you’re relying on so many other things to make the film happen. Everyone literally has a voice. Every producer has a voice, every interviewee has a voice. Sometimes you’re not able to shoot where you want so you have to shoot it in a certain style. And that film took so long to make. For that kind of specific doc, it’s an amalgamation of a lot of people’s visions whereas for this film I kind of was able to drive the ship a little more and was very lucky to have a crew that believed in the same sort of thing.
I read that (executive producer) Pete Harvey made the entire crew read the script before signing on to make the film.
I thought that was really cool. We shot in 14 days and we had almost 30 locations, which is unheard of. People thought we were crazy. Most indie films shoot in a 15 or 20-day window and there’s 8 locations. Or there’s one location. So right from the beginning he said the only way we’re gonna get a crew to work hard for us – and because of the shots that I did – its easier to shoot in a kind of verité handheld style, because you don’t need the same amount of equipment trucks and gaffing and all that kind of stuff. To make all these long shots work required a lot of production elements to kind of come together. So Pete was amazing. And I never understood it. I was like, “why does the PA have to read the script? Why does the 3rd grip have to read the scrip?” And he said: “because I want every single person to want to make the film because they think the film can be really cool.” And he was right.