Winter 2007/2008

How Much Sex Is Too Much?

The director of one of the most explicit shows ever on television argues that filmmakers should be free to tell their stories—within certain limits.


Although I had won an NC-17 rating and had my ad banned from The New York Times for my 1995 feature, When Night Is Falling, I was pretty sure I didn’t want to work on a project that was just devoted to sex. It’s too thin, like lousy food or dumb conversation in which neither party is particularly invested. It lacks layers or depth. I’m always concerned with the intention of a story, whether it’s to confess, teach, puzzle, comfort, shake the audience to the core—or far too often—show off, make money and build careers. Celluloid (or video) is transparent; we feel the forces behind the images. The intention of movies that focus extensively on graphic sex is usually to get people off. Now that’s perfectly fine, I suppose, but it’s a fairly low-level ambition. Temporarily titillating but ultimately without residual value.

So when I received a call about directing a pilot for the HBO series Tell Me You Love Me and the writer/producer mentioned that she intended this examination of intimacy to be very graphic, I dismissed the offer fairly quickly. It’s just too tricky. If the progression of desire is chronicled in great detail it tends to dominate everything else. Sex is its own engine. Once the subject is introduced in an “engaging” way, the viewer tends to want to see it drive toward a conclusion, as it were. Once it’s started puffing along the tracks, it’s hard to derail. Introduce graphic sex to your story at your own narrative peril.

Maybe that’s why the sexual lives of our characters usually tend to be weirdly disassociated from the rest of their onscreen lives. They have their goals and needs and then suddenly the movie stops while we gawk nervously at the awkward actor doing whatever with some other awkward actor. We lean forward energetically to see how much of which body part we’re going to be allowed to see and then it’s over and the movie starts again. No character development, no thematic progression, no story turns; just a bit of grappling and onward ho.

The bigger problem with work that is focused exclusively on sex, as Pope John Paul II pointed out, is not that we see too much, but too little. (It amuses me to no end to find myself agreeing with the pope about sex.) So much is usually left out. Like how power dynamics affect our desire, how a sense of transgression can trigger lust, how our relationship with our parents affects what we think we want, and how a “primal scene” witnessed or experienced early in life can determine what we find arousing for the rest of our lives. The humiliation, affirmation, and the biochemistry of it all, is just as confusing at 50 as it is at 15. Mind-blowing, all of it.

At any rate, the script for the pilot of Tell Me You Love Me came to my door and moved me to tears. In a world awash with sexual imagery, I felt I was in the presence of a fresh and revealing perspective on the subject. I experienced an instant tenderness toward the characters and an understanding that the ’70s sexual revolution had left us all assuming that if we’re not having active, uncomplicated, aspirational sex at all the times, we are sad and deficient people. I felt a wave of warmth toward all the viewers who may feel incomplete on that level and thought this work would comfort. I felt there was a genuine desire to examine in accurate, non-romanticized detail the intricacies of intimacy. It made perfect sense in this case that the camera shouldn’t, when push comes to shove, pan over to that fetching digital alarm clock. In short, I trusted the writer’s intentions. It felt like a document, unadorned. So that’s how I shot it.

But what are the limits? There are always limits. We would probably all agree, for instance, that we can’t ask auditioning actors to perform sexual acts in order to get the job (no matter how time-honored a tradition this may be). We know in our bones that we wouldn’t wish it on our children. And my moral code is essentially to wish for others what I would wish for myself and my loved ones. So beyond the impossible-to-define constraints of “good taste,” these, in my opinion, are the limits:

Don’t involve the kids. Adults have to be able to have adult conversations—filmic and otherwise—without the children listening in. We must do much more than we currently do to safeguard their little minds from the complicated world of desire. Once their bodies tell them they are ready for the discussion of desire, then they are probably ready for careful, considered, non-violent sexual imagery. But children are sexualized much too young these days. Big billboards showing near-copulation aren’t okay. Uninvited Internet porn isn’t okay. We have to let them be mesmerized by the rest of the world before those compelling images of desire take hold of their imaginations. There is so much more to discover out there and sex can be a bit of an attention hog. And obviously I don’t think film or television is the place to explore children’s experiences of sex—that has to be left to print. The real children we need to use as actors don’t understand “pretend” deeply enough. There should never ever be graphic sexual representations of children onscreen. This seems dead clear to me.

The other limit for sex in a television series is asking people to actually do the deed. (Which deed, I hear you asking? Well, actual penetration, I suppose.) Some actors will self-exploit. If we as filmmakers ask them to or let them, we are no less guilty of exploitation. At one point, someone around Tell Me You Love Me floated the idea of actually asking actors to engage in real sex. I immediately said they could find someone else to direct. Getting an actor to sign a piece of paper that says they have to do whatever with whomever for however long the series runs is just a little too close to pimping. Actors in a series don’t know who’s going to direct or write the next show, or to what desperate extremes they will be reduced to in order to bolster flagging ratings numbers.

But within those limits, I think fiction in all its forms—print, film, television—is the room where everything is allowed. This is where the darkest, sweetest, most helplessly unformed and uncontrolled sides of ourselves are free. The stories we need to hear, see and tell have to be uncensored in this one place in the world. We have to dream together somewhere: both the nightmares that show the sacred being tarnished and the wishful dreams that show the sacred being celebrated. Fiction is our place for crying and ripping things to shreds and unabashed worship. It is our collective space for reminders of what horrors are close at hand and what heart-bursting joys are sometimes, if we’re lucky, possible. Surely sex—that dangerous, primal, almost absurd leap toward another—deserves to be explored there too.

In My Opinion

Members share their strong opinions on industry issues in this occasional column.

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