Ken Kwapis’s Sexual Life
His Film, That Is
By Madelyn Ritrosky-Winslow
Sexual Life. Hmmm. It’s a provocative title. And veteran director Ken Kwapis, in his debut as a screenwriter-director, has created a provocative film.
An independent feature financed by Showtime Independent Films, Sexual Life originally premiered in June 2004 at the Los Angeles Film Festival. It screened at a number of other festivals, finally premiering on Showtime this past summer. Theatrical distribution didn’t quite happen. Kwapis says, “We came close, but it’s very hard.” The film is now set to come out on DVD.
Ken Kwapis is the director of The Sisterhood of the Traveling Pants (2005) and a director-producer of NBC’s The Office. He has worked as a film and television director since the early 1980s, helping launch innovative series like The Office, The Bernie Mac Show, and The Larry Sanders Show. I recently had the opportunity to speak with him about Sexual Life.
As you might guess, Sexual Life is a film that centers on relationships but not in the usual sense. Instead of the standard plot revolving around a central couple, Kwapis has structured this ensemble film to explore a central theme via eight individuals, four women and four men. This is a study of the multifaceted individual in relation to two other separate people in varying intimate circumstances. There is no overarching storyline per se, because the plot is really eight overlapping mini-plots or, more accurately, eight characters-in-relation, connected by a chain of sexual alliances.
Kwapis wrote the script that would eventually become Sexual Life over ten years ago. The 1991 film He Said, She Said, which he co-directed with his now-wife Marisa Silver, got him thinking. That film looks at a relationship from two different perspectives, the man’s and the woman’s. He directed the man’s segments (the character is played by Kevin Bacon) and Silver directed the woman’s segments (Elizabeth Perkins). Kwapis says, “I wanted to continue to explore relationships in a way that would also allow me to do something sort of non-traditional in terms of storytelling.”
He then read Arthur Schnitzler’s play La Ronde, where the story follows a chain of sexual liaisons. Previous screen adaptations of La Ronde include versions by Max Ophuls (1950) and Roger Vadim (1967). The storytelling structure captivated Kwapis. He wanted to try a film that had a “theme and variations process going on” rather than a straightforward linear narrative. He calls his version a “free adaptation” of La Ronde over which, by the way, he had complete creative control.
From Kwapis’s perspective, Schnitzler was “aiming to expose what he thought was the hypocritical morality” of his world, the Vienna of 1900. Sexual Life’s theme is different, more exploratory than judgmental. Kwapis sums it up this way: “People are very contradictory creatures, and we are capable of behaving one way in one context and a very different way in another context, and I think that’s what makes us human.” Unlike Schnitzler’s critique of hypocrisy, Kwapis wanted to have a “more forgiving attitude” towards his characters and feels that “those flaws are the things that actually make them human.”
And these characters do have flaws. Their choices and actions sometimes seem inconsistent, futile, or fleeting in their recompense the characters might even be fully aware of this. For instance, Jerry (Dulé Hill) runs away from his bachelor party after declaring he’s very unsure about his life and about getting married. He gets married anyway. Or, Eion Bailey’s David tells himself that all he will get from making love with his ex-girlfriend (whom he still loves) one last time is “an emotional hangover.” He does it anyway. All of the characters’ choices can be read as a search for something meaningful a sense of connection, self-validation, a path through the minefields of relationships. This is accompanied by self-questioning that’s made overt in brief voice-overs of the characters’ thoughts. Their vulnerabilities here are palpable.
These people occupy that large gray area of moral ambiguity on a traditional scale of morality. But don’t we all in some way? This is what makes them feel real. Rather than being a moral critique of contemporary sexual mores, the film explores how people navigate their interconnections with others through their choices in the very personal sphere of their sex lives. Kwapis has created a film that makes you re-think your judgment of others (the characters), which in turn can lead to consideration of our own behaviors in personal relationships and what we want out of them.
Kwapis creates the complexities and contradictions the theme at three levels: in terms of story, or what happens in the individual characters’ lives; the juxtaposition of them into a loosely structured plot; and, the specific formal ways the film is constructed (as in shot composition, editing, etc.).
To illustrate the story level, Sarah (Elizabeth Banks) is dating Todd (Tom Everett Scott). They have had four dates when she says she’d like to sleep with him. They both lie when they say they are not sleeping with other people though this is intentionally a bit murky because neither is truly dating anyone else in the conventional sense. However, due to performance anxieties, Todd did have sex with a prostitute, Lorna (Azura Skye), since he began dating Sarah, while Sarah is winding down an affair with a married co-worker, Josh (James LeGros). Sarah and Todd’s first sexual encounter is not fireworks, which they feel compelled to discuss (which is humorous in a poignant way). Sarah breaks things off with Josh but not before one last exciting sex act, where she behaves very differently than she did with Todd. She shows up at Todd’s door right after that just as he is trying to track down Lorna on the phone to give her a bracelet she forgot. We then see Todd and Sarah at a business cocktail party, where Josh is with his wife, Gwen (Anne Heche). We learn here that Sarah and Todd have apparently progressed now to “real relationship” status. Yet Todd’s answers and facial expressions when Josh questions him privately are not exactly straightforward (great acting here by Scott) though Todd and Sarah appear to be happy in each other’s company. And so it goes.
Because of the thematic structure, Todd and Sarah are links in the chain. That chain includes a variety of main characters with diverse motivations in a range of relationships and situations. Thus, each “link,” be it a character or pairing, differs from the one before and after. All, however, are heterosexual, except for a momentary break when Gwen, hoping to even the score with her cheating husband, discovers old boyfriend David Wharton (Steven Weber) is in a committed, gay relationship.
But it’s not just at the level of story and plot that a film has meaning. Every shot and every sequence of shots in a film is constructed so as to communicate particular things. Ken Kwapis creates the chain effect as well as the sense of character fragmentation through elements like the specifics of how characters are introduced into the film. He wanted the audience to be “happy to greet a new character and happy to lose one,” but in a “non-obtrusive way.” He also wanted to “plant the seed” for an upcoming character well before his or her actual entrance, such as characters who haven’t been seen being discussed by other characters. The actual entrance is usually fragmented in that we get “introduced to the characters by seeing only a part of them or only seeing them from behind” or, in the case of Anne Heche’s character, “you hear her but don’t see her.” This reinforces (and helps create) the theme that people are complexly multifaceted, with so many different parts comprising who we are.
An interesting example of this fragmented introduction is the way that Eion Bailey’s character, David, enters the film. His initial scene misleads us into thinking that this hotel desk clerk is simply a minor character who we will never get a good look at. Kwapis keeps the camera on Heche as Gwen while she signs up for a room which she hopes to use with Wharton (Heche skillfully conveying Gwen’s trepidation). It’s a standard over-the-shoulder shot, with the clerk’s right shoulder and the back right side of his head at screen left in the foreground. There are also a few lines of dialogue, so we hear the man’s voice. Cut to the next scene of Gwen and Wharton at lunch. The faceless, almost disembodied clerk is forgotten. But when the lunch scene concludes, the next shot puts an attractive male desk clerk at the center of the frame and immediately moves in on him. Is this the same man? Gwen walks into the shot as she approaches the desk. Kwapis cuts to a reverse shot of her which becomes an over-the-shoulder shot that duplicates the earlier scene, including the clerk’s voice. Bingo. It is indeed the clerk we were not allowed to see earlier. Then the next cut says it all: we finally get the reverse shot that the director earlier refused us, with the man smiling sympathetically and inquiring, “You okay?” According to Kwapis, we now see that Gwen is “making a very unexpected choice.” But with “Eion being not only open but attractive, it makes it a little easier to buy that she would do this.” Everything now points to David being the next character in the chain not least of which is his caring demeanor and his enticing good looks.
The way in which David enters the film as well as Gwen’s plans is additionally interesting because, as Kwapis points out, it has a lot to do with Eion Bailey’s appeal. With Sexual Life centering on relationships (and a DVD cover clearly geared toward women), this film will undoubtedly garner a predominantly female audience of which Kwapis is well aware. So regarding Bailey’s initial low-key entrance, Kwapis explains, “Had we shown Eion Bailey, quite frankly, he’s so handsome it would have been hard to hide his importance to the story. Better just to see him from behind. Until he becomes important he should just be a shoulder.”
Kwapis continues, “Unlike many of the other characters in the film, he has sex before you know who he is. He becomes a kind of fantasy object. We don’t know a thing about him except that something’s troubling him and he’s willing to risk his job to have a brief liaison during his coffee break.” It’s clear that he’s not a lothario and empathizes with Gwen, which adds to his fantasy appeal. It turns out that David is the only character who is truly in love with just one person, ex-girlfriend Rose (Kerry Washington) which enhances his appeal even further. Rose reciprocates his love, but she’s going to marry Jerry for financial reasons and, presumably, to have a fully black child rather than a half-white one. The love, then, helps explain why the sex scene with David and Rose is the most intimate of the film, both in terms of explicitness and in how the characters relate to each other. This is a “fireworks” sex scene; it’s also the only one where the pair kisses while doing it. Kwapis elucidates: “I wanted the audience to feel how intensely physical their relationship was. The sexual connection between them is so right that it seems impossible to imagine they could shift to a platonic, nonphysical relationship.” All the above, along with Bailey’s nuanced acting, create a representation of male emotionality and eroticism that is hard to resist.
All of the actors in Sexual Life give engaging performances and Ken Kwapis has written and directed a film that makes you think. All of the characters do things that can be considered irresponsible, deceitful, and otherwise troublesome. But the complexities of each person’s motivations, emotions, insecurities, and dilemmas make for sympathetic characterizations. It’s a film driven by theme and character study, exploring relationships through character foibles in an open-ended, slice-of-life way.
Kwapis says he wants to continue working in both film and television. NBC has ordered a full second season of 22 episodes of The Office. He also has three feature films lined up, including one he is developing through his own production company, In Cahoots. He sums up 2005 for himself: “I feel very pleased that in the past year I was able to put out works in three different arenas: a studio feature like The Sisterhood of the Traveling Pants, an independent film like Sexual Life, and then on top of that a very smart new television show that I helped launch, The Office.”
Sexual Life will be released on DVD by Showtime Entertainment on November 29, 2005.